2018 03 – News From New Zealand

A Letter From Our New Zealand Correspondent

Feargus O’Raghallaigh

Babies for the Empire’ – a story of eugenics

“The Royal New Zealand Plunket Society is an incorporated society in New Zealand that provides a range of free health services to children under the age of five with their development, health and wellbeing”  (Wikipedia)

In 1883 Francis Galton, the British polymath and cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the word ‘eugenics’. The root is Classical Greek and roughly translates as ‘good breeding/stock’.

Galton was a eugenist. He was an advocate of government and society adopting a worldview and policies and establishing bodies, as he put it in 1909, “agencies under social control that may improve the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” He developed this idea from Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and his proposal of a process of natural selection as an explanation of species development, and the variations and diversities found in the natural world.

Galton was one of those who extended the Darwinian proposition to human life including as a mechanism through science, genetics, and through public policy of human improvement – and a protection against degeneration, an inbuilt aspect of the nature of the human race as many saw it at that point. Science and policy offered salvation – eugenics.

It was an idea that spread rapidly through the world including the British Empire’s colonies and the dominions – Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. What is today one of the main voluntary bodies in New Zealand, the Plunket Society (or simply ‘Plunket’) has its origins in the eugenics movement.

Plunket is a pregnancy and infancy and early childhood healthcare service. It is a voluntary body but closely connected with the state. It is both an NGO and a QUANGO in effect. It dates from 1907 when it was established as the Society for the Health of Women and Children in Dunedin (South Island) by Frederic Truby King and his wife Bella. By 1915 it had gained Royal recognition and added ‘Royal’ to its title.

Truby King (1858 – 1938) was a medical doctor and polymath with interests in animal breeding, human psychology, psychiatry and mental illness as well as child-rearing. He had also in his thinking a kind of crude Freudianism. He was a eugenist and Plunket was an expression of his outlook – although today, neither Plunket nor New Zealand as such trumpet this. It has been quietly buried.

If there were an organisation, ‘Families of the Empire’ Truby King’s family would be among its anointed. His father Thomas, was an English MP at one point but was also (in 1840) an original member of the Committee of Colonists established at Plymouth with its project of a New Plymouth in North Island’s Taranaki, New Zealand implementing the colonial (‘plantationist’) project of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company. King then, one of the first colonists, established himself in the new colony of New Plymouth in Taranaki, married the daughter of another first colonial and went on to become an MP in the colonial parliament and the manager of the New Plymouth branch of the Bank of New Zealand.

Truby King was colonial plantationist blue blood. But he was no backwoodsman. He was a progressive and ‘scientist’ in outlook, functioned within the living *web layer of the Empire – circulated easily between New Zealand and Britain and Europe and other colonies and wider. This was not simply a circulation of people, travel, but also ideas, concepts – and (another story) capital and its accumulation.

In 1880 he went to study medicine in Edinburgh. In 1886 he went on to do a BSc in public health (a new degree). In 1887 he became resident surgeon at Glasgow Infirmary. Shortly after that he returned to New Zealand, first to Wellington General and then in 1889 to Dunedin as medical superintendent at its Seacliff Mental Hospital, then New Zealand’s biggest such institution. He also took up lecturing on mental diseases at Dunedin’s Otago University, home to then New Zealand’s only medical school, and today its premier such school. Through his life he continued to travel widely: for example in 1913 he was back in London as New Zealand representative at the Child Welfare Conference. He was a regular visitor to Britain.

People like Truby King were surely the means of globally spreading and developing Galton’s idea, eugenics. He returned to New Zealand, his head full of the ferment of progressivism – of the ideas of science and progress circulating in Europe, including eugenics and new theories of the mind.

Seacliff had a very large working farm attached. Truby King engaged in scientific research on the farm’s dairy herd, plagued with high calf mortality due mainly to scouring (a bovine diarrhoea). He changed the feed regime, improved conditions and sorted the problem. He saw high infant mortality in much the same way. There was, he saw, a high correlation with again, diarrhoea, associated factors like dirty milk and poor personal hygiene. He advocated breast feeding and failing this, a substitute of his creation based on cow’s milk.

In 1905 having been directly confronted with three dying infants he immediately took the infants into his personal care and also set about drumming up support for and setting about creating what would become ‘Plunket’.

He turned his summer residence Karitane, into a child-care facility in effect. He based his care programme on nurses and his belief, based on his scientific research, in breastfeeding of infants. He attracted the support of Dunedin’s bourgeois notables, especially the wives in his advocacy and fund-raising. In 1907 came the Society for the Health of Women and Children.

Truby King developed it all into a national cause, everywhere focused on the wives of the haute bourgeoisie as advocates and leaders. He was the first ‘crowd-sourcer’. The crowning achievement was attracting to his cause of the then (1904 – 1910) Governor of New Zealand, (the Anglo-Irish) Lord Plunket– and critically his wife, Lady Plunket. She would play an influential support role in Truby King’s development of child-care nursing. Thus the emergence of ‘Plunket’ as the adoptive and everyday name of the today, Royal New Zealand Plunket Society.

Truby King in effect developed a new nursing specialism among already trained nurses, paediatrics. They became the Plunket nurses. There was though a second group, wholly trained within Plunket philosophy and purpose, Karitane nurses.

In addition, there was a network of Karitane hospitals and community nursing, home visits and advice. There was a widely syndicated newspaper column. There were constant speaking engagements. There were a series of huge-circulation books on child-rearing, co-published by the government. One, The Expectant Mother and Baby’s First Months, was given free to every couple on their application for a marriage licence. Truby King developed, in the words of the historian Erik Olssen, a ‘superb’ propaganda machine but also a hugely effective infancy and childcare service.

