John Cairney was born in Greymouth on 8 October 1898, the son of Elizabeth (Lily) Bramwell and her husband, John Cairney, a Dunedin-born jeweller. His father’s professional precision and dexterity almost certainly contributed to Cairney’s own skill as an anatomist, the first of three distinct phases in his career.
Cairney left Greymouth District High School in 1915 with a University National Scholarship to study medicine at the University of Otago. In October 1919 he became a junior demonstrator in anatomy, starting a lifelong association with Professor W. P. Gowland. Shortly after his promotion to senior demonstrator he married Claris Dorothy Kempthorne, the daughter of a Greymouth railway foreman, on 20 December 1920 in Christchurch.
Around the time Cairney graduated MB, ChB in 1922, he introduced to New Zealand the concept of students dissecting the same body part simultaneously, and compiled an accompanying instruction manual. A meticulous document, it was expanded and published jointly with Gowland as Notes on anatomy , with the first volume appearing in 1938.
John Cairney also initiated neuroanatomical research in Dunedin with a study of the tuatara’s forebrain. The major part of this work, however, was conducted in 1925–26 when he worked under Professor C. J. Herrick in Chicago as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow. He gained his MD in 1925, and in 1948 became the first Otago medical graduate to be awarded a DSc; his thesis was entitled, ‘Anatomy, nervous system, forebrain, morphology’.
In 1926, after returning from America, Cairney’s talent was recognised with his appointment to the University of Otago Medical School’s first associate professorship. However, he soon decided that New Zealand could provide neither a career structure nor a financially viable position for a young anatomist, and in July 1927 he left Dunedin to become medical superintendent of the recently opened Hawera Hospital at a salary far in excess of his Anatomy Department earnings.
Cairney remained in Hawera until January 1936, but continued as honorary consulting surgeon after his departure. In May of that year he joined the Wellington Hospital staff as an honorary assistant surgeon, and within five months was appointed assistant superintendent (medical), a title which was soon changed to director of clinical services. In December 1940 he became medical superintendent following the resignation of A. R. Thorne. Four years later his designation was altered to superintendent in chief after the addition of the Hutt and Silverstream hospitals to the Wellington Hospital Board.
By the mid 1940s John Cairney had established a formidable reputation as a hospital administrator. In 1937 he was an expert witness before the royal commission on the management and administration of Napier Hospital, and in 1940 impressed Prime Minister Peter Fraser and Minister of Finance Walter Nash with his advocacy of an urgent expansion of Wellington Hospital. He was subsequently asked by the director general of health, Michael Watt, to advise the Department of Health on several issues, and in 1948 he participated in a ministerial conference on maternal and child welfare.
When a director general of health was chosen in 1949, the deputy director, H. B. Turbott, confidently expected to step up. Turbott blamed his failure to do so on Fraser’s supposed vindictiveness, claiming the former prime minister had encouraged Cairney to apply to thwart his ambitions. Yet Turbott’s allegations ignored Cairney’s suitability for the task ahead. He took up the position the following year.
In the post-war era New Zealand’s hospital system, like those in Britain and elsewhere, needed substantial revision. The influential Hospital Boards’ Association of New Zealand and the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association welcomed Cairney’s appointment, believing him fully equipped to meet this challenge. Over the next decade he more than fulfilled their expectations, advising the 1954 consultative committee on hospital reform and playing a major part in drafting the Hospitals Act 1957.
Cairney’s contribution extended beyond hospitals (despite Turbott’s claims to have been responsible for all other aspects of the department’s work). He played a prominent part in medical and nursing education, a field in which he had a long-standing interest. In 1941 he and Gowland had produced the first edition of Anatomy and physiology for nurses. This was followed by Cairney’s own texts, Surgery for students of nursing (1952) and Gynaecology for senior students of nursing (1954). In 1956 he published, with his son John, First studies in anatomy and physiology. When he retired in September 1959 he accepted the position of visiting lecturer to the New Zealand Post-graduate School for Nurses in Wellington; he held this appointment until his death.
Cairney was sub-dean of the Wellington branch faculty of the Otago Medical School from its inception in 1937 until 1944, and was a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. He was a member of the Medical Council (1942–59), the first president of the Medical Superintendents’ Association of New Zealand, and chairman of the Medical Research Council (1950–59). He was also a member of the 1953 university grants sub-committee set up to consider the future direction of the Otago Medical School, and of the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1954–56). In 1960 he was made a CMG for his services to the medical profession.
John Cairney died in Wellington on 5 August 1966 of a cerebral haemorrhage, having lived with hypertension for three decades. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and son. Obituaries paid tribute to his outstanding intellect, forthright manner, sincerity and enthusiasm.