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In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King

Chapter Seventeen: The end

Chapter Seventeen: The end

On her return from South Africa, Mary King became Truby's secretary, available at all hours for dictation, the typing of letters or notation of yet another scheme that he was hatching. She would regularly work until midnight, and it is unlikely that she had any life of her own.

In 1930, with Mary in tow, Truby King set off to London for the last time. Reports of his presentations at the Conference on Maternity and Child Welfare tell of a forgetful, repetitive, irascible old man. Mary King noted: 'He was growing more and more intolerant of all ideas which did not exactly coincide with his own, and it was a pathetic fact that many who had not known him in the old days failed to realise that it was but the gradual disintegration of a great mind, which was long outlived by a feeble but tenacious body.'1 Perhaps fortunately, his intention of establishing a Karitane page 200 Products factory in London was not realised.

After an abortive attempt to establish a residence adjacent to the Australian baby food factory, Truby King was finished in Sydney. He had been unwell, and had slipped on the bathroom floor and sustained a spinal injury. Prescribed morphine and constant nursing attention, he dismissed the nurse after two weeks, threw away his orthopaedic brace, determined that he was recovered and carried on, albeit with a body more terribly bent than usual. He returned to Wellington where the Melrose house had been rented, so he stayed in hotels. Stories abound of Truby insisting his rooms were not dusted, writing himself messages in dust on windows and mirrors and speaking interminably in corridor telephones, impervious to fellow guests. Unperturbed by his weakened state, he continued travelling, lecturing and preaching what he could recall of the Plunket message. At the 1931 Plunket conference in Dunedin, the contrast between Sir Truby and the old Truby King was marked. His mental powers were substantially in decline.

Declining powers or not, he still managed another trip to Melbourne, intending to sort out some imagined deficiency in child feeding. Again, the visit was less than successful.

Although Mary King makes elliptical reference to his mental decline, she does not come to grips with the reality of her father's condition. The recorded recollections of some of the staff of Kingseat Hospital are less equivocal. Mr Moss discussed how he personally handled the committal papers for Sir Truby. He mentioned how Truby was committed but never hospitalised, the implication being that a previous Director of. Mental Health should not, if at all possible, be interred in one of his own hospitals.2 Mr Tibbie, who worked at Seacliff noted that Dr Gray, a King acolyte who succeeded Truby as Director-General, blocked an application to have Truby committed to Porirua asylum, and seconded staff to care for King.3 Truby's affairs were taken over by the Public Trustee and Truby in effect became a prisoner in his own house, under full-time care.

Dr Neil Begg's summation was kindly: '. . . in his later years he forgot to listen and would brook no argument, his correspondence page 201
Truby King in the 1930s, an old man.

Truby King in the 1930s, an old man.

becoming testy as he lapsed into autocratic ways. It is sad that too often we remember in a person the rigidities of old age while forgetting the brilliance and sensitivity of their earlier life.'4

In July 1932, at the annual meeting of the Wellington branch of Plunket, Truby King formally handed over his home to the Society. He moved to one of his rented properties in Sutherland Crescent, adjacent to Melrose, with a housekeeper and 'nursing care'. The following month he fell down the steps at the Karitane Hospital, cracked two ribs, and suffered a substantial blow to the head and serious bruising. His body was beginning to succumb.

The final straw may well have been his unique disease of 'red page 202 neuralgia', which caused exquisite pain to the soles of his feet. Mary tells the story:

Like Bernard Shaw, Sir Truby, in his advancing years, became practically a vegetarian. This was, in part, necessitated by the development of erythromelalgia (red neuralgia). This disease, from which Sir Truby suffered throughout the last four years of his life, was discovered by Dr Weir Mitchell. It is an extremely rare malady, and in no case seemed to have been met with in New Zealand until Sir Truby's family physician diagnosed the painful condition of his feet as such.

Naturally, Truby would not succumb to an ordinary common disease!

Fading, he would not give up. He demanded a daily glass of parsley juice from fresh parsley grown in the flower-beds near the drive. He had Mr Ritchie construct an ingenious cooling contraption that involved a tank at the end of the bed, and circulated water around his painfully heated feet. By 1934 walking caused such exaggerated pain that Truby was confined to bed. He would have constant nursing care to the end.

On 10 February 1938 Truby King died in his sleep, in his eightieth year.

