Frederic Truby King, the fifth of seven children, was born in New Zealand on 1 April 1858 on the Mangorei farmstead, just outside New Plymouth. Both his mother, Mary Chilman, and his father, Thomas King, were among the original New Plymouth settlers. The family had a sizeable farm holding as well as trading and political interests. Thomas King represented Grey and Bell in Parliament and from 1861 to 1878 managed the Bank of New Zealand at New Plymouth.
Truby King was a sickly child and continued as an adult to be plagued by tuberculosis; he eventually went blind in one eye. As a boy he was tutored at home until the age of eight. This was followed by short-lived attendance at two schools which he did not enjoy; he found his teachers lacking and his fellow students more inclined to sport than study. The Kings then hired Henry Robert Richmond, a mathematician, chemist and lawyer, to tutor their son. Richmond believed in the value of concentrating on one subject until it was fully mastered – a system of single-minded concentration that was to mark Truby King's career. His enthusiasm for study matched Richmond's, and in later days King was to attribute much of his success in science to his inspiring tutor.
At 15 King became a clerk under his father at the New Plymouth branch of the Bank of New Zealand, and then at the Auckland branch, all the while continuing to study in areas that interested him. A time as private secretary to the manager of the bank's Wellington branch was followed by a term as accountant in Masterton. It was here that Truby decided that banking was not his forte. With his father's blessing and financial backing he decided to embark on a career in medicine. He left New Zealand in August 1880 at the age of 22.
Like many New Zealand doctors of his time, Truby King trained at the University of Edinburgh. First, however, he visited Paris and there witnessed Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating a case of hysteria, a scene that made a powerful impression. He followed his interest in the insane by taking T. S. Clouston's postgraduate course in the study of lunacy, although his intention was to become a surgeon. King took an outstanding MB and CM (first class) in 1886 and was awarded the Ettles Scholarship as the most distinguished student of his year. In the following two years he completed the new degree of BSc in public health and residencies at the Edinburgh and Glasgow royal infirmaries.
On 26 October 1887, at Edinburgh, he married Isabella Cockburn Millar, the daughter of a jeweller, Adam Millar, and his wife, Isabella Cockburn. Bella was dux of the Edinburgh Educational Institution for Young Ladies and a prize-winner in the examinations offered by the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women. In the month following their marriage, Truby King took a post as ship's surgeon on the Selembria, and accompanied by his new wife sailed to New Zealand.
Truby King's brilliant academic record, and contacts from his banking days, meant he had no difficulty securing posts in New Zealand. His knowledge of public health principles was useful in his first appointment as medical superintendent of Wellington District Hospital, where he reduced the incidence of infection by improvements in building design. In 1889, against widespread competition, he won the appointment of medical superintendent of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, the country's largest and most expensive asylum. He was also appointed lecturer in mental diseases and examiner in public health and medical jurisprudence at the University of Otago.
King took readily to the challenge of turning a badly designed farm asylum into a workable institution with a productive farm and beautifully planted grounds. Farming became an absorbing hobby, and his work in plant and animal husbandry, on which he published pamphlets, developed his theories on nutrition. He designed an improved sewerage system and a number of buildings, ordered supplies, hounded relatives for payment, trained attendants, lectured medical students and treated the inmates. King was, above all, an individualist, and as superintendent of an isolated asylum aiming for self-sufficiency he was able to develop his theories to the full, untrammelled by the constraints of collegiality. His independence from the medical profession and his impatience with bureaucracy helped shape the course of his career.
Within the asylum King promoted fresh air, exercise, good diet, work and recreation as the appropriate treatments for mental illness. He worked towards improved classification of patients and building separate villas for convalescents, and succeeded in establishing separate facilities for epileptics and 'inebriates'. King introduced training and lectures for the staff and produced a handbook of Rules and instructions for the guidance of attendants and nurses. He experimented with the boarding out of patients, and took voluntary boarders before provision was made in legislation for voluntary admission in 1911.
In 1894 Truby King was granted 12 months' leave to return to England to study brain pathology. After taking the examination twice, he was admitted as a member of the Psychological Association, London. Further periods of leave due to illness interrupted his tenure at Seacliff. The Kings returned to Britain again in 1896, and in 1904, with Truby's tuberculosis troubling him, they set off for a six-month visit to Japan. Truby King was particularly impressed by the physical fitness of the Japanese and by the custom of extended breast feeding.
On his return to Seacliff King embarked on a publicity campaign against the 'evils of cram': the way in which the education system placed too much pressure on students, and in particular, could impair women's reproductive abilities. When he challenged his recently appointed medical assistant, Alexander Falconer, about his lack of enthusiasm for the anti-cram campaign, Falconer is reputed to have replied that, having been almost entirely educated on scholarships himself, it would ill become him to condemn the system by which he had so greatly benefited. Besides, Falconer continued, worry about the effects of 'cram' was too little too late when most psychological damage occurred in infancy. Falconer had observed G. F. MacCleary's work in Battersea and he gave King two of MacCleary's latest reports.