Where is the eugenics in all of this?

The focus on pregnancy and child-rearing was inspired by a number of socio-political beliefs (as well as science). One was that the white races of industrialising and urbanising countries were degenerating: people of good stock and sensibility having learned the advantages of smaller families were being outbred by the large-family idle and feckless and undeserving. Rising rates of mental illness, alcoholism and unemployability and more in the whole population resulted. There was cultural degeneration, loss of discipline, community and citizenship in favour of individuality and selfishness.

Industrialisation and urbanisation led to family breakdown. Women went into paid work and themselves lost their understanding of the true cause and nature of womanhood. He adopted the cult of true womanhood in the cause of retrieving the conjugal family, having children and child-rearing.

Truby King could see all this in the early years of the twentieth century: in the very high infant mortality rates, the poor parenting, the malnutrition and disease that he saw in the course of his medical practice – and in the rates of mental illness and related conditions that he saw in his Dunedin mental hospital.

Further, there was also externally, the rise of the ‘Asiatics’. The Asian Hordes threatened. Public spending and taxes had to be raised to cope with degeneracy and external threats.

The Plunket advocacy, the support services, the community nursing and family help services were all aimed at reversing the slide to degeneracy – and the threat to Empire that on the view of Truby King and bourgeois society lay therein.

In the face of all of this in The Wealth of a Nation is Its People we read, “The most urgent and pressing need of our vast Empire is ample British-born population … In all civilised countries a smaller and smaller percentage of new population is being derived from the best sources.”

Again, (1914), on Plunket, “Its objective was the care of the infant before birth and during the period of infancy; in other words practical eugenics. It was really an attempt to rear a strong and healthy race by constructive and not restrictive means.

“The object primarily was to eliminate the unfit, but to prevent their production by aiding in the full development of the healthy. for the sake of women and children, for the advancement of the Dominion, and for the honour of the Empire.”

There is here a Darwinian or Lamarckian idea, as opposed to the naked ‘nature’ argument of neo Darwinism. Positive intervention is possible – as opposed to the negative policy of elimination of the unfit: you can improve people and improvement can be transmitted. He did not believe in the predominance of nature (as opposed to nurture). The emphasis on the former led the Eugenics Education Society (EES), he argued, “to suppose that Nature is everything and that nurture scarcely mattered as regards the race. That was all wrong.”

At the same time, he was not opposed to sterilisation or other ‘negative’ policies. Further, to quote Diane Paul in her essay, Truby King, Infant Welfare and the Boundaries of Eugenics**,

“… he believed that infants born mentally defective should be left to die, as it was no kindness to them, their siblings or their parents to keep them alive … and for that reason, ‘laid it down as an absolute rule that no baby was ever to be admitted to a Karitane hospital if mentally defective or abnormal.’”

Until circa 1920 the emphasis was very much on breastfeeding, the early infant years, motherhood as a profession – and Plunket support for mother-and-child during these early (infant) years.

Post-1920 there was increased emphasis on longer-term child-rearing, the culture within the family – and the inculcation of in a word, disciple. Fondness and indulgence, play and the encouragement of precocity had no place in family life. Obedience, regularity in everything and discipline were emphasised.

Doris Lessing in her volume of autobiography Under My Skin, writes of her childhood,

“My mother planned to use the loving coercions of Montessori for our upbringing, but meantime it was the harsh disciplines of one Doctor Truby King that ruled the nurseries both in Kermanshah and in Teheran. He was a New Zealander, whose book was law for innumerable parents …

“Truby King was the continuation of the cold and harsh discipline of my mother’s childhood and my father’s childhood. I am sure my mother never saw this: she was only doing what all good parents did. Even to read that guide to excellence in family relations is painful.”

Eugenics and ideas derived from eugenics were widely adopted through much of the world once Darwin’s and Galton’s thinking began to become known. Take-up was not confined to the British or their colonists – or Germans, Americans, Scandinavians or other whites. Many of the ideas took hold in for example, Japan and among Maori in New Zealand.

Plunket was not at all unusual. It would rather have been unusual if it had not adopted and pursued eugenic ideas.

Such ideas still circulate and have support but today eugenics is the idea that dare not speak its name: Hitler gave it a bad name.

Plunket also has changed. It remains a large voluntary body but today the regional structure is gone: it is now centralised and professionalised. Some features have disappeared: the Karitane hospitals for example. It continues in a relationship with government – but more NGO than the de facto QUANGO it also was in the past. Its power in that sense has waned. On the other hand it remains a presence in almost every major town in the country.

The eugenics and related ideas – for example those relating to stern discipline – have gone (but then they have largely gone more generally too). Plunket also is no longer de facto Pakeha – indeed it has pretty much inverted itself with today a huge focus on Maori and Pasifika peoples. It can justify this with the argument that these communities and groups are where the most acute family and childhood problems today exist – dysfunctional households, single-parent families, problems of nutrition and diet and overarchingly, poverty, low educational attainment and in truth outright racial discrimination.

Ideas of the undeserving, the idle and the feckless, the larrikin layabouts and scroungers do still exist here and even seem to prevail in one quarter especially, the state welfare agency, Work and Income New Zealand, (WINZ), and its parent Ministry of Social Development.


*The New Zealand historian Tony Ballantyne has proposed that the idea of the Empire was like a web, “with ‘vertical’ connections developing between Britain and its colonies and ‘horizontal’ connections linking various colonies directly. He has suggested that the key work of imperial historians is to reconstruct these ‘webs of empire’ to understand how the empire operated and the ways in which it incorporated new lands and peoples.” (Wikipedia)



**Published in Eugenics at the Edges of Empire: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa.