Os Bennett was a man of many parts - physician, hospital administrator,
artist, builder, wood inlay worker, as well as an author.
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
F. O. Bennett
Photo source Bennett estate
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
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.
A Canterbury Tale
The homestead at Fairview
Photo source Bennett estate
Lt-Col Bennett examining a patient, Kalavere Hospital, 1944
Photo source Bennett estate
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
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.