New Zealand’s British settlers started their epidemiological transition – in which diseases of old age and lifestyle replace infections as the main cause of death – very early and passed through it ahead of other populations worldwide.
A healthy climate?
In the 1850s Arthur Thomson, surgeon major of the British Army’s 58th Regiment, which was stationed in northern New Zealand, analysed death rates and disease statistics and found that soldiers in New Zealand had lower rates of death than their counterparts in other parts of the empire, including the United Kingdom. He published his conclusions in a book, The story of New Zealand: past and present, savage and civilised (1859), and they have been supported by recent research.
Thomson believed that one reason for New Zealand’s lower death rates was its superior climate. Although that explanation is debatable, it was supported and elaborated by doctor Alfred Newman in an address to the New Zealand Institute (later the Royal Society) in 1882.
Reasons for settler health
There are a number of possible reasons for settler New Zealand’s early epidemiological transition. Settlers had a better diet than their peers in Britain – perhaps due to the temperate climate, as fruit and vegetables could be grown year-round in most areas.
The colony had a high per-capita gross domestic product, and this general prosperity meant that individuals and families had a relatively high standard of living. This was enhanced by economic and social-welfare legislation in the 1890s and 1900s. Also, settlement was dispersed throughout the country, lessening the spread of infections. A rapid decline in family size in the settler population had beneficial effects on child health, and from the mid-1870s to mid-1890s there was a marked decline in child mortality.
Rising life expectancy
Favourable living conditions had a cumulative effect, and life expectancy at birth for Pākehā rose markedly. Pākehā women in New Zealand were the first population in the world to reach a life expectancy of 55 years, in the late 1870s. In 1874 life expectancy was 48 for Pākehā men and 50 for Pākehā women, and by 1891 it was 55 for men and 58 for women. It was 58 for men and 60 for women in 1901, and 65 for men and 68 for women in 1931.
From unhealthy to healthy districts
There is ongoing research to investigate whether another reason for the early epidemiological transition of British settlers could have been selective emigration to New Zealand of people from ‘healthy districts’ in Britain. However, initial results suggest that large numbers of settlers came from London and Scotland, which both had high mortality rates.
The Pākehā population also grew. By 1860 it was around 60,000, about the same as the Māori population. From this time it grew quickly, while the Māori population declined. By 1896, when the Māori population was around 42,000, its lowest point, the Pākehā population was 700,000, and it had reached 1 million by 1911.
Post-war life expectancy increases
Non-Māori life expectancy has continued to grow steadily since the Second World War. In 1951 life expectancy was 68 for men and 72 for women; in 1961 it was 69 and 75 respectively. In 1976 men could expect to live to 69 and women to 76, and in 1986 the figures were 71 for men and 77 for women. In 1996 the expectation was 75 for men and 81 for women; by 2013 it was 80 for men and 84 for women.