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The History of Nursing in Rotorua: 1840 – 1940




Chapter One, Constructing Nursing’s Image, outlines the background to the New Zealand nursing profession and the influences that shaped the image of the New Zealand trained nurse, thus setting the scene for examining the emergence of informal and formal nursing practice in the context of the thermal springs district.

Chapter Two, The Amateur Period: Nursing in Rotorua 1840-1890, provides an insight into how the natural therapeutic properties of the thermal and mineral springs enhanced the healing practices of the pre-colonial Maori in the Thermal District.

Chapter Three, The New Order: Nursing in Rotorua 1870 - 1900, describes how the evolving nursing professionalism influenced nursing practice in the Rotorua Thermal District during that period.

Chapter Four, The New Century: Nursing in Rotorua 1900-1910, examines the development of nursing and medicine in Rotorua against the backdrop of two significant new Acts of Parliament, collectively designed to protect the public’s health from communicable diseases and from unqualified practitioners of nursing.

Chapter Five, A Picture of Diversity: Nursing in Rotorua, 1900-1914.  Highlights the changing contexts of nursing care in Rotorua and the surrounding district as professional nursing extended into the community and for the first time hospital trained nurses under the direction of the Department of Health practised in independent and autonomous roles.

Chapter Six, War and the Aftermath: Nursing in Rotorua 1915-1920.  The government struggled to rationalise hospital services in Rotorua as the effects of the First World War brought a renewed interest in the therapeutic waters of the Thermal Springs District and the New Zealand Army Nursing Service was introduced to Rotorua.

Chapter Seven, The Focus Changes: Nursing in Rotorua 1920-1934  The post-war shortage of nurses led to a proliferation of nursing schools, and a school of nursing was established at King George V Hospital in Rotorua, providing a cheap and reliable source of labour in the form of probationers who replaced the military staff when the hospital was handed over to the Department of Health.

Chapter Eight, Nursing at Rotorua Hospital 1934 - 1940  Under the Waikato Hospital Board, Rotorua Hospital entered the mainstream of the New Zealand health care system.  Regular inspections carried out by the Nursing Division of the Department of Health ensured that nursing met the professional standards required by legislation.  By 1940, the re-established school of nursing was responsible for training maternity nurses and as a B Grade training school, a subsidiary of the Waikato Hospital Board, for the training of general nurses.

Chapter Nine, Vignettes  Throughout each of the chapters, details of individual nurses have been provided in the text and in the footnotes, in the hope that the information will assist future researchers of our nursing history.  However, for six of the nurses who came to Rotorua, a wealth of data emerged, too comprehensive to include as footnotes.  These portraits are therefore presented as vignettes of six women, four of whom have not previously had their stories written for publication, the other two have now had their stories enriched with additional data.  They are all women who became professional nurses and whose eventful careers brought them, albeit briefly, to Rotorua.





Kathryn Adams’s decision to publish this history of nursing in Rotorua, which began as a thesis for her masters degree, exemplifies the tenacity and determination found in many of the early nurses she writes about in this most interesting and timely book.  She is to be congratulated for persevering with this project, and bringing it to fruition.  The stories within this book deserve to be made visible, because they are part of the ongoing story of women’s sustaining work within the community which has so long remained hidden.  And, the book is doubly welcome because New Zealand has such a small body of literature by nurses, about nurses and about nursing.


This book is the outcome of a rigorous search for relevant information.  It is an historical analysis of a century of nursing in Rotorua, and a scholarly weaving of the data into a story.  The result is a fascinating account of trained and untrained nurses, as well as doctors and bureaucrats and patients and health services, in a place of dramatic landscapes, with acclaimed healing powers associated with its water and mud.   Nurses were often directed to go to Rotorua to work, as was the norm, but Kathryn reports that many did enjoy going to a holiday resort.


It is timely to look back, and to reflect upon our past, and nursing has a fascinating past.  It has existed in every community in some form or another since the beginning of human history.   By 1840, a critical date in New Zealand’s history and the beginning of the period covered in this book, nursing was emerging as a collection of activities, still usually performed by the women of the family, which had the goal of maintaining the health of family members and caring for them at times of illness.  Florence Nightingale would soon be teaching women in general about their nursing roles within the family, and she would also become the leading exponent of a separate role for a skilled nurse which was and is distinct from the nursing component within the social role of every woman. 


Undoubtedly, the story of nursing is closely allied to the story of women. Issues of gender, power, authority, and self-determination are common elements in both.  Nursing’s emergence as a profession clearly retained some of the attributes of women’s work, including compassionate comforting, thoughtful watching, nurturing and nourishing, and helpful encouraging.  And, many of nursing’s activities have also been, and continue to be, associated with busy hands and busy feet, moving in haste to respond to the needs of others.  Nursing’s primary purpose remains the support of people, one by one, as each lives through a health related event.  Nurses work with and for the “patient” or “client” or “resident”; with the family and whanau; with other health workers; and within a health care system.  Nursing both influences, and is influenced by, the world in which it occurs.


This book reveals that the period from 1840 to 1940 was a time of constant change for nursing - training programmes, registration, professional aspirations, interprofessional tensions, restructuring of health services, wars and peace, epidemics and new therapies.  Rotorua is the focus of the story, but it is a tale of the interaction of international, national and local events, and their impact on one place and the people who live and work there.  Every hospital, and every nursing school in New Zealand, has its own story  - the setting is different but many of the threads are similar.


Historical reflection, reliant as it is on written accounts which are themselves interpretations, is not the same as living through the events as they occurred.  Immersed as they were in their everyday lives, the characters in Kathryn’s account would each have their own version of events, their own life story.  Kathryn’s lens on the professional development of nursing in Rotorua during the century which began in 1840 is one shaped by themes of medical domination and self interest, of undervaluing and oppression of the untrained (but rarely unskilled), and of the dedication of qualified nurses in the face of adversity.  It is but one interpretation, but there seems considerable data to support it.


At the present time nursing is passing through yet another another period of dramatic change - new knowledge, new roles, new relationships - within a changing health service and a changing society.  Elements of professional closure, autonomy and self-determination are still evident. 


From a nursing perspective, reading this book leaves me with an overwhelming impression that Kathryn has uncovered precious stories about an amazing group of women who were rushing all over the country, and overseas, on demand, and yet they were willing to go.  The personal details of many nurses are presented throughout the text, and the stories of six women whose nursing work took them to Rotorua are told in Chapter 9.  In Kathryn’s terms, these were “professionally committed career women” who accepted the call to work, often in virtual isolation from peers, with people who seemed to be challenged by one nasty threat to their health after another.


I know that the nurses of Rotorua will feel grounded in their proud history of service within their own community.  They are fortunate indeed.  But this is a story of all nurses - it is our story.  Thank you for taking the time to make it available, Kathryn. 


And, finally, like Kathryn, I hope that I will be able to hear the voices of Maori share their own story of health and health care in Rotorua one day.



Judith Christensen





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