In the spring of 1895 The Christchurch Hospital was in trouble. A series of complaints about the standards of care at the hospital had resulted in an inquiry which dragged on for several long months. It was covered in excruciating detail in the local press, and syndicated across New Zealand. Amongst the many complaints from the citizens of Christchurch was the callous attitude and rudeness of the house surgeon, a certain Dr J.H. Murray-Aynsley. It was alleged that he had often arrived on the wards drunk, sometimes in his slippers and dressing gown if he was called at night. He smoked during his ward rounds. He was accused of insisting that the prettiest probationer nurses assist him in theatre and was prone to peculiar behaviour such as placing patients on a bread and water diet, and squirting water in the face of an injured child to stop it screaming. The inquiry drew to a close in August 1895, and for lack of convincing evidence, Dr Murray-Aynsley was cleared of all charges.
However, that was not the end of the story.
John Henry Murray-Aynsley was born in Lyttleton, New Zealand but studied at Christ’s College Cambridge , and St Georges Hospital, London before returning to Christchurch, to work as the house surgeon at the hospital. His job was to look after patients who had been operated on by the honorary surgeons including those of Dr Montagu Lomax-Smith (later Montagu Lomax).
The two doctors shared the same year of birth – 1860 – but they had little else in common. Lomax-Smith came from three generations of tanners, Murray-Aynsley had an English aristocratic background, his great, great grandfather was the third duke of Athol. Lomax-Smith’s father was a Church of England Vicar. Murray-Aynsley’s father was a wealthy business man who kept a string of race horses and was a member of the New Zealand Parliament. Lomax-Smith was raised to service and duty, Murray-Aynsley had little sense of the professionalism that his role required. It is not difficult to imagine that Murray-Aynsley would have rubbed Lomax-Smith up the wrong way.
Lomax-Smith must have been appalled that Murray-Aynsley was vindicated by the hospital Inquiry in August 1895. Less than two months later, Lomax-Smith brought further charges against Murray-Aynsley, alleging that he was drunk on duty and neglected the care of his patients. The Hospital Board was reluctant to get involved in another inquiry. Lomax-Smith resigned as honorary surgeon, claiming that Murray-Aynsley had systematically neglected his surgical cases. A series of vicious letters were published in the local and national press with both sides making claims about the other which would be considered libellous today. Lomax-Smith was accused of unethical behaviour for complaining about a brother doctor. Two doctors resigned in support of Murray-Aynsley. Eventually, the Hospital Board agreed to another investigation.
In April 1896, The Hospital Board found Murray-Aynsley guilty as charged and asked for his resignation. Lomax-Smith subsequently withdrew his own resignation.
The outcome of this poisonous dispute was poor for both men. Murray-Aynsley left Christchurch for a small bush town where he worked for a short time as a GP. He tried to work in the UK, but never really established himself and returned to New Zealand where he died aged 57. Lomax-Smith left New Zealand in the summer of 1896 to return to the UK. He left behind a prosperous, comfortable existence, and never really recovered the standard of life he had had in New Zealand. However, Lomax-Smith did learn about the personal difficulties faced by whistle-blowers. He learned that attacking a person rather than ‘the system’ which allowed an incompetent to work within it, was was personally devastating. Finally, he learned how to harness the power of the Press. These tribulations were to stand him in good stead some thirty years later when he wrote his book: The Experiences of an Asylum Doctor, with suggestions for asylum and lunacy law reform in 1921.
- The New Zealand years.
- Montagu Lomax – montagulomax.org
Since posting this blog, Professor Geoff Rice (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) has written a comprehensive account of the hospital scandal with a very different take on Lomax’s role in the proceedings. ‘When Doctors Differ – The 1895 Christchurch Hospital Inquiry and the 1896 Ousting of John Murray-Aynsley (1860-1917) by Geoffrey W. Rice; Hawthorne Press, Christchurch February 2022.