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

Chapter Two: Little Truby

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Chapter Two: Little Truby

Little Truby got off to an inauspicious start. The nightmare boat trip to Nelson nearly killed him, although the subsequent purging failed to finish him off. His brother Francis died in his second year when Truby was six. Things didn't get much better for Truby. Gastroenteritis preceded attacks of broncho-pneumonia, pleurisy and tuberculosis; but worse still, two years later he lost his sister Mary to tuberculosis in her eighteenth year. She had been Truby's hero, his teacher and mentor, and the little boy was devastated. With his father away for extended periods and his mother distracted by a young family, Truby's relationship with his eldest sibling was unusually close. The tragedy of his sister's untimely death would stay with him all his life.

Truby's formal schooling began when he was eight and a half. It took place in a small barn. His teacher, Mr Beardsworth, lived page 32
Frederic Truby King, aged eight years.

Frederic Truby King, aged eight years.

upstairs, descending each morning by ladder to instruct his pupils. Later Truby and brother Newton (two years his senior) attended the private school of Mr Crompton who was to become Speaker in the Taranaki Council and then Inspector of Schools for the Taranaki Education Board. Crompton was widely travelled and had taught in France. Truby's appreciation of the French language, in which his father was fluent, blossomed.

The courses of study ranged well beyond the three 'Rs', to the inclusion of classical and modern languages. The one assistant, Mr Eliot, was responsible for classes in Latin and Mathematics. Although the sciences were not then regularly taught, their value was clearly appreciated by Mr Crompton, an educationalist decidedly ahead of his generation. Often in summer time he would take his pupils on long walks for Nature study. Sometimes to the seaside, sometimes to the bush, or just over the fields. He was never at a loss to classify with appropriate nomenclature the botanical specimens laid before him by indefatigable youth.1

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Sensitive Truby did not get on particularly well in his first experiences of formal schooling, failing to respond to the physical demands of his peers, who were mostly the children of soldiers. Their games had little appeal for the bookish lad who suffered the consequences of his childhood illnesses and exhibited a marked droop in the right shoulder that would characterise him in later life.

Truby's educational development accelerated with a private tutor, Henry Richmond, a man of some intellect, here described by his biographer:

He had advanced views on scientific subjects and published more than one pamphlet setting forth theories, which were later recognised, regarding the atom. After establishing a school in New Plymouth, he decided to qualify in Law. Passing his examinations, he was duly admitted at the age of 45 and practised in New Plymouth. He was for a short time Editor of the Taranaki News.2

Truby formed an instant liking for Richmond, who stimulated an interest in learning. Richmond believed in the value of focusing on one subject until it was fully mastered — a system of single-minded concentration that was to stay with Truby for the rest of his life. Richmond Cottage, where Truby experienced his first delights in learning, was built in 1853 by Richmond and Arthur Atkinson, and is one of New Plymouth's oldest remaining buildings.

At home Tom would read aloud to his family, often in French. With a piano in the house and parents who fostered academic discussion, Truby could only blossom.

At fifteen the quiet diligent young man joined his father's bank, continuing his studies with Richmond through night classes. One of his fellow pupils wrote, 'Nothing would ever divert him from the particular line of thought he was on at the moment.'3 Perhaps this was the first indication that the thoughtful adolescent had a scientific bent. His clerical progress at the bank was unsurprisingly meteoric, and by the age of sixteen he was ready for something else, or perhaps his father sought to expose him to a bigger, wider world.

In 1874 Truby King transferred to the Bank of New Zealand in page 34 Auckland. Letters home show a voracious reader, a formal and polite lad. His salary was five pounds a month. The hours he worked as a lowly clerk were daunting, often extending late into the night. In an early letter from Auckland to his father, Truby writes:

I suppose you have heard that young Brown has been arrested for setting fire to Hobson's building. The case was brought up on the 19th inst., the chief evidence against him being the finding of some Jewish newspapers saturated with kerosine, among other things that had been set fire there, but the case was remanded till Thursday next, bail being given by Isaacs and another Jew.

I have no doubt the Jews will get him off if money will do it, being one of their nation.4

Whether this represented an anti-Semitic view inherited from his father, from Tom's clerical days in London, or was Truby's own opinion, it is surprising in its prejudice; Tom's biography gives no indication of anti-Semitism.

