The first woman doctor licensed in New Zealand landed with a flourish of her European qualifications, but within three years she was fighting for her medical life as the clouds of controversy gathered.

Eliza Foster McDonogh Frikart is remembered partly for her business partnership with John Henry Brown, who was jailed for procuring an abortion in a woman who died.

Dame Margaret Sparrow, who has written books on the history of abortion in New Zealand, said Frikart was an abortionist who worked with a "notorious abortionist", a man who claimed to be a doctor but wasn't qualified. Frikart provided a cover of legitimacy.

Historian Michael Belgrave has described Frikart as "an advertising doctor peddling abortifacients [abortion drugs]."

Advertisement

In 19th century New Zealand abortion was an underground business.

"It was all illegal," said Sparrow. "Every city had some abortionist operating whether it was a doctor or somebody like Brown acting without any medical qualifications whatsoever."

Dr Eliza Frikart advertised widely, which led to her being expelled from Ireland's College of Physicians and losing one of her medical qualifications. Source / National Library
Dr Eliza Frikart advertised widely, which led to her being expelled from Ireland's College of Physicians and losing one of her medical qualifications. Source / National Library

Frikart heralded her arrival in 1893 with newspaper advertisements stating that she intended to register as a medical practitioner - which she soon did.

This generated a wave of news stories about her. Testimonials reprinted from papers in Australia - her route to New Zealand - promoted her "phenomenal success" in treating various complaints.

"The examinations this talented lady has passed are almost too numerous to mention ..." according to one New Zealand ad which cited the Charlton Independent.

She set up medical rooms in Wellington, offered consultations by letter, and later visited Auckland.

An ad of hers in the New Zealand Herald contained a testimonial, in the form of legal declaration, from Wellington patient Thomas Dowling who had suffered bladder and kidney problems. He believed he would have died if not for her intervention.

"I had been under several doctors, tried patent medicines, and was in the Wellington Hospital for 13 weeks without obtaining the least benefit."

The New Zealand Medical Journal in 1894 noted, of Frikart's activities in Auckland: "Her advertisements occupy considerable space in the newspapers and her picture adorns the telegraph posts of the city."

But such marketing activities proved to be the beginning of her demise.

She had registered in Victoria, Australia in 1892 - she signed up in Tasmania too - and promptly started distributing hand-bills to promote her practice.

A complaint about her ads was sent from Melbourne first to a London medical school where she had taken one class, and then forwarded to the College of Physicians in Ireland.

That was where Frikart had gained one of her main medical qualifications, a licentiate in medicine and midwifery. The other was an MD degree from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and that would cause her trouble too.

Soon after Frikart registered in New Zealand, the Irish college expelled her and cancelled her licentiate, because she had "attracted public notice and endeavoured to obtain practice by unworthy means", according to information dug up by medical historian and doctor the late Rex Wright-St Clair.

New Zealand's medical authorities seemed to know about the loss of her licentiate by 1895, but she wasn't removed from this country's medical register until 1915 after an unclaimed letter was returned.

In 1896, Britain's General Medical Council struck her off after being unable to get her to appear to explain her conduct. In the same year she was prosecuted for using an unregistered foreign medical title - her Swiss degree - but was acquitted because it didn't constitute such wilful and false pretending to be registered as to be an offence.

But in New Zealand, her name had already surfaced in the Supreme Court in connection with an abortion case.

In 1895, Brown was sentenced to 18 years in prison for procuring an abortion in Alice Marshall, who died.

Brown was released from prison in 1903 on grounds of ill health. He unsuccessfully sued the prison surgeon for wrongful treatment.

In 1905, Brown turned up in the British courts under a new name with Frikart, who had adjusted hers to "Elizabeth Foster".

Brown - "Talbot Bridgewater" - a "medical specialist" who practised in London's West End, was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of forgery and conspiracy. Frikart/Foster was found not guilty.

Wright-St Clair, writing in the 1998 NZ Medical Journal, said advertising by doctors in 19th century New Zealand was common despite being considered unethical.

"Women doctors had to be fired with missionary zeal to negotiate the pitfalls on their way to becoming qualified in those days. They felt they had something to offer, particularly to women in the community and how were they going to get their talents known other than by advertising?"