Heritage listing for health trailblazer’s house and surgery
July 31, 2023 | Stories

By John O’Hare 

The home and workplace of New Zealand’s first female medical graduate has received the highest form of heritage recognition.  

Our Dunedin team have confirmed the Siedeberg McKinnon House has been listed as a Category 1 historic place. The classification identifies the 120-year-old house as being of outstanding national heritage significance.  

“This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Emily Hancock Siedeberg which makes the listing of this important building particularly timely,” says Sarah Gallagher, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Heritage Assessment Advisor for Otago/Southland.  

“Emily was representative of the generation of women who refused to be confined to society’s expectations that restricted women to traditional roles of motherhood and caregiving. Emily wanted more – and was encouraged by her parents to expect more.” 

Emily was the third daughter of Irish Quaker Anna Thompson and her German architect husband Franz David Siedeberg. Lured by the prospect of finding gold, Franz came to New Zealand in 1861 to take up mining. Later, when Emily was three, the family settled in Dunedin where Franz became a successful building contractor. 

“It became apparent early on that Emily was very bright, and later earned a board scholarship to attend Otago Girls’ High School. Seeing her unusual abilities, both parents encouraged her to pursue a career as a doctor,” says Sarah.  

“After leaving high school she became the first woman to study medicine, and in 1896 the first in New Zealand to graduate with a medical degree.” 

The transition from college student to qualified doctor was not without its challenges. Although the University of Otago had already – in principle – made the decision to make medical training available to men and women, there was still resistance among some of the faculty. The Dean, Dr John Scott, wasn’t exactly all-guns-blazing supportive, but promised his backing. In time the rest of the staff also fell into line.

“When you think that New Zealand women had been granted the right to vote only three years before Emily graduated you begin to get a feel for the times Emily was living in. You can also appreciate the extraordinary new world of possibilities that Emily’s success would mean to many New Zealand women,” says Sarah. 

Siedeberg McKinnon House. Photo: Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga

After graduation, Emily worked as a locum at Seacliff Asylum and, following a period of postgraduate education in Europe, returned to Dunedin to set up her own medical practice.  

“Emily – now Dr. Siedeberg – commissioned the construction of her house and consultancy rooms in 1903 following the death of her father,” says Sarah.  

“Designed by James Louis Salmond in the Queen Anne style, the building incorporates bay windows, decorative mouldings, elaborate gables and exposed red brick – all hallmarks of Salmond’s work.” 

A side entrance gave patients access to a waiting room, consultancy room and tearoom, while the residential part of the house where Emily, her mother, sister and brother lived was kept separate from the public.

“The house and surgery were a tangible reflection of Dr. Siedeberg’s own advocacy, described by one biographer as the ‘core of a life dedicated to welfare and community work’ where she sought health and social justice reforms that women, children and families continue to benefit from today,” says Sarah.  

“According to one biographer, Dr. Siedeberg fought “the wrongs of womankind as she would fight for the life of a patient” and was instrumental in the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1869 which targeted women sex workers and those ‘suspected’ of being sex workers and subjecting them to medical examination. Dr. Siedeberg considered the Act to be ‘an affront to women’.” 

In addition, Dr. Siedeberg served as the sole female medical practitioner in Dunedin for the next 20 years as well as the Medical Superintendent of St Helen’s Maternity Hospital (delivering the author Janet Frame in 1924); Medical Officer of the Caversham Industrial School and anaesthetist at the Dental School. 

Emily married Alexander McKinnon in 1928 at the age of 55 and the couple moved from the house and surgery shortly after. Emily returned in 1954, however, and remained there until the 1960s. Following her death in 1968 the building was converted for use by Otago Polytechnic.  

Today the Edwardian two-storey brick villa continues to grace the area where it has stood for the past 120 years, complete with its wrought iron fence, generous bay windows, Corinthian capitals and multi-coloured glazed fanlights.  

“In addition to its connection to one of New Zealand’s earliest female medical professionals and health reformers, the Siedeberg McKinnon House is also a distinctive Dunedin landmark still used by commercial tenants today,” she says.  

“The listing is a great way to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of Dr. Emily Siedeberg’s birth and the 120th anniversary of the construction of this distinctive Dunedin landmark still used as both accommodation and providing consultancy services today.” 

Siedeberg, Emily Hancock
Siedeberg McKinnon House
O'Hare, John (author)
New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero

John O'Hare | Communications Advisor
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