The Otago Daily Times, always an ardent supporter, featured a large picture of a younger Truby, together with forty column inches of reflection on the great man's work. The Plunket Society's president, Mrs James Begg, was reported to say:

This society mourns the loss of its great founder, Sir Truby King. The society of which he was the head, owes its being to his spiritual and moral leadership, which inspired thousands of men and women to enlist in the cause which was so dear to his heart, the welfare of women and children. Sir Truby King began the crusade which was to have such wonderful success when in the prime of his life, and even when waning physical powers deprived the society of his immediate direction, it remained his chief interest. The sympathy of the society is extended to Miss Mary King, relatives and intimate friends in their bereavement. Sir Truby King's memory will remain an inspiration to the society, page 203 enabling it to continue his great work for women and children as its best tribute to its beloved leader.5

The Dominion, in an editorial entitled 'A Great Humanitarian', recalled with remarkable restraint and prescience:

Sir Truby's passionate life-work was the saving and the very remoulding of the physical and mental lives of born and unborn armies of children. Our elders may recall the social losses of a previous era through lack of ordinary understanding of the laws of hygiene and nutrition, a state of ignorance that today seems inexplicable.6

The Evening Post was more fulsome, reporting eulogies from all sides. Prime Minister M.J. Savage's tribute to 'The Greatest Friend of Little Children' painted a picture of King as a New Zealander leading the world in motherhood and child welfare. He characterised him as a medical scientist and a zealous humanitarian. Not to be outdone, Peter Fraser, Minister of Health, remembered Truby's 'almost fanatical zeal', and New Zealand's leadership in lowering infant mortality. Dr Watt, Director-General of Health, paid tribute to Truby's work as Director of Child Welfare, noting generously:

It can be said the movement of which Sir Truby was the founder originated in his mind, was animated by his energy and enthusiasm and spread and developed through the co-operation of the many supporters he was able to interest in the scheme.7

The Wellington Plunket Nurses were not to be outdone:

Stronger of heart and richer in mind are the Plunket nurses through having been associated with Sir Truby King and his life interest for parents and babies. The light that he lit is ever bright to carry on his great work for the love of humanity. The Plunket nurses feel honoured to interpret his teachings which will live throughout the ages, and in many countries in the world.8

The New Zealand Medical Journal's obituary was generous in its view of a man who had often been at odds with the profession.

page 204

Sir Truby met with a great amount of opposition. Prejudice and ignorance had to be overcome. He himself was regarded by many as a crank and eccentric. Many of his friends and professional contemporaries would run round corners, rather than meet him in the street, for fear he would draw them into interminable discussions, and then force them to do something against their will.

His personality was a unique combination of scholar, bookman, artist, actor, author and producer, as well as agriculturist and physician. To those who were fortunate enough to share any of his interests he was able to reveal a fascinating charm, an erudition that was never ponderous.9

Under Mickey Savage's direction the cabinet decreed that Truby King should be accorded a state funeral, the first for a private citizen. His body lay in state in St Paul's Cathedral, guarded by eight Plunket nurses. The Evening Post featured a macabre picture of the coffin in
Black and white photograph of Truby King lying in state.

Nurses keeping guard beside the coffin in St. Paul's Cathedral.

page 205
Black and white photograph of Truby King's funeral procession.

Funeral procession, Wellington.

front of the altar, with severely dressed women standing at each corner, hands defiantly crossed. The Plunket nurses were making their last sombre stand. There is considerable irony in this, given Truby King's opinions and treatment of women.

On Saturday afternoon the Bishop of Wellington conducted the funeral service before the coffin was carried through the streets of Wellington to Melrose, where he performed the interment.

Crowds lined Lambton Quay while the funeral procession wound by, led by the Port Nicolson Silver Band, the coffin attended by pallbearers who comprised politicians Peter Fraser and Walter Nash, Mr Justice Blair, Dr Watt, Dr Tweed, Dr Gray, Sir William Hunt, Sir Alexander Roberts, Mr Pattrick and Mr Scott.

The order of the cortege was as follows:

1 Representative of his Excellency, the Governor-General
2 The Bishop of Wellington
3,4 Pallbearers
5-9 Ministers of the Crownpage 206
10 Speaker of the House of Representatives
11 His Worship the Mayor of Wellington
12, 13 Members of the Legislative Council
14-19 Members of the House of Representatives
20-24 Representatives of the Plunket Society and Karitane Products
25-27 Representatives of the British Medical Association
28-31 Representatives of Health and Mental Hospital Departments
32 Representatives of New Zealand Nurses' Association
33 Representatives of residential and day nurseries
34 Chief of Staff, New Zealand Military Forces
35 Second member, New Zealand Naval Board
36 Chief of Air Staff
37-39 Representatives of Wellington City Council
40-42 Chairman and members, Wellington Harbour Board
43-45 Chairman and members, Wellington Hospital Board
46 Chairman and representatives, Wellington Education Board
47 Magistrates
48-50 Representatives of religious denominations
51, 52 Suburban mayors and county chairmen
53-60 Heads of government departments
61 Representatives of St. John Ambulance Association
62 Representatives of New Zealand Red Cross Society
63 Representatives of New Zealand Educational Institute
64 Representatives of Trades and Labour Council
65 Representatives of Associated and Wellington Chambers of
66 Representatives of New Zealand Manufacturers' Association
67,68 Private Secretaries
69,70 Representatives of trading banks
71 Representatives of the press
72 Representatives of the Rotary Movement

As the funeral procession wound its way round the Basin Reserve, cricketers stopped playing and spectators stood until the cortege was out of sight.

page 207

At Melrose the anticipated parking chaos resulting from the difficult access eventuated. Loudspeakers carried the Bishop's words to the large crowd as Truby King's casket was interred in his tomb. Special legislation had been enacted two years earlier to enable Truby to be buried in his garden. Later, Bella's remains would join him.

Mary King was absent, recuperating from illness in Adelaide.

The mausoleum occupies a promontory below the house and is enclosed by paths and garden. In their 1992 management plan, Boffa Miskell noted: 'It is likely that Sir Truby King planned and directed the construction of the mausoleum and the associated modifications to the garden above and about it, prior to his death and interment in 1938. The monument and the associated plantings appear to have been well planned and integrated into the original garden setting.' (The special legislation authorising Truby's burial in his garden was enacted in October 1936.)

In 1990 the Wellington City Council, at the urging of the director of Parks and Recreation, Richard Nanson, acquired the remaining 1.9 hectares of the property, comprising Truby's house and garden
Black and white photograph of Truby King's commemorative plaque being unveiled at Melrose.

The unveiling of the Melrose commemorative plaque.

page 208
The Karitane Hospital at Melrose.

The Karitane Hospital at Melrose.

adjoining the town belt. Council have acted on many of the recommendations of the management plan devised for Truby King Park, with restoration of pathways, repairs to brickwork and substantial replanting of the dell with rhododendrons relevant to Truby King's time. Despite difficulties of access to the property, it is hoped that the house and garden, with public support, will become a national monument.

Today, Truby's house is subject to a heritage order under the Council's District Plan. It also has a Historic Places Trust 'B' classification, which means 'it merits permanent preservation because of its great historical significance or architectural quality'. The mausoleum in the garden in which Truby and Bella are interred has an 'A' classification, which means it has 'such historical significance that its permanent preservation is regarded as essential'.

Why did Truby King choose to die in Wellington? He had travelled widely and would have glimpsed many places better suited to retirement. Wise people plan their retirement. Doctors reputedly page 209 retire and spend their wealth in their perception of refinement, while clever people choose a climate and environment suited to their desires. Many people retire close to their family, but Truby didn't really have one. Adopted daughter Mary had fled to Australia, perhaps to escape his increasingly irascible demands. Today, elderly people migrate to Australia's Gold Coast, or to the retirement havens of Tauranga or Waikanae, or to somewhere where they can indulge themselves in golf, bowls, bridge and booze. Truby could have chosen from many such places. But he detested sport, did not drink and remained focused on his goals. Taranaki, where he grew up and where his brother was established, might have been considered, but his difficult childhood, lack of empathy with Maori and the Taranaki climate may have mitigated against this choice. The Catlins, where he farmed successfully while at Seacliff, might have held some appeal, with its high natural and wilderness rankings, but may have been considered too remote and backward. Karitane, where he retained the seaside house and where he and Bella spent the most productive years of their lives was, however, too remote from power and influence. Dunedin, his Edinburgh palindrome, where Robbie Burns and Plunket ruled, must have been a serious candidate. This was the centre of medical learning, but then Truby King wasn't an establishment doctor.

He was perpetually broke, but able nevertheless to finance any scheme he dreamed up, so we can discount a financial explanation. The truth is, he never retired. He couldn't relinquish his obsession with influence. It was the failure of mind and body that wrought his eventual end. He stayed in Wellington because that was the seat of power, that was where Bella was buried, and that was where he would end his days. He and Bella would be buried in the strange garden on the windy hilltop.

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1 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 334.

2 E. N. Tibbie, interviewed 22 December 1970, Crozier collection.

3 Ibid.

4 Dr Neil Begg, The Intervening Years: a New Zealand account of the -period between the 1910 visit of Halley's Comet and its reappearance in 1986, (Dunedin: John Mclndoe, 1992), p. 99.

5 Mrs James Begg, Plunket Society, Otago Daily Times, 11 February 1938.

6 The Dominion editorial, 11 February 1938.

7 Dr Watt, Director-General of Health, Evening Post, 11 February 1938.

8 Wellington Plunket Nurses, Evening Post, 14 February 1938.

9 Obituary, New Zealand Medical Journal, 1938.