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Obituary: Gordon Cumming

1910–2005

Allan Gordon Cumming, CNZM, QSO, MBChB, FRCOG, FRANZCOG, who died aged 94, was born in Dunedin on 1 July 1910. He was a distinguished and much-loved doctor, a leading citizen, and a wonderful family man and friend.

Gordon was educated at Otago Boys' High School; graduated in Medicine from Otago University in 1933 with medals in medicine and clinical medicine. Gordon was a House Surgeon at Dunedin Hospital in 1934-5 and then went to London where he studied obstetrics and gynaecology. His teachers included Victor Bonney, renowned for his speed in operating, a feature of his pupil also. The size of Gordon's surgical operating lists was phenomenal by today's standards. He was awarded the MRCOG in 1939 and volunteered for the Navy in 1940.

Gordon married Molly Bellerby who must have had a difficult time in war-time Britain, trying to travel to the various ports that Gordon was sent to. Molly had equal skills to Gordon's in managing what seemed an impossible workload. This was a very happy marriage.

He was appointed to the Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi, but asked to be transferred to destroyers. The Rawalpindi was sunk by two German battle cruisers on 21 November 1940 with all by 38 of her crew. He served on the Russian convoys with their notorious winter voyages close to the Arctic Circle, the ice-encrusted ships in danger of capsize and sometimes losing more than half the number of ships to the German U-Boat and warship attacks.

He transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy and served in the Pacific on the Cruiser Gambia with a crew of 900 men and three gynaecologist including Pat Dunn of Auckland and Reg Hamlin who set up the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which is now run by his wife, Catherine.

In 1946 he worked with Doris Gordon in Stratford before coming to Palmerston North in 1948 as its first O&G specialist. It was not easy pioneering when 2000 deliveries had occurred for many years to the considerable satisfaction of the present deliverers. These were the days of Surgeon General Practitioners and it was quite an experience doing a caesarean for a surgeon who thought he had done more caesareans than you.

Gordon's remarkable manual skills and his calm tact soon had the specialty of O&G established and quite typically with excellent relationships. His own obstetric practice was very large. He said he delivered about 10,000 babies in a working lifetime.

Gordon's sense of duty was remarkable, so much so that his work seemed to be his joy and many patients were treated free of charge.

John North was Medical Superintendent at this time when clinical medicine was “king”. You could have virtually all you wanted. In retrospect, there was, unlike today, not much to want, except training and good planning, which North and Cumming were very good at. John North eliminated tuberculosis in nurses by chest x-raying every admission.

Dr Algar Warren was appointed as a second specialist. I was a House Surgeon to Gordon and later, in 1960, an obstetrician colleague.

Paediatrician Donald Malcolm set up the first Neonatal Unit and was a close and highly valued colleague.

Gordon retired from Palmerston North Hospital in 1975. He was President of the Manawatu Division BMA, Member of the National Medical Services Advisory Committee, President of the New Zealand Obstetrical & Gynaecological Society, Council member of the Regional Council of the RCOG attending RCOG Council meetings in London and was a member of the Maternal Deaths Assessment Committee.

He was a member of the Palmerston Hospial Board 1968-74, Chairman from 1977 until 1989 and Initial Chairman of Manawatu-Wanganui Area Health Board. He was a member of the New Zealand Nursing Council for many years also. Altogether he served on 9 different national bodies.

Gordon had the curious experience of chairing the Area Health Board meetings in the room where he had previously delivered babies. His Board time was a time of great expansion for Palmerston North Hospital with massive building projects. His association with George Gordon as Secretary (CEO) was a most congenial and effective one.

Gordon's caring for his patients was legendary. He had the extraordinary ability at night to know when he was wanted in the obstetric unit and often appeared as the midwife was walking to the phone, as I have witnessed myself. A patient who had a blood transfusion accident during surgery spent three months in hospital with endless complications. For the next 30 years, Gordon visited her and her husband regularly at home. When she was dying in Palmerston North Hospital three years ago, he sat for hours at her bedside.

He was much involved outside medicine also. As Surgeon to the Manawatu Rugby Union he regularly attended games. He served on many other bodies, including the Returned Services Association and he was Patron of the Ex-Royal Navalmen's Association. He would read the lesson at every Anzac Dawn Service. He served on 11 different local organisations.

There are rare people, touched by real greatness, skilled, immensely hardworking, endlessly interested in people, on whom responsibility rests with graceful ease. Such a man was Gordon Cumming.

Born: 1 July 1910
Died: 4 May 2005

Qualifications/Honours

MBChB – 1933
MRCOG – 1939
RFRCOG – 1958
FRNZCOG – 1982
CNZM – 2001
QSO – 1978
MID – 1942

Molly, his wife, died in 1985. Gordon is survived by one son and two daughters.

Obituary written by Gordon Parry, a nephew, and John Crowley, an L&G colleage.