The Armistice signalling the end of World War One in November 1918 (it was celebrated a few days prematurely in New Plymouth) brought joy to the country. But it also heralded the most serious epidemic in the history of New Zealand. In a matter of months more than 6700 New Zealanders died from a plague form of pneumonic influenza. New Plymouth's share of this grim total was more than 300 cases, 81 of which were fatal, out of a population of 9000. Up until this time pestilence had not been a serious problem. Even in the earliest days of settlement, when preventive and remedial medical services were limited, the salubrious climate and comparatively austere living conditions were guarantees of a reasonable standard of health. Before 1918-and since-diphtheria, smallpox, cholera and poliomyelitis have been causes of alarm, but immunisation and pre- cautionary methods usually contained their spread, though in all conscience they were serious enough. An earlier epidemic of influenza occurred in 1891. There were several deaths in Taranaki, and one who fell ill was Chew Chong, well-known in the burgeoning dairy industry and owner of one of the first dairy factories. He recognised it as the Chinese strain of the disease, known as 'Mo Ting' or the European 'La Grippe,' recorded the Taranaki Herald in that year. Chong cured himself'by using a needle,' the first acupuncture in New Zealand? and his treatment thereafter was in great demand.
He travelled all over Taranaki and as far south as Wellington, performing his 'operation' free of charge. One satisfied customer, John Maher, wrote to the Herald: 'I was so bad I could not rise from my bed and after Mr Chong's operation I was able to rise and milk my cows and continue my usual work.' The epidemic lasted until March, 1892, after most of the settlement had suffered. But not everyone was happy about Chong's treatment. 'In 1893, in Newton King's Auction Market in Devon Street, a quiet little man was buttonholed by one of our most prominent medical practitioners of the town and abused in front of the assembled crowd. He smiled in his friendly way. Then one of the listeners seized the doctor by the lapels of his coat and told him to leave Mr Chew Chong alone. "He was doing good where the medical profession could do nothing," The 1918 influenza epidemic was worldwide: the death toll in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australasia was estimated at 21 million, 'It was introduced here from outside New Zealand, and there is a strong presumption that the clearing of the ship Niagara was the cause,' said a commission of inquiry headed by Mr Justice Denniston in 1920. The Niagara was on a voyage from North America to Auckland. Among its passengers were the Prime Minister, W. F. Massey, and his Minister of Finance, Sir Joseph Ward, returning from a war mission in Europe. When nearing the New Zealand coast the ship radioed that more than 100 of her crew were stricken with influenza, and asked for urgent hospital accommodation for 25 serious cases. 'It is still a matter of speculation whether the presence on board of important passengers influenced the authorities to grant a clearance to the ship when its entire complement should have been held in strict quarantine, but the fact is that after the vessel berthed, the plague over-ran New Zealand in a matter of weeks and was never checked until it had run its course in the autumn of the following year.'3 Within days Auckland was in turmoil: 31 people had died, hospital facilities and staff were overtaxed and a call went out for assistance from the rest of the country. From New Plymouth six nurses went to the rescue, one of whom Nurse Phoebe Waite, died on December 10 after returning, to become infected in her own hospital. 'New Plymouth was the only hospital that came to our assistance and we will never forget it,' wrote Dr Maguire, superintendent of the Auckland Hospital, after the epidemic was over. Meanwhile, concern spread to New Plymouth. Trams were washed with disinfectant, rail and ship passengers were put through inhalation chambers, shopping was restricted, patrols were organised to locate patients too ill to make contact themselves, food was supplied to those who needed it, many were treated in their own homes, and the more serious cases hospitalised. The Taranaki Herald, in an editorial, wrote: 'The Hospital is the heart of the whole force organised to combat the epidemic and a breakdown there would have deplorable results. Perhaps the community of North Taranaki will never really know how much it owes to the efforts of its staff, but the crisis we are now passing through will help the people realise it.' As the pandemic passed (Australia was its next victim), Dr E. A. Walker, medical superintendent from 1910 to 1926, told his board: 'The hospital is under a lasting debt of gratitude to the medical men of the district, to the medical assistants, and to the staffs of the many temporary hospitals and convalescent homes for the work done outside the institution.' He said the disease had great infectivity; only one member of the nursing staff had escaped, many were extremely ill, and four (including Nurse Waite) 'had given their lives in the greatest of all causes-in their efforts for their fellow beings.' (A plaque com- memorating these four noble women was later erected in the Barrett Street entrance.) It was Walker himself who had been the driving force behind the campaign to defeat the disease. A Scot, who had arrived in New Plymouth in 1897 as a partner in Dr W. W. Christie's practice, he was appointed assistant to the superintendent, Dr H. B. Leatham, in 1899. He became superintendent on Leatham's appointment as radiologist in 1910, a position he retained until 1926 when he resigned to relieve his partner in private practice, Dr D. Blackley. Walker, said the board chairman, H. Fraser, had given '27 years of faithful service to the hospital and during a great part of this time without salary. His experience and devotion to duty has placed the hospital in a position second to none in the Dominion.' It was not always thus.
