The jaws of physical idleness

When you read a history book it appears a solid stable thing.  The author will have stitched together the facts, opinions and lies into a seamless whole.  When they wrote their book they probably had in their mind some kind of notion of being fair.  Really though there is no particular need to respect the professional historian merely because they followed correct historical procedures and have had their work reviewed by a body of reputable academics.  So did historians one hundred years ago and most of their books now look like the works of deluded fantasists or fanatics.

Truby’s reputation remains healthy I believe because Plunket is still a worthwhile organisation; because his stated goals appear noble, and because a brief glance at his writing suggests an air of sensible sanity.

Whenever Truby makes a list of fundamentals in his essays they usually sound good:

Summary of the absolute necessties for good nutrition

  • Fresh air day and night
  • Bathing in fresh air and water
  • Correctly balanced food with an abundance of fresh natural foods and sufficient water to drink


Truby King, Alexander Turnbull Library

This is all sensible stuff.  That’s the problem with it.  It’s the kind of thing that most parents will wind up doing most of the time anyway.  What is good in King’s books is sensible and obvious and rises smoothly to the surface; what is bad in his books is often submerged and bobs up unexpectantly:

The normal woman is never safer, healthier, happier or more uplifted than during pregnancy.

That tricky little word “normal” must have played on the mind of the expectant mother who read this sentence and felt unready, anxious, or maybe even a little overwhelmed and depressed during their pregnancy.  Not “normal” feelings according to Dr. King, director of Seacliff lunatic asylum.  King also makes declarations which are simply untrue and must have made countless women despair that they had not prepared during their pregnancy adequately:

Morning sickness rarely troubles women who fit themselves for pregnancy by active healthy habits.

Of course there is also plenty of material that can be dismissed with a good natured laugh about “how times change”:

The bowels [of the expectant mother] must be trained to move regularly and easily once a day.

Rubbing, fingering or other stimualtion of the nipples should not be carried to excess: moderation in all things.

But finally, in all of King’s work about babies, there is the slight whiff of the eugenicist and misogynistic, Empire builder:

If we lack noble mothers, we lack the first element of racial success and national greatness….  The main cause of modern bodily unfitness and inefficiency lies with our women….  Motherhood is woman’s exclusive profession – and yet the only one for which no training is considered necessary.

He finds an illustration of his point about the racial decline of the honky when he compares the teeth of the Maori and the European:

To us white intruders the contrast shown ought to appear as the ‘writing on the wall’.  No race or family can remain great or even perpetuate itself if it fails to develop properly and give due exercise to jaws and teeth….  The old time Maori… chewed and ground tough fern root between his molars….  He reaped the reward of honest work; he developed perfect jaws and teeth, which turn us almost green with envy when we see them in museums, side by side with the jaws of our own race – the jaws of physical idleness.

The pre-European Maori tended to die in his mid thirties without any teeth left, and generally afflicted by arthritis.

This is the curious thing about the writings of Truby King: he consistently constructs a list of sensible fundamentals out of the most hair-brained, misinformed nonsense.  It’s like an incredible magic trick where a man is given arrogance, misogyny and racism and somehow pulls Beethoven’s 9th Symphony out of the hat.  Luckily for the man everyone judges him on the symphony.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

One thought on “The jaws of physical idleness”

  1. “It’s like an incredible magic trick where a man is given arrogance, misogyny and racism and somehow pulls Beethoven’s 9th Symphony out of the hat. Luckily for the man everyone judges him on the symphony.”
    I wish I’d said that!

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