2nd June 2017, Volume 130 Number 1456

Geoffrey Rice


Claire Le Couteur. Cotter Medical History Trust, Christchurch, 2016. ISBN 9780473371357. Contains 245 pages.
Price NZ$30.00 

Many of us with a sense of history lament the loss of archives and artefacts to the ravages of time, neglect and indifference, but few of us do much about it. Here is one man who did, rescuing many obsolete instruments and even very large pieces of medical equipment as they were about to be discarded by Christchurch Hospital. He also collected information about Canterbury doctors past and present, amassing a remarkably detailed biographical dictionary that often goes beyond the bare details of Rex Wright-St Clair’s national medical dictionary. After the Christchurch earthquake of 2011 had damaged the former Nurses’ Home where the collection was housed, Pat Cotter supervised its transfer to Hillmorton Hospital, doing his share of the carrying. He was aged 91 at the time, and blind in one eye. He died in 2012, just short of his 93rd birthday.

Claire Le Couteur has done us a great service by thoroughly researching and reconstructing the life of this unassuming yet remarkable New Zealander. Born in Greymouth, Pat Cotter was the son of a surgeon, William Makura Cotter (1894–1980), who had been sent to Denniston as a final year medical student during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and in 1919 became the medical officer for the State Miners’ Medical Association at Runanga. After a brief visit to London in 1922 where his father was studying for his FRCS, Pat was sent back to New Zealand to live with his grandparents in Hastings. The family moved to Christchurch in 1926, where Pat attended Fendalton School and Christ’s College. In his own words, he ‘drifted amiably’ through school, never outstanding, except at swimming and rowing, and just scraping through in his least favoured subjects.

Pat Cotter lived the rest of his life in Christchurch, apart from his years at medical school and his army service in Fiji in 1945, and three years in London 1947–50. He was a well-respected general surgeon, working across a variety of procedures (hence the title, doing minor surgery from tonsils to toenails). Repair of hernias, removal of haemorrhoids and stripping of varicose veins were his bread and butter, along with removal of cysts and tumours, and appendicectomies. Pat was a modest and generous man, whose fees were adjusted to the means of the patient, so he never made a fortune from surgery. But he gained a reputation as a capable and caring surgeon who took an interest in his patients as people, and that could not be said of all surgeons in the 1950s and 1960s.

Pat was blessed with boundless energy and curiosity. For many years he was closely involved with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, helping to host its 1956 general meeting in Christchurch. He served as an examiner and committee member for the maximum terms allowed, and represented the RACS on trips to the UK and US. He campaigned tirelessly against smoking, especially on aircraft, and lobbied the New Zealand government about the dangers posed by alcohol-impaired drivers. He served 12 years as medical superintendent of the Mary Potter Hospice, and was a director of the Medical Assurance Society of New Zealand.

His interest in collecting and preserving medical archives and equipment probably started with his involvement on various committees of the Canterbury Medical Library. Founded in 1934, this collection included some of the books and journals of 19th century Christchurch medical men. Pat chaired the planning committee when the library was taken over by Otago University in 1971, and he remained on its standing committee until 1976.

When Pat retired from the Christchurch Hospital staff at the compulsory retirement age of 65, he already had a major retirement project in mind. In the early 1960s he had bought a section at Charteris Bay on Lyttelton Harbour and built a holiday home, from which he could indulge his passion for sailing. He started planting trees and shrubs on the steep slope above the bach and set up an investment company, Te Wharau Investments Ltd., to provide for his retirement. (At that time, as a part-time employee of the hospital board, he was ineligible to join the National Provident Fund. He was later able to buy back those lost years.) He also purchased several commercial properties in Christchurch and leased them to tenants.

In 1981, Pat with his wife Prue and son Paddy bought a small property at Pigeon Bay on Banks Peninsula with a view to farming trees. Named Seskin Farm, the property had a good rainfall, a lot of gorse and a small house. The latter was replaced in 1996. Pat approached tree-farming with his customary enthusiasm and learned about scientific agro-forestry techniques. He was a member of the NZ Farm Forestry Association for over thirty years, and was secretary and later chairman of the Central Canterbury branch.

While the pines and macrocarpa grew at Pigeon Bay, Pat still had spare time to pursue Ross Fairgray’s initiative to rescue significant pieces of equipment as Christchurch Hospital replaced its old wards with new buildings. By 1997 Pat had decided to set up a charitable trust to further this work, and his friend and surgical colleague Rob Davidson was its first chairman in 1998. Pat’s enthusiasm inspired a loyal team of volunteers, including Alice Silverson, Max Abernethy and Bram Cook.

In his 70s, Pat suffered the loss of sight in one eye from aggressive glaucoma and had to have the eye removed. Thereafter he wore an eye-patch on his glasses as he could not get used to an artificial eye. He took this affliction in his stride, and remained, as one friend put it, his usual ‘chirpy self’ until his death in 2012.

The author has succeeded in creating a series of contexts for Pat’s life which add depth and interest to the biography. Readers get a glimpse of the Otago Medical School and its lecturers in the 1940s, and Christchurch Hospital after the war. Here is an insider’s view of the Christchurch surgical scene from the 1950s to the 1970s. Pat’s campaigns against smoking and drink-driving are set firmly in their contemporary contexts. The text is enhanced by numerous photos of Pat’s friends and colleagues, and the buildings where he worked. The captions are informative and well-researched. An appendix adds detailed research on Pat’s grandparents, whose lives illustrate New Zealand settler society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Altogether this is a highly satisfactory biography, well-written, intelligent and illuminating. It deserves a much wider readership than merely Christchurch people interested in medical biography.

Author Information

Geoffrey Rice, University of Canterbury, Christchurch.


Dr Geoffrey Rice, University of Canterbury, Christchurch.

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