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Dr WL Christie, photographed during World War I, when he served as a surgeon in the British Army. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, MS-1643/011, S14-650a.

Dr WL Christie, photographed during World War I, when he served as a surgeon in the British Army. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, MS-1643/011, S14-650a.

New Zealand’s first home-grown medical graduate had an interesting career and deserves to be better known. Working towards that end is another Otago medical graduate, Ron Easthope, who is now retired after a long career in cardiology in Wellington. Ron has recently written a biography of Ledingham Christie and kindly allowed me to use it for this story.

After early administrative delays, Otago’s medical school got underway properly with a two-year course in the late 1870s. In their first year, students took courses in anatomy, chemistry, zoology and botany, and in their second year had clinical training. They then proceeded overseas – most often to Edinburgh – to complete their medical training. In 1883 the university gained official approval for the expansion of the medical school to offer a full medical course, which then took four years. The first local candidate, William Ledingham Christie (known as Ledingham Christie), had already started his course – he passed classes in chemistry, biology and anatomy in 1882, and in mental science, senior anatomy and surgery in 1883.

Christie was born in Dunedin in 1860; his parents William and Mary had arrived from Scotland a few years earlier. William had some success in the goldrush at Gabriel’s Gully and used the proceeds to build the Caledonian Hotel in Dunedin. But Mary did not like their children growing up in the hotel environment, and in 1869 they sold up and established a farm at Warepa, in South Otago. Ledingham, like the rest of the Christie children, did his share of work on the farm, but by the age of 17 he was teaching school. After receiving tutoring in his spare time, he passed the matriculation exam which enabled him to start at university in 1882.

After successfully completing the first two years of the medical course, Christie took a year’s break and went back school teaching until the university had appointed the necessary staff. In 1885 he was able to return to his full-time studies. As Dorothy Page comments in her history of the medical school, Christie was “just the sort of person for whom the course was intended, as there was no way his family could have found the money to send him to Britain.” Easthope notes that Christie lived in spartan lodgings and his parents, though perhaps unable to spare him cash, helped in other ways: “He learned to take with a good grace the smiles and jokes of his fellow students who met him when carrying to his lodging a side of bacon or other offering from the farm.” After completing his course in 1886, Christie was duly capped as the University of New Zealand’s first MB (Bachelor of Medicine) in October 1887.

Ledingham Christie set up in general practice, first in Outram and then in Milton. His zest for learning remained strong and in 1890 he was awarded an MD degree for his research into the toxicity of the tutu plant. In time-honoured mad scientist fashion, after observing the effects of the tutu berry on cats, roosters and rabbits he tested it on himself, taking a month to fully recover!

In 1892 Christie travelled to England, having employed a locum for his practice and placed his young daughter in the care of her grandmother (his wife had died of puerperal sepsis four years earlier). He intended to obtain advanced qualifications in surgery and return to New Zealand, but ended up spending the rest of his career overseas. He acquired his Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1894. By then he had run out of money, with his practice back in New Zealand collapsing early on after the locum left. After taking a couple of locum positions in England himself, later that year he became house surgeon at the Bristol Hospital for Sick Children and Women.

Christie was horrifed at the standard of treatment provided at the Bristol hospital, and after campaigning unsuccessfully for improvements he left after a year. Determined to improve the health of poor children, he remained in Bristol, setting up a clinic to treat babies, educate their mothers and train women volunteers (later replaced by professional staff) as health visitors. Christie was also elected to the Board of Guardians for the Poor and the Bristol City Council, where he continued his work to improve the lot of the disadvantaged of the city. His wife Ethel, who assisted in his work, wrote: “He was easily the best known man in the city and became almost legendary, not by any seeking of his own but by a natural consequence of his collisions with ‘vested interests’ in the attainment of such aims as clean milk, decent houses, regular work, efficient hospitals & higher education.”

By 1911 the Bristol city authorities were starting to take over the work with disadvantaged children and Christie felt he could ease up on his highly demanding career. He considered practising in London, but instead another new adventure beckoned – he became medical officer for the Borneo Company in Sarawak. In this isolated location (communication with the outside world was through a weekly steamer from Singapore) he ran a hospital and laboratory, taking care of the medical needs of a wide range of patients, including Javanese from the rubber estates, Chinese miners and shop keepers, Sikhs, Tamils and Malays.

On the outbreak of World War I the Christies returned to England (taking an interesting journey there via China, Russia and Scandinavia). Ledingham, who was now 55 years old, wanted to do his bit, and convinced the British Army to take him on as a surgeon. He spent the next 3 years operating on troops at military hospitals in England. He was a popular member of the team, but ill-health eventually forced him to leave late in 1918. After the war Christie was keen to return to Asia. For six months he served as locum for a friend who was an eye surgeon in Singapore, and then spent a very busy year in charge of a hospital of the Duff Development Company in Kelantan (Malaysia). After retiring due to illness, Christie died in 1920 on the way back to England and was buried at sea near Suez. His widow Ethel then trained in bacteriology and became involved in ground-breaking microbiology research; she also did relief work in Russia during the 1920s and later provided support for Russian refugees in England.

Ledingham Christie’s portrait – presented by Ethel Christie – now hangs prominently in the Otago medical library. The university can certainly take pride in its very first medical graduate. He was intelligent, hard-working, adventurous and determined; above all he led a life dedicated to serving humanity.

I am most grateful to Ron Easthope for sharing his work on the lives of Ledingham and Ethel Christie. If you’d like to learn more, copies of his biography of Ledingham are available at the Hocken and Dunedin medical  libraries. And all are welcome to a talk Ron is giving this week to the Wellington Medical History Society: ‘William Ledingham Christie: the remarkable life and times of Otago Medical School’s first graduate’ (Wednesday 4 February 2015 at 7pm, Small Lecture Theatre, University of Otago, Wellington).

Since this is my first blog post for 2015, a happy new year to regular readers. This year I’ll be putting up a new story every second Monday morning. While I enjoy blogging the previous weekly schedule was a bit demanding – I need to dedicate more time to writing the actual book!