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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter XVII. — Plunket Nursing

page 92

Chapter XVII.
Plunket Nursing.

Not long after my arrival in New Zealand, a form of nursing was inaugurated which has become world-widely recognised—I cannot claim to have had any part in this, although in the course of my duties as a Government official, I had quite a lot of work in connection with it, and took a great interest in its development.

I refer to the Plunket Nurse organisation for baby welfare (which I mentioned in a previous paper), fathered by Doctor, now Sir Truby King; a man of great philanthropic ideas, he, when Medical Superintendent of the Seacliff Mental Hospital, was brought into contact with a pitiable case of neglect and illness of a little baby, caused by mal-nutrition and ignorance of the mother. His sympathies were aroused and, making enquiries, he found other cases in Dunedin, and quickly turned a seaside cottage of his own, at Karitane, near Dunedin, into a small hospital where he started with a nurse from the mental hospital, infant feeding on a scientific basis.

He had a very impressive personality, and force of persuasion, and he soon got a number of ladies interested in his project. Lady Plunket, the Governor's wife, and a woman, who, with a family of her own, was keenly interested in babies, became patroness of the new society, and allowed it to bear her name, and under that name it is known in many countries. Headed as it was by Lady Plunket, many society women in Dunedin formed the page 93 Committee and started gathering funds. The organisation spread to other cities, and committees were formed in every important town, and as quickly as nurses could be trained in Dr. King's special methods, they were sent to work in these centres. Dr. King appealed for Government aid in the crusade to reduce the infantile death rate, and obtained generous support. Half the salary of every Plunket nurse was paid by the Government, as well as travelling expenses in her district. I had the onus of going through the expense vouchers and passing them for payment, and for years the reports of the Plunket nurses, whose appointments had to be approved by the department came to my office for revision. This is not the case now, the Society has been given more control of its own work, and at the present time is an organisation with Government aid to the amount of £125 for each Plunket nurse, and £1,000 for each Karitane Hospital.

There is a Director of Plunket Nursing, Miss Pattrick, who supervises the work generally, and who has 120 nurses under her control, excluding the staffs of the Karitane Hospitals.

I remember when, during the war, Miss Pattrick was on military service, having a cable from Dr. King from London, asking me to release her: she had previously been a Plunket nurse, and he required her to assist him in establishing a Mothercraft Home in London. This home has been going on ever since, but Miss Pattrick returned to New Zealand and, as I said above, is now Director of Plunket Nursing.

I must mention the intervention of the Dunedin Trained Nurses' Association when the Society was first formed. There was danger that women without hospital training would be taken as pupils to Karitane, and trained page 94 as Plunket nurses. The Association therefore addressed a letter to Her Excellency Lady Plunket, urging that no low standard of training should be accepted for the nurses who were to have the honour of working under her name, and that only registered nurses or midwives be eligible for training as Plunket nurses.

A gracious reply was received, and the committee then formulated rules which admitted only registered nurses and registered midwives, the first to do a three months course, the latter six months.

Girls were also taken to train for twelve months as Karitane nurses to go out when qualified as baby nurses in families, but not in any way to assume the responsibility of Plunket nurses in cases of sickness.

There is no doubt that the Dunedin Association did much to preserve for the trained nurses of New Zealand, the work, which, but for their protest might have lapsed into the hands of partly qualified women instructed only in the art of infant feeding.

At the present time the majority of the Plunket nurses are well qualified women with general and midwifery training. They have great responsibility in their hands, as they have to carry out the principles of maternal and infant care, taught by Sir Truby King, without medical support. This, of course, should apply only when there is no actual illness, in which case nurses are expected to consult a doctor.

Throughout the country clinics are established to which mothers bring their infants to be weighed and for advice. The basis of the treatment for babies is breast feeding if at all possible, and if not, the preparation of milk to make it as nearly human as possible. In the early days of the Karitane Hospital, Dr. King frequently consulted the page 95 matrons of the St. Helens Hospital, Dunedin, Miss Holford, who, with her sub-matron, Miss Gow, had very great success with premature or sickly babies. I remember the pupils at St. Helens telling me, “Ah, when Dr. King rings up, we always place a chair for matron at the telephone for he will talk for an hour, and next day we see what matron had been telling him in the paper.”

New Zealand has the credit of the lowest infant mortality in the world. It has many advantages, climate, a pure milk supply, and I consider some credit should be given to the quiet work behind the scenes of the St. Helens Hospitals, where midwives are trained, and where young mothers are instructed in the proper care and feeding of their infants. The world attributes the decrease in infant mortality to the Plunket Society work only, and ignores the long preparation of its nurses in hospital, before studying the special course given at the Karitane Hospital. From their hospital for babies have branched out several others, one at Wanganui, Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington, also Invercargill. Plunket nurses are trained only at the Dunedin original one.

Similar hospitals have been established in Sydney and Melbourne, and nurses from New Zealand have been sent to develop the work in these towns.

From Queensland the Government sent a nurse to study under Dr. King, and the baby welfare nurses work on the Plunket Society lines.

In South Africa, at Cape Town there is the Lady Burton Mothercraft Hospital where Miss Mitchell and Miss Rose Fanning are matron and sub-matron, both New Zealand nurses. In Sydney, Miss Vida Maclean, R.R.C., is in charge of the Plunket work.