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

Chapter Three: Who am I?

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Chapter Three: Who am I?

Truby King had planned to visit New Zealand, fulfil his responsibilities to show off his new bride, and explain to his parents why he wasn't staying, before returning to the 'mother' country on the ill-fated SS Selembria. Mary King tells how, twenty years later, Bella opened her purse at a social function, and out fell the return part of the Edinburgh-London railway ticket, corroborating this intention.1 In any event, the Kings remained in New Zealand, thus necessitating the wedding presents, languishing in Edinburgh, being packed in zinc-lined cases and sent to the distant colony.


I beg to offer myself as a Candidate for the position of Resident page 46 Medical Officer to the Wellington Hospital, and submit the following facts in support of my application.

I was born in New Plymouth, and am now in my 30th year, and am married.

My medical curriculum at Edinburgh University began early in 1881. I passed the First Professional Examination in October, 1882, with First Class Honours. In April, 1884, I passed the Second Professional Examination, also with First Class Honours, and in October of the same year the First Examination for the degree of Bachelor of Science (Public Health). I graduated as Bachelor of Medicine and Master in Surgery (M. B. and C. M.) at the University with First Class Honours in August, 1886, and obtained the 'Ettles Scholarship', which is awarded to the most distinguished graduate of the year.

During the above period 1 obtained eight Medals, including the First Medals in Pathology, Practical Anatomy, and Practice of Medicine.

In 1888 I was for the session a Demonstrator of Practical Physiology in the University, under Professor Rutherford, and in 1885, a Demonstrator of Anatomy under Dr Macdonald Brown, in the College of Surgeons.

After graduation I acted for a short time as locum tenens for Dr Matthew of Corstophine. In October, 1896, I was appointed a Resident Physician to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, in charge of Professor Greenfield's Wards; and, at the expiration of my term of office, in April, 1887, was appointed a Resident Surgeon to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, under Dr Neilson Knorr, which appointment I also held for six months.

Since then I have passed my Final Examination for the degree of B. Sc. (Public Health), and arrived here yesterday a Surgeon to the s. s. 'Selembria'.

Should you honour me with your appointment, I shall devote myself entirely to the work of the Hospital.

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I am, Gentlemen, Your obedient Servant,

(Signed) F. Truby King M.B., CM., B.Sc.
To the Trustees
of the Wellington Hospital.2

What is particularly interesting is that this letter is dated the day after Truby and Bella arrived back in New Zealand, which suggests some behind-the-scenes manoeuvring on the part of family or friends. Mary King suggests that Mr Tolhurst, his previous employer at the bank in Wellington, was responsible.

Given the position that King's father had achieved in New Plymouth society, it's unlikely that there was financial pressure for Truby to seek a job immediately on arrival. He could have chosen from a number of medical positions in any New Zealand city. His choice of Wellington Hospital seems unusually hasty. For a bright, newly married young man embarking on a profession in a now-unfamiliar country, his actions are difficult to rationalise. One presumes Mrs King did not contribute to the decision, and may not have even been consulted.

In 1888 Wellington was the dominion's fourth city, with a population of around 30,000. Auckland, with over 50,000 people, Christchurch and Dunedin were all larger. Wellington Hospital, in Riddiford St, Newtown, was not large, catering for old people and accident cases. The quality of care was not high and there were a number of other hospitals operating in Wellington at the time. Standards were reportedly frightful. The hospital was starved of money and apparently nobody wanted the job that Truby applied for.

Medical Superintendent sounds an exalted position, but the history of the hospital says otherwise: 'The rapid succession of medical officers was therefore due to a system something similar to that of applying to house surgeons of the present day. They came for experience for a short period and passed out into practice or other public appointments.'3 The hospital had thirteen Superintendents page 48 before Truby King; in the thirty-eight years from 1850, their average stay being less than three years.

Truby's acolyte, Dr Gray, gives us a glimpse of Truby's ability to investigate and rectify problems:

Youthful as he then was to hold such a responsible post, King was already showing signs of the earnestness, the courage and the combativeness which characterised his whole after career. At that time typhoid fever was very prevalent in this comparatively new hospital and King reported to his board that he considered that the fault lay with the sewerage system. The members of the board rejected the suggestion with scorn, pointing out that the new sewerage had just been installed and could not be at fault, but King stuck to his guns. On his own initiative and at his own expense he carried out an investigation and discovered that the drains had not been connected up, but discharged into a foul cesspit in the foundations.4

Curiously, he would make the same investigation when he went to his next position, suggesting an early preoccupation with sanitation.

In Wellington, we find the first evidence of Truby King the educational crusader. Prior to his time, there was little formal training for nurses. Parliament would not pass the Nurses Registration Act, the first in the world, for another thirteen years. King led a movement to organise a training school for nurses. He instituted a four-month training course, the students graduating with a certificate.

Evidence of his idiosyncratic personality was beginning to emerge. It was a source of some amusement for the patients to see 30-year-old Truby in 'night, wrap and carpet slippers'5 doing his evening rounds of the wards.

Truby stayed a scant fifteen months before applying for the position of Medical Superintendent at Seacliff. This would be a position he would hold for over thirty years, making it, in the words of Barbara Brookes, 'his personal fiefdom'.

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1 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 81.

2 The Crozier collection, Dr Paul Crozier, Kingseat Hospital.

3 D. M. Wilson, A Hundred Years of Healing, Wellington Hospital 1847-1947 (Wellington: Reed, 1948).

4 Theodore Gray, The Very Error of the Moon, (Ilfracombe, 1959), p. 98.

5 Gray, The Very Error of the Moon, p. 98.