Joseph Bernard Dawson, the youngest child of Joseph Dawson, a commercial traveller, and his wife, Louisa Mary Collings, was born in Erdington, near Birmingham, England, on 8 April 1883. He attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham where he received a classical education. He then entered the University of Birmingham Medical School. Having come top in anatomy, Dawson spent a year as a prosector dissecting parts for teaching students. During this year he passed the primary for the FRCS before starting his clinical studies. In 1905 he qualified MRCS, LRCP and the following year MB, BS (London). For recreation he went cycling and distance running.
After graduating, Dawson became house surgeon at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Sick Children, Brighton. Coming from a modest background, he had a long struggle to obtain good hospital posts and higher qualifications. He undertook general practitioner assistantships to finance the FRCS course at the London Hospital but failed the examination. He returned to Birmingham as resident surgical assistant at Queen’s Hospital and house surgeon at the General Hospital, then gained a house surgeon’s post at St Mark’s Hospital in London. He gained the final FRCS qualification in 1908. Unable to find senior posts in London or Birmingham, Dawson bought a general practice in York. On 9 June 1909 he married Norah Lunt at Birmingham. He soon moved to Swansea and in 1911 obtained his University of London MD, in diseases of women. He also wrote two popular handbooks, The young mother and Babyhood .
With little hope of specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology in England, Dawson travelled to Australia as ship’s surgeon. He bought a general practice in Glenelg, near Adelaide, and sent for his wife and family. He was able to build a practice with a special interest in obstetrics and gynaecology. During the First World War he spent a year in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a hospital surgeon in France. After the war he built his own private hospital. In 1925, before moving to Adelaide as a specialist, he visited Europe to study advances in antenatal care.
On his return to Australia Dawson was appointed honorary assistant gynaecologist to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He later became tutor in obstetrics in the University of Adelaide, and was much involved in the development of ante- and postnatal clinics in the city. In 1931 he successfully applied for the first full-time clinical chair in obstetrics in the University of Otago Medical School, Dunedin. This had been established after increasing concern over the poor standard of obstetric training in New Zealand, and after substantial fund-raising by the New Zealand Obstetrical Society and its dynamic young secretary, Doris Gordon. Before taking up the post in February 1932, Dawson was asked to spend six months visiting clinics in Great Britain, Ireland, Europe and Canada.
Dawson was ill-prepared for the meagre facilities in Dunedin, made worse by the government reneging on building a promised hospital. However, he immediately commenced improving the standard of teaching, including personally supervising most of the deliveries conducted by the students. After long and acrimonious negotiations between the Otago Hospital Board and the minister of health, in mid 1934 government and local body funding was obtained for the 26-bed Queen Mary Maternity Hospital, formally opened in November 1937.
During Dawson’s tenure he greatly improved the teaching of gynaecology and obstetrics; between 1932 and his retirement in 1950, maternal mortality was greatly reduced. Dawson lobbied hard for the establishment of proper obstetric and gynaecological units in the major hospitals in New Zealand staffed with properly trained specialists and with training positions for postgraduate residents. He became an active member of the committee which brought about the establishment of National Women’s Hospital and the postgraduate chair of obstetrics and gynaecology at Auckland University College. Dawson was an examiner in obstetrics and gynaecology in medical schools in Australia, for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (he was made a fellow in 1934) and for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in England. He was made a KBE in 1948.
Dawson was president of the Otago division of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association, a member of the editorial committee of the New Zealand Medical Journal for many years, and chairman of the obstetrics research committee of the Medical Research Council of New Zealand. He was made a foundation fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists at its inception in 1929, and from December 1932 headed its New Zealand committee and later its regional council.
Bernie Dawson became a greatly admired and respected teacher of obstetrics and gynaecology. A tall man, somewhat reserved but with a distinguished presence, he spoke with clear, precise diction. His political views were liberal and he was somewhat obstinate. He was interested in and supportive of his students and their activities, such as the University of Otago rugby football club, and was in his element recounting clinical problems or just talking from his wide fount of knowledge. He was a member of the Royal Commonwealth Society and president of its Otago branch for many years. After he retired from the chair he became a member of the Otago Hospital Board. He died in Dunedin on 17 August 1965, survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.