Falconer's intervention dovetailed with King's personal interests at this time. The Kings, now in their forties, were childless. Bella King had taken in an infant, Mary, from an attendant's family, and not being satisfied with the child's progress requested her husband to design a better feeding formula. In this way Truby King's formidable attention was directed away from the nutrition of animals towards the feeding and care of infants, a field that linked his desire for the prevention of insanity and his experimental work with nutrition. He trained one of the Seacliff nurses in infant feeding, paid her himself, and sent her into Dunedin to give advice to mothers. Fellow medical men were unenthusiastic about this intrusion on their domain, so King turned to prominent women in the community. On 14 May 1907 he addressed a meeting at the Dunedin town hall on the promotion of health of women and children, and out of this the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children was born.
The society, which came to be known as the Plunket Society after Lady Victoria Plunket, the wife of the governor and an ardent supporter, spread rapidly. It aimed to 'inculcate a lofty view of the responsibilities of maternity', promote breast feeding, train nurses in maternal and infant welfare and educate parents in domestic hygiene. King was able to inspire upper-class women to devote their energies to promoting the cause of child welfare. Committees were formed throughout the country, local clinics were opened and nurses trained in infant welfare visited mothers in their homes. King also took ailing infants into his holiday home at Karitane, and thus began the first of a number of Karitane hospitals.
Truby King's reputation in infant welfare grew, and he fuelled the movement by making exaggerated claims about its impact on infant mortality. King could entrance audiences with his dramatic delivery, often assisted by graphs and lantern slides. He was a small man, slightly stooped in later years, but he had a massive head and the arresting eyes of a 'visionary, almost of the fanatic'. His vision of babies saved through the application of science to motherhood was one that found wide appeal.
In 1912 King was seconded to the Department of Public Health for six months to travel New Zealand promoting infant welfare. He took the cause abroad in 1913 when he was appointed the government's delegate to an international infant welfare conference in London. In 1917 he was invited back to England by the founders of the Babies of the Empire Society to advise on training at their Mothercraft Training Centre. King encountered obstacles in England but continued undeterred to promote his formula for infant welfare, detailed in his extremely popular book, Feeding and care of baby (1913).
King returned to New Zealand via Australia in 1920 and his association with Seacliff was soon to come to an end. In 1921 he took up the newly created post of director of child welfare, but found it much more difficult to pursue his enthusiasms within the government bureaucracy than he had working outside it with the voluntary Plunket Society. He continued to alienate the medical profession by blaming infant deaths and morbidity on unnecessary instrumental deliveries, and impinged on the territory of the school medical service with his pronouncements on inadequate school hygiene. It was probably to everyone's relief when, increasingly dogmatic and autocratic, he was diverted by his appointment as acting inspector general of mental defectives in 1924.
In the same year Bella King's health began to deteriorate rapidly and she was less able to fulfil her role as Truby King's mainstay, for theirs was very much a joint cause. Since its inception, and with her husband's oversight, Bella King had written the popular column 'Our babies', which appeared in 50 newspapers throughout New Zealand by 1914. She acted as her husband's secretary, organising their travel, writing reports on his behalf and answering correspondence. Her quiet order and intelligence provided a foil to his impetuosity and absent-mindedness. She welcomed her husband's recognition when he was made a CMG in 1917 and she lived to see him knighted in 1925. However, her death on 15 January 1927 was, in their adopted daughter's words, 'the beginning of the end' for Truby King. His last years were marked by restlessness which led to a number of trips to Australia and one back to Europe. King also experienced mental deterioration, and on 10 February 1938 he died at his Wellington home, Mount Melrose. He was the first private citizen to be honoured by a state funeral.
Truby King's legacy, widespread in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, was the doctrine of feeding by the clock. Removed from the enthusiastic personality of its founder, the Truby King system became formalised into a set of rigid rules propounded by Plunket nurses. Yet King himself was a man who thrived on disorder. He ate at irregular times, paid no attention to the state of his attire, left travel plans to the last minute, was careless with money (once being declared bankrupt), talked interminably on his latest enthusiasm to anyone who would listen, and was impatient with opposition. There were many who found this total engagement with his latest mission attractive, while others found him irritating and eccentric. He is recorded, after his move to Wellington, as saying that he missed the insane.
Truby King was a singular man with a diversity of compelling interests. That he could arouse international enthusiasm for his infant welfare campaign testifies to his charisma. His status as a national icon was fittingly endorsed in 1957 when he became the first New Zealander whose image was inscribed on a New Zealand postage stamp. Although unimpressed by honours, he might well have enjoyed this tribute on something useful and transitory, but, above all, about communication.