When the Plymouth Company settled Taranaki in the early 1840s among the cargo aboard the William Bryan was a prefabricated hospital. It was not a large building and it soon became apparent that, despite the general good health of the settlers, it was insufficient for the needs of the community. It was erected near the present junction of Currie and Gill Streets, where a plaque marks its exact site today. Later it was moved to the corner of Devon and Brougham Streets where it became a general store. The settlement's lack of proper hospital accommodation came under the notice of Governor Grey who, in December 1847, forwarded from· Auckland a plan for a hospital to cost $1400 and to be built on 2 ha on the town belt between Mangorei Road and the Henui River (the area between the present Girls' High School and the school hoste!). It had been designed by a young architect, Frederick Thatcher, whose work was already known in New Plymouth where he had drawn the plans for St Mary's Church." From 1848 to 1860 the Colonial Hospital was under the direction of Colonial Surgeon Dr Peter Wilson. It cared for both European and Maori patients. Wilson's staff comprised of one male assistant, and the building was designed to accommodate 15 persons. But the three wards 'have not the requisite proportions for that number; so I should say that, according to hospital usage, they would be injudiciously taxed with so many, and that twelve is about the maximum they could hold,' reported Wilson in the first of his six very lengthy and colourfully phrased annual reports, now in possession of the Taranaki Museum. In 1860, with the town besieged, this building was abandoned as a hospital and taken over by the military as an outpost in defence of the town. A large house on the corner of Vivian and Brougham Streets was among buildings commandeered as a hospital, as were others. The lastof the military hospitals was on Kawau Pa in Gill Street, which, although bearing the imposing title of Provincial Military Hospital, was merely a farmhouse transported from Bell Block. Among the records kept by the Hughson family of New Plymouth is a diary written in 1913 by Geoffrey Hughson: 'My grandfather, Hugh Hughson, a Shetlander, sailing ship captain, came to New Zealand with his wife and family aboard the East Minster in 1879. Because of his experience as ship's master, where he had experience as a chemist and a dentist, Hugh was appointed the ship's doctor's assistant. He saved a sailor's life by bleeding him. He taught father these arts and I remember seeing them bleeding each other and Aunt Kate (who became a nurse in the New Plymouth Hospital). They used the small blade of a pocket knife made very sharp. They just pierced the prominent vein on the inside of the elbow. The blood spurted out in a good flow and was caught in a soup plate with they filled up for an ordinary bleeding. The wound was then bound up with a clean piece of white rag. I believe the last person grandfather bled was Mrs Jamieson (also a Shetlander and who came out on the same ship). She had been done before and thought it might cure her. She begged Hughie just to take a pint. Before she had given half a pint she fainted right away. She told me years later that he got the fright of his life. "They will hang me if you die," he said ... fortunately she ultimately opened her eyes and in a long time got better. I do not think he bled anyone after this fright and it is possible that Father and Aunt Kate did not either.' This was not, of course 'standard practice,' but it illustrates some unusual medical methods of the 1870s. In the first hospitals operations were performed by candlelight 'in the men's lavatory because the taps were there,' recalled the first lady superintendent, Annie Blackley, on her retirement after 43 years' service. 'All the water had to be heated in tins hung on hooks over the fire. The food was cooked in colonial ovens.' In 1886 buildings from St Germain's Square (the present Army Hall site in Gill Street) which had been used as temporary accommodation for families returning from their evacuation homes in Nelson during the fighting, were removed and used for a new hospital farther up the hill. It accommodated eight patients and for the next 20 years it served the town's needs as a hospital, a lunatic asylum and, later, an old people's home. The first provincial surgeon was Dr Edward Rawson, and his steward was James Hill. Subsequent developments included a new 40-bed hospital, built in 1888 (the old one had become a health threat and was handed to the fire brigade for destruction), a nurses' home built in 1902, later to become the chest block when a larger residence for nurses was built in 1905, a tuberculosis annexe, and a mortuary. Meanwhile, the old Colonial Hospital in Mangorei Road had been auctioned. Purchaser was Mrs Newton King who re-erected it near her home at Brooklands. Today, as 'the Gables' it is well-preserved, with Dr Peter Wilson's old dispensary, and is high on the list of the city's tourist attractions-as it should be, for it is New Zealand's oldest standing hospital. By 1911 the need for more hospital facilities became apparent, After 1 I years of planning and building, a complex offour wards, a children's ward, medical and surgical accommodation was opened in 1922. Later, 16 additional rooms and hospital board offices were added. The George Tabor Children's Ward (established with the help of$12,000, a gift from Mrs Rebecca Tabor) was opened in 1932, and by the end of World War Two laundry extensions, a maternity annexe and a concrete building for ambulance garages had been built. 5 After the war thoughts on future development turned to the 14 ha property the board had acquired in 1910 on which the present Ran- gimarie Home had been established . Years of planning and four years of construction culminated in the opening of the Taranaki Base Hospital by the Governor-General, Sir Denis Blundell, on October 18, 1972. Since that time additions have been made, although several other planned extensions had proceeded little further than the drawing board stage by 1980. The multi-million dollar base hospital contained the Stainton Ward block (named after P. E. Stainton, chairman of the board between 1932 and 1965), a clinical services block, a laundry, convalescent wards, a maternity wing, a chapel, and a special apartments block. The Barrett Street Hospital was retained as a complex containing convalescent, pyschiatric and geriatric wards, the Base Hospital's offices, nursing accommodation and an engineer's department. The board became the largest employer and the biggest 'business' in the city. In 1979 nearly 150,000 patients came under the care of 1600 staff and its annual outgoings exceeded $15 million.