Frederic Truby King

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Frederic Truby King

Frederic Truby King (1858-1938) was one of New Zealand's outstanding doctors. He won a high place in his nation's esteem for his role in founding and leading the Plunket Society to reduce infant mortality and improve child-rearing methods.

Frederic Truby King was born in New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand, on April 1, 1858. His father, Thomas King, had been among the first settlers to arrive in this New Plymouth Company settlement, and Frederic's mother arrived in 1842. Frederic was the fifth of seven children and was born during a period of intense unrest within the local Maori tribe, the Atiawa. In 1860 British troops became involved, and Mrs. King and her five children joined the "Taranaki refugees." During the fighting their homestead was burnt down, and only 18 months later did they return. King's father rebuilt the farm, managed the local branch of the newly-formed Bank of New Zealand, and was active in local politics. By the time he was eight years old one brother and one sister had died and Frederic himself had been attacked by pneumonia, pleurisy, and tuberculosis. He survived, was tutored by a member of the influential Richmond family, and at age 15 began work as a junior clerk in the Bank of New Zealand.

Frederic progressed quickly, taking pains and never wasting a minute. If business was slack he read Euclid, White's Latin Dictionary, Shakespeare, or Dickens. Before long he was a manager, but he found the work unpleasant and decided on medicine. His father agreed, promised to support him, and in 1880 Frederic left for the University of Edinburgh. In 1886, after an outstanding career, he graduated Master of Surgery. He also received a prize as the university's most distinguished student. In 1888 he and his new wife, Bella Cockburn Millar, arrived in Wellington.

In 1889 he took up the post in which he first won fame, superintendent of the Seacliff Mental Hospital, not far from Dunedin, site of the country's first university and medical school. King believed that mental illness was curable. He quickly decided on a series of drastic reforms. He remodelled the asylum inside and out to make it more pleasant and less like a prison. He set changes to the diet, instituted regular and systematic medical examinations of his patients, and encouraged the use of therapeutic play and work. He transformed the asylum, but did not cure mental illness.

He was also active in local campaigns to improve the social environment. In all things he was thorough, systematic, single-minded, and energetic. And he continued to reflect on the causes of mental illness. Influenced by theorists such as Froebel and Pestalozzi, early in the 20th century he decided that mental illness began in childhood and was made more likely by "the fundamental stupidity" of the school system. Learning by rote, examinations, "cramming," and failure to develop the body all contributed to mental illness. Physical health, he was beginning to think, was the basis for mental health. The drift of his thought was reinforced by two further experiences. In 1904 the Kings visited Japan. They were both impressed by the fitness and physique of the Japanese, and especially the army. King attributed this to the prevalence of breast feeding. Unable to have children of their own, the Kings had adopted a baby girl, but she was sickly.

In 1905 and 1906 the energetic doctor conducted experiments into the chemical character of cow's milk, on which their adopted daughter, like many New Zealand babies, was being fed. He discovered that cow's milk lacked some of the properties of human milk. Because of these insights King became more confident that the origins of most social problems could be attributed to poor child-rearing. The growth of a healthy adult required proper feeding in infancy, and this required that mothers be educated for motherhood and that children be educated for family life.

In 1905 he promised that if women were "rendered more fit for maternity," if they breast-fed their babies, and if the children were educated for their future family responsibilities, then the "main supplies of population for our asylums, hospitals, … gaols, and slums would be cut off at the source; further, a great improvement would take place in the physical, mental, and moral condition of the whole community." Schools, he thought, ought to train boys for mental and military pursuits. They needed "a cold bath in the morning … (and) plenty of open-air exercise. …" Girls had to be trained for motherhood and deflected from academic work during puberty.

King failed to convert the medical profession to his views and so, with his wife's help, founded a voluntary society to promote the health of women and children. It grew rapidly. He also persuaded local milk companies to produce a form of cow's milk modified to meet the needs of babies. He and his wife also began writing a regular newspaper column on "Our Babies," stressing the importance of physical fitness for mothers, breast feeding, and discipline for children. King also wrote The Feeding and Care of Baby, which sold 20,000 copies in five years. In 1913 the first British edition was published. In thousands of homes it complemented the Bible. One woman wrote, "My husband and I know Feeding and Care by heart."

Worried by the declining fertility rate and the extraordinary number of men found to be unfit for military service in World War I, the government decided to back King. In 1920 it appointed him the first director of child welfare. In 1914 the society had branches in the four main cities and some 50 towns. By 1930 almost every village had its branch of the Plunket Society (named after the governor general, who agreed to serve as patron), and 65 percent of all babies were under the control and care of the society. A small army of specially trained nurses did the work, regularly inspecting, weighing, and measuring babies. The rate of infant mortality—and even the rate of still-births—fell. Mothers who followed King's advice about hygiene, for instance, were almost guaranteed that their babies would not die of summer diarrhea, previously a major killer.

King used his fame to fight for what he considered a more sensible education system. He attacked those women who had entered the professions; he insisted that all women had a duty to the British empire and to the "race" to have lots of children; and he argued that the schools should train them for this task. Instruction in cooking and home management became part of the syllabus. He also campaigned successfully for the establishment of a faculty of home science in the University of Otago.

He never tired of saying that "Our best immigrants are the babies." His fame also led to invitations to establish similar health systems in other countries. In 1918 he went to Britain and, although he became frustrated by the class system, a similar organization was formed. In parts of Australia, the same system was adopted later, spearheaded by his step-daughter Mary King. By 1930 he was an international celebrity.

Fame and success, if not age, weakened his discretion. People asked his advice on all manner of subjects, and with great confidence he obliged. He now considered himself an expert on every aspect of childhood and adolescence and traced all problems back to lack of discipline. The society which he and his wife had founded, and which had democratized much medical knowledge, began to find King an embarrassment. He was shunted aside into unwanted retirement. For several years he suffered from arteriosclerosis; he died in February 1938.

Further Reading

There are not many works on Truby King. His step-daughter Mary King wrote a biography, Truby King the Man: A Biography (1948), a laudatory account. R. M. Burdon, "Truby King," in his collection of biographical essays, New Zealand Notable Series 2 (1945), is more scholarly and discusses King's ideas on other subjects. Erik Olssen, "Truby King and the Plunket Society. An Analysis of a Prescriptive Ideology," New Zealand Journal of History, Vol. 15 (1981), briefly analyzes King's views on rearing infants and adolescents. For a history of the Plunket Society see Gordon Parry, A Fence At the Top: The First 75 Years of the Plunket Society (1982). □