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

Chapter Six: A sound mind in a healthy body

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Chapter Six: A sound mind in a healthy body

Seacliff afforded Truby King some unique opportunities. The asylum was remote from the mainstream of society, although he maintained links with the real world by way of his lecturing at Otago university.

He had a large captive workforce which benefited from being kept busy. He was the commander and they were his troops in the development of a scientific theory of farming. Seacliff also offered him another interesting cameo role, that of landscape architect, on the grand scale of Capability Brown.

The forbidding appearance of the asylum and grounds had been noted prior to King's arrival. 'The whole external aspect of the place is dreary and depressing because it is dense bushland, just in the process of being cleared, and the laying out of the grounds about the building is, at present, in a state of chaos,' wrote MacGregor, the page 78 inspector.1 Truby King's philosophy from the outset was one of sympathy and compassion for the troubled mind; he believed a harmonious and peaceful environment was implicit in the recovery of the mentally ill.

This was before the time of psychotherapy and psychiatric drugs, and his first act was to decorate the main Seacliff building. iMany of the staff were hired for their trade skills and designated 'tradesmen/ attendants'. The wards, in their previous sombre 'green and strong blue', were all repainted, with each corridor and room being a colour different from its neighbour. Plants, ferns, flowers and paintings were added, many being donated by Dr and Mrs King.

Truby's father Tom was, amongst other things, a farmer and it is likely that Truby would have been acquainted with many aspects of 'the land'. He already had some gardening experience, but it was as a large-scale farmer that he saw the greatest challenge. Seacliff was designated a Farm Asylum. Its land extended to 400 hectares and was designed to be self-sufficient and to occupy patients' minds and bodies. Truby already had well-developed views on fresh air and the therapeutic value of work. This was the canvas on which to paint his grand landscape. One can imagine the Seacliff farm manager's wry delight when his employers began to take an interest in the grounds.

Pleasant grounds and landscape were considered an adjunct to recovery, as they provided ample opportunity to stimulate a renewed interest in life. King replaced the existing 'gardener/attendant' with the more grandly titled 'landscape gardener', to the accompaniment of grumblings in the press. Whether or not the gardener was a Scot is not recorded, but it's a reasonable assumption. Male patients were put to work with picks, shovels, handcarts and barrows. The high corrugated-iron perimeter fences and 'airing courts' that restricted views of the ocean and the landscape were replaced with more appealing picket fences, and even a ha-ha (a concealed ditch, beloved of Victorian landscapers). King's abhorrence of straight lines saw meandering paths and soft curved edges bounding the parks and gardens. Trees, shrubs and flowers were extensively planted.

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While the able-bodied men were away working on the farm, the women were not. Being 'more excitable than men' in his view,2 the best they could hope for was employment in the laundry or kitchen or other more menial support work. Whether this arose from an innate belief in women's place in the grand scheme of things, or a pragmatic desire to avoid the sexes fraternising, King recognised the need to provide harmonious surroundings for his women patients too. Croquet greens, tennis courts and meandering leafy walks were constructed for them.

It would be easy to characterise King as a wholesale reformer, but the institution was still in its early phase of development, and the philosophies he espoused were already well appreciated. What is more remarkable is the whole-hearted way that King tackled the work. His belief that the health of the mind depended on the health of the body and that the mentally ill were entitled to the best possible conditions characterised his approach to the environment of Seacliff. His work to enhance the physical surroundings for his patients was of the highest quality since he saw it as an integral part of the process of recovery. If he had gone no further than the sympathetic humane treatment of the insane, he could have rested on his laurels. But he had to push on . . .

While being careful to stress that work was voluntary, King provided outside employment for the patients: clearing bush, chopping wood, mowing lawns, digging and planting, as well as work in the orchards, vegetable gardens, piggery, sheep and dairy farms. Work was restricted to five or six hours a day, with two spells for 'smoking'. Over 80 per cent of the male patients were thus employed. Supervision was by the tradesmen/attendants, who were expected to participate and join in with the patients in order to bring about a 'spirit of hearty comradeship and friendliness'.3 Staff were expected to carry out the work of the institution, with the patients rendering assistance. King was particularly strict about considerate treatment of patients, and would dismiss any staff member guilty of violence against a patient. This appeared to work well, as the rate of staff dismissal dropped significantly once his regime became accepted.

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His relationship with his staff was firm. He expected absolute obedience from his subordinates. The anti-King Globe newspaper noted that 'Doctor King is of a very irritable disposition, easily roused to anger, and remarkably autocratic in his bearing towards officials under him'.4 It would be fair to assume that he had a rather short fuse, and did not suffer fools gladly. Doubtless the Globe saw the eccentric doctor as a ready source of controversy. The chief attributes sought by King of his nursing staff were consistency, honesty, hard work, sobriety, kindness and obedience. It is worthy of note that there was always demand for positions at Seacliff, at least on the staff.

