Colonial Knowledge - Public Health

John Patrick Fitzgerald (1815-97), Medical pioneer in Wellington, New Zealand and the Cape Colony.

Born in Carrickmacross, Monaghan, and educated at the University of Glasgow, Fitzgerald joined the New Zealand Company’s Oriental as ship’s surgeon in 1839. Arriving in New Zealand in 1840 (around the same time as Dublin-born doctor and future Prime Minister Daniel Pollen), Fitzgerald was appointed first consulting surgeon to the Wakefield settlement infirmary, eventually becoming coroner and public health officer and superintendant of New Zealand’s first public hospital in Wellington. A prominent Catholic and medical reformer, Fitzgerald demonstrated concern for the Maori, believing that medicine was a way of bridging cultures as well as a colonising instrument. Medicine, he wrote, was ‘a powerful engine for gaining influence over the Native Mind...’.

While Fitzgerald had a great impact on European dealings with the Maori, his Catholicism brought him into conflict with the Protestant settlers and the colonial administration. After the departure of his friend, Sir George Grey, the Governor of New Zealand from 1845-53, Fitzgerald was accused not only of openly proselytising, but of engaging in quackery. He eventually quit New Zealand in 1855, before rejoining Governor Grey a year later in the Cape Colony, where he was appointed superintendent of Grey’s Hospital in King William’s Town. As in New Zealand, Fitzgerald immediately began to set about winning over the ‘savage heart’ by undermining the traditional healing practices of the Xhosa. While there he was a driving force behind smallpox vaccination and became embroiled in the Cattle-killing outbreak of 1856-7. As in New Zealand, his work with indigenous people resulted in medicine becoming an important instrument of colonial rule.

Sources: Laurie Barber, 'Fitzgerald, John Patrick 1815 - 1897' in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography; Andrew Offenburger, ‘Smallpox and epidemic threat in nineteenth century Xhosaland’ in African Studies, vol. 67, no. 2 (2008), pp 159-82.