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Dr Oswald Francis Bennett
And His Books

Alan Brash - 01/06/01

Os Bennett was a man of many parts - physician, hospital administrator, artist, builder, wood inlay worker, as well as an author.

F. O. Bennett
F. O. Bennett
Photo source Bennett estate
He was also a meticulously neat gardener and a brilliant public speaker, and in the Blackball coalmining district on the West Coast he was renowned as the doctor who went down the mine when there was a mishap. When the British Medical Association arranged an exhibition of doctors' hobbies, he was the only one with three exhibits - a painting, a book and a piece of wood inlay.

But from childhood he was absolutely determined to write - poetry if possible. He was such an avid reader that he had a book balanced on his handlebars as he biked to school, where seated at the back of the class he was often in trouble for reading a book not related to the lesson in progress. So despite the heavy demands of a busy practice, and his other interests, it was inevitable that he found time to write, and many people ever since have known him primarily through his books.

Hospital on the Avon
His first major production was Hospital on the Avon. It covers the history of the Christchurch hospital from its founding in 1862 till when the book was published in 1962. When I first heard the title I was reluctant to pick up the book. It was remote, I thought, from all my interests and I felt sure it would be devastatingly tedious. But when I dipped into it I could not put it down. It was not a dreary institutional record, but a living story brought to life with fascinating and frequently amusing incidents. For example he brings out the idiosyncrasies of the physicians and surgeons who laid the foundations of the great tradition of service which remains the heart of the hospital.

However, he is quite frank about the low standard of hygiene in the early days when for example the hospital had only one portable bed and when patients had to store their possessions under their beds. When the hospital opened in 1862 it had only two nurses and eighteen years later it had advanced only to four day and four night nurses who were paid only 45.00 a year. This meant that there was only one nurse per ward, and they worked twelve hour shifts. From time to time a nurse was fired for drunkenness. The slow progress of the nursing service under the age old assumption of male superiority is vividly described.

Dentistry also had humble beginnings thirty two years after the opening of the hospital when Mr E Turrell was nervously allowed to work in the wards with no supporting staff, no office, no salary, and no equipment save what he provided himself.

The book remains the authoritative record of the hospital in its first hundred years.

The Tenth Home
Bennett's second publication was The Tenth Home (1966). This book reflects even more vividly his sympathetic and profound understanding of the often misunderstood quirks of the very aged and mentally deteriorating. He had been the doctor attached to several of the nine homes for the aged in Christchurch at that time, but by its title this book could not be identified with any one of them. The publication has only 163 pages, but it is full of the joy found in people when one sympathetically understands the oddness of age and mental infirmity. So we meet characters whom in a few sentences, and with false names, he brings to life with totally non-technical language. And his portrayal of the process of death reveals a rare sensitivity.

His comments on neurologists are memorable. They do twelve years of training usually followed by further years of research. "The results of this research," he declares, "fill more gaps in library shelves than gaps in human knowledge. A rather drastic condensation is that we now know that the brain contains about thirty million simple-looking cells; that they work by a method unfathomable; that the work is correlated by a process unknown towards a purpose obscure. But there is no doubt about the result. The modern world where A is always bashing B in the interests of C is the pure product of the human brain."

The March of the Little Men
Only five years later he produced The March of the Little Men. It is the story of the gradual development of Waiweka, a small Canterbury township, by people who were not the original pioneers, nor their children, but their children's children. The process he describes is historical though the characters who bring the process to life are fictitious. Waiweka owes its existence to a road maker's horse which went lame, and its gradual development to sturdy people who with their wives and families are the fabric of any provincial town - runholders, small farmers, merchants and artisans. Slowly it became a place with a name and a stopping place for new settlers seeking a livelihood in the vastness of the plains. This, like so many of his books, throws some light on Bennett's growing up in the midst of hardship and privation. It also illustrates yet again his special love for Canterbury.

The homestead at Fairview
The homestead at Fairview
Photo source Bennett estate

Lt-Col Bennett examining a patient, Kalavere Hospital, 1944
Lt-Col Bennett examining a patient, Kalavere Hospital, 1944
Photo source Bennett estate
A Canterbury Tale
In A Canterbury Tale Bennett again reveals his deep attachment to that province of New Zealand as he records the story of his own life. He spent most of his childhood in South Canterbury, including some years at Fairview. Later in his life he made a silver birch panel inlaid with native woods, representing the homestead at Fairview and this is shown on the paper jacket of the book.

His was a full and varied life, including his service in the Pacific during World War One, but his failing to get to France before the war ended. He enlisted again in World War Two and his medical skills were again used in the Pacific.

He held many important posts and finally became the senior medical officer in the hospital ship Manganui in which he took a major part in rescuing enslaved war prisoners from Japanese forces while still not certain that those forces really understood that the war was over.

But the autobiography is far more than a vivid record of military services. It is a modest record quietly revealing the character of a great man, from his birth at the beginning of the last century until just before his death in 1976. It is a life story vividly and often amusingly told, created in Canterbury, and contributing to the welfare of a vast number of people in that province. His concluding sentence sums up his great spirit perfectly. "This has been my place, my home, in whose freedom I have thankfully dwelt a space, filled my days, and written my lines."

The Road from Saddle Hill
Finally nearing the end of his life he produced after years of painstaking research The Road from Saddle Hill. It is the long history of the Brash family to which his wife belonged, with special emphasis on the life of T. C. Brash her father. The story is traced from the arrival of T. C. Brash's grandparents in Dunedin on 10 July 1858. They quickly moved to Mosgiel to start a cobbler's business, but determined to start a farm as soon as possible. Unfortunately as Bennett produced it the volume was far too long for publication. The sections on the dairy and fruit industries in which Brash had thrived had to be removed, but as they were considered one of the most accurate and alive records they have been preserved in one of the country's most prestigious libraries. The book thus abbreviated was published after Bennett's death without any other alterations.

Once again this is not only a superb record of New Zealand social history in the careful and accurate style of the author, but it is brought to delightful lightness in the very human style of the earlier publications.

Bennett was not one of this country's most prolific authors considering the variety and demands of his other activities. Doubtless he will be fondly remembered long by those to whom he brought physical health, but perhaps in the long run there will be even more people who will feel that they know and love him after they have read his books.

Click here to read more about the author of this article.
Click here for more about T. C. Brash.

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