Doctor to the Islands

Doctor to the Islands, Tom and Lydia Davis, 1954

  • Cook Islands, #2
  • Borrowed from San Francisco Library
  • Read: September, 2015
  • Rating: 2.5/5
  • Recommended for: Tropical epidemiologists

Ha Long Bay July 11 2013 1
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, 2013

As a piece of literature, not recommended. The writing is pretty bad and the pacing is slow. But as a sociological text offering insight into public health policy in remote locations, this book is fairly interesting. It’s an autobiographical account of Tom Davis, a Cook Islander who became the Medical Officer for the Cook Islands in the 1950s, and his wife Lydia, a New Zealander who accompanies him. Tom occupies a strangely liminal space in Cook Islands society; he is the product of a Welsh father and a half-Welsh, half-Maori mother who is herself the daughter of Cook Islands Maori royalty. Born on Rarotonga but educated in New Zealand from an early age (which seems to be a fairly common path for Cook Islanders who have the means to do it), Tom views his compatriots on Rarotonga with a somewhat anthropological eye; though he is sympathetic and driven to solve their public health issues, one rarely gets the sense that he considers himself one of them. And yet he does not fully fit into New Zealand society either. He applies for the medical officer position three times before finally being accepted; he puts his rejection down to being a Cook Islander, the colonial powers that be preferring to install one of their own in the position (because, it is implied, they want someone whose sympathies are more likely to be aligned with the government than with the populace). Once given the position he nearly loses it several times by being overly revolutionary and demanding, insisting on an air ambulance and improved conditions for tuberculosis patients, refusing to accept any of the limitations imposed by the colonial government. He works with the local traditional healers to determine public health needs, and travels through the country (with Lydia in tow) to improve mosquito control and reduce infant mortality. When he arrives on Rarotonga the hospital is seen as a place where people go to die; by the time he leaves there is a successful sanatorium and a greatly improved survival rate for hospital patients. As a primer in public health and tropical medicine, it’s fairly fascinating. Unfortunately he is a stiff and ineloquent writer, who comes across as a rigid and not particularly friendly, though intelligent and driven, person. He writes with a clinical detachment and his agitation on behalf of the Cook Islands people seems to be based more on scientific ambition than human sympathy. On the other hand, twenty years after this book was published, he was elected prime minister of the country, so some people must have found him appealing. It’s always possible that he just wasn’t a good enough writer to create a sympathetic persona on the page.

 

Ha Long Bay July 11 2013 3
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, 2013

In contrast, Lydia (they trade off sections of narration, each writing in their own voice and from their own perspective) comes across as genuine and likable. She’s fairly ignorant but not snobbish, and where Tom seems to hold himself aloof from everyone, she is ready to make friends with all and sundry. She tells her parts of the story with warmth and humor, offering a voice with which the reader can empathize, as she encounters a foreign culture for the first time, battles hurricanes and tropical rot, and does her best to help her husband in his personal crusade against contagious disease. She rolls with the punches and makes the best of every situation. She seems to deserve better than her rigid and distant husband (who I never really forgave for forbidding her from taking a job in radio soon after they were married, preferring to live in poverty rather than suffer the indignity of a wife involved in the performing arts; she doesn’t seem to hold it against him but I can’t say the same for myself). It’s hard to find any information about her, but the Davises divorced sometime between this book and 1979 (when Tom married a fellow Cook Islander, the leader of the Takitumu tribe), and I hope she went off and had fantastic adventures and became an actress and dyed her hair purple or something.

On a side note, there’s a funny serendipity in this book, recurring names and places from other books. Early in the book, Tom works briefly at Seacliff Hospital, where Janet Frame was institutionalized. Later we encounter John Pratt and Ron Powell, sailers whose ship is destroyed in the hurricane described in The Island of Desire. Later still, Robert Dean Frisbie himself shows up, morose and self-flagellating, and becomes a fixture in the Davis household. He gives Lydia writing lessons. It gives the impression of a small and (literally) insular world–a community of European-derived expatriates bumming around the South Pacific without ever integrating into the pre-existing societies of the places where they alight. You wonder what the permanent inhabitants of the Cook Islands thought of them…or whether, in fact, they thought of them much at all.

Ha Long Bay July 11 2013 2
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, 2013
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