Story: Muir, Nina Catherine

Page 1 - Biography

Muir, Nina Catherine

1900–1981

Doctor

This biography was written by Shirley Dowding and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Nina Catherine Howard was born in Dunedin on 20 October 1900, the eldest of six daughters of English emigrant Ernest Henry Howard, a Baptist minister, and his New Zealand-born wife, Georgina Matheson Lindsay. By the time she was born her father had decided to study medicine, and in 1905 graduated MB, ChB from the University of Otago. In 1906 the family moved to Murchison, where Nina attended school and her father was the town’s first resident doctor. In 1910 he became superintendent of Taumarunui Hospital and in 1914 set up a private practice.

Nina was a competent student and was sent to Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, boarding with a local family. In 1918 she was joint head girl of the school and won a Senior National Scholarship. She excelled at music and considered it as a possible career. However, during the influenza epidemic in the summer of 1918–19 senior pupils were called to help with the sick, and when the first body she encountered was that of a school friend, she decided her career would be in medicine.

Nina passed medical intermediate at Auckland University College in 1921–22, then went to the University of Otago, where she graduated MB, ChB in 1926. On becoming a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital, she was incensed that quarters for women were unavailable and, disregarding tradition, moved into the nurses’ home. She then worked at Cook Hospital, Gisborne, and undertook locum work at Te Puia Hospital. She travelled many miles alone by car and horse over rough roads and unbridged streams to deliver babies and treat patients in all weathers and often under trying conditions. Many of these people remained her patients throughout her long career as a doctor.

On 7 October 1929, in Taumarunui, Nina Howard married Gisborne journalist and printer Percy Rutherford Muir, whose family owned the Poverty Bay Herald. The couple were to have two daughters. After her marriage Nina set up in practice in Gisborne. At the time, Cook Hospital was a ‘closed’ hospital, where general practitioners could not practise; she was one of the first doctors to break this regime and work in the maternity unit.

Every afternoon, except when she was on an urgent call, Nina’s daughters would find her at home at four o’clock to have afternoon tea with them. In 1939 she arranged for them to be cared for by a friend and undertook postgraduate study in Melbourne. However, when war was declared she abandoned her plans and returned home. Later, in 1949–50, when the girls attended finishing schools in England, she spent six months doing postgraduate study at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, gaining a diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics. Nina became seriously ill returning to New Zealand on the Rangitoto in 1950. Although the neurological effects of this illness were chronic, she continued to attend to her patients’ needs and remained registered to practise until her death.

Nina Muir followed many interests outside medicine and her family. In summer for many years she took a daily swim at Wainui Beach. She loved music and enjoyed fashionable clothes (she subscribed to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar ), exotic foods, entertaining and antiques. She liked planning menus and was a good cook, but seldom had the time. A keen follower of horse-racing, she could discuss form with anyone. Palmistry and astrology were particular interests: she studied the horoscopes of the babies she delivered, and believed the ‘aspects’ could influence daily decisions. On one occasion she was horrified that a baby would not be born ‘under the right stars’ because the mother was considering taking castor oil to hasten the birth.

Nina Muir died in Gisborne on 9 June 1981, survived by her husband and their children. She is remembered for her dedication, diagnostic acumen, generosity and kindness, and for her concern for her many patients. She was also loved and respected for her eccentricities.