Story: Cameron, Robina Thomson

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Cameron, Robina Thomson

1892–1971

District nurse, community leader, nursing inspector

This biography was written by Alexandra McKegg and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Robina Thomson Cameron was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 15 April 1892, one of eight children of Jane Thomson and her husband, James Cameron, a blacksmith. Robina came to New Zealand in 1911 with her five sisters and trained as a nurse at Cook Hospital, Gisborne. She qualified in 1915 and began her nursing career on a wage of £45 per annum. Soon after graduating, Cameron travelled to England and joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, working during the First World War in Egypt and Palestine. She spent 13 months in charge of massage and electrical treatment in a Sinai hospital. On 3 April 1919 she was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her services.

Returning to New Zealand late that year, Robina Cameron began working for the Department of Health as a native-district nurse based in Opotiki. She travelled the Bay of Plenty coast on horseback from Waimana to Cape Runaway for 11 years, taking a short break in 1922 to gain her midwifery registration at St Helens Hospital, Christchurch. In 1931 she became the district nurse based in Rotorua, serving an area that stretched from Whakatane to Taupo, including Putaruru and the Rotoma and Otaramarae districts. Small and dynamic, she was known as 'the little woman in the Model T Ford'. When necessary, she travelled by foot or on horseback. Cameron consulted with Te Arawa elders, and with their support, meetings and clinics were held on marae to educate Maori women on health, hygiene and home-making skills. Guide Rangi (Rangitiaria Dennan) recalled that Cameron had 'the knack of getting her message across’ and 'the gift of inspiring confidence and co-operation’. From this initiative committees were formed in settlements around the district. Over time, the women's committees gained strength and confidence and the health status of the region was improved.

At a large hui held at Tunohopu marae in Ohinemutu on 2 September 1937, Te Ropu o te Ora, the Women's Health League, was founded. Cameron, fondly known as 'Kamerana’, became president and was to retain this position throughout her life. Te Mare Te Heuheu, a Te Arawa leader, said, ‘Kamerana is the nail who has joined Te Arawa, and the flax is Te Ropu o te Ora, which will bind it together for all time’. The league soon expanded to the East Coast, Taupo and Opotiki districts. Maternal and infant death rates dropped, and typhoid was eliminated after Cameron gave inoculations at the schools.

The Women's Health League was concerned about a wide range of issues including infant care and feeding, nutrition, housing conditions, excessive drinking, and the preservation of Maori arts and crafts (especially weaving and the insistence on the use of Maori dyes). It actively campaigned for free milk in native schools, a free hospital service and the teaching of the Maori language in schools. Fellowship between Maori and European women was encouraged.

In 1936 Cameron gained her Plunket certificate at the Karitane Home for Babies, Dunedin. She was made an MBE for her services to Maori in 1938. In 1939 she transferred to Hamilton, where she became a nurse inspector. Two years later she was promoted to senior nurse inspector in Auckland, where she remained until 1947. In May of that year Cameron was sent by the Department of Labour to London to organise an immigration campaign for nurses, nurse aids and domestics. She travelled extensively to interview applicants on behalf of the Nurses and Midwives Registration Board. Throughout this period she maintained steady correspondence with the women of the league.

On her return to New Zealand in 1949 Cameron retired. She never married, and in 1955 moved to Rotorua. Due to the disruption of war, the increasing urbanisation of Maori, and her absence overseas, the Women’s Health League had become less active. Cameron worked to bring it back to a position of strength. Attempts to bring it under government control failed, with Cameron being part of a deputation sent to Parliament to meet with Te Rangiatahua Royal, controller of Maori welfare, expressing the league’s wish to remain independent and voluntary. Robina Cameron continued her work with the league and indulged her interests in gardening and antiques until her death in Rotorua on 28 June 1971. In 1986 the Nurse Cameron Memorial Health Centre was opened at Tunohopu marae.