The plague and Dr Mason
When John Malcolm Mason said there was plague in Auckland no one wanted to believe it.
After all, bubonic or black plague terrified people.
On April 19, 1900, a sick rat was noticed on the wharf in Auckland. It had the plague. Then a second rat was found. Then more.
Auckland was terrified. And other places, like Napier opted to stop some ships bringing goods in.
Two men were sent to investigate. One was bacteriologist Mason. The other was a veterinarian John Anderson Gilruth.
News paper headlines went back and forth between panic and denial.
Mason and Gilruth heavily criticised the conditions around Auckland, a substandard water supply, uncollected rubbish and disposal and old buildings that needed to be condemned.
Twenty one cases of plague were recorded. It seems small but the whole population was about 12,000.
Mason was born on August 22, 1864, in Arbroath, Scotland to Thomas and Sarah Mason. He studied medicine before becoming a ship’s surgeon, then settling briefly in Portsmouth before going to Blyth in Northumberland.
He married Kate Susan Jenkins and studied public health before training for the legal Bar.
His health brought him to New Zealand in 1895 where he set up a general practice in Otaki.
As a skilled bacteriologist and one of only a handful of doctors in New Zealand with a public health diploma, his first major triumph was to have the government set up a state laboratory for testing - along with Gilruth.
With the threat of plague he championed the first Public Health Act, which set out the first national department of health and Mason became the first chief health office, a role that became the one we associate with Sir Ashley Bloomfield today.
In his first annual report to the government he outlined his aims especially vaccination against smallpox, a fight against tuberculosis (leading to the establishment of sanatoriums) and a focus on Maori health.
He was also editor of the New Zealand Medical Journal.
In a case of irony, Mason himself contracted diphtheria and spent months recovering which led to an extended trip around North America and Europe to study advances in public health.
He promoted the Quackery Prevention Act 1908 which made it illegal to publish a false statement about the efficiency of medicines.
Mason acted as chief sanitary officer of the Wellington Military District and had the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served as a medical officer aboard the Marama but was invalided out.
Mason was replaced as chief health officer in 1909 when the number of government employees were reduced to cut costs. He was appointed to special duties to London as a consulting medical officer.
There he finally completed his legal studies and was called to the Bar in 1910 before returning to New Zealand to set up a private medical practise in Wellington and Lower Hutt.
Mason died in Lower Hutt on May 9, 1924 after spending a year fighting cancer.
He is buried at the Otaki Public Cemetery.
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