Go to the site map page Go to the search page Go to the contact us page To to the Government Portal www.govt.nz Go to the top of the Page

Children's health 

Welfare was mostly the concern of private charities, churches, and families early in the 20th century. Plunket, founded by Dr Truby King, kindergartens, and health camps led improvements to children’s health. Maui Pomare, the first Maori doctor, worked to improve Maori health. The state offered little support until the 1920s.

‘It is wiser to put up a fence at the top of a precipice than to maintain an ambulance at the bottom.’
Dr Truby King, Plunket founder 

Save the children

At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 7 in 100 New Zealand children were dying in infancy. Gastroenteritis, tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio … these were all real threats. Infant deaths, plus the low birth rate, provoked anxiety about the country’s future.

‘Save the babies’ came the call from Premier Richard Seddon (1845–1906). Children were lauded as ‘social capital’ – the ‘building blocks’ of the nation and the country’s future defence force. But more babies were needed to ensure future prosperity.

State welfare solutions – St Helens hospitals

Seddon’s crusade prompted the first state maternity hospitals, known collectively as St Helens, in 1905. These hospitals trained midwives and cared mainly for the ‘respectable wives of working men’.

But the state remained largely absent from other welfare efforts until the 1920s. It gave some childcare advice to the growing number of orphanages but couldn’t enforce its recommendations since the institutions were privately run.

Private welfare solutions – Plunket, kindergartens, health camps

Private groups were the first to take major steps towards fostering a healthier society. These groups included charities, churches, and families.

Plunket, founded by Dr Frederic Truby King (1858–1938) in 1907, led the way. Its motto was ‘to help the mothers and save the babies’. Kindergartens, too, played a pioneering role in the century’s first decade. And in the 1920s came children’s health camps, the vision of New Zealand doctor Elizabeth Gunn (1879–1963).

Maui Pomare – improving Maori health

Maui Pomare (1876–1930), New Zealand’s first Maori doctor and Native Health Officer, took up the challenge of improving Maori health.

Infant mortality was at least three times higher for Maori than Pakeha (European New Zealanders). Even so, the goal of many early reformers was the ‘healthy white child’. Pomare stepped in to fill the gap.

More stories


Watch videos

The stories of the 20th century could be told through images alone.
Watch these valuable resources


Have a go at our interactive games


Can you survive in the early 20th century, identify famous New Zealanders, and guess which decade you're in? 

Play the games.


© Copyright Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.