G.M. Smith, part three

(See also parts one and two of my review and commentary).

Doctor Smith: Hokianga’s King of the North, by G. Kemble Welch.
Published by Blackwood and Janet Paul, Auckland and Hamilton, 1965. Printed in Great Britain by Latimer Trend and Co Ltd, Plymouth.

In 1928, a new hospital in Rawene opened after years of agitating, demanding, fund-raising, and designing by G.M. Smith. An article the following year appeared in the Northern News:


He preaches and practices the gospel of health. Abundance of fresh air and sunlight, from which neither the body nor mind must be shut away…

From the doctor we can deduce the hospital. Sun-bathed and breeze-swept, from its windows the views are fair and far. It is what few hospitals are, a cheerful place…

The whole building is flooded with light and air. These are powerful remedies to be had everywhere for the taking, and too little used by most of us.

Even though Rawene’s hospital has been modified, updated, and built onto, its situation at the top of the hill overlooking an astoundingly beautiful view hasn’t changed. It’s still flooded with natural light, still a cheerful place.

The idea of healthful fresh air and abundant natural light pervades the schools here too. K tells me that her high school classrooms at Okaihau use natural-light only, with the windows being open all the time. Lunchtime is an hour long, with everyone eating outdoors and then walking or playing. The primary school follows this practice too.


My favorite thing about New Zealand is the amount of outside that gets inside you. The sunshine soaks into your skin and the resulting proper amount of Vitamin D works wonders for circadian rhythm, mood, and overall health. Even when it’s not sunny, the green lushness and open spaces everywhere make a deep psychological impression of well-being.


My own experience is borne out by studies; take a look at this interesting report called Beyond_Blue_to_Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. It’s a 2010 review of what we know about this vast subject–including what we used to know and have forgotten, what we know and don’t take advantage of, and what we might come to know if we build in more ‘green’ time  and space into our lives.

The climate in northern New Zealand allows regular access to fresh air and sunshine, but once I’m back in the cold, dark northern U.S. winter, I’m going to make an effort to be outside every day, breathing frigid piney air, moving until I don’t feel cold.

I don’t know what studies G.M. Smith would have based his ideas on. He was born in 1883, so he would have read studies from the 1880s through the 1920s at this point. Certainly there were many ‘fresh-air treatment’ proponents, studies, and articles in the medical press of the time. (See this one from 1906, and this one from 1909.)

G.M. Smith wasn’t only interested in the palliative benefits of airy, sunny hospital beds; he insisted on the human right to live in a well-ventilated house.

p. 82

‘It’s a damn sight better to stop people from being sick than to treat them when they are—though a good doctor does both,’ said G.M. He never stopped preaching that people who live in overcrowded, unventilated houses will be sickly, and, if they wear too much in summer and too little in winter, and don’t eat properly, they’ll be worse.

This reminds me of that saying: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. G.M. Smith had in mind a particular design for a dwelling that would promote health among the inhabitants of the Hokianga:

p. 96

[There was a house at Pakanae that] was Dr Smith’s idea of a perfect residence for Northland. It was long and low, wooden-walled and iron-roofed. All the bedrooms and the living room opened on to a concrete-floored veranda that ran the length of its face and was the only connecting link between living and sleeping rooms. Above each bedroom door was a louvred window, so that each one had cross ventilation.

This was ideal, claimed G.M., because it was simple enough for anyone to build, the veranda gave shelter from the summer sun and was a place for the children to play in the really wet winter weather and it was concrete so that it could be kept clean by hosing down and sweeping out with a yardbroom.

p. 97

There was nothing that so constantly upset G.M. as the houses built for Maori families by Government Departments, or approved by the Departments for subsidy payments. They were invariably stark, square, unventilated things, with sometimes a wee porch at the front door, but never a veranda, and always too small.

‘Damn it!’ he used to roar. ‘They build the bloody things according to the size of the cream cheque, when all that matters is the size of the family!’

For years and years he tried to get ‘them’ to use the Pakanae house as a model for the Maori Affairs houses, but it remained unique.

G.M. Smith’s interest in this issue, usually outside the scope of a general practitioner, proved to be a matter currently recognized as a national health concern and social justice issue. The NZ Ministry of Social Development proclaims, “housing is an important determinant of health.” No one would argue with that, but the fact remains that many New Zealanders, especially Maori, live in houses that were built with limited funds and have no insulation; according to the site linked above, “Over two-thirds of the current housing stock in New Zealand was built before standards requiring insulation in new buildings were introduced in 1977.”

Compounding the poor quality of many New Zealand houses, “ethnicity was associated with ideas of morality and housing quality in the 1930s and 1940s. There was, in effect, a ‘hands-off’ policy towards Māori housing by the Government, and the strategies that did exist for assistance were so under-funded that they had minimal impact.” (Continue reading the linked page for a well-written discussion of the ways policies and institutional decisions endure.)

Welch describes G.M. Smith as being struck by the abundance of New Zealand’s natural resources, again and again: the fertile fields, the vast amount of land compared to the number of inhabitants, the brilliant sunshine and clean air. He knew that problem of inequality lay in distribution, rather than a simple lack of material resources. He continued his efforts to spread the message of fresh air and living quarters that allowed a comfortable intimacy with the outdoors, even as the Great Depression began to make deep inroads in New Zealand.


Sarah Bierre, S., Howden-Chapman, P., Signal, P., & Cunningham, C. (2007). Institutional challenges in addressing healthy low-cost housing for all: Learning from past policy. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand Te Puna Whakaaro, 30, 42-64. Retrieved from http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj30/30-institutional-challenges-healthy-low-cost-housing-pages42-64.html

Welch, G.K. (1965). Doctor Smith: Hokianga’s king of the north. Auckland and Hamilton, Blackwood and Janet Paul.

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