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Biographical entry Cotter, Patrick William (1919 - 2012)

MRCS and FRCS 1949; MB ChB Otago 1943; FRACS 1953; ONZM 2009.

17 July 1919
Runanga, New Zealand
26 June 2012
General surgeon


Patrick William Cotter was a general surgeon at Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand. He was born in Runanga, New Zealand, on 17 July 1919, the son of William Makuri (Bill) Cotter and Sophie Mary Adelaide Cotter née Appleby. At the time of Pat's birth, his father was a GP, but a year or two later the family moved to the UK, where Bill undertook surgical training. After a short time, Pat was sent back to New Zealand to live with his grandmother on a farm in Pahiatua. His parents returned to New Zealand in 1926, when Pat was seven; he barely knew them.

Pat was educated at Fendalton School, entering Christ's College, Canterbury, in 1933 and leaving in 1937, in which year he was a house prefect, captain of swimming and in the athletics team and in the second rowing four. He spent a year at Canterbury University studying basic sciences, and then entered Otago Medical School in 1939.

Whilst still at Otago, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. After graduating MB ChB at the end of 1943, he spent a year as a house surgeon in Christchurch, and then, in 1945, he was posted to Fiji with the New Zealand Medical Corps, with the rank of captain.

He returned to New Zealand in 1946, left the Army, and in January 1947 married Prudence Mary Pottinger from Wellington. He went to London by ship in March, with Prue following two months later.

In the UK, Pat studied for the primary examination and passed it, and then attended courses and lectures at Guy's, St Thomas's and the Royal College of Surgeons, and clinics with Stanford Cade, Norman Tanner and others. He held locum posts at St Peter's and Great Ormond Street, and was a registrar at St Giles Hospital, Denmark Hill. He passed the final FRCS in 1949.

He returned to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he was a senior surgical registrar. He then moved into private practice, in rooms with his father, and did private surgery, brief GP locums, insurance work and tutoring for final year medical students. He became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1953 and was appointed to Burwood Hospital for a small number of sessions the following year. When the Princess Margaret Hospital opened in 1959, Pat was appointed to a general surgical position there. In 1963 he moved to Christchurch Hospital, where he formed a surgical team with Rob Davidson. Pat retired in 1985.

Pat Cotter's contributions to medicine in general and surgery in particular were immense. He was a member of the Canterbury divisional committee of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) for 10 years, was a delegate to the council and was on the central specialists' committee and was treasurer of the biennial meeting of NZMA in 1979. He spent six years on the editorial committee of the New Zealand Medical Journal. He was too busy to publish much, but an important piece of work was the publication, with Derek Hart and Bill Macbeth, of the results of a study of the levels of blood alcohol in patients involved in motor vehicle accidents ('Christchurch traffic trauma survey: Part 1, Blood alcohol analysis' N Z Med J. 1975 Jun 11;81[541]:503-7). He took the findings to a select committee of the New Zealand Parliament, and legislation followed in due course.

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons was also an abiding interest. He was a member of the New Zealand committee for 10 years, on the court of examiners for eight years, and was joint secretary of the annual scientific meeting in Christchurch in 1966. He had a special regard for Fiji and its people from his time there at the end of the war, and returned to help with teaching and operating on a number of occasions over the years.

Pat developed a very busy private surgical practice. Perhaps his greatest service to private surgery was the founding (in 1960) of the surgeons' and anaesthetists' instrument pool, which eliminated the chaotic system of each surgeon arriving to operate with a bag of instruments, which then required sterilisation. So, on a given weekend, the surgeons brought their instruments, on which their initials were engraved. For a small fee, these were then sorted into sets and kept sterilised and ready for use. Pat and Keith Drayton ran the pool until they retired.

Pat was part of what the then chairman of the Medical Assurance Society called the 'dissident coterie', those members who realised that all was not well with the Society and, against strenuous opposition from the then directors, changed the entire culture and direction of the organisation, transforming it into a sound business. Pat was a director of the Society from 1972 to 1980.

Pat developed an early interest in medical education through the branch faculty, which eventually became the Christchurch School of Medicine of the University of Otago. He served on the joint relationships committee of the branch faculty and hospital board, and was one of the so-called 'Gang of Four' with Don Beaven, Fred Shannon and George Rolleston in the chair, who met with increasing frequency from 1967 to 1972 to plan the opening of the school. It was a remarkable achievement to have the school built and functioning for student entry in 1973.

Outside medicine, Pat had interests which he pursued with equal vigour. A real estate friend guided him in the purchase of commercial property, and he bought, built and owned many properties in association with his son Paddy, including farm developments. He was chairman of a number of companies. He developed an enthusiasm for and great knowledge of forestry. He was a member of the Central Canterbury Farm Forestry Association and latterly chairman.

In 1960 Pat and Prue bought a section at Charteris Bay in the Lyttelton Harbour area, built a holiday cottage there and developed the steep hillside. They then leased a peninsula opposite, and planted it entirely with Monterey pines, which are now mature. Finally, in 1980, they bought land at Pigeon Bay. Here Pat planted a great variety of trees and employed a manager to take care of the stock. He and Prue built a beautiful cottage to replace the old wooden house, with a view down the bay to the sea and surrounded it with rhododendron, fruit trees and flowers of all descriptions. There they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in January 2007.

In the early 1980s, Pat, who was a well-known hoarder, was asked to form a committee to collect items of historic interest of a medical nature. The fear was that the new management of the hospitals might be inclined to dispose of items that were historically significant. The collection grew and a means of looking after it long-term was needed, so Pat and Prue settled the Cotter Medical History Trust to 'collect, preserve and display' items of an historic medical nature. Many permanent displays have been organised, an outstanding collection of old microscopes has been purchased, books have been catalogued, and photographs and plans identified and filed by a loyal and enthusiastic band of volunteers inspired by Pat. He also documented the lives of many doctors, mostly, but not exclusively, in Canterbury.

Pat was never a man for the limelight, but he received two awards late in life which pleased him. The first was the Christchurch Civic Award, which was given in 2005 for his work with the Medical History Trust. The other was his appointment as Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, in 2009.

Pat Cotter was a splendid colleague. Everything he did was thoroughly researched, properly executed and carried through to a satisfactory conclusion. As his son Christopher said at his funeral: 'Pat was a complex individual. He was opinionated and outspoken …. He was fiercely focused … and to an extent obsessive. …At the same time he could be remarkably generous and extraordinarily parsimonious.' Pat Cotter died on 26 June 2012, following a stroke, just three weeks short of this 93rd birthday. He was survived his wife, Prue, and their children - Christopher, Kate, Paddy and Jane - 14 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

J R M Davidson

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from: N Z Med J. 2012 July 27;125[1358]:96-9.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England