David Wilson (Peter) Low FRCS FRCS(Ed) FRACS
Orthopaedic Surgeon
29 October 1924 –25 April 2018 

With the recent death of Peter Low, Nelson and New Zealand lost an important connection with an era of health care that was by today’s standards lightly administered, remarkably efficient and well-regarded by both staff and community.  Trained as a general surgeon, Peter subsequently specialised in orthopaedic surgery and for the final 25 years of his career worked as Medical -Superintendent of the Nelson Hospital.  Characterised by a quiet, friendly personality, with a love of sport, music and the outdoors, he was instrumental in creating an environment which attracted skilled and enthusiastic staff, thereby developing a highly performing and nationally respected regional hospital service. 

David Wilson (known as Peter) Low was born in Nelson to David Collingwood and Jane Winifred Low.  Peter was the third in a family of four – older sisters Colinette and Margo and a younger Jan.  D C Low was a surgeon and general practitioner and served as Medical Superintendent of Nelson Hospital from 1921-25 and was later Chair of the Nelson Hospital Board 1942-48 and a City Councillor.  Peter attended The Bishop’s School and subsequently Nelson College where he enjoyed sport, playing in the 1st eleven for both cricket and football and also playing rugby for his school house!   A competent artist, he attended arts school and also learned to play the piano and clarinet.

Peter gained entry to the Otago Medical School in Dunedin, living in Selwyn College hall of residence 1941 – 1946.  During this time, he won the University springboard diving championship and met Noelene Scott - a Home Science student. They married in 1948 at the completion of their studies and subsequently had four children – David, Dianne, Amanda and Stephen. Following completion of his MB ChB, Peter worked as a house surgeon in Dunedin Hospital for a year and then spent the next year in Oamaru.   From there he moved to Nelson spending a year as a locum general practitioner for his father.  In 1951 Peter, Noelene and young David travelled to the UK where, during the next four years, Peter worked in Brighton (Royal Sussex County Hospital), Worthing, Harrow and London (Guys Hospital).  During this time, he completed the FRCS exam, firstly in Edinburgh and then London.

Peter and Noelene, now with a family of three children, returned to NZ in 1955 where Peter began employment as specialist general surgeon in Nelson. This was the era of the true generalist in regional centres and the surgery included orthopaedics, urology, ENT and some O & G.  He became FRACS in 1957.  In 1961 he spent six months training in orthopaedic surgery at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. Restricting his practice to orthopaedic surgery on his return to Nelson, Peter was supported in this first step in subspecialisation by his general surgeon colleagues.  He remained the sole orthopaedic surgeon until 1976 when he was joined by Bing Brabant.  After Allan Panting joined the staff in 1980 a specialist orthopaedic service was created with a one in three roster.

In 1966, as the only full-time surgeon, and possibly spurred by his father’s earlier commitment to medical administration, Peter took on the role of Medical (Surgeon) Superintendent of Nelson Hospital.  He continued to devote 50% of his time to orthopaedic surgery, including a one in three acute call roster.  He became a member of the College of Community Medicine in the 1970s and gained Fellowship of the faculty of Public Health Medicine of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. During the early 1980s he served as President of the NZ Medical Superintendents Association.  In the mid 1980s Peter felt that with the close communication and relationships between Nelson Hospital specialists, general practitioners and other outside services, the region was well positioned to progress to the formation of an Area Health Board.  Nelson was the first New Zealand region to achieve that voluntarily.  Stepping aside as Medical Superintendent of Nelson Hospital (for Doug Short) in 1986, Peter retired from clinical orthopaedics and operating, but continued as Superintendent in Chief assisting in the progressive merger of the previously separate Nelson and Marlborough Health Boards - retiring in 1989.    Despite the increasing administrative demands throughout his career, Peter was a prime instigator of many hospital community activities including organising hospital concerts and corralling hospital staff into fun runs and other charity events, all of which promoted great morale within the hospital staff and created an environment conducive to  staff recruitment.  His wry, subtle and often cheeky sense of humour was used to good effect defusing situations of potential conflict.

Peter remained a keen sportsman throughout his life, participating in squash and golf, and maintaining a high level of fitness, running half marathons up to the age of 70.   He also enjoyed tramping (walking the Milford and Heaphy tracks besides other local tracks in his eighties) and sailing - including the construction of four wood/fibreglass yachts.   He continued his interest in music –  forming a Jazz duo  with Doug Short and playing regularly in retirement and nursing homes.  Peter developed a keen interest in botany, photographing and becoming knowledgeable on a wide range of native plants. He also became a prolific flag maker – designing and making his own flags.

Peter passed away peacefully on 25 April 2018, in his 94th year.  He was the beloved husband of Noelene, who died 2000, dearly loved father of David (general practitioner), Dianne (biochemist), Mandy (dietitian) and Stephen (anaesthetist), special Pa of 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.


This obituary was prepared with the considerable assistance of Stephen Low FRANZCA, the Low family and former colleagues.