Our Story – Ngā Pūrākau a Whānau Āwhina

When it comes to Plunket’s history – Sir Frederic Truby King is only half the story.

The truth is, if it wasn’t for two Māori midwives and the patronage and support of Lady Victoria Plunket, there is no way Plunket would be here today.

The origin of Plunket

Plunket began in the small coastal town of Karitāne with Dr Truby King, Mere Harper and Ria Tikini at the turn of the twentieth century.

Mere Harper (‘Big Mary’) and Ria Tikini (‘Mrs Chicken’), both of Kāi Tahu and Kāti Huirapa descent, were highly respected midwives and healers who often worked closely with their friend and neighbour, Dr King, to care for the ill in their community.  

It was Mere and Ria who helped deliver Thomas (Tommy) Rangiwahia Mutu Ellison, the first Plunket baby, in 1906 – and later helped Dr King care for him when breastfeeding issues were causing him to lose weight and become unwell.  

Mere had seen the same thing happen with Mutu’s older brother, who sadly passed away as a baby.

Young ‘Tommy Mutu’ thrived under the care of Mere, Ria and Dr King, and within a year the Karitāne Home for Babies had opened in Dunedin. Mere and Ria became some of the first in the ever-growing number of nurses and midwives helping to nurture and raise these babies.

Wāhine toa – Women of strength

Emblazoned on the heart-like wings of Plunket’s new brand is a tohu (pattern), the central figure of which represents our “women of strength” and proudly acknowledges Mere and Ria. 

Mere and Ria were the first in a long line of wāhine toa who have paved the way for Plunket, a service that is unlike anything else in the world.

Another in this line was Lady Victoria Plunket, mother-of-eight and wife of Lord Plunket (New Zealand’s Governor-General from 1904-1910), who gave her name and patronage to the Society.

Lady Plunket was instrumental in rallying support for Dr King’s method and vision to ‘help the mothers and save the babies’. As a result, Plunket committees, clinics and Karitāne Hospitals spread rapidly across Aotearoa, each representing the hundreds of thousands of other women, mothers, nurses and men, who have all played a part in helping Plunket to become what it is today.

Stronger together

As an organisation that sees over 85% of all newborn babies in Aotearoa, Plunket is perfectly placed to make the difference of a lifetime in those vital first 1000 days of a child’s life.

And that’s exactly what we intend to do.

Plunket is on a journey to ensure equitable health outcomes for all our whānau – a goal we are passionate and committed to seeing through.

Plunket has existing areas of innovation where services have been co-designed with whānau Māori to be more responsive to the needs of Māori. For example, Whirihia, our kaupapa Māori pregnancy, childbirth and parenting programme and Whānau Awhina Whānau Ora, that uses the Te Wheke model of care to support whānau Māori.

Another significant shift in the delivery of our services is Engaging Whānau, a project that ensures services available for whānau are designed around and led by needs of whānau and community. We have also hired three Kaiārahi Māori (Māori Capability Advisors) to strengthen our internal capacity and capability to truly ‘walk the talk’.  

Whānau Āwhina/Plunket and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu have recently partnered too, offering an annual scholarship, the Mere Harper and Ria Tikini Memorial Scholarship, to a full-time nursing student of Ngāi Tahu descent in their final year of study.

And that’s just the beginning.

We know we need to be better at working with iwi providers and with whānau Māori to ensure all of our services meet their needs and that whānau across Aotearoa feel heard, valued and respected – and we are committed to that journey.

After all, we’re so much stronger together. Just ask Mere, Ria, Dr King and Lady Plunket.  

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