Two years later, at the age of eighteen, Truby King was promoted to the position of Private Secretary to Mr George Tolhurst, manager of the Wellington branch of the Bank of New Zealand. Tolhurst, a brilliant if hot-tempered man, had a strong influence on the developing lad. His reported intolerance of fools may well have been developed under the tutelage of Tolhurst.

By 1879, at age twenty, Truby was the assistant manager at the Bank of New Zealand in Masterton, an emerging rural town in the Wairarapa. He worked long hours, often from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and boarded with the manager, eventually moving to bachelor quarters with the local headmaster. Mary King records a colleague's comments on the beginnings of Truby as gardener, organiser and orator:

Truby was a keen gardener, and, with the same love of beautiful surroundings, I soon found myself impressed by Truby into beautifying the school grounds, with the result that despite the long hours at the Bank, we soon had a respectable lot of flowers and vegetables of which we were inordinately proud.

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That he retained his love of this delightful occupation, those who have had the opportunity of visiting the grounds of the Seacliff Mental Hospital, which he planted, will realise. One morning I was up early as usual and went into the garden where I found eighteen draught horses disporting themselves, having eaten most of the vegetables and rolled on the flower beds. I called Truby out, and those who know him well can imagine what he said, as, on occasion, he was gifted with a great flow of language.5

He was soon manager of the Bank of New Zealand in Masterton where his health problems, never far below the surface, made it necessary to have medical support and he became friendly with Dr Hosking, the local GP. He was not enjoying the banker's role of prosecuting miscreants and dealing with tales of hardship. Managing a bank, even at such a young age, did not suit him. With encouragement from his doctor friend, Truby attempted to seek his father's permission to abandon banking for a medical career. He couldn't bring himself to let his father down, and instead sought his older brother Newton's intercession. Thomas King agreed, with the proviso that Truby waited until he was twenty-one before leaving New Zealand. He offered Truby an allowance of £150 per annum, which was more than his salary at the bank. The option of education at the University of Otago, whose school of medicine opened three years earlier, was apparently not considered.

Truby saw out his time in Wellington, finally making his peace with Mr Tolhurst, who would be instrumental in his first medical appointment when he returned to New Zealand.

In August 1880 Truby King set sail for the mother country. After a short period visiting relatives, he went to Paris. Meeting Robert Smith, a young Scottish doctor, he got to see the city, including a demonstration by the redoubtable Professor Charcot, founder of modern neurology and authority on hysteria and hypnosis. The developing friendship would lead to Truby becoming a lodger with Smith's fiancee's family and, following the untimely death of Smith, King would eventually marry the fiancee himself.

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Edinburgh University's medical school was founded in 1726, and became famous as one of the best medical schools in Europe. It was an all-male establishment, having resisted a feminist legal challenge ten years before Truby enrolled. He would be one of a number of New Zealanders studying medicine there when he commenced his studies in 1881.

In his first letter home he wrote:

Dear Pa,

Your letter in which you reply to mine from Paris is so kind, both in words and silence, that I scarcely know how to answer it. You have always been to me the most indulgent and trusting of fathers, but latterly I have almost feared that I should find the limit even of your confiding goodness, and that you would begin to think so weak a nature as mine scarcely worthy of further care.

On this account, as there were examinations to be passed, I have carried your letter about with me, unopened, since Monday, lest it should contain any reproach calculated to upset me; for I am still — as you know I have always been — so over-sensitive, that the slightest hint of any want of confidence or of any dissatisfaction on your part, would have been quite sufficient to render me incapable of doing the work required.

Having finished the examinations for this week, I have just broken the so needlessly dreaded envelope and find it, as I said before, filled only with kindness,.

With regard to the allowance of £150 a year, it is of course ample, and if I am able to live for less I shall let you know. Board and lodging is very cheap here — about 25s to 30s per week, and University expenses for Medical classes, etc., amount to only about £35 a year, which is considerably less than it would cost in London.

