Maladies and Treatments

Our last post focused on the establishment of Ashburton’s first hospital, and the other smaller nursing homes and private hospitals that existed in Ashburton district. This week the focus is on the illnesses and treatments that occurred at Ashburton’s first hospital.

Much of the data for these articles comes from the original Ashburton Hospital Admission Register. Covering the period 1882 to 1908, it contains over 3500 entries that shed light on patients, treatments, lives (and deaths) of many people from Ashburton.

1 One of the best ways to stop the spread of disease was to isolate sufferers..png

Today the Register is more than a record of those who were admitted to the hospital, their names, sex and age, their ailments and the treatment given. It is a fascinating social document that provides details about their place of origin, length of New Zealand residence, marital status, occupation, and towards the end of the period, religion.

It also documents changes in medical terminology. It is intriguing to see in the early entries ‘La Grippe’ as a complaint, an illness common in Victorian novelettes, which by 1892 had become ‘influenza’, the term used today.

There are three striking aspects in these hospital admission records covering twenty-six years, first, the high ratio of five males to every female across all age groups. Second, the very high proportion of men giving their occupation as labourer. And third, how many men gave their marital status as single.

The last raises an interesting question as to accuracy. Were some of the older men married and did not disclose their status, or were they widowers, or even absconding husbands, who omitted to reveal their true marital position?

The frequency with which labourer is recorded as a man’s occupation reflects the labour-intensive nature of so much employment at that period, including the forming of roads and railways, agricultural work and transport, all of it potentially hazardous.

These factors go some way to explaining the high proportion of single male patients – they had no families to care for them when ill or injured.

2 A new wing was added to the existing hospital buildings was completed in 1922..png


The column in the Register giving the reason for hospitalisation is rather quaintly headed ‘Malady’.

Many illnesses were recognised but little could be done for the sufferer before the discovery of antibiotics and modern drugs, beyond providing bed rest, nourishing food and nursing care.

Abscesses, phthisis (tuberculosis), and diphtheria were but three that fall into this category.

Diphtheria, a common childhood disease before immunisation, saw whole families hospitalised, including the mother.

3 Ward 1 1917..png

Its wider impact on an entire community could be seen where a cluster of cases would, not infrequently, follow an initial case of infection.

Outbreaks of other infectious diseases that tended to occur in smaller clusters included scarlet fever and typhoid, both the result of insanitary conditions, open drains and cesspits.

Influenza or La Grippe occurred on a regular basis with, at times, quite long periods of hospitalisation. Immunization and modern drugs have ensured that these infections are no longer the scourge they once were.



The Register also shows the length of hospitalisation and treatment prescribed for some diseases was very much at odds with today’s knowledge and practices.

Cancers were removed and the patient discharged as cured; alcoholics kept for a few days and also discharged as cured.

Broken limbs often resulted in hospital stays of seldom less than a month. For one man with both tibia and fibula broken it was over six months in hospital.

The severity of the break would often have been exacerbated by long time it took to get to hospital by horse and cart over rough roads.

Ashburton Hospital did not have an x-ray machine until 1903 and a satisfactory outcome depended soley on the skill of the doctor who set the bones.

Heart disease was a not uncommon diagnosis and the sufferer would be admitted periodically for one to three weeks, merely staving off the inevitable death.

4 A convalescent ward was added to the hospital to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee..png

Across all age groups debility was another frequent cause of hospital admission for both men and women. Medically defined as weakness, loss of strength and energy it was often caused by unsatisfactory living conditions, an inadequate diet and maybe an underlying medical condition. For some their hospital stay was short, for others it could be many weeks.

No doubt a great improvement on earlier treatment and diagnosis, it was a great advantage to have a local hospital provide treatment and care, and the register is testimony to benefits for those many patients.

Note: those with sharp eyes will notice that last week’s image of Ashburton Hospital does not match the designs on this page. A coding error meant that the wrong photo was used, one showing the old Ashburton Borough Council building. With over six million photos in the museum collection, a single digit can make all the difference. We are sure readers will have spotted the difference!


By Margaret Bean



  1. One of the best ways to stop the spread of disease was to isolate sufferers. A fever ward allowed infectious patients to be treated without endangering other patients. This plan shows the design for a fever ward in 1918.
  2. A new wing was added to the existing hospital buildings was completed in 1922. Shown here are Les Brown, Alex Moore and four other tradesmen standing proudly in front of their work.
  3. Ward 1 1917. Often a painful and unpleasant place to stay; the flowers added a little brightness.
  4. A convalescent ward was added to the hospital to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  This image shows the aprons and canvas clothes worn as protective gear worn by tradesmen in the 1890s.  Industrial accidents brought many workers to hospital, where amputation was often the only

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