Harold Bertram Turbott was born in Auckland on 5 August 1899, the son of Alice Dillicar, a native of Yorkshire, and her husband, Henry Turbott, a Pukekohe-born painter and carpenter. Harold attended Remuera School until standard five, when the family moved to Hamilton. There he became dux of Hamilton High School and took a leading part in its sporting activities. In 1918 he entered the University of Otago Medical School, and captained the university hockey team. He graduated MB, ChB in 1923.
On 1 August 1923 in Dunedin, part-way through a 10-month house surgeoncy at Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, Harold Turbott married Eveline Lilian Arthur, the daughter of a Dunedin merchant. The couple were to have two children, a daughter and a son.
The newlyweds spent their honeymoon en route to China and a posting at a mission hospital in Kong Chuen (Jiangcun). The couple returned to New Zealand in 1925 following an outbreak of anti-British riots. Turbott then enrolled in the University of Otago’s diploma in public health to prepare himself for a career with the Department of Health, combining his studies with a lectureship in bacteriology. He was appointed the department’s assistant medical officer of health at Auckland in 1927, and the officer for Gisborne in 1928 with responsibility for the newly formed East Cape Health District.
Reviewing New Zealand’s health system in 1937 on behalf of the Labour government, S. M. Lambert of the Rockefeller Foundation noted it was hard to attract good staff other than those possessed of a ‘certain missionary fanaticism’. He may well have had Turbott – one of his principal informants – in mind. Within months of his appointment to Gisborne Turbott had initiated a comparison of the health of Maori and Pakeha children, the results of which helped to allay pessimism among senior departmental officers regarding the future of the Maori people. It was his study of tuberculosis in Maori, however, which brought him national and international acclaim. In 1933 he was awarded a Dorothy Temple Cross research travelling fellowship by the Medical Research Council in Britain to further his work. He investigated the clinical, social and housing aspects of the disease, and the subsequent report, Tuberculosis in the Maori, East Coast, New Zealand (1935), was highly regarded by politicians and health professionals alike.
In 1935 Harold Turbott was given a three-year secondment as chief medical officer for Western Samoa, which he had visited in 1928 with a New Zealand force of military police sent to deal with the Mau uprising. This posting, which coincided with Turbott’s separation from his wife, was cut short in 1936 when he was recalled to be medical officer of health at Hamilton for the South Auckland Health District; he remained there for the next four years. Staff shortages meant he also retained his East Cape responsibilities until 1938, the year he and his first wife divorced. On 19 December he married Robinetta Jamieson in Wellington. They had a son before their marriage who was adopted out, and another son after they wed.
During his time in Waikato Turbott worked in conjunction with Te Puea Herangi to improve Maori hygiene standards. He maintained his tuberculosis work, initiated vigorous inoculation campaigns to combat typhoid and diphtheria, and took an interest in antenatal care. Regarded by many as the country’s leading expert on Maori health, Turbott was invited to contribute a chapter on health and social welfare to I. L. G. Sutherland’s The Maori people today (1940). His text combined frank acknowledgement of existing deficiencies in health care with claims that Maori had contributed to their own ill health. The ultimate goal of his department’s efforts, he claimed, was the creation of a nation of ‘hardy, healthy, self-supporting, brown-skinned New Zealanders’.
Harold Turbott’s focus on child health saw him appointed director of the Health Department’s Division of School Hygiene when Elizabeth Gunn retired in 1940. He accepted the directorship because this ‘would let me into the head office hierarchy, and I was young enough to have a future in it’. His confidence bore fruit: Turbott was appointed deputy director general of health in Wellington in 1947. He expected to become director general in 1950 when T. R. Ritchie retired, but these hopes were dashed when John Cairney, then superintendent in chief of the Wellington Hospital Board, was selected for the position in late 1949. Turbott later alleged he had been blocked by Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had never forgiven him for contradicting Fraser’s 1939 comments on Maori sanitation. Turbott finally became director general in 1959, the same year he was made an ISO, and his five-year tenure was marked by a major restructuring of the department.
It was during his term as director of school hygiene that Turbott began his lengthy reign as the ‘Radio Doctor’. Throughout the early 1940s he and Muriel Bell, the Health Department nutritionist, contributed weekly ‘Advice on Health’ columns to the New Zealand Listener. In 1943 Fraser sacked the controller of the National Commercial Broadcasting Service, C. G. Scrimgeour (‘Uncle Scrim’), and invited Turbott to take over his daily health talks. This supposedly temporary arrangement lasted until 1946.
In 1952 Harold Turbott was persuaded by Minister of Health Jack Marshall to revive this role and deliver weekly health talks geared towards disease prevention. He maintained this schedule for more than three decades. Copies of these talks were sent to every public health nurse as background information for their own addresses to patients and community groups. Selected broadcasts ended up in print with the publication of Radio talks on health in 1946. From 1952 many were reprinted in the monthly Department of Health magazine, Health. A reference guide to his talks was published in 1969 as Guidelines to health , a book described by the journal as ‘small enough not to intimidate a busy housewife’. A second edition was released in 1983. On 24 March 1984 the Evening Post reported that ‘The radio doctor, Dr Harold Turbott, tuned out this morning without even a hint that it was his final medical broadcast after a 41-year career’. In 1987 he received the Mobil Radio Award.
Turbott’s influence extended beyond New Zealand. The seeds of his interest in tropical medicine had been sown during his years in China, when he gained experience of malaria, hookworm and leprosy. His 1930s work with Maori had also enhanced his reputation as an authority on Polynesian health. He was consequently appointed to the South Pacific Board of Health in 1949 and to the research council of the South Pacific Commission in 1956. After attending the inaugural World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting in 1946, he became a regular delegate to the World Health Assembly in the 1940s and 1950s. He was also elected president of WHO at its 13th Assembly in 1960 and was chairman of the organisation’s executive board in 1964–65.
His principal contribution, at home and abroad, was in the field of health education, which he consistently (but inaccurately) claimed to have introduced to New Zealand in the 1940s. This self-aggrandisement ignored or denigrated the efforts of his predecessors, and was one of his less attractive features. It began in the 1950s and became more marked in later life.
In appearance Harold Turbott was a rather hearty, avuncular figure. This impression was reinforced by his radio persona, which conveyed confidence and reassurance. As director general, however, he tended to polarise opinion to the ultimate detriment of departmental morale. Many staff were staunch and loyal allies. Others found his character, inconsiderate treatment of colleagues and subordinates, and leadership style much less attractive. This divisiveness, and the attitudes which led to it, were epitomised by a 1960 court case in which A. W. Thompson, the Health Department’s director of clinical services, sued Turbott for libel over remarks made when Thompson applied for the position of director of public health. Although Thompson convinced a jury of the legitimacy of his case, Turbott escaped penalty by invoking the defence of absolute privilege. The repercussions were felt for many years, long after the protagonists had left the department.
Turbott’s activities in retirement included being a member of the Wellington Hospital Board for 15 years, and of the Lower Hutt City Council for 12 years. He resigned both posts in 1983, aged 84. He continued to enjoy gardening and horse-racing. Harold Turbott died in Lower Hutt on 16 March 1988; his wife had predeceased him in 1986.