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Doctor Colenso, I Presume?

Twenty-eleven marked the bicentenary of the birth of the Rev. William Colenso—printer, missionary, explorer, politician, botanist, educationalist, liberation theologist—and importantly herein, healer and dispenser of medicines—who wrote “I know something of medicine & of disease by practice extensive for many years and study; at one time I had the most complete surgery in N.Z.––& helped the Colonial Surgeon to medicines which he had not.”

Current fashion diminishes the work of the missionaries as monocultural and paternalistic, but that is a view biassed by contemporary values. Queen Victoria would rule a quarter of the world and throughout her reign, Britons saw their influences beneficial to all who came into contact with it. They were “nursed on a mystic patriotism, a reflexive sense of belonging to something far greater than self, an empire destined to do justice in the world”.

British missionaries would, therefore, be ambassadors for their culture, including the medical culture of the Enlightenment: before the arrival of medical practitioners, it would be the task of the missionaries to tend to the sick and wounded. Holiness and healing were ideologically connected; cleanliness was indeed next to godliness. 

Colenso’s writing (and he was a prolific writer) is rich in descriptions of his medical work. No account of the history of medical practice in the Bay of Islands, Hawke’s Bay or the Wairarapa could be considered complete without reference to the work of William Colenso.

Doctor Colenso, I Presume?
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