Doctor John Patrick Fitzgerald
1813 - 1895
wpe8.jpg (7212 bytes)

A great and faithful friend of early colonists and Maori alike, Doctor John Patrick Fitzgerald was the first appointed surgeon to the young colony of Wellington. His time here was brief (15 years) but the impact he had on the health and welfare of all the citizens of Wellington was large. Doctor Fitzgerald's name in connection with Wellington, while recorded in virtually all the history books, is not widely remembered. It is for this reason, and to record his footprint on the history of Wellington, that we publish this biography.

At the age of 25 as an officer of and consulting surgeon to The New Zealand Company, Doctor Fitzgerald arrived in Wellington on board the ship Oriental on January 31st 1840 as Surgeon Superintendent. Irish by birth, he had graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1839 at the Glasgow School of Medicine, was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and held diplomas in Opthalmics and Maternal Care. His initial responsibility was the operation of the Company's Infirmary which was established in a house at Petone, the settlers original landing place. Following the decision to move the settlement and the site for the new township to Thorndon across the harbour, similar suitable premises were located.

Soon after his arrival, Doctor Fitzgerald set about mastering "the native tongue". It was this voluntary move that went a long way towards gaining him wide respect amongst all of the local tribes. His many acts of kindness within the community captured the admiration and friendship of all.

A genuine and caring man, Doctor Fitzgerald did not seek to benefit by his high position in the Company, nor by his standing as a professional and educated man in the community. He lived, instead, the life common to all the early pioneers. Despite an annual salary of 120.00 his house on Thorndon Flat was a modest single storeyed wattle and board structure not far from the site of the Colonial Hospital.

On November 14th 1842, in the presence of members of the small Roman Catholic community assembled in the house of the District Magistrate, Major Richard Baker, Doctor Fitzgerald married 20 year old Eliza Sarah Christian. Eliza, the youngest daughter of Thomas Christian a solicitor of Dublin, had arrived by herself on board the George Fyfe in October 1842. Interestingly enough the officiating minister on this happy day was Reverend Cole, the Anglican Minister of St John's Church in Johnsonville. The Catholic presence in early Wellington was small and in, the absence of a priest, it was customary for such events to be undertaken by an Anglican Minister.

Doctor Fitzgerald had been appointed to the position of Colonial Surgeon by Governor Hobson and, when the Colonial Hospital was opened in September 1847, he became the obvious choice as Medical Superintendent. Governor George Grey, the driving force behind the establishment of the new Hospital, was a great advocate of the complete integration of the two races and as such hoped a bond of friendship would be formed. Towards achieving this end he proposed that Maori and European would be treated together in the same ward and would be granted equal privileges. In
agreement with this approach, Doctor Fitzgerald gleefully comments in his first report on the new Hospital: "The plan originated by His Excellency the Governor-in-Chief, of mixing the Natives and Europeans in the same wards, I have carried out with the most perfect and satisfactory results, as can be seen by any person visiting the institution...".

Doctor Fitzgerald was not only innovative in respect of Hospital administration. He was the first doctor in New Zealand and one of only a few in the World to operate on a patient while under anaesthetic. The first Maori admitted to the Hospital, Chief Hiangarere from Waikanae, was successfully operated on "for a large tumor between the shoulders" while "under the influence of sulphuric ether". This scientific breakthrough had only just been announced to the world in November 1846 by way of an American medical journal and the famous Edinburgh surgeon, Smye, did not use it until 1847.

Late 1850 saw the commencement of a train of events that would ultimately lead to Doctor Fitzgerald's resignation and his permanent departure from New Zealand. The first of these events was a letter written by the Reverend Richard Taylor on November 21 1850 charging  Doctor Fitzgerald with showing favour to Catholic patients at the hospital and to visiting Ministers of that church. The good Doctor was a devout Roman Catholic and was described by Bishop Pompallier as "the catechist for Wellington" who conducted services in the absence of Wellington's priests.

These charges would cause much bitter infighting and give rise to legislative changes in respect of visits by Ministers of the church to patients in the hospital. One accusation in particular was made in about Lucy a Maori servant at the hospital. The charge was that Lucy had been baptised by a Catholic Priest (Father J. Baptiste Petit Jean) against her wishes and in the throes of death. None of the charges were substantiated by the committee of enquiry set up to investigate  and certain staff were replaced because their "false evidence and shameful conduct had brought dishonour to the hospital".

On March 26 1851 Doctor John Dorset, who had been the Surgeon Superintendent of board the Tory, wrote to the newspaper challenging the hospital management and expenses for the previous year. He added that"the Colonial Surgeon's qualifications were of doughtful or dubious nature". As with the previous aspersion cast by the good Minister no proof could be found to substantiate Doctor Doset's claims.

During the length of his service to the new colony and to the New Zealand Company, Doctor Fitzgerald had applied for leave of absence three times and three times the Government had turned him down. In addition to his services as Colonial Surgeon and Medical Superintendent, Doctor Fitzgerald was the Wellington region Coroner. As such he witnessed many ghastly, gruesome and tragic events, the worst of which was arguably the murder of John Branks and his three children in 1849.

The final and most telling incident leading to his resignation was the death of his beloved wife Eliza Sarah on April 4th 1852. She was 30 years old. This left Doctor Fitzgerald with the sole care of his four children, the youngest Elizabeth being barely one month old. He was tired and ill and needed some time out. As this was obviously not forth coming, Doctor Fitzgerald resigned his post on July 31st 1854.

About to leave New Zealand permanently, the citizens to whom he had devoted all his energies were not to let their faithful friend depart without showing their apprieciation of his services. They collected 220 guiness as a token of goodwill and esteem and wrote a letter of thanks signed by all of the leading citizens.

His much loved Maori freinds expressed their feelings as follows:
"Where shall we find a doctor like unto you, of the same skill, of the same knowledge of our thoughts and of our customs and of all Maoris. Go O father, go to your Chiefteness. O Queen send back to us our Makao Taniwha".

To this the doctor showed the depth and combination of his own Irish warmth and Maori oraturical prowess:
" My father, my friends, listen to the thoughts of your child. When the sun ceases to shine forth in all its glittering splendor, when the rivers cease to flow, and the Rata ceases to bloom, then no, not even then shall my thoughts and my love cease flowing towards your land. Land of my sorrow . Farewell.

After returning home to his hometown of Dublin to regain his good health, Doctor Fitzgerald set off for South Africa where at King Williamstown, Governer Grey, his old freind of early New Zealand days had provided a site for a hospital. For thirty two more years Doctor John Patrick Fitzgerald continued to provide relief and respite until he retired to his native Ireland where he died in 1895 at the age of 82.

Copyright: Denise & Peter 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002