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100th anniversary of death of PN Hospital Doctor and World War 1 hero Arthur Martin

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One of Palmerston North Hospital’s best known and decorated doctors, author, and World War 1 hero Arthur Anderson Martin has been remembered this week.

​Tomorrow (17 September) marks the 100th anniversary of his death in World War 1, after being wounded at Flers in the Somme, and dying that night in an Amiens base hospital. 

Dr Martin came to Palmerston North in 1903, initially in joint general practice, before opening his own practice. He was appointed surgeon at Palmerston North Hospital in 1904, and in 1911 became senior surgeon. His wide medical interests and surgical dexterity won him a reputation usually only accorded to specialists in large city hospitals.

Locally, Martin did much to foster scientific interest by giving lectures, through involvement in the development of an observatory, and writing on medical subjects, such as the surgery and treatment of cancer. By 1911 he had gained considerable support for his scheme for the development of Palmerston North as the only radium institute in the North Island. 

In 1914 he left for Europe to further his radium institute scheme. On the declaration of World War 1 he was in Scotland, and immediately volunteered his services, in which he spent eight months with a first-line ambulance, after landing at Havre with the Expeditionary Force. He was there at the retreat from Mons, and the battles of the Marne and the Aisne, before being transferred to the Ypres front.

Dr Martin was an advocate of immediate surgery – even under fire – for soldiers with wounds to the abdomen, chest and legs. He frequently placed himself at risk and for his courage he was mentioned in dispatches for gallant and distinguished services in 1915 and 1916.

After returning to New Zealand in 1915 for rehabilitative rest, he was soon used to investigate accommodation and hospitalisation at the Trentham Army Camp after severe outbreaks of measles, pneumonia, and cerebrospinal meningitis. He returned to civilian practice in Palmerston North briefly, but remained tireless in his military endeavours. He was active in training the Rifle Brigade Field Ambulance at Awapuni. He stayed in New Zealand just long enough to record his experiences in a book ‘A Surgeon in Khaki’. (The book is now considered a classic memoir of World War 1.)

In 1916 he returned with the brigade to France, and was soon back in the front-line at the Somme, where eventually he was injured by a shell blast and died the same night from wounds.

News of his death, at 39, hit the Palmerston North community hard. The Operatic and Dramatic Society, of which he was their patron, was in the middle of a rehearsal when news came through. The rehearsal was swiftly cancelled; at the Kosy Theatre the projectionist stopped the silent movie and the orchestra played the Dead March, and the Last Post, while the audience stood with bowed heads. Over at the Orient Lodge an assembly of Friendly Societies passed a vote of sorrow; Sir James Wilson, chairman of the Palmerston North Hospital, and the Mayor JA Nash sent messages of sympathy.

The death of the gifted surgeon was mourned in newspapers on 20 September 1916:
‘Dr Martin was a man of the greatest mental and bodily vigour, as his book ‘A Surgeon in Khaki’ abundantly testifies. He was noted for his contempt of danger and could never be induced to remain long away from the firing line, where he loved to work amid the din and excitement of battle. His published work is a vivid record of things seen, and as such created a great deal of interest at home, running through a number of editions.’

Later, two standing-room only memorial events – at All Saints Church, and the Opera House – honoured the doctor.

In 1917 he was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO), and in 1920 a memorial wing, with facilities for X-ray and bacteriological research, financed mainly from public donations, was opened at Palmerston North Hospital. A memorial tablet from the British Medical Association’s Palmerston North division was installed at the hospital, and a flag to his memory was erected in All Saints Church.

Martin Street, between Grey Street, and the then Broad Street (now Broadway Avenue), was opened in mid-1917 and named in his honour.
Doc Martin was born in Southland on March 26, 1876, one of a family of six sons and two daughters belonging to railway labourer Thomas Martin and his wife Jessie. He grew up in Lumsden and attended Lumsden School and Lawrence District High School.

Doc Martin was initially a life insurance salesman, and passed his civil service examinations with distinction at age 17, but he wasn’t happy about doing office work.

He left New Zealand in 1894 to study medicine at Edinburgh University, and from all reports “his medical course was marked with unusual brilliance.” His doctor training was achieved through scholarships and prizes and in 1900 he emerged as Dr Martin, MD, Ch.B, FBCS. 

He left for the Boer War soon after graduating and served as a civil surgeon in the South African Field Force, before returning to Palmerston North in 1903.

A display honouring Major Arthur Anderson Martin, including a copy of his book, is on at the David Warnock Palmerston North Hospital Medical Museum.

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