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Lilian De Berry – Pioneer missionary nurse

By Hazel Simpkin

Interesting material is often received unexpectedly at the archives. Recently Dr Ron Pattinson, now retired in Australia, sent to the Auckland archives a 40-year old letter and even older photos from Lilian Woodnutt, formerly Sister Lilian de Berry who was a nursing sister in the Solomon Islands.

Ron had asked Lilian for information regarding her nursing experience, and an account of her pioneering work setting up the first hospital in the Solomons. Lilian was the only medical officer there. She had doctor to turn to, and she had to make do as well as she could with the materials at hand. She wrote in a very matter of fact manner; it was her job, and she did the best she could do.

Lilian was born on 27 June 1890, and as a very small girl she felt the call to be a missionary. She undertook her deaconess training and later completed her nursing training in 1919. She followed this with a midwifery course. In 1922 as a young woman of 32 she went to the Solomon Islands as the first Methodist nursing sister there.

The letter Lilian wrote to Ron Pattinson in 1964 fills us with admiration for her work in the mission field in the 1920s. Lilian can talk through this letter.

“I was the first general hospital and midwifery trained nurse to arrive at our mission station at Munda. The MWMU had given me certain equipment to set up a hospital.

“In my first week history was made. The first baby Lilian was born in the home of her parents Pamu and Loe. I had to kneel on the floor to deliver the babe and Sister Ivy handed me the prepared needful articles. Earlier all babies were born in the bush away from the men folk.

“As soon as possible Rev Goldie had a women’s ward, midwifery ward and labour room built next to a two roomed native home, which was used as an out patients and dispensary and men’s ward. From then on no babes were born in the bush at Munda. The old superstitions died out and men came to see their wives and welcome their babes.

“For the first six months all the sterilising was done in kerosene tins outside except the instruments which were done by a primus. All the dressings were done in the oven at Sister’s home. Then I drew a plan of a suitable steriliser with two bins. It was chromium and copper bottom. The doctors used it right up to the time of the Jap war when all things disappeared. Two primus stoves stood under it. It was truly a God send.

“My father sent me a porcelain bath and chip heater for the women’s ward. This gave plenty of warm water for mothers and babes to wash in.

“My first helpers were Lopa and Isaac. They were wonderful trustworthy helpers and quickly learnt to take temperatures and pulses and keep charts, treat eyes, ears, ulcers and (do) dressings.

“I learnt all I could about yaws so I sent for enough treatment for about 30 or 40 patients. I began with the babes that were covered with yaws. When the mothers saw... how in a few days pink new skin came they said sure this is like the miracles Jesus did on earth...

“The Choiseul people heard of the cures at Roviana and they filled the launch with sick folk. One was Stephen Gandapeta, Rev Binet’s right hand man in his office. Stephen had become a cripple with yaws, his knees and ankles were stiff and flexed. He just slid around on his buttocks to get about. His ulcers were terrible. Many injections were given and much massage and care and gradually his limbs became mobile, and he became a wonderful man at Choiseul. Day by day he praised God for his healing.”

Later Lilian was able to receive training in dispensing medicines and ointments. In time the dispensary had good scales and measures and a good supply of various treatments. Lilian had total medical responsibility for five years until 1927 when Dr Sayers, the first doctor, arrived.

In 1933 ill health obliged Lilian to return to New Zealand. In 1935 she married Robert Eaton who died in 1947. She later married Rev Alfred Woodnutt and continued to work for her church until failing health ended her life of service. Lilian died on 28 March 1981.