Seacliff was an ideal laboratory for a scientific farmer to experiment, practise and refine his techniques. With a ready supply of inmates, he never had to worry about labour or his projects being questioned. The famous 'blue ribbon' example illustrates his approach:

I remember going into a very extensive byre about milking time, and being intensely amused and interested to watch a cow wearing a blue label round its neck being turned into a blue-labelled stall and fed from a blue-painted bucket; others with red labels being turned into red-labelled stalls and fed from red buckets, an ingenious device of Dr King's to prevent any mistake on the part of mental patients who acted as farm labourers, and who might otherwise have confused the food intended for each. I was told that neither the cow nor the men ever made a mistake, and in this way each cow got the proper amount of food specially adapted to her grade or class.5

It was the care of young calves that was to produce one of the principles that would underpin Plunket. When King arrived at Seacliff, the farm had a 20 per cent death rate in calves, due to 'scouring', which was analogous to diarrhoea in babies. Calves were denied their mother's milk for economic reasons — it was deemed more profitable to feed calves cheaper artificial substitutes and sell the higher-value cow's milk. The bucket-fed regime had the consequence that calves did not thrive to the same extent as did those suckled by their mothers. The challenge to Truby King was to devise a scientific formulation that would result in healthy bucket-fed calves.

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He looked at work done in British and American universities and, studying the nutritive components of milk, particularly protein and fats, he devised an equivalent artificial feeding regime that resulted in calves achieving the same weight gain as those raised naturally. Scouring and the associated deaths vanished. King had shown that a scientifically formulated artificial feeding regime could produce equivalent results to those of natural feeding.

The significance of this breakthrough may not have been immediately obvious, but was to provide King with the platform from which to launch the next phase of his career.

During his time at Seacliff King built up an impressive dossier of results from his holistic approach to farming. His application of sound, common-sense, scientific principles resulted in blight-free potatoes, aphid-free crops and increased crop yields. Seacliff supplied eggs to hospitals throughout Otago and potatoes to as far away as Avondale in Auckland. Animals from the Seacliff farm won so many prizes at local A&P shows that competing farmers complained, and the asylum stopped entering competitions. His Feeding of Plants and Animals was enthusiastically received when published in 1905 (see Appendix One). This was to become the fundamental theme for the rest of his life — the simple belief that plants and animals, with the right care and right nutrition, were better equipped to cope with the demands of life. Nearly 100 years later the theory underpins much of the worlds organic farming practices.

Truby extended this philosophy to an assertion that insanity was a consequence of inadequate diet and rearing, and that a good, balanced, wholesome diet could cure it. His dietary reforms had the support of his Mental Health superiors, and by 1906 his 'healthy food' regime was the norm in all New Zealand asylums.

From the questionable assumption that insanity was a disease of imperfect nutrition, it was a simple step for King to conclude that insanity would not occur with a well and properly nourished brain. Extending the argument further, he reasoned that good nutrition must begin at birth. In his annual report to parliament in 1906 he went further: 'If women were rendered more fit for maternity, if page 82
Mary King and Matron Charlotte Beswick in the Seacliff garden, c. 1910, dwarfed by giant Cardiocrinum, a rare member of the lily family from China. The photograph was taken by Truby King.

Mary King and Matron Charlotte Beswick in the Seacliff garden, c. 1910, dwarfed by giant Cardiocrinum, a rare member of the lily family from China. The photograph was taken by Truby King.

instrumental deliveries were obviated as far as possible, if infants were nourished by their mothers, and boys and girls were given rational education, the main supplies of our asylums, hospitals, benevolent institutions, gaols and slums would be cut off at the sources.'6 As time progressed, he became more convinced of the infallibility of his pronouncements.

King had observed the harm that poor feeding brought to plants and animals. He knew that the weakest were the ones to suffer, and from observation of his mental patients he believed that their incapacity had its beginnings in poor nutrition at an early age. It has been suggested that the realisation that most forms of insanity could not be cured by environmental engineering was responsible for King's shift toward infant welfare.7 Whether or not Truby King was a pragmatist, he was about to set off in a new direction. It was the beginning of the child-care crusade.

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1 AJHR, 1886, H-7.

2 Truby King, Annual Report on the Lunatic Asylums of the Colony, AJHR, 1902, H-7, p. 5.

3 Cheryl Caldwell, Truby King and the Seacliff Asylum, p. 29.

4 Frank Tod, Seacliff, A History of the District, p. 31.

5 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 151.

6 Truby King, AJHR, 1906, H-7, p. 19.

7 Caldwell, Truby King and the Seacliff Asylum, p. 63.