Whangarei Surgeon Celebrates A Century

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons organised a gathering on Thursday, February 9 2017 – the day Robert ‘Bob’ Mulligan, former surgeon and assistant superintendent at Whangarei Hospital – reached 100 years of age.

At the end of 2016, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons worked with former Whangarei Hospital surgeon Bill Sugrue to help recognise Bob’s centenary celebration and his contribution to medicine.

Bob has lived through significant events both local and international, including the amalgamation of Northland’s six hospital boards and the Second World War. Bob was closely involved in both of these events. 

Bill Sugrue, who retired in 2009 and is the Chairperson of the Northland Medical Museum Trust has been responsible for recording a lot of important medical history within the Northland region and has helped chronicle Bob’s life.

“Bob was born in Canterbury on February 9 1917. He attended Timaru Boys High School, worked on a farm for one year near Ashburton then studied at Otago 1937-1940. His last year of medical training was in Auckland in 1941. He was firstly a house surgeon in Waikato and Rotorua 1942-43. Between 1944 and 1946 he was seconded as a flight lieutenant medical with the RNZAF and based in Fiji – which is where he met his future wife, Jean, who was a volunteer nurse in Fiji.”

In 1947 Bob went to Northern Wairoa Hospital at Te Kopuru, near Dargaville, had a year as a medical officer with Clive Garlick (who went on to become superintendent of Northland Hospital Board). He then went to the UK, where he   studied to become a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.  He returned to New Zealand in 1950 to take up the first appointment with the newly-formed Northland Hospital Board as Assistant Superintendent and full-time Surgeon.

“The board eventually developed Whangarei as a base hospital where patients could be referred to specialists.

“Having gone to England he brought back awareness of improvements needed in Whangarei Base Hospital.”

“Bob Mulligan was on call every second weekend. Being on call was like having no private life.”

Conditions were very different in the 1950s for surgeons like Bob, with surgeons receiving low pay, being depended on for constant callouts, and having to cover everything from craniotomies, gynaecology, caesarean sections to urology, without specialists on hand and without the ability to fly specialists in via helicopter. GPs had to administer anaesthetics as there were no specialist anaesthetists.

Bob is quoted in the book ‘Whangarei Hospital: a century of service 1901-2001" describing how long it took to bring emergency patients to hospital with these words:

“Typically a child would be taken from school to Rawene Hospital in the morning, complaining of abdominal pain and would be examined by a doctor, not a surgeon.”

“The doctor would ring round the drivers to find a willing volunteer ambulance driver. The volunteer, having just finished milking, would come straight out after his evening meal – an hour’s delay. The hospital would empty out its van, which doubled as an ambulance, fill it with petrol, and make it ready – another half hour’s delay. Finally the two vehicles would rendezvous at Kawakawa, where the St John’s Ambulance had been waiting for probably an hour and reach Whangarei at 10.30pm. Admission and examination by a house surgeon would take another half hour. Calling out the theatre staff and preparing the patient: another half hour – all this for a child developing abdominal pain in the morning.”

The year Bob graduated medical school, 1941, was the year Bill Sugrue was born. Their lives would overlap when Bill replaced him as a general surgeon at Whangarei Hospital in 1979, the year Bob retired. It was only around the hospital’s 2001 centenary that Bill and his Northland Medical Museum colleagues started putting history on paper and Bill got to know Bob, especially since Bob was active in attending social events with his ex-colleagues.

“We both come from Canterbury so I knew a lot of Timaru chaps. Being a fellow Cantabrian I had an interest in him. He was a thorough gentleman and everyone liked him.”

‘Gentleman’ is the first word which comes to mind for everyone who knows Bob.

Bill Sanderson crossed paths with Bob Mulligan when Bill firstly was a young house surgeon in the late 1960s, when Bob’s workload was at its peak, he then worked with Bob when Bill came back to Whangarei Hospital in 1976 and Bob was close to his retirement at age 62.

“Bob was the perfect gentleman,” Bill says. “He was so nice to everybody. He was quiet, amusing and always had a smile on his face. He was a very soft, gentle man. He was always on time, always relaxed, always appeared interested in what was going on. He was very nice to his patients. He was working at his peak in the 60s but he always seemed like he had all the time in the world for anyone.”

“One thing that impressed me about Bob was if you got an acute case in the middle of the night the house surgeon would ring the surgeon. Even at 2am Bob Mulligan would always come into the hospital dressed in a jacket, shirt and tie. It always amazed me he would dress to that extent! He is the only surgeon I’ve met that did that.”

“I think he’s just got a lovely disposition,” Bill Sugrue adds, suggesting this may be the explanation for Bob reaching his amazing age. Also, Bob didn’t smoke or drink excessively.  He seemed to be a man of moderation.”

Bob currently lives in Selwyn Park Whangarei on Puriri Park Road – less than a kilometre from Whangarei Hospital. He has been enjoying his almost-four decades of retirement gardening, golfing and helping Rotary Club, Probus and U3A, and looking after a family property at Whangaroa.

Bob’s family includes three children, 10 grandchildren, seven great grandchildren, and his best-known grandson is TV and radio personality Jesse Mulligan.  Bob’s wife Jean died in 2009, aged 90 and they tragically lost a son in 1970 in a road accident.

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