University of Otago Otago Medical School Alumnus Association

Encounter with a con man: An introduction to Otago

An alumni story

University of Otago Magazine, Issue 26, June 2010

In late January 1943 I travelled from Frankton Junction to Dunedin to begin medical studies at the University of Otago. The train was crowded, sleep was almost impossible and I was very tired on arriving in Wellington. As it was wartime, the ferry crossing was made in daylight so that submarines might be spotted. It was very tedious, with little to do but walk the deck and, while doing so, I noticed a lone man of average height, well-dressed and wearing horn-rimmed glasses.

From Lyttleton I travelled to Christchurch to catch the midnight train to Dunedin. A few minutes out of Oamaru I was tapped on the shoulder by the same man I had noticed on the ferry. It seemed I was in his seat: I moved over and conversation began.

In a rather cultured voice, he asked me if I was going to university and was I planning to study medicine? I replied, yes, I hoped to and that I had booked into the YMCA for a few days while I found digs. He told me that he too had studied medicine in Dunedin, later travelling overseas to specialise in neurosurgery, before returning to work at Dunedin Hospital. He was very helpful, saying his former landlady at 357 Great King Street might help me with accommodation and offering to take me to dinner at Wains Hotel the following evening. In my address book he wrote “T C Shearsby Wains Hotel 6.30pm”.

I duly appeared at Wains Hotel, but there was no Dr Shearsby and no reservation in his name. I was a little nonplussed, but the following day went to the hospital only to be told there was no Dr Shearsby on staff. I then went to the Medical School to find out if he was working there. The kind person in the office obligingly went through the past 20 years of student records and, again, no such name appeared. I also checked the Great King Street address he had given me to find no such number existed.

Something made me persist and I returned to the hospital reception the next day. No joy there, but then who should I see coming down the stairs in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck but Dr Shearsby! He explained that the staff in reception were new and did not know him. He then offered to sell me a microscope – for £25, which was about all that I had! He said to think about it and come back tomorrow.

So, I again presented myself at reception and was – again – told there was no Dr Shearsby. When I explained that I had seen him the previous day and described what he looked like, the manager exclaimed: “My God, that must be Murray Roberts!”

That meant nothing to me then but, about two years later, I found a note on the notice board in the medical students’ common room: “Ever heard of Dr Shearsby?” from a fellow student who knew of this encounter. The note was accompanied by a newspaper cutting about a certain Murray Roberts accused of impersonating a doctor!

Dr Ross Smith MB ChB 194

Murray Beresford Roberts began medical studies at the University of Otago, but, while he never completed his degree, he went on to impersonate doctors and teachers both in New Zealand and Australia. He was imprisoned on several occasions for offences including fraud, theft and impersonation. Roberts' autobiography, 'A King of Con Men', was printed posthumously in 1975.

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