Emily Hancock Siedeberg was born in 1873 and was New Zealand's first female medical doctor, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology. Her contribution to the New Zealand health system and in particular, the health and welfare of New Zealand women, was awarded a CBE in 1949.
Emily Siedeberg’s father was a Jewish German architect who moved to New Zealand to try his hand at gold mining in central Otago. The family moved to Dunedin when Emily was three. From an early age, her father wanted her to be a doctor and after graduating from Otago Girls, she and her father approached the dean of Dunedin Medical School for permission to attend. He pledged his support and hospital staff grudgingly accepted his decision. Emily was sternly warned of the seriousness of her position as a role model.
Emily graduated in 1896 and worked as a locum at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum before travelling to Europe for postgraduate studies in obstetrics, gynaecology and children’s diseases. With her father’s help, she set up private practice in 1898 which continued until 1938. In 1905, she was appointed first medical officer and then superintendent of St Helens Hospital of Dunedin, a position she held until the hospital’s closing in 1938. The hospital provided maternity care to low income women.
In 1912, Emily undertook further study at the University of Edinburgh. Six years later she opened the first antenatal clinic in New Zealand and also played an active role in midwifery training. She was a founding member and president (1933-1948) of the Dunedin branch of what was later called the Plunket Society. She was also a foundation member or founder of the Otago University Women’s Association, the New Zealand Federation of University Women, and the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association.
A feminist for her time, Emily didn’t marry until she was 56 years old. She spoke out on raising the age of consent, stronger measures to prevent venereal disease, the appointment of female police officers, and equal opportunities for women in higher education and employment. Although she condemned prostitution, she offered prostitutes practical support in her own home. She received many awards for her tireless service to society, including a CBE in 1949. Emily died aged 95 in 1968.
Although she is best known for her achievement as the first female doctor in New Zealand, as it happens, Emily was also the doctor who delivered a newborn Janet Frame.
Image above heading: With her broad brimmed hat and white dress, even in the back row Emily Siedeberg stands out from her male peers at the University of Edinburgh in 1912. Reproduced with the permission of the Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago.