Story: Valintine, Thomas Harcourt Ambrose

Page 1 - Valintine, Thomas Harcourt Ambrose

Valintine, Thomas Harcourt Ambrose

1865–1945

Doctor, public health administrator

This biography was written by Derek A. Dow and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Thomas Harcourt Ambrose Valintine was born at Westhampnett, Sussex, England, on 1 August 1865, the son of Thomas Buckner Henry Valintine and his wife, Bertha Bean. Formerly a captain in a Sussex regiment, Valintine's father was agent to the sixth duke of Richmond. Following his secondary school education at Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where he shone as a cricketer, Thomas Valintine became a medical student at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He initially qualified LSA, registering as a medical practitioner in 1888. He gained practical experience in West Sussex Hospital (possibly with the assistance of his father's employer, who acted as chairman of the West Sussex County Council), and as medical officer to an asylum at Portsmouth. He also obtained a diploma in public health, and gained his MRCS and LRCP.

In 1891 Valintine emigrated to New Zealand, where he was admitted to the medical register on 9 March. Six weeks later, on 20 April, he married Margaret Ellis McTaggart, five years his junior, at St Mary's Anglican Church in New Plymouth. For the next decade Valintine practised at Inglewood. The rugged, bush-clad countryside exacted a heavy toll; obliged to travel everywhere by horse, Valintine suffered a riding accident in 1894 which resulted in the amputation of one leg. This loss hindered, but did not halt, his work as a general practitioner: eight days later he was back attending his patients.

Valintine's courageous acceptance of his fate greatly impressed those attending the 1901 annual meeting of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association, where he presented a paper on artificial limbs. One of those in attendance was J. M. Mason, chief health officer of the newly established Department of Public Health. Mason had already encountered the Taranaki doctor in April 1900, during the bubonic plague scare. Valintine had alerted Mason and his fellow plague commissioner to the high mortality of rats at Mokau. Within weeks of his address to the NZBMA Valintine had exchanged the rigours of backblocks medicine for the stressful but less physically demanding role of a public health official. On 28 March 1901 he became New Zealand's first district health officer. Stationed in Wellington, he was arguably the best qualified of Mason's hand-picked medical personnel.

Recognition of Valintine's abilities saw his elevation to the position of assistant chief health officer on 18 April 1902. Three months later Mason's annual report paid tribute to the contribution made to the smooth running of the department by his deputy's 'tact and knowledge of human nature. He has conducted difficult negotiations with great skill, and has been in the fullest sense of the word my right-hand man.'

Not everyone was to agree with this assessment over the next three decades. Mason himself found it increasingly difficult to work in harmony with his assistant. One of Valintine's earliest crusades resulted in the opening in May 1905 of a tuberculosis annexe at New Plymouth Hospital, the first such facility to be attached to a New Zealand public hospital. In the latter part of 1904 he and Mason had engaged in a bitter war of words over Valintine's criticism of Joseph Ward, minister of public health, for an alleged failure to publicise Valintine's own efforts in this sphere. The quarrel was patched up when Mason effectively backed down and removed the entire correspondence from the office files; he did, however, retain copies amongst his own papers, in an envelope marked 'Dr Valintine's Libel'.

When Mason was absent on leave after contracting diphtheria in 1905, Valintine initiated talks with Dr Duncan MacGregor, inspector of hospitals and charitable institutions, on the possible amalgamation of the hitherto separate departments of hospitals and public health. Mason, not surprisingly, complained to the minister of public health in 1906 when he learned of this apparent disloyalty. Four months later Valintine succeeded MacGregor after his death, thus prompting another clash. Seven days after his appointment cabinet discussed the relationship; it regretted the quarrel between Valintine and Mason and recommended that both be friends. On 1 June 1909 any remaining tension was effectively resolved when Valintine replaced Mason as chief health officer, combining this with his existing role as inspector general of hospitals and charitable institutions in a move widely regarded as a means of saving a salary.

Valintine masterminded two major conferences on New Zealand's hospital requirements, in 1908 and 1911. The first paved the way for the Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act 1909, which brought important changes to the administration of the system, while the agenda for the second extended beyond the hospital walls into the arena of community health. Continuing an earlier interest, Valintine also arranged a conference in 1912 on the administrative control and treatment of tuberculosis. In the mid 1920s he was instrumental in promoting tripartite discussions between the medical profession, the Hospital Boards' Association of New Zealand and the Department of Health about the country's future hospital requirements.

Valintine had other concerns. As registrar of nurses he was lauded in 1910 by Hester Maclean (his assistant inspector of hospitals and charitable institutions and herself a former hospital matron) for having 'the interests of the nursing profession very much at heart'. A few months prior to his appointment in 1909 the new chief health officer had outlined plans for a scheme close to his heart, a system of district nurses to serve New Zealand's remote backblocks communities. His vision embraced both Pakeha and Maori communities. As with the tuberculosis scheme of 1905, the pioneer work was initiated in Valintine's adopted homeland of Taranaki.

Valintine suffered a cruel blow with the death of his wife from toxaemia (a complication of pregnancy) and cardiac failure on 31 July 1910. The bereaved husband was left to care for two daughters and a son, ranging in age from 5 to 17 years. Valintine's own health had not been good. His workload in connection with the new hospitals act exacerbated this, and caused him to worry about comparatively trifling matters. Little more than a year after his wife's death Valintine remarried, on 2 September 1911 at Christchurch. His bride, Barbara Vickers, was the 19-year-old daughter of an Inglewood farmer.

The effects of the First World War brought fresh demands on Valintine's time and expertise. He became director of military hospitals in June 1915 and was seconded to the Defence Department in 1918. Following an outbreak of respiratory diseases at Trentham Military Camp in 1916 he presided over a committee of inquiry into the causes. Valintine remained on attachment to the Defence Department until 1920 and was appointed a CBE (military division) for his wartime services. His return to civilian duties coincided with a major restructuring of the Department of Public Health. He retained control of the new Department of Health until his retirement in 1930, with the title of director general of health.

During the final decade of his career Valintine stressed the benefits of health education, then in its infancy. In tandem with Truby King and the minister of public health, C. J. Parr, he launched a nationwide health campaign in 1921. The departmental ethos was captured in his 1926 statement: 'It is better policy to teach people to live healthily and to prevent disease than it is to treat them as irresponsible units for whom care has to be provided.' This philosophy also drove the department's 1920s campaigns to further reduce infant and maternal mortality.

As head of the health bureaucracy, Valintine had not always had a smooth relationship with doctors and their professional associations and he was a frequent target for criticism. Dr Doris Gordon, who headed the opposition to the department's efforts to control maternity in the 1920s, referred to him disparagingly in her autobiography, and in 1915 the New Zealand Medical Journal regretted that the NZBMA's relationship with Valintine had 'never been very intimate or cordial'. Much of the antagonism was directed at the post rather than the person, with Valintine caught in the unfortunate position of a mediator between conflicting camps.

Thomas Valintine died at Wanganui on 30 August 1945; he was survived by his second wife and seven children. An obituary in the New Zealand Medical Journal paid tribute to the great service he had rendered 'by his breezy and kindly personality, his energy, initiative and persistence'. He had not always won such praise from his professional colleagues, some of whom regarded him with a jaundiced eye. Nevertheless, in some 25 years as a senior health administrator he had overseen both the expansion of the hospital system and the extension of health care directly into the community.