Dr Thomas Moore Philson

An extra-ordinary doctor...

...an enduring legacy.

Thomas Moore Philson played a significant part in medical matters in New Zealand in the mid-late 1800s.

He was born in Londonderry, Ireland in 1817. After largely being educated by his father Matthew (who was a mathematics master at a private school), Thomas graduated as a doctor from the University of Edinburg in 1834.

While working as an assistant in a medical practice in Gloucestershire, he married Matilda Willmet Anderson in 1844. They had six daughters and three sons.

The Philsons emigrated to Australia in 1845, after he had received a commission as assistant surgeon to the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot. The regiment was then sent to New Zealand, to see action in the northern campaign of the New Zealand Wars in the Bay of Islands area.

Philson was involved in the battle of Ruapekapeka Pa in January 1846, and was mentioned in dispatches. Philson left the regiment in 1851, and started a private practice in Auckland.

Soon he held important medical positions in Auckland - appointed coroner in 1858, provincial surgeon and superintendent of Auckland Hospital in 1859, and port health officer in 1860. He also was the medical officer for Fort Cautley and Mount Eden prisons, and to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum.

His devotion to duty was extra-ordinary. When the ship Nebraska arrived from Sydney in 1872, with a crewmember aboard with smallpox, Philson, (who had smallpox when he was younger), isolated himself with the patient until he died. Philson then handled all the funeral arrangements alone and stayed in isolation, even from his family, for weeks longer. The superintendent of the province presented Philson with a cheque for £100 in recognition of this service.

Hospital records from 1865-75 have detailed reports by Philson criticising the poor conditions in the hospital, especially the lack of accommodation and inadequate water supply. Philson did not shy away from outspoken comments when he thought they were justified, and made frank references about the hospital in newspapers. He was effective, and the provincial government decided in 1875 to build a new hospital.

Auckland's second hospital opened in 1877 with Philson as medical superintendent. He retired in 1883, because his right hand had became disabled from septic poisoning.

At Philson's retirement he was presented with an illuminated address, a gold watch and chain, and a purse of 270 sovereigns.

Philson donated the money to the establishment of a trust to support a student medical library, but it was almost 90 years before the Philson Library was properly established at the University of Auckland’s medical school.

Says Te Ara, the online encyclopedia of New Zealand, “Thomas Moore Philson was noted for unbending integrity, a sympathetic understanding of his patients, and a remarkable devotion to their needs.”

Thomas Moore Philson died at his home in Grafton on 22 November 1899, aged 82. Matilda Philson died in Auckland on 5 September 1908.