Story: Bennett, Francis Oswald

Page 1 - Biography

Bennett, Francis Oswald

1898–1976

Doctor, military medical administrator, writer

This biography was written by Geoffrey W. Rice and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Francis Oswald Bennett (always known as ‘Os’) was born on 19 February 1898 in Christchurch, the son of William Francis Bennett and his wife, Rose Maria Harrow. His childhood was spent on his parents’ small farm at Woodbury, South Canterbury. When he was young his mother became crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. An expert seamstress, she encouraged Oswald in his early efforts at poetry and writing while he helped operate her sewing machine. At Fairview School (1907–11) he educated himself by reading his way through a cupboard full of cancelled books from the Timaru Public Library, saved from the dump by his father. At Timaru Boys’ High School (1912–16) he responded with enthusiasm to the inspirational teaching of William Thomas.

At the end of 1916 Bennett was appointed a pupil-teacher at Christchurch West District High School, but abruptly changed his mind and in 1917 enrolled at the University of Otago Medical School. He struggled there at first because of his poor grounding in science subjects. After a brief spell back on the farm, he enlisted in the army in November 1917 as a private, but was soon posted to an ambulance unit. By the time he reached England with the 42nd Reinforcements late in 1918 the war was almost over. He returned to his medical studies with a clear vocation, and after completing his MB, ChB in 1925, served as house surgeon at New Plymouth Hospital. He married Pearl Allan Brash in Wellington on 2 February 1927; they were to have three sons and two daughters.

After an unsuccessful attempt to start a new practice in Te Aroha, in 1928 he took up a sole-charge practice in the West Coast coalmining town of Blackball, where he spent 4½ challenging and enjoyable years. An essay based on his Blackball case notes, ‘Conduct of midwifery in general practice’, won him the Hunterian Society’s gold medal in 1935, the first awarded outside the United Kingdom. After a stint in Greymouth he moved to Christchurch in late 1933, but struggled to make a living in general practice. As one colleague recalled, he never had much money because he liked to help poor people and kept his fees low, or ‘forgot’ to send a bill. He was appointed to the honorary staff at Christchurch Hospital in July 1940, but the Second World War intervened.

Bennett commanded No 3 Field Ambulance at Burnham Camp, near Christchurch, in 1942–43 before being posted to the Pacific as second in command of No 22 Field Ambulance. He saw active service on Guadalcanal and Vella Lavella, but chronic asthma led to his appointment as commanding officer of No 2 New Zealand Convalescent Depot in New Caledonia in January 1944. He was recalled to New Zealand to become senior medical officer at Papakura Military Camp, then in December 1944 was appointed officer commanding troops on the New Zealand hospital ship Maunganui (known to troops as ‘the Great White Lady’). After service in the Mediterranean, the Maunganui functioned as a general hospital in the Philippines and repatriated prisoners of war from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Bennett ended the war as a lieutenant colonel, and was appointed an OBE (military division) for his services.

Having graduated MD in 1945 with a thesis on ‘The anaemias of pregnancy’, Bennett used his rehabilitation grant to undertake a year of postgraduate study in London (1946–47). On his return he rejoined the staff of Christchurch Hospital as an anaesthetist and assistant physician. He became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1950, and from 1958 was a consulting physician and medical officer to the North Canterbury Hospital Board’s homes for the elderly. In this capacity he made a pioneering contribution to geriatric medicine in Christchurch, as well as serving in various capacities in the Canterbury division of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association. He was vice president of the New Zealand Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society, and edited its section of the New Zealand Medical Journal , in which he also published several medical history articles.

Bennett was associated with Christchurch Hospital for over 30 years, and wrote its centennial history, Hospital on the Avon (1962). He was a gifted writer and this is one of New Zealand’s best hospital histories. His other works included The tenth home (1966), about Eventide Homes; March of the little men (1971), a fictionalised account of early settlement in Canterbury; and The road from Saddle Hill (1982), a biography of his father-in-law, Thomas Cuddie Brash.

Bennett died in Christchurch on 4 August 1976, survived by his wife and children. At his funeral colleagues spoke of ‘this honourable, gentle and talented man’ whose greatest joy was his family. A former nurse recalled that he ‘radiated calm optimism on the ward’ and that children loved him. His posthumously published autobiography, A Canterbury tale (1980), is significant for its first-hand accounts of South Canterbury farming and schooling in the early 1900s, and of a varied medical career in peace and war.