Agnes Bennett was determined to go to war.
A female doctor in a time when they were not common, she offered her services to the New Zealand Government at the outbreak of World War One but no one was interested in having a woman doctor.
Agnes didn’t let it stop her. She sailed for Europe instead and joined the French Red Cross.
But during her service in Cairo, she was offered a job in the New Zealand Medical Corp with the status and pay of Captain although she was not given a formal commission.
After a year she left for England where she was appointed commanding officer of the 7th Medical Unit, Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. She resigned after an attack of malaria. Agnes was given several honours before she became medical officer on troop-ships then worked in the Royal Infirmary, Glasgow, during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
Agnes was born on June 24, 1872, to Wiliam Christopher Bennett and his wife Agnes Amelia in Neutral Bay, Sydney, Australia.
They took her (and their six others) to England for schooling, returning to Australia after her mother died of smallpox.
After initially gaining qualifications in geology and biology, Agnes went to Scotland to study medicine. Working however was not easy. Back in Australia she had to take a job in an asylum before the opportunity to work with Dr Isabella Watson in Wellington came up.
In 1908 she became medical officer at St Helen’s maternity hospital where she began an interest in obstetrics and a particular interest in breastfeeding which was the basis of her thesis for her doctor’s degree.
A champion of education for women, she fought publicly with Dr Truby King and others who did not think mothers needed higher education.
Back in Wellington after the war, she focussed on women’s health, particularly the mortality rates of mothers, newborns and stillbirths. She strictly enforced good antenatal care.
In 1936, Agnes “retired” then went on to do a stint with the flying doctor service in Queensland in 1939. But the Second World War saw her organising the Women’s War Service Auxiliary and in 1940 she sailed for England to continue working as a medical officer.
She returned to New Zealand in 1942 before answering the call for a doctor on the Chatham Islands in 1947 as the resident doctor was ill. Aged 75 she administered to the ill on the islands, in winter, often on horseback.
Agnes received an OBE in recognition of her long life of work. Described as highly energetic and organised, she is responsible for a huge improvement in the care of mothers and infants during her day.
Agnes never married and died on November 27, 1960 and was cremated at Karori.
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