Before 1947, there were no obstetric services provided at the hospital and hence there were no neonates there either. In 1946 the hastily-erected soldiers' wards - wards 21 and 22 - were no longer required by the military and plans were made to adapt these wards for maternity services. These plans included the erection of a Maternity Annexe to the west of ward 21.

The focus was on the provision for the mother's general practitioner to deliver generally healthy babies. The neonates were housed in a nursery in the annexe and brought to their mothers for feeding by the elegant transport system pictured below.

Until the mid 1970s, mainly simple nursing care was offered for severely pre-term, low birth-weight newborn. Then, following international pioneering efforts, more intensive measures to treat and support these infants commenced, first in Dunedin, then Auckland and in other main centres.

In 1973 Dr Mark Hoby was appointed Tutor-specialist in Paediatrics at the fledging Wellington Clinical School of Medicine. In 1976, he was appointed full-time Neonatologist at Wellington Hospital. Until now, newborn infants had been nursed in an area adjacent to the Maternity Annex, an addition to the west of the Maternity Ward (Ward 21).

Below is an aerial photograph taken in 1952


A portion of the nursery area was converted into a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and this is where Mark Hoby worked to improve the outcomes for severely preterm and underweight newborns.

A team of dedicated nurses under the charge of Sister Lani Wills was integral to there being any chance of success. Lani Wills would remain in this position until her retirement in 1998.


Initially the service was offered to locally delivered infants only, then in 1978 the first regional transfer to the Wellington unit
occurred. The Wellington-based Life-Flight helicopter service was just in its second year of existence when, in 1978, retrieval of a premature infant from Blenheim Hospital by helicopter to the Wellington NICU occurred. The referral had been initiated by Blenheim's Dr Robin Fancourt, and the registrar who accompanied the baby was Wellington Hospital's Vaughan Richardson.

Meanwhile, a major hospital rebuild was underway, and by the early 1980s the "O&G Block" - later renamed the Grace Neill Block - was opened, and this contained a new NICU. The old Maternity Wards and the Annexe containing the original NNU were demolished in 1984.


Dr Thorsten Stanley had been appointed to the Wellington School of Medicine in 1980, and half of his time was as a Neonatologist at Wellington Hospital.

Mark Hoby departed Wellington for Adelaide in 1985, and in 1986 Drs Vaughan Richardson and David Brabyn were appointed as neonatologists.



Vaughan Richardson                                  David Brabyn 







At that time there were eight ventilated infants, and six working monitors. Lani Wills oversaw 24 FTE nurses, and typically one nurse cared for three ventilated infants. The unit was overcrowded, there was no training course for neonatal nurses, and there was no biomedical technician on site in the unit. It was quickly established that more nurses were needed, a training course for nurses should be established, better equipment with a dedicated biomedical technician on site were required, and an improved unit layout. Increased RMO numbers were also needed.

By 1988, a Neonatal Nurses Training Course was established, coordinated by Rosemary Escott. Approval was given for twelve more full-time nurses immediately, with further increases to come.

A dedicated biomedical technician was based in NICU. Over $500,000 was spent on new equipment.
NICU registrars were augmented by SHO's and the registrars were able to remain in Wellington longer for training.

The physical size of the unit was increased in 1995 by adding wasted corridor space and joining the "back rooms".

Rosemary Escott in Room 4 in 1996


Space for babies, staff and equipment remained limited

Further space was added in 1998-1999 by converting the equipment room to ICU bed spaces and opening up the little-used "isolation rooms" to allow more distance between babies.

Vaughan Richardson (left), Dawn Elder (right) and team



Planning for the new Regional Hospital saw several options for a new NICU, the final one selected had the unit colocated with the Delivery Suite on Level 4.  This allowed for expansion on to the roof space.  The result was the well-designed unit that is in operation today.


The new NICU - much more space


The new NICU opened in 2008

Vaughan Richardson retired in 2021.  Callum Gately was appointed the new Clinical Leader, NICU.


Thanks go to Rosemary Escott and Vaughan Richardson for much of the above story and photographs.


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Last updated 11 August 2021.