Dr Grace de Courcy LRCP LRCS Edinburgh, MD (with Distinction) Brussels

Dr Grace de Courcy [1]

Grace de Courcy of Remuera was amongst the first New Zealand women to qualify as a doctor.

She was born Matilda Hetty Grace Russell in Auckland in 1874, the youngest of seven children born to John Benjamin Russell, a prominent Auckland lawyer, and Mary Ann Nolan. In 1884 the family moved from Thornedge on Cheltenham Beach, North Shore to Marivare, a large two-storied house and five acres of land in Brown St (now Ranfurly Road), Epsom and built a large room with a floor especially laid for dancing. [1]

When Grace was 10 years old, her father took the whole family for a trip around the world, which lasted two years. Leaving Auckland on the RMS Australia, “no maid, and no bonnet box” was the slogan. She attended school in San Francisco, while the older members of the family toured the south-western states, and later travelled through America together to New York, where they again had lessons.

De Courcy Russell Family [2]

De Courcy House [3]

In London, Grace went to school at Queen’s College, Harley Street, while her parents toured Europe, and later the whole family went to Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice. They returned to New Zealand in 1886 and Grace continued her education at Mt Eden Collegiate and Auckland Grammar School. [2]

The Russells returned home after their two year world trip to Marivare, Ranfurly Road in Epsom, which contained a 48 feet long ballroom of Tudor Revival design with painted landscape scenes and a conservatory. Marivare was extensively landscaped and planted with native and exotic trees; two tennis courts, stables and a vinery were constructed where parties and tennis afternoons were celebrated social occasions. “At home” day was Friday afternoon. [3][4]  [5]

In 1893 her father went to London for medical treatment, accompanied by his wife and four youngest daughters. Grace immediately decided to study medicine and entered the London School of Medicine for Women. As London University would not accept New Zealand matriculation, she had to go to Edinburgh at the end of the year to sit for the examination of the colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. The Auckland Star reported – “Miss Grace Russell has pluckily resolved upon becoming a lady doctor, and will not rest until entitled to style herself M.D. (of London). She is at present studying anatomy. “[6]. She graduated in 1898 and the New Zealand Herald reported “Miss Russell has been noted as a persevering and talented student, so that this result, which qualifies her to practise as a doctor, must be very gratifying to the numerous friends of the family. Dr. Grace Russell is one of the first of our New Zealand girls who has thus courageously graduated into the ranks of the medical profession in England.” [7]

Grace de Courcy in Brussels [4]

She qualified LRCP and LRCS from Edinburgh and MD (with Distinction) from Brussels in 1898. After qualifying Grace worked at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children as House Surgeon, and then House Physician at the New Hospital for Women (1899-1900), as Resident Medical Officer to the Camberwell Infirmary and Workhouse (1900-1901). After a return visit to New Zealand she moved to the Women’s Hospital, Crown St, Sydney in 1902, nominally as Anaesthetist but acting as Assistant Surgeon. [8] [9] [10] [11]

Grace’s interest in the health of women and children led her to begin a Diploma in Public Health in England in 1904, but she left this to take up a position of obstetrician with the International Quarantine Commission  in Egypt working in particular with female Muslim pilgrims passing through Suez and Port Said. In 1911 a New Zealand nurse wrote about meeting her when she passed through the Suez Canal: “After she had finished her duties we went up to the first class and had a chat with her. She looked so fresh and bright. She told us the nights were always cool at Suez, and that she had a very good time…how I would like every New Zealand woman I know to see this wonderful part of the world.” [12]

In 1914 she became Director of Infant Welfare and Maternity Services in the Public Health Dept. of Egypt. When World War One started, she could no longer continue her work. [13] Grace was involved with the care of soldiers returning from Gallipoli and then with 5000 Armenian refugees in a camp at Port Said, who had escaped by ship while living in the Ottoman empire. [14] For this she was awarded the Order of the Nile and a certificate from the British Red Cross. [15]

NZ General Hospital [5]

Grace’s nurses and premises were commandeered as buildings were turned into hospitals and every available woman was working in them. Grace had asked the military authorities for a role, and wrote to family members saying they were not giving her one because she was a woman. But the crisis was so huge that when she went to see the head of the British military medical operation, General Sir Richard Ford, he sent her to the Egyptian Army Hospital at Abbassia, which had been lent to New Zealanders but was still run by Royal Army Medical Corps doctors. She was given control of the infectious diseases ward – and was joined there by Dr Agnes Bennett, whom she had met in Wellington. Agnes is written up in British and Australian books as the first woman doctor in any British army unit, though she was not actually commissioned. Grace was there first – but she was a civilian being paid by the Egyptian government, and was soon reassigned. [16]

At the end of the war, Grace was re-appointed head of the Dyahs Native Midwifery School in Cairo in early 1918. [17] In 1919 Grace married Nevinson William de Courcy, an architect, who had been working at the Ministry of Public Works in Cairo. It was reported – “The marriage was celebrated on February 15, at the British Consulate, Cairo, and at All Saints’ Church there, of Mr Nevinson W. de Courcy, Ministry of Public Works, Egypt, son of the late Colonel N. W. de Courcy, C.B., R.M.L.I., and Dr Grace Russell, Ministry of Public Health, Egypt, daughter of the late Mr J. B. Russell, of Auckland, and Mrs Russell, 18 Westbury Park, Bristol. Dr Russell has for some years been port health officer at Port Said.” [18]

De Courcy House [6]

De Courcy Early Dairy Farmer's House [7]

Grace and her husband were returning to Egypt by ship after several months visiting family in England later that year when he died suddenly of an asthma attack and was buried at sea. She returned to England where her son Nevinson was born. Soon after the birth of her son, she went back to Egypt to her job as Director of Infant Welfare and Midwifery Training and stayed there until 1923, when she retired and returned to New Zealand.

Grace did not practise again but retained a strong interest in women in medicine and women’s medicine. She became a keen member of the newly-started New Zealand Federation of University Women and was also a member of the Medical Women’s Association. She was involved in fundraising for the Chair of Obstetrics at Otago University, and the Campbell Kindergarten. Grace was a life member of the Auckland Institute and Museum, a member of the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society and the Auckland Historical Society. She had a lifelong interest in appreciating and preserving New Zealand’s native flora and fauna, and shortly before her death was supporting the “Save Manapouri” campaign. [19]

Grace lived at 15 Market Road, Remuera and died in 1967 aged 93. She was survived by her son Nevinson and two grandchildren.