I shall not know the result of my present examination, which has been on four subjects, until the end of next week, but I am afraid they page 37 will pluck me in Mechanics, as I was too excited to be able to do anything, and made a most miserable paper. It is very annoying not to have done better because I had so thoroughly prepared my subject that under ordinary circumstances I could with ease have answered every question put. The other three subjects, which came later, are, I hope all right. The result of the first trial shows clearly that I shall be unable at any time to compete for scholarships, which of course requires a cool head. It is a great test for a nervous man to sit in a large hall with a hundred other students and be forced to think calmly or be plucked.

Your affectionate son F. T. King6

The insecure and introspective son need not have worried. 'Plucked' he was not. In Mechanics he passed. In French and Arithmetic he got 'credit', and in Logic, the most difficult of all, he passed with distinction. His scholarship blossomed, and he passed everything from here on with better than flying colours. He managed to include Botany, Zoology and Greek in his studies, which were not required for a medical degree. Later that year he was awarded the silver medal and a certificate of first class honours. Truby the scholar was on his way. He eventually graduated MB, CM (1st Class) on 1 August 1886, having passed his first, second and third professional examinations with distinction. He decided against writing a thesis, which would have conferred the MD qualification. This he would later regret.

Truby graduated Master of Surgery, winning the coveted Ettles Scholarship as the most distinguished student of Edinburgh University. Curiously, of the 200 graduates that year, the top three were New Zealanders: Drs King, Jeffcott and Lindsay, both of the latter coming from Otago.

Truby's health problems were never far from the surface. Fearing the dreaded quinsy, he had his tonsils removed, which was not then a common operation. Worse was to come, with the vision of his left eye substantially impaired by a side-effect of tuberculosis. Ill-health appeared to prey on his mind.

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It was at this point that he announced his engagement, at age twenty-eight, in a poignant letter to his mother.

My Dear Mother

The news of my engagement will no doubt have taken you all very much by surprise, but I trust the announcement was not displeasing. If you knew Bella, there would certainly be no question, for I am quite confident as to your all liking her very much.

How such a good, kind and loving girl comes to care for me I can scarcely understand, and it is almost equally a matter of surprise how a being so indifferent as myself to the charms of ladies' society in general should have become so infatuated with this dearest gentle

girl. Two photos which you will find enclosed may give you some idea as to her appearance, but at best one cannot form much idea of a person from a mere black and white picture, especially when the charms are more mental than physical.

A few words in regard to her family may be of interest to you. It consists of Mrs Millar; her son Robert, a Chartered Accountant; David, Engineer; Bella (future Mrs K) and Thomas, Law Student. [Mr Millar, jeweller and goldsmith was recently deceased.]

The old lady is as fine a specimen of genuine Scotch hospitality and kindness as I have ever met, and from the day I came here, her house has been as open to me as if it had been my very own. Even my friends have been made as welcome as myself, and to several of them, as to myself, Mrs Millar's house will always be their pleasantest recollection of Edinburgh.

As to the rest, Robert is as noble a man as I ever met, trusted by all his relatives, near and distant; and doing, for nothing, enough in the way of investments for them to make him a rich man if he would take any commission. Fortunately he has a very good business indeed.

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Naturally, I cannot give you any idea as to when we are to be married, but Bella cannot bear the idea of my leaving Scotland without her, and I must confess that I should be extremely loath to do so myself. The family are averse to our settling in New Zealand, and if it were not for Bella's perfect willingness to accompany me anywhere, I should probably remain on this side of the globe.

However, I have resolved to practise in New Zealand. Remaining in Edinburgh would be out of the question on account of my health, for nothing but great care would enable me to keep at all well here.

Both Mrs Millar and Bella are busy making and getting things for our future, and our engagement is the subject of great temporary interest (as such things always are) to a wide circle of both her friends and mine — the latter mainly students and the London relatives.

With love to all at home,

Your affectionate son, F. Truby King7

The graduation ceremony over, Truby and Bella went on holiday to the country. Bella wrote to her prospective mother-in-law:

This forenoon we went for a long walk round Kinghorn Loch and on the way we gathered a few wild flowers. The roadsides here are perfect flower gardens, they look beautiful. In the afternoon we examined the flowers and found out their names in the Flora. I never can understand how Fred remembers things. Why, he seems to know almost everything, and can always explain things so clearly that one has no difficulty in understanding about them.8

Truby would have been exposed to the rich Scottish tradition of gardening while studying in Edinburgh, and would without doubt have visited the city's notable public gardens and parks. The number of famous plant explorers and botanists emanating from Edinburgh at the time is hardly coincidental. His interest in rhododendrons probably dated from this time, developing later to near-obsessive page 40 levels. His fondness for the Scots and things Caledonian would also remain with him for the rest of his life.

