Remembering the unsung heroines, by Derek Dow
Previously I have written about Maori doctors and dentists and this month I will restore the gender balance by focusing on Maori nurses, who had a significant but understated presence in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Paralleling the first Maori doctors (Maui Pomare, Peter Buck and Tutere Wi Repa), a flurry of nurses was recruited in the early 1900s.
But, unlike the doctors, two of who became prominent figures in medicine and politics, the nurses tended to be unsung heroines.
When the principal of the postgraduate nursing school in Wellington contributed to a nursing journal 1954 with an article titled The Maori Nurse: her contribution to the health and welfare of her people, more than half the text was devoted to Akenehi Hei, the role model for Maori nurses. Hei’s brother had promoted the merits of Maori nurses as early as 1897, as part of an agenda which promoted the gospel of health.
Maui Pomare, the government’s health officer to the Maoris, articulated this in 1908 when he stated these nurses were intended to go forth to care for the sick, to lecture, and to uplift humanity.
Hei qualified in 1907 and in 1910 was cited in Lavinia Dock’s four-volume A History of Nursing as an example of the policy of training some of the Maori girls to care for the sick of their own people.
When Hei died later that year, after nursing family members who had contracted typhoid, an Australian chief health officer, who had worked with her, suggested an Akenehi Hei medallion be worn by Maori who took up the service of nursing among their people.
No other Maori nurse achieved Hei’s public profile. This may partly be explained by the fact none of her contemporaries had the same social standing and family connections, but other factors were also at work.
The nursing journal Kai Tiaki, launched in 1908, offers some clues as to why they fell from sight.
Heni Whangaperita worked alongside Hei in 1910, nursing typhoid cases at a large pa near Jerusalem on the Whanganui River.
Later that year, Kai Tiaki reported Whangaperita was convalescing at Te Puke from a serious case of pneumonia. The prediction in Docks history that she was unlikely to continue nursing for health reasons was unfulfilled.
But, in January 1912, the journal recounted nurse Wangaparika had become Mrs Reid (corrected to Reedy in later reports) and had been lost to nursing.
Eighteen months later it was announced Heni Reedy had not allowed marriage to hinder her: She is ever ready to help when sickness occurs, and with her fine healthy baby goes among the mothers of her race tending and helping them. Then she disappears from the nursing record.
Some nurses found employment outside the public health system, but still within Maoridom. Eva Wi Repa, for instance, Tutere Wi Repas sister, resigned shortly after her appointment as a Maori health nurse to undertake private work among wealthy Hawkes Bay Maori.
Others suffered an abrupt end to their careers. Maud Mataira qualified in June 1911. She held various appointments over the next few years before transferring to Rawene in 1917.
Two years later she died of influenza, prompting the following obituary in Kai Tiaki: “She was a bright, pretty Maori girl and will be much missed by her patients and relatives.
Like Hei, hers was a sad loss for Maori healthcare.
Dr Derek Dow is an honorary senior lecturer, Department of General Practice, University of Auckland. His email address is [email protected]