Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

KING, Sir Frederic Truby, C.M.G.

(1858–1938).

Medical reformer.

A new biography of King, Frederic Truby appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Frederic Truby King was the fifth child of Thomas King, an original member of the Committee of Colonists appointed in October 1840 at Plymouth, Devon, to make arrangements for the New Plymouth and Taranaki settlement, under the aegis of the New Zealand Company.

Thomas King was educated at the City of London School and at Oxford, which he represented for a time in Parliament. He was among the first colonists of the New Plymouth settlement to obtain a title to a sizeable farm holding, whilst at the same time retaining an interest in trading. In 1846 he married Mary Chillman, daughter of Richard Chillman, who was one of the original New Plymouth settlers. Thomas King was of an independent turn of mind and exercised his many qualities of intelligence and personality in the community interests, becoming Provincial Treasurer for Taranaki and serving as a provincial representative in Parliament in 1854, 1855, and again in 1860. From 1861 until his retirement in 1878, he was manager of the Bank of New Zealand at New Plymouth.

Frederic was born at New Plymouth on 1 April 1858. The King household, despite the troublous times of the early settlement, was a happy one. At the age of two, Frederic, together with “all women and children without distinction”, was evacuated by sea from New Plymouth to Nelson in August 1860 when New Plymouth was closely besieged by Maori forces who later burned the Mangorei homestead on Thomas King's holding. Young Frederic, stimulated by a gifted tutor, Henry Richmond, and encouraged by Thomas King's family reading, showed early promise as a scholar. After a brief experience of banking at New Plymouth and Masterton, Frederic turned his interests to medicine and, in 1880, he set off to commence studies at Edinburgh. En route he spent some weeks in Paris, where Charcot's demonstrations of hysteria and neurological disorders made a lifelong impression. Although Truby King believed that he lacked the temperament for competitive scholarship, he gained distinction in logic in his “Preliminaries” and, in addition, read history and “dabbled” in Greek, both of which were outside the curriculum. In his second professional he passed with honours and was medallist in all three subjects. Subsequently, he graduated M.B., C.M. with honours in 1886. Despite some manifestation of a family susceptibility to tuberculosis, and some loss of vision in his left eye, he went on to complete the then newly instituted B.Sc. in Public Health (Edinburgh).

Early attracted to surgery, Truby King was appointed resident surgeon at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1887. In October of that year he married Bella Coburn Millar. Shortly afterwards he was appointed medical superintendent of the Wellington General Hospital. The Kings were not long in Wellington. In April 1889, he left to take up the appointment of medical superintendent at the Seacliff Mental Hospital, then the largest in the colony. At the same time he was lecturer in mental diseases, University of Otago.

Between 1889 and 1907, when the Plunket Society was formally inaugurated, Truby King made notable contributions in the field of psychological medicine, medical jurisprudence, nutrition, agriculture, control of coastal erosion, child care, and alcoholism. Many of his early achievements and successful innovations in the widely differing fields that engaged his attentions have largely been obscured by the acclaim of his mothercraft and child-care movements and the intense popular support accorded it by women's organisations. A contributory factor to the undeserved obscurity which has overtaken many of Truby King's early achievements was his reluctance “to bother about scraps of paper” and his preference for unusual channels of communication for much of his work. For example, he made ingenious use of the annual report of his hospital to the Inspector-General of Mental Hospitals as his preferred organ of publication. But the path of reform was not an easy one to follow.

Within his hospital some of Truby King's dietary innovations, privileges accorded to patients, discipline imposed on staff, and public expenditure incurred for the improvement of the needs of patient care, aroused considerable opposition that was effectively dispersed by a Commission of Inquiry which completely vindicated him. To Truby King must be given the credit of establishing, with every encouragement from Duncan McGregor, Inspector-General of Mental Hospitals, the first open reception and early treatment ward in New Zealand, named by him “The Cottage”, at Seacliff in 1898; and for extending the principle to Simla Ward in the following year. Truby King's advocacy of small and dispersed wards led to the very early formulation of the villa hospital principle in New Zealand and this policy was put into effect on an enduring basis when Tokanui Hospital was founded in 1912.

Truby King had, to a remarkable degree, the capacity of focusing his attention and energies on whatever problem was engaging his interest at the time. Often, to the onlooker, he appeared preoccupied or even absentminded, as indeed he was in matters of time and in the observance of customary routine. Working long and unusual hours as the spirit moved him, he sometimes forgot that most other people lived otherwise. Very early in his term of office at Seacliff, when there was widespread lack of understanding of his dietary and occupational innovations, he said, “I am always at my best in the face of opposition or fighting for a forlorn hope”. Opposition acted as a stimulus, and difficulties existed to be overcome, often by most unorthodox means. His hospital needed a bakery extension; a derelict mission building at Karitane was moved to serve the needs. A nurse was needed for the first Karitane baby; he prevailed on one of his hospital nursing staff to undertake the work. He needed a larger output of emulsified fat for his artificial feeds; power was supplied by an additional driving wheel and belt on the hospital stone crusher.

Within less than a year of the foundation of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children, now so much better known as the Plunket Society, Truby King turned much of his energies and attention to three other activities: the influence of dental disease in his hospital patients on their general health and mental state; the nutritional requirements of potatoes and other crops in differing soils at Seacliff and Orokonui; and alcoholism – an interest which had led to his taking over the administration of the Orokonui Inebriates Home at Waitati, near Dunedin.

By 1912, Truby King, ably supported by his wife, was devoting more and more of his energies to the work of the Plunket Society. In 1913 he was appointed to represent New Zealand at the Child Welfare Conference in London. Four years later he was invited to establish in England work similar to that of the Plunket Society. In 1919 he was appointed one of the British Representatives at the Inter-allied Red Cross Conference at Cannes and, subsequently, visited Austria and Poland on behalf of the War Victims Relief Committee.

Soon after his return to New Zealand in 1921 he was offered the post of Director of Child Welfare in the Department of Health. He resigned his mental hospital appointment and Otago lectureship to take up his new duties. Three years later, owing to the illness of the then Inspector-General of Mental Hospitals, Truby King was appointed Acting Inspector-General. His report for 1924 to Sir Maui Pomare also embraced “matters to date bearing on the further development and organisation of mental hospital services”, in which he made many important recommendations regarding early treatment, “preventive psychiatry”, nutrition, the need for outpatient services staffed jointly by physicians from the public and mental hospitals, and for new reception units. Concerning certain expedients then in vogue, he aptly remarked that “nothing could be more depressing and dispiriting than a fortuitously assembled group of patients (male or female) isolated as a small community compelled to live together on the mere ground of their manifestations of insanity being recent and being deemed curable …. Such patients tend to be self-centred, depressed and (for a time at least) more or less uncompanionable”.

In 1917 Truby King received the C.M.G. and in 1925 he was knighted. He continued to combine the posts of Inspector-General of Mental Hospitals and Director of Child Health in the Health Department. His annual reports for 1925 contained many passages which revealed the extent to which his work with the Plunket Society had led him to recognise the increasing importance of Health Education. In 1927 he retired from his Government appointments and devoted much of his declining energies in his retirement to the enjoyment of the rhododendrons and gardens around his home at Melrose, Wellington, adjoining the Karitane Hospital. Following the death of Lady King in 1927, his social outlets were gradually restricted, and many of his eccentricities became more pronounced. He died on 10 February 1937 at Wellington and was accorded a State funeral.

The world-wide recognition of Sir Truby King's pioneer work in the feeding and management of infants – infant mortality in New Zealand falling from 88·8 to 309 per 1,000 childbirths in the last 30 years of his life – has tended to obscure his other contributions to knowledge in the fields of plant and livestock nutrition, psychological medicine, health education, and plant acclimatisation.

R. M. Burdon, in his New Zealand Notables, gives the following vignette of Truby King as he appeared in middle age: “… still slim and slight of frame, he had begun to stoop a little from the shoulders. In repose his features had an air of melancholy which disappeared at once when his interest was aroused. His head was massive, his hair dark and abundant. A strong prominent chin, full but firmly closed lips and a clipped military moustache suggested a soldier or administrator, but the large, sad, sombre eyes were those of a visionary …”. The cause he worked for was more important to him than the well-being of any individual connected with it. He was impatient of opposition and cared nothing for conciliating opponents. His intransigence often alienated those in authority who opposed him, but, in the long run, even they came to admit the soundness of the views he had put forward. Truby King was a very forceful public speaker and, with his material always meticulously prepared beforehand, could dominate any meetings at which he spoke.

by Geoffrey Blake-Palmer, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., D.P.M., L.D.S., R.C.S., L.R.C.S., Director, Division of Mental Health, Department of Health, Wellington.

  • New Zealand Notables (Second Series), Burdon, R. M. (1945)


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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