Breastfeeding and rhododendrons, Julia Millen

In a Strange Garden: the life and times of Truby King
Lloyd Chapman
Penguin, $34.95,
ISBN 0143018795

A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare, 1907-2000
Linda Bryder
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
ISBN 1869402901

Sir Truby King died in 1938 a household name and national icon. The New Zealand government honoured him with a state funeral and legislated for burial in his own garden. Though technically bankrupt, King’s legacy was huge: the names Plunket and Karitane had acquired a special meaning in New Zealand idiom; Karitane Hospitals were operating in the main centres, Plunket Rooms in every town. An army of Plunket nurses patrolled the nation’s highways and byways seeking out mothers and babies needing help and guidance.

King was small in stature but a larger-than-life character, regarded by Keith Sinclair as among those most influential in forming New Zealand identity; he was the first New Zealander to appear on a postage stamp. I remember my mother and aunts drinking tea and bemoaning the tyranny of Plunket rules and regulations, though they were at times grateful for help from Karitane nurses. Girls at my secondary school were taught Plunket-style mothercraft (which we loathed) but almost nothing about sex.

Paternalistic, snobbish and obsessive, Truby King had extraordinary theories on everything from insanity to gardening, bottle-feeding to education. His publications included pamphlets like The Evils of Cram in which he maintained that excessive study was “a leading factor in the production of degeneracy, making many women unfit for maternity and both sexes more or less incompetent”, and The Evils of Picture Shows which advocated censorship on the grounds that films had the potential to “unbalance, sap, undermine and stunt” the proper development of young minds.

In a way the two books under review, while differing in tone, narrative style, focus and detail, complement each other. While much of Plunket Society history has already been recorded, it’s amazing that it has taken so long for a comprehensive Truby King biography to appear.

His life was marked by controversy and contradiction. King was physically frail (he suffered from tuberculosis), but his workload and achievements would have taxed the strongest constitution. His name is synonymous with babies and breast feeding yet the Kings were childless until, both in their 40s, they adopted a baby girl. While many would argue that through his work King effectively “fathered” and saved generations of mothers and babies, Dr Agnes Bennett described him as “The greatest obstacle to women’s progress and emancipation that New Zealand has known.”

Frederick Truby King, born in 1858, fifth child of Taranaki pioneers, was a clever but sickly boy, educated privately by a member of the distinguished Richmond family. Truby began work in a bank, before, aged 22, deciding on a medical career. His father, by then a manager of the Bank of New Zealand, agreed to finance him. At the University of Edinburgh, he achieved outstanding qualifications and while there also met and married his Scottish wife Isabella. Back home he worked for a period at Wellington Hospital, until 1889 when he was appointed medical superintendent of Seacliff Asylum for the Insane.

In Otago, King not only dedicated himself to the point of obsession with all matters relating to the care and treatment of his patients, he also became interested in animal husbandry. King’s theories on infant nutrition stemmed from his scientific approach to hand-feeding and rearing calves in the Catlins and on the asylum’s large Seacliff estate.

In 1904 Bella and Truby King adopted Esther, the daughter of Seacliff employees who could not provide for her. In a way that now seems high-handed, even cruel, they changed her name to Mary (after King’s mother) and prohibited any contact with the natural parents. Coping with a sickly bottle-fed baby, Bella King one day said in frustration to her husband,  “You’re more interested in animals than in your own child.” Her words changed the course of New Zealand history.

Truby became a fanatic – and instant – expert on scientific infant feeding; baby Mary played her part and thrived on the new dietary regime. Growing up, she was an integral part of the Plunket empire and wrote the – until now – only major biography of her adoptive father, published 1948.

King promoted his infant nurturing theories with a few medical colleagues, encouraged by politicians concerned at the low standard of physique among military recruits: a consequence of ignorance as well as poverty. New Zealand’s leaders desired not only to improve the health of future soldiers and workers but, in what could be construed as a form of eugenics, to lower the infant mortality rate and ensure that people of British stock populated the country.

14 May 1907: Truby King addressed – harangued – an enthusiastic audience at the Dunedin Town Hall; three days later the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children was born. Within a year, Lady Victoria Plunket, wife of the Governor, had taken up the cause and given it – informally – her name.

Released from official duties at Seacliff in 1912, King went on a lecture tour. The King road show was chaotic: he lost equipment, forgot appointments, missed trains and was late for meetings. But as a speaker he was utterly compelling and could hold a crowd – even of cow cockies – for hours on the subject of breast-feeding. While believing “breast is best”, King also reformed bottle-feeding: a balanced formula, scrupulous cleanliness, use of fresh milk and correct heating as well as strict adherence to a timetable.

By the end of the tour, kept on track by Bella, the Plunket Society had 70 branches throughout the country. In the next few years the renamed Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children had initiated the establishment of Karitane Hospitals and training programmes for Plunket and Karitane nurses.

King made overseas trips to promote his theories. Well-received in the US in 1917, he had, in the UK, to combat the mother country’s attitudes toward upstart colonials. Nevertheless, by the 1920s New Zealand was seen as a leader in baby care practice and (excluding Maori) had the lowest infant mortality rate in the world.

In 1921 Truby King was appointed Director of Child Welfare (and also Inspector General of Mental Health). The Kings moved to Wellington and bought 10 acres of inaccessible, gorse-covered rock and clay at Melrose. On this windy hilltop King initiated the building of a family home, a Karitane Maternity Hospital, and a baby products factory. He also created an extraordinary garden featuring massive brick structures, dozens of rhododendron bushes and a mausoleum.

Reading Chapman’s In A Strange Garden is to enter a world somewhat like its title. The author, following his own interests, has tried to re-shape Truby King’s life to appeal to current reader preoccupation with eccentric, charismatic personalities, and with nurturing flowering plants and trees rather than babies.

Chapman combines historical and biographical details, quotations from King’s works and personal opinion to show King’s obsessions and flawed fanaticism. The author deserves credit for his enthusiasm, but the resulting book is something of a hybrid, with uneasy transitions between the various genres and the myriad facets of King’s life – including projects like gold dredging in the Catlins. The author lacks the skills to handle and structure his material: the first chapter includes unnecessary details of a typical immigrant voyage to New Zealand; a notable inaccuracy is the date of King’s 1907 landmark speech in the Dunedin Town Hall.

On the other hand, though King’s marriage is noted in Chapter 2, Bella’s background and character are not explored fully until Chapter 12. Here, Chapman notes that it was Bella who – as well as being King’s secretary – wrote most of the “Our Babies” columns in the Otago Daily Times, syndicated to 50 newspapers.

A Voice for Mothers provides a well-written, thorough and comprehensive academic history of not only The Plunket Society, Karitane hospitals and nurses, but the entire spectrum of maternal and child welfare in 20th century New Zealand. Sympathetic towards the society’s aims while applauding its achievements, Bryder is forthright about problems and controversies: the rigidity of baby feeding and “weighing and measuring” regimes; the nutritional value of Karitane products; funding issues and strained relationships between Plunket and the Health Department. She also tackles such questions as the society’s response to Dr Benjamin Spock’s “demand-feeding” theories, as well as its reactionary stance on contraception and abortion.

Bryder shows the essential nature of the Plunket movement – pakeha middle class, conservative and respectable – and the repositioning difficulties it faced in the later 20th century. In so doing, she could have placed more emphasis on the revolution brought about by antibiotics. More recent issues include cot death (sudden infant death syndrome), immunisation, child abuse, and neglect. This is a well-produced and useful historical reference book. One quibble concerns the bibliography: why combine books and articles in one unwieldy 14-page section?

Though disappointing in both production quality and literary content, In A Strange Garden also has many useful features: the Truby King chronology; a complete list of King’s publications, with extracts from his writings; book titles in his gardening library; his rhododendron correspondence, and lists of plant species ordered for the Melrose property. The definitive Truby King biography has yet to be written.


Julia Millen is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Health, History, Non-fiction
Search the archive
Search by category