Herbert Harris made history for New Zealand nursing in 1947 by becoming the first man to graduate as a general registered nurse (RN) — enduring some challenges as a result.
Harris, who died at age 94 in 2020, went on to have a long career which spanned both nursing and aviation.
He was born in Dunedin in 1925, to George and Laura Harris, and was the eldest of two children. Harris attended King Edward Technical College and after graduation worked in a variety of occupations including retail and movie theatres.
However, these occupations were not satisfying for the intelligent but restless young man. He strived for an outlet for an inquisitive and curious mind. He volunteered for St John Ambulance, which led him to choose a career in nursing.
Although men now account for eight per cent of the nursing workforce, in the 1940s there were none outside psychiatric nursing. At age 18, he applied to train in the registered nurse programme at the Dunedin School of Nursing.
Being the only male in the class, he faced unique and difficult challenges — although he was accepted into the school, there were some staff who were unhappy at his presence. Despite this, he remained focused and graduated in 1947 as the first male general nurse in New Zealand. In the graduation photograph, he was not included in the main group of female nurses and had to be content at being placed separately to the side.
Worked as theatre nurse
Harris worked as a theatre nurse at Dunedin Hospital, thriving despite the confronting, challenging environment — some staff still found a male nurse unacceptable. On one occasion he sustained a facial laceration from an instrument thrown at him by a surgeon in the theatre. He transferred to Christchurch Hospital, and then to Auckland Hospital, continuing his theatre nursing career.
It was in Auckland that he embarked on a career change, studying law at the University of Auckland. Once qualified, he moved into the aviation industry, working for Pegasus Airlines, which specialised in the transport of thoroughbred racehorses around the world.
On one occasion he sustained a facial laceration from an instrument thrown at him by a surgeon in the theatre.
What followed was a stellar international career in aviation. He worked for Ansett Airlines as manager of corporate services and government relations and later as executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of New Zealand.
Negotiated airline treaties
He also worked for Qantas Airlines in Australia. In this role, he negotiated bilateral international airline treaties, and airspace management in the Philippines, Iran, and Russia. He enhanced his academic credentials with a Doctorate in Aviation Law from the University of St Petersburg in Russia.
His extensive academic and work resume included many academic and corporate achievements in international aviation organisations he worked for until retirement. A highlight occurred in 1997 when he lead an international team to open new airline routes to Europe across Siberia as an alternative to congested southern routes.
Despite his long aviation career, Harris was very proud of his nursing background and was always interested in contemporary nursing.
The author had the pleasure of meeting Dr Harris in 2003 when he returned to visit his old hospital in Dunedin. He was very interested in how the hospital operated, and seemed very informed about the development of independent nursing roles in the community, especially in stoma therapy. I was impressed with his contemporary knowledge and that he was very much focused on the future.
Wayne McLachlan, RN, BA, is a duty manager at Dunedin Hospital.
* The historical information in this article is drawn from personal conversations with Herbert Harris, and with his family after his death.