He decided against returning home, undertaking instead further qualification in the form of a BSc in Public Health, a newly instituted degree. Medicine at that time was hardly an exact science, with many of the principles and techniques still in their infancy. His postgraduate studies included a paper in Lunacy, under Dr Thomas Clouston, later knighted for his contribution to neurology. Clouston's address to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh on female education contains many of the elements of the contemporary belief in women's inferiority to men, and the ideal of 'healthy, ignorant and happy mothers' that would characterise King's later attitudes and pronouncements.

At the age of twenty-nine Truby was appointed to his first professional position, Resident Surgeon at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. In recommending him, his superior in Edinburgh wrote:

Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh

April 8th, 1887

I have much pleasure in bearing testimony to the able and efficient manner in which Mr Truby King, M. B., C. M., conducted the administrative duties of the wards allotted to him during his term of office as Resident Physician in the Royal Infirmary.

That Dr King should have obtained the Ettles Scholarship, the blue ribbon of the University, bestowed upon the most distinguished graduate of his year (1886) sufficiently guarantees that his professional attainments are of the highest order. He is most zealous and assiduous in the performance of the duties devolving upon him, kind and attentive to his patients and devoted to his work.

I have no hesitation in expressing my conviction that, in due time, Dr King will take his place in the foremost rank of the profession of his choice; and I need scarcely add that I consider him to be thoroughly fitted for any Hospital appointment for which he may hold himself qualified; and to which he may aspire.9

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As noted, of the 200 graduates that year the top three students to pass with first-class honours were New Zealanders. It appears that Truby did not feel the need to bond closely with his fellow colonials, as he makes little mention of them in his letters home. He now sported a moustache, as did many young men of the time. It would remain with him for the rest of his days.

In October 1887 Truby graduated BSc, and shortly afterwards married Bella. She was twenty-six, he was twenty-nine. After a short honeymoon, they departed for New Zealand. It was Truby's intention to return home to show off his new wife, but to complete the round trip, returning to Scotland. Leaving the wedding presents behind in Scotland, he signed up as ship's surgeon on the SS Selembria, a 3130-ton steam and sail vessel, at a nominal salary of one shilling a month. The ship had a drunken captain and seventy mutinous crew, and the voyage was a chapter of accidents. The cargo was poorly stowed, resulting in a permanent list. It transpired that the propeller was incorrectly fitted. On arrival at Wellington, Truby and Bella jumped ship. The ill-fated vessel eventually caught fire in Montevideo on the return journey.

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Truby's vacillations regarding where to settle down are interesting. He was to have returned home on completion of his first degree, but chose to complete another, then work as a house surgeon. He was undoubtedly under pressure from the Millar family not to take Bella away to New Zealand. His love of Scotland and things Scottish will become apparent as we progress, but he was acutely aware that the Scottish climate was not good for his often frail constitution and his tubercular disposition.

Truby's passport is deposited in the Hocken archives. Aside from the large number of stamps that attested to his prodigious travels, is
Three top Edinburgh medical graduates, 1886. Truby King is on the left.

Three top Edinburgh medical graduates, 1886. Truby King is on the left.

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Truby and Bella King, c. 1887

Truby and Bella King, c. 1887

the notation of his height as five feet eight inches. In 1900 this would have been regarded as average, whereas references to his size ('slight', 'tiny', 'short' were phrases often associated with the man) are confirmed by photographs. It seems that Truby King suffered from 'small man's syndrome' and was economical with the truth; or rather, optimistic when declaring his height on his passport application.

So it was that the trim, one-eyed doctor with a drooped shoulder and his new wife began the next chapter of their adventure.

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1 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 28.

2 Ibid., p. 29.

3 Ibid., p. 31.

4 Letter dated 21 June 1874, King Family Papers, ATL.

5 5. King, Truby King — The Man, p. 36.

6 Ibid., p. 50.

7 Ibid., p. 64.

8 Ibid., p. 68.

9 Ibid., p. 76.