University of Otago Otago Medical School Alumni Association

A dose of medical history

Otago Bulletin, Issue 17, September 2008

One-hundred-and-thirty-three years ago, in a very different Dunedin, the University made the bold decision to start a Medical School. The history of that school is explored in a book by retired Associate Professor of History Dr Dorothy Page.

Medical History
A skeleton in the Medical School’s closet – a group of 1892 Medical students take seriously

To historian Dr Dorothy Page, the overriding theme of the Otago School of Medical Sciences is one of growth.

When it opened its doors in 1875 it consisted of one professor and one student in a single classroom - and that professor resigned. The first real class, two years later, had five students, doing a partial course.

By the year 2000 the School, now spread over three superb campuses, was celebrating its 10,000th graduate.

The retired Associate Professor of History celebrated the release of her book Anatomy of a Medical School: a History of Medicine at the University of Otago 1875-2000 last month.

Dr Page was commissioned to write the book by the Otago Medical School Alumnus Association, and began working on it following her retirement eight years ago. It involved working through vast quantities of material including memoirs, newspapers, the Medical Digest (a student publication produced annually from 1934 to 1978), and the School’s voluminous official records.

Dr Dorothy Page
Dr Dorothy Page

"It was a wonderful project to take on,” she says.

But, she admits it was been a far bigger project than she anticipated - with so much material "you could just about drown in it".

The previous history of the School covered events to 1959, and there have been massive changes since then, notably the development of the Christchurch and Wellington campuses as teaching and research centres.

"I also wanted to include things that hadn’t been included before, such as the changing student experience."

For Dr Page, the most exciting thing about the project was the people - both present day people and those from the past. She says she enjoyed getting to know them in person and through historic documents.

Medical History
The cover of Dr Dorothy Page’s book:
Anatomy of a Medical School: a History of Medicine at the University of Otago 1875 – 2000

"It was exceedingly brave to found a medical school so early. It was less than thirty years after 1848 [the year European settlers arrived in Dunedin], and only four years after the first lectures started at the University in July 1871. In fact in the year the Council decided to set up the medical school, 1874, the University itself had its lowest numbers ever - just 50 students."

There are several theories as to why the School was established then - there was still money to do it after the gold rush and James Macandrew, the Superintendent of Otago, may have wanted to get in before Canterbury; and the huge advances in science and medicine from the mid 19th century had led to a flurry of medical schools opening around that time.

Otago was second only to Melbourne in Australasia.

The book is arranged in broad chronological sections, and covers themes such as the role of the school in war time, its ongoing expansion and changes in its teaching methods, and the ever increasing focus on research.

Medical HistorySome time out

It has mini-biographies of some of the significant figures, including the first three Deans - Professor John Scott, Sir Lindo Ferguson, and Sir Charles Hercus - and discussion of some notable graduates - such as renowned anthropologist Sir Peter Buck, Second World War plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, and Fred Hollows, whose provision of inexpensive eye operations in Third World countries has saved thousands from blindness.

The book ends with a list of the School’s professors and all of the first 10,000 graduates.

Above all, during Dr Page’s time writing this book she has developed an intense sense of pride about the School.

"I get really excited about the achievements of this southern-most medical school in the world."


Anatomy of a Medical School
is published by Otago University Press


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