A Quiet Revolutionary: Eru Woodbine Pomare: 1942-1995

He Worked for the Health of all New Zealanders
Listener: 18 February, 1995.

Keywords: Health; Maori;

Eru Pomare, who died suddenly in January, had an impressive whakapapa. A great-great grandmother, Kahe Te Rau O Te Rangi, was one of the few women to sign the Treaty of Waitangi; another, Maora Pani, saw a Captain Cook arrive; his grandfather, Sir Maui Pomare, a doctor and MP, was central to the first Maori health revolution at the turn of the century, which saw a dying race recover in vigour and numbers; his grandmother, Lady Miria Woodbine Pomare, who had a major influence on his life, deserved her own entry in The Book of New Zealand Women, the entry being written by her most eminent grandchild.

Yet the man’s mana came more from achievement. Lineage did not make him the Dean of the Wellington Medical School. Such schools are dominated by barons – they call them professors – who require the highest competency of their dean, the king who handles the conflicts within the realm and its complex relations with myriads of other academic and medical institutions.

While Eru Pomare had the required distinguished record of research and the subtle skills of management of resources and people for a medical deanship, he is likely to be remembered best for his contribution to the second revolution in Maori health of the last decade.

When one goes into a hospital for treatment of bowel cancer, one of his specialities, the doctor will treat the physiological conditions in a manner pretty much independent of the patient’s ethnicity. Subsequent care will have to recognize the individual’s personal and social characteristics. But the main factor in personal treatment is physiological.

However, once the focus moves to preventative health measures, social conditions can be vital. This is well illustrated by the first Maori health revolution when Maui Pomare and Te Ati Awa kinsman, Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), changed Maori life styles. Buck’s biographer, economist John Condliffe, describes him explaining the need to put the latrines outside the fences of the pa. They had been moved inside when the fighting had become fearsome. What persuaded the elders was Buck quoting an ancient waiata in which a rangatira went outside the pa one night to the latrine. Here, the kaumatua marvelled, was one of learning in the pakeha world of medicine, but who knew Maori ways too.

The issue remains today. Some recent research on smoking of mine confirms that smoking shortens life expectation, but also suggests that it has been much more devastating on the Maori than we had thought. It is not just more Maori smoke, and smoke more: they die earlier as a result. Smoking rates have been coming down, but more among the Pakeha. The successful promotion strategies missed out the Maori, because the pakeha dominated campaigns did not connect. So the Maori are taking up the anti-smoking crusade themselves, as they are with other health issues such as alcohol abuse.

Sometimes the issue is very specific to the Maori. Regular marae attenders notice the improvement of the quality of the food in recent years. It remains abundant, but initiatives by the Maori Women’s Welfare League means these days marae food conforms to good dietary practice. Of course our schools have taught cooking for years, but how many of the lessons connected with the particular requirements of marae food?

In these, and many other areas of healthy life style, the guidance of Eru Pomare was key. The standard text on Maori smoking, Te-Taonga-mai-Tawhiti, acknowledges “Professor Eru Pomare needs a special mention for his support, patience, and belief that it could be done.”

I liked the word “patience”. As one of his colleagues commented “he suffered fools with remarkable and enviable grace.” There was a quiet dignity to the man. Those who worked with him, even on government committees on which he served and chaired, recall him first as friend.

Focusing on his contribution to Maori health does not mean that he was uninterested in the non-Maori. If today you are more careful to add fibre to your diet to reduce bowel cancer, or cover up to reduce the risk of melanoma, you are probably responding to a campaign in which Eru Pomare was intimately involved. The skin cancer campaign is revealing in that it is not a Maori problem, is it? The man worked for all New Zealanders.

That was evident at his tangi at the Takapuwahia Marae in Porirua, where the world of the Maori and medicine came together. It poured down at a service. There were too many to fit into the large wharenui. If they had not been warmed by the aroha, the multitude outside would have got pneumonia.

The Maori say that when a great rangatira dies, Rangi of the skies weeps. The tangi broke the drought. But it was too high a price to pay for a man who at 52 had given so much, and had so much more to give.