At a time when nurses wore caps and aprons and children under the age of 12 could not visit the hospital, Catherine Scrimgeour was in her prime.

Stepping into Whanganui Hospital's highest-regarded female position in 1956, Miss Scrimgeour carried the role of head matron with "grace and dignity" for 17 years until she retired in 1973.

Three days from turning 100, on Thursday, Miss Scrimgeour sat comfortably on a couch with two friends, cup of tea in hand, and a smile that beamed through her eyes.

Little did I know, Miss Scrimgeour holds a wealth of knowledge.

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I asked her if she rememebered why she decided to become a nurse?

Raising a cheeky smile she responded: "No dear, do you?" Her humour certainly has not faded.

Miss Scrimgeour is either one of the most modest people I've met or 100 years is starting to take its toll. I think both.

Luckily two of her closest chums were able to shed some light.

Betty Simpson and Pam Stent spoke fondly of Miss Scrimgeour as they reminisced over everything she did for them, the hospital and the Whanganui community.

Ms Simpson met Miss Scrimgeour when she was a trainee nurse at Nelson Hospital and Miss Scrimgeour was the assistant matron.

She describes Miss Scrimgeour as having two sides; her business side and her "heart of gold".

"She was quite firm, she knew what she wanted but had a nice gentle touch. You didn't argue with Catherine."

As a matron Miss Scrimgeour would inspect all the wards - making sure the quilts were straight and the patients were seated upright.

"She had very high standards and maintained them ... and she told us if we didn't. But she never raised her voice ... you looked and you just obeyed."

It wasn't long before Miss Scrimgeour was offered the role of Whanganui Hospital's head matron marking a significant era of Miss Scrimgeour's life.

"Together with Doctor Widdowson and Keith Harris, the three ran the hospital for many years and it was Catherine's role to advise the board on all of the nursing spectrum not just in Whanganui but the outer regions too."

 Catherine Scrimgeour in 1973, the year she retired as Whanganui Hospital's head matron. Photo/File
Catherine Scrimgeour in 1973, the year she retired as Whanganui Hospital's head matron. Photo/File

Ms Stent was working as an adminstrator at the Whanganui Hospital when she first met Miss Scrimgeour.

She said even though Miss Scrimgeour was so far up the ranks she always made herself available to deal with any issues.

"She respected her power but she never abused her power."

Ms Simpson soon jumped aboard the Whanganui venture after Miss Scrimgeour offered her a job as a staff nurse in the polio ward working with the iron lung machines.

"It was a pretty horrific ward to work in and I never forgave Catherine for putting me there but she knew I had done the training so it made sense, I guess."

Common in that time period, polio was a vicious virus that infected the bowel and from there attacked the nervous system, causing meningitis or paralysis.

Ms Simpson said it was funny looking back, now that ward did not exist.

"Some people were lucky and recovered but a lot of them never got their health back and children who recovered from the virus were usually struck with it again after a few days."

Fortunately an immunisation was discovered and New Zealand was declared polio-free in 2000.

Ms Stent said there were many significant changes to health during Miss Scrimgeour's time as head matron.

People who needed their appendix taken out had to endure open surgery and were expected to stay in hospital for at least 10 days to recover. Now appendix removal is conducted with keyhole surgery and patients are usually discharged from hospital the next day.

Children under the age of 12 were not allowed to visit the hospital and fathers could not be present while their child was being born.

"It was a different time but Catherine managed every change beautifully," Ms Stent commented.

Ms Simpson remembered a time that she felt reflected Miss Scrimgeour's "heart of gold".

"I had just become a night supervisor, which is when you are a night girl on your own. I had been quite ill carrying my second child and Cath said to me she would leave her flat open if I needed a 15-minute laydown and I've never forgotten it.

"Keep in mind there was a sister above me and then a supervisor and then an assistant principal so it was not common for someone that high up to do something like this."

But Miss Scrimgeour's caring nature also stretched beyond hospital boundaries.

While continuing to work she cared for "two aunts" who lived with her in her Whanganui East riverside home in Sedgebrook St.

And from the 1960s to the early 1980s she was a member of the Whanaganui Branch of National Council of Women NZ (NCW).

During her time with the NCW she represented the Nurses Association and became Whanganui NCW president from 1970 to 1974.

Over the years the gender equality organisation fought on many health issues including domestic and sexual violence, sexual and reproductive health, access to healthcare including abortion, and mental health issues.

Miss Scrimgeour was president when the NCW national conference was held in Whanganui in 1974, entertaining members of the national executive at her Sedgebrook St home.

National Council of Woman Whanganui branch former presidents Kathleen Mayson (left) and Catherine (right) with current president Jenny Saywood (middle).
National Council of Woman Whanganui branch former presidents Kathleen Mayson (left) and Catherine (right) with current president Jenny Saywood (middle).
The National Council of Women book launch, with author Margaret Campion (left), Kathleen Mayson, 100, and Catherine Scrimgeour (right). Photo/File
The National Council of Women book launch, with author Margaret Campion (left), Kathleen Mayson, 100, and Catherine Scrimgeour (right). Photo/File

She was also president of the New Zealand Registered Nurses Association (NZRNA) for many years.

And when she wasn't preoccupied with her hospital responsibilities and community endeavours, she was found in her rose garden. "It was just one of her many prides and joy."

As the interview came to an end, I turned to Miss Scrimgeour and asked the goddess of health what her secret was. She looked at me and smiled.

This lady, I thought, is a real gem. It's true - the older really are the wiser.

 Catherine Scrimgeour in 2006. Photo/File
Catherine Scrimgeour in 2006. Photo/File

Miss Scrimgeour celebrated her 100th birthday on Thursday with friends and family at Okere House rest home, where she now lives.