May 1907 – This month last century

104 years ago, a society for the promotion of health among women and children – known today as Plunket – was formed (14 May 1907)

Sir Truby King, C.M.G., circa 1935, Tripe, M. E. R. (1870–1939). Gift of Karitane Products Society, 1936. Te Papa

Sir Truby King, C.M.G., circa 1935, Tripe, M. E. R. (1870–1939). Gift of Karitane Products Society, 1936. Te Papa

In May 1907, Dr Truby King (above), the director of the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum near Dunedin, addressed a large gathering of women in the town hall. His topic was ‘The Promotion of Health Among Women and Children’. At the end of the meeting, a voluntary society dedicated to this goal was formed.

One of the society’s aims was ‘to stimulate interest and to raise the standard of knowledge and thought among women on all matters affecting the health of themselves and their children’. It began at a time when there were concerns about low birth rates amongst Pakeha and the rate of infant mortality. These concerns were reflected in the society’s motto: ‘to help the mothers and save the babies’.

Book, ’Baby Record’, Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc. New Zealand. Gift of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc, 2010. Te Papa

Book, ’Baby Record’, Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc. New Zealand. Gift of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc, 2010. Te Papa

Truby King advocated a more scientific approach to childcare. As part of this philosophy he promoted breastfeeding; he considered breast milk ‘perfect food – the baby’s birthright’. For those babies who could not be fed this way, King developed a formula to add to cow’s milk. In King’s words, ‘Every infant who cannot be suckled in the natural way is entitled to receive properly modified milk’. His formula ‘humanised’ cow’s milk and brought its composition closer to that of mother’s milk.  The apparatus pictured below was used to modify or ‘humanise’ milk.

Milk Humanizer, circa 1900. Te Papa

Milk Humanizer, circa 1900. Te Papa

Dedicated Plunket and Karitane nurses were trained to carry out the society’s work in the community. Providing advice for mothers and measuring and weighing babies (see Plunket room scales below) in order to chart their development, have always been important components of Plunket nurses’ work.

Scales, Plunket, Wellington Scale Co. New Zealand. Gift of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc, 2010. Te Papa

Scales, Plunket, Wellington Scale Co. New Zealand. Gift of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc, 2010. Te Papa

In 1908, the society gained an important patroness: Lady Victoria Plunket, the wife of the Governor General. Lady Plunket was a mother of eight and two of her sisters were involved in nursing in Britain. She promoted the society around the country, as well as a special pram (below) which allowed air to circulate around babies. Fresh and sunshine were considered essential for healthy babies.

Leaflet, "Ventilated Perambulator", Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc. Gift of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc, 2010. Te Papa

Leaflet, "Ventilated Perambulator", Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc. Gift of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc, 2010. Te Papa

Today, Plunket still provides support for parents and babies, its philosophies evolving over the 100 plus years that it has been operating. Most New Zealanders will have a Plunket book tucked away somewhere as evidence of their pre-school milestones.

Te Papa has collected historic material from Plunket which you can see on Collections Online, and you can read more about Plunket and child health and welfare in the exhibition minisite for Slice of Heaven.
 
There is also more about Plunket on NZHistory.net.nz and on the National Library’s website.

Read a biography of Truby King and Lady Plunket: Melanie Oppenheimer ‘“Hidden under many bushels”: Lady Victoria Plunket and the New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children’, New Zealand Journal of History, vol.39, no.1 April 2005, pp. 22-38.

5 Responses

  1. Kevin Rogers

    Hi Kristie,
    We have recently purchased the former Truby King, Karitane hospital at 79 Every St Dunedin. The building has had quite a checkered past since it ceased being a teaching hospital. We are are in the process of converting the building to apartments and would like to ask the permission of any family members, if they would allow use the name “Truby King Maisonettes” as a memorial to Sir Frederic Truby King?
    Thank you for your help in this matter
    Cheers
    Kevin Rogers
    kevin@queensparkbabies.school.nz

    Reply
    • kirstieross

      Dear Kevin I will see what I can do about locating someone who can help you with this matter. But a first step might be to contact Plunket. Kirstie Ross History Curator

    • kirstieross

      Hi Kevin Here’s another contact that may have details of any surviving King family members.

      The Plunket Museum Hugh B.& Cynthia M. Cunningham, 81 Camberwell Road, HAWERA 4610 hbc@xtra.co.nz Telephone 06-278.5052

      Kristie

  2. Safua

    This is great Kirstie – it brings back memories of my childhood, and growing up with Plunket.

    Safua

    Reply
    • kirstieross

      Thanks Safua – glad it resonated with you. I still have my old Plunket book. I think one of the comments in it made by the Plunket nurse is ‘A very co-operative little girl’ – how things change! Kirstie

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