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A Doctor of Vision

Book Review
A Scientific Welsh Eye Surgeon: the short life of Llewellyn Powell MD (1843-79)
by Geoffrey W Rice (Hawthorne Press & Cotter Medical History Trust, 2020. 144 pp. $30)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Powell cover-001Llewellyn Powell was a bright young Welshman who studied medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, emigrated to Canterbury in 1865 and started a medical practice in Christchurch. Dr Geoffrey Rice, the author of this short biography, explains that it is the first publication of a larger project to document the activities of medical men in Christchurch during the late 19th century. Although Powell died young, aged only 36, he had an interesting career, intertwined with different facets of early Christchurch.
Powell left behind almost no personal papers or medical records. Dr Rice has been able to put together this readable biography using the National Library’s Papers Past website to search the digitized issues of the Lyttelton Times and the Press. This novel approach works effectively because Powell was a public figure whose activities were regularly reported in the newspapers. He also wrote letters to the papers on issues that concerned him, so the author is able to convey some insight into his personal opinions.
Although Powell worked across several different medical fields, he specialized as an eye surgeon, and was described by one of his contemporaries as “the best oculist in New Zealand”. However Powell’s medical career was partly overshadowed by his wide-ranging scientific interests. He was a skilled microscopist, and one of the first local exponents of forensic pathology. He was an expert in New Zealand spiders, describing new species in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, and was an early member of the Canterbury Philosophical Society, serving for a period as president.

Two drawings of New Zealand spiders by Powell in a paper published in volume 3 of the Transactions of the NZ Institute (1870)

Two drawings of New Zealand spiders by Powell in a paper published in volume 3 of the Transactions of the NZ Institute (1870)

He gave public lectures on scientific topics to the high school and fledgling university college. Although his health was poor as he suffered from chronic tuberculosis, he was clearly a man of energy who actively participated in everything that interested him.

In 1876, following the demise of provincial government, a new Christchurch Board of Health was set up. It advertised for a medical officer, attracting applications from almost every doctor in the town. Llewellyn Powell, one of the youngest was appointed. At the time, typhoid was rife in parts of Christchurch, and Powell had undertaken one of the first analyses of the causes of death in Christchurch. He was a strong advocate for a municipal sewerage system, and the issue was hotly debated over the following year. Some members of the Christchurch establishment, led by lawyer Henry Wynn Williams were appalled at the cost, and tried to stop the scheme. It is reminiscent of a similar debate in Wellington where John Plimmer and cronies battled against a sewerage system.
Ultimately Powell and his supporters were successful. He campaigned to persuade the City Council to ban cesspits and introduce a pan and night-cart system, which soon brought a drastic reduction in the awful death rates from typhoid and diphtheria, even before the sewers were completed.

Sadly, Powell died before the sewerage system was completed, and his varied contributions have been forgotten. Dr Rice has done a service by documenting the life of an important Canterbury pioneer and his impact on society.