10th November 2017, Volume 130 Number 1465

David Davidson

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18 November 1922–24 September 2017

MB ChB (Otago 1945), FRCS (London 1951), FRACS, 1059 

John was born in Kelburn to Cyril Spottiswoode Moy Hopkirk and Dorothy Kate (nee Saunders).

John’s early life was coloured by his father’s absence for veterinary science studies at Melbourne. Money was tight. At four he needed removal of an hydatid cyst from his lung. He was therefore educated at home for a year and this gave him a head start at Upper Hutt Primary School where he went directly into Standard One. His secondary schooling was at Wellington College and, at the age of seventeen, he entered Knox College to study medicine at Otago. He comments on student life:

The lifestyle in Knox College in 1940 onwards was fundamentally one of persistent hard work. There was a war on, and we were reminded that we were a privileged group to be allowed to study at such a time. Many of our friends were in the forces, some were overseas and some died in the services. We were reminded that if we failed to perform academically, we too would not continue to have the privilege of study. Also, because of the war, we were a young group of students: I had just turned 17 when I started. Knox was a college with strong traditions, closely allied to the Presbyterian Church by which it was governed, the master being a Presbyterian clergyman of high repute, as it was also the training school for Presbyterian ministers. Alcohol was not permitted, women only to a limited degree. Recreation was therefore different from the activities now deemed normal among students.”

His final year and two house surgeon years were based in Wellington Hospital but with secondment to other places including the mining town of Denniston.

He comments on these years:

“It was a wise student who made friends with the ward sisters, and heeded their advice about patient management.”

John became Surgical Registrar at Memorial Hospital, Hastings in 1948. He comments: “It was taken for granted that I would do all duties, including medicine and anaesthetics, while I wanted only surgery, so some negotiating took place. I finished up doing mostly surgery, but my anaesthetic expertise was used whenever a relaxant and intubation was required. I gave the first anaesthetic using curare in Hastings.”

In Dunedin he had met Zephne Lepper, Home Science student on 4 June 1942 but was not engaged until 1947, and married on 5 April, 1948. Robin was born 24 August 1949 shortly before they embarked on MV Port Jackson for London where his parents were based at that time.

He worked in several places before obtaining his Primary in July 1950. Getting surgical experience was difficult but at Grantham he had the work to enable him to satisfy the FRCS examiners in November 1951.

He then worked at New End Hospital, Hampstead and was there for the last great smog in March 1952. “It was a blessing for London really, for the health results were so bad that measures were immediately taken to forbid the use of coal fires in Central London, and these were fully implemented.”

Diane was born on 5 January 1953 and the future of the children’s education was a major factor in their return to New Zealand on MV Port Hobart on 25 June that year. John immediately took up a position as Senior Surgical Registrar and Tutor at Wellington Hospital. The contacts he made proved invaluable but it became clear that the influx of returned military surgeons made staying in Wellington impractical.

He looked at provincial positions throughout the North Island before joining a Te Kuiti practice and becoming Surgeon Superintendent of the Hospital in July 1954. In 1955 their twin daughters, Philipa and Rosemary were born. Concern for family education was again a factor in the decision to return to Hastings for a two session/week appointment. General practice was necessary for survival and the first years were hard until he became established. His work was truly general, including orthopaedics, ENT, paediatric, O&G and vascular surgery. As more specialists arrived in Hastings he was able to reduce his non-general surgical work but he always delighted in letting the author know when he was doing a gynaecological procedure.

These wide skills were necessitated by the distance from Auckland or Wellington and difficult transport. With time the vascular surgery became his sub-speciality:

“My work was my life, and the family revolved around it. Whether this was right or wrong for them, it was so. I was a young, enthusiastic surgeon, but the nature of the practice ensured that for many years I also had to conduct a type of general practice, to obtain surgical cases and to make a living.”

In 1959 he obtained his Australasian Fellowship after sitting a Viva.

John’s patients still remember him first for his sense of humour. His colleagues remember him for his ready availability, wisdom and skill. Sharing rooms with him was a delight and the post-clinic chats were always rewarding. Assisting him returning a newborn baby’s heart to the chest from the abdomen was a privilege. That baby has since had her own family. His wide-ranging skills impressed the Sir James Wattie visiting professor in 1973, Professor HC Grillo (Harvard Medical School Chief of Thoracic surgery) who commented on John’s skill and versatility.

He was active in local medical affairs, being President of the Hawke’s Bay Division of the NZMA in 1973.

He continued to provide a sterling service and delayed his retirement by a year to 18 November, 1988 to enable his replacement John Flieschl to complete his vascular training.

John’s love of surgery and the share market crash saw him working as locum from Balclutha to Kaitaia until he was forced to retire after a car accident on the way to Ashburton on 30 August 1992. His unique experience led to the following:

“Surgery in New Zealand has become more specialised and the population base to support scattered specialists is not there. Thus hospitals have to combine into regional institutions. The corollary is improved transport, not at present supplied from the health budget, so that the more indigent members of the population can no longer travel to get the treatment they require previously available in their community.”

After full retirement, John did Extramural papers at Massey, usually getting an A pass, played bridge and joined Probus. He had found golf incompatible with his work and kept physically active in the garden.

Zephne’s health deteriorated and despite John’s own difficulties he remained her principal caregiver. They moved to Tauranga in 2014 and Zephne died in 2016. John steadily declined and died peacefully the next year. They were survived by their four children, 15 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren.

This obituary was largely derived from John’s memoirs, kindly made available by his family and with the assistance of Dr Stewart Drysdale, FRNZCGP.

Author Information

David Davidson, Retired Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Hawke’s Bay DHB, FRANZCOG.