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Story: Harvey, Arthur George

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Harvey, Arthur George



This biography, written by Robert James Bremer, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Arthur George Harvey was born on 28 December 1866 at Steyning, Sussex, England, into a comfortable middle-class family. His father, Bache Wright Harvey, was a distinguished graduate in mathematics from St John's College, Cambridge, who became an Anglican clergyman and in 1861 married Anne Sophia Turrell. Soon after Arthur, the third child, was born the family emigrated to New Zealand. The Reverend Bache Harvey became vicar of Westport in 1867 and in 1871 took up an appointment as vicar of St Paul's Cathedral Church in Wellington, where Arthur received most of his education. In 1882 Bache Harvey accepted the headmastership of Wanganui Collegiate School and began six years of rewarding but arduous service. Arthur completed his last three years of schooling there before departing for St John's College, Cambridge. His father died in 1888, and the remaining family in New Zealand returned to England permanently in 1891.

Arthur Harvey took a BA degree at Cambridge, and then began medical studies. He became LRCP and MRCS in 1892 and graduated in 1893. Desiring to work in an undeveloped country, he returned to New Zealand and by 1895 was practising general medicine in the Patea–Waverley district of South Taranaki. On 8 June 1896 at Waverley he married Matilda (Tilly) Adelaide Bremer, the youngest daughter of local settlers Philip and Dorothea Bremer, who had emigrated from the German kingdom of Hanover. Arthur and Tilly had three daughters and one son.

Harvey was faced with innumerable difficulties in servicing the isolated areas within his practice, notably the upper Waitotara River valley, which had no direct road access until around 1927. He met obstacles with zeal and ingenuity – his inventiveness was legend. In the absence of telephones he provided backblocks patients with boxes of homing pigeons for urgent communications. He worked with local blacksmiths at devising spring-loaded stretchers to ease the jolting of patients being brought back to hospital. With the aid of the local tinsmith he constructed a hot-water jacketed incubator for premature babies. Requiring extra distance for eye-sight tests, he had a metal funnel built into an outside wall of his tiny surgery. At the end of the funnel were numerous discs, lights and test charts which were operated by a complex system of pulleys. This device gained fame as the doctor's 'shooting gallery'.

Although he served as superintendent of the Patea Hospital from 1897 to 1901, occasionally assisting the resident hospital surgeons, Harvey was happiest as a general practitioner. His services were available to all, regardless of their ability to pay, and his bills were extremely modest. His generosity may have created difficulties for his family at times but it was greatly appreciated by his patients who, in 1910, clubbed together and presented the doctor with a brand new car to replace his previous vehicle. The car, a Belgian FN, became famous in the district. It was usually covered in mud and carried chains and wire-strainers for negotiating the treacherous clay roads. A spring-slung stretcher was often mounted on the side of the car. When Harvey replaced the worn-out original engine with a six-cylinder Grant engine some 10 years later, many motorists were startled by the vehicle's unsuspected power.

During his career Harvey was absent from the practice for only two substantial periods. In 1906 he returned to England for a medical refresher year, concentrating on his special interests in ophthalmic surgery and maternity work. Concerned to alleviate pain in childbirth, he became interested in a new type of anaesthesia known as 'twilight sleep' and eventually adopted it for his own patients in 1917. Although frowned upon as unsafe by modern medical practice, Harvey's use of this method caused no mishap. During their years of working together at the Waverley nursing home, he and the midwife Lizzie Edwards (who trained at St Helens Hospital, Dunedin) reputedly never had a mother die, nor any case of puerperal fever, and lost only one live-born baby with a congenital heart defect.

Harvey's other lengthy absence from his practice was during the First World War. He had always been in the forefront of dangerous situations, whether it was negotiating hazardous bush tracks at night to bring out injured bushworkers or helping to rescue victims of the numerous building fires that plagued early Waverley. Not surprisingly, then, Harvey also wanted to play an active role in the war effort. He bitterly regretted having resigned his commission in the New Zealand Medical Corps in 1909 and pestered the authorities until he was reinstated as captain and posted to Cairo in 1915. He subsequently served in field ambulance units and field hospitals. In 1916 he achieved his desire to be at the centre of the fighting when he was posted to France. However, he was not a jingoist, as a letter on the horror of war written from the front to his son Bache testifies. In October 1916 he suffered a nervous collapse at a forward field station at the Somme and had to be invalided home to New Zealand. His appeals to be sent back to the war zone were turned down, and only after threatening to apply for service with a British or Australian unit was he posted to the medical corps at Featherston Military Camp. He was then appointed to the C2 Re-examination Board, which considered the cases of men previously classed as unfit for active service.

Harvey had a small, somewhat frail physique and, like his father, drove himself to the point of exhaustion in the service of others. He had been dangerously ill while at university; he came close to death from pneumonia some years later. On 24 July 1927 at Patea Hospital he succumbed to pneumonia contracted while visiting some backblocks patients in severe wintry conditions. His widow declined the offer of a military funeral, but his popularity ensured that many people turned out to pay their last respects. School children, most of whom would have been under his care from birth, formed a guard of honour from the church to the Waverley cemetery.

Arthur Harvey's oldest daughter, Dorothea Joblin, was later to make her father's life and work known outside the Waverley district with a series of radio broadcasts entitled 'The little doctor of Waverley'. When these reminiscences were published as Harvey come quick in 1963, the book immediately became popular, going through several reprints. Its success suggests that doctors like Harvey, who acted from a sense of duty to others, earned not only the affection of their contemporaries but the nostalgic regard of later generations.

How to cite this page:

Robert James Bremer. 'Harvey, Arthur George', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h10/harvey-arthur-george (accessed 13 July 2024)