In a 2010 edition of Overseas, Adele Smith explains why Evelyn Wrench brought Dr Truby King to London after he halved infant deaths in New Zealand.
In November 1912, Evelyn Wrench and his sister Winifride arrived in New Zealand on their world tour of the emerging branches of the Over-Seas Club. They were welcomed by the Premier W F Massey, and introduced to notable New Zealand citizens. Prominent among them was Dr Frederic Truby King, already well-known for his pioneering work on behalf of mothers and babies. This work was of particular interest to Winifride Wrench, as she was involved in child welfare in England.
Dr Truby King was an outstanding doctor, who had abandoned a career as a bank clerk in New Zealand to study medicine at Edinburgh University, working for some time in Scotland in preventative medicine, and taking the new qualification of a BSc in public health. On his return to New Zealand, he became superintendent at Seacliff Mental Hospital and lectured on mental illnesses at the University of Otago. Attached to the hospital was a large farm, and Truby King had the idea of proving his patients with healthy occupation in caring for the animals while simultaneously studying methods by which the health of the animals could be improved. In this very basic way, the worldwide crusade to establish a healthy regime for mothers and babies began.
The animals had a simple environment with plenty of fresh air, their natural food and an ordered life, which transformed their physical health and resulted in prizewinning pigs and cattle, to the extent that independent farmers complained of the unfair competition from a government-owned enterprise.
Dr King realised that such methods could reasonably be applied to the care and rearing of babies. At that time, the infant mortality rate in New Zealand was 2,000 per 25,000 of the infant population, and around the world the rates were considerably higher. Winifride Wrench, in one of her many articles for Overseas on the subject, later wrote that though the 19th century had seen great advances in medicine, cutting the death rate for adults, the welfare of the newborn had been completely neglected, largely because it was believed that mothers knew instinctively how to feed and care for babies. The medical profession had ignored the problem, and even maternity nurses and midwives had only very basic training to help mothers with immediate post-natal problems.
Truby King's study of the animals and his training in public health convinced him that a systematic and hygienic approach to diet and the environment lay at the centre of a child's ability to thrive. Breastfeeding was established as the only completely sure way to feed (or scientifically modified cows' milk in extreme cases). Feeds should be given four-hourly and last no more than 20 minutes, and there should be no feeding at all during the night. An airy environment was necessary, whatever the weather. He found dirty bottles, unsafe mile and water, unsuitable food and a dusty, unventilated environment at the root of most babies' digestive and lung problems, and early deaths. Over-feeding was also a common problem. King described his methods as "common sense scientifically applied".
By the time the Wrenchs met Truby King, he had already established the Plunket Society for the Health of Women and Children in New Zealand, with the help of Lady Plunket, wife of the governor of New Zealand. It was founded in 1907, and within five years, due to the training of nurses and the instruction and help given to mothers in all aspects of pre- and post-natal care, the infant mortality rate in New Zealand had been halved. The doctor's fame was beginning to spread, and Winifride and Lady Plunket discussed ways in which his methods could be introduced to England, with the help of the Over-Seas Club and the financial support of its members.
By 1917, in the middle of the Great War, this ambition was realised. Evelyn Wrench obtained Truby King's services from the New Zealand government for a six-month period, to be paid for by the Over-Seas Club. The aim was to establish a mothercraft training centre in London, and with his eye for an attention-catching phrase, Wrench called the venture 'the Babies of the Empire Society, a crusade'.
In a war notable for terrible loss of life, people were anxious to promote the health of the next generation. Medical opinion in England was carefully cultivated in advance to promote the new regime. St Thomas' Hospital took over the medial direction of the centre, which eventually became the Mothercraft Training Centre in Highgate. The Over-Seas Club raised money to support the project, and regular articles by Winifride Wrench and Mable Liddiard, its first director, promoted interest in the centre and its methods.
When the centre opened, a long article in Overseas recorded: 'We were made to realise how fortunate we are to have Dr Truby King on this side of the world and how much we shall have to learn from New Zealand with her splendid record in saving babies and rearing a vigorous race - a record unsurpassed by any other country!'
Quite quickly, more training centres were established in England. During the 1920s and 30s, Dr King's methods spread worldwide, partly due to the publication of his book The Feeding and Care of Baby, and through the world of the doctors and nurses who supported his methods.
Courses of all kinds were organised for per- and post-natal care, and women had access to cast amounts of advice and information. King was the first guru on mothercraft matters. In the period leading up to the Second World War, his was the decisive voice in the field. The Over-Seas Club, by then the Over-Seas League, had the distinction of helping to spread his influence at an early stage in England and throughout the Commonwealth. Truby King died in 1938. He was the New Zealand citizen to be given a State Funeral.