Guiding light at Wellington Hospital

Caleb Tucker
Caleb Tucker

Caleb Lewis Tucker: b Ashburton, May 12, 1919; m Josephine Sylvia Penn, 2s, 1d; d Wellington, November 23, 2012, aged 93.

Three key events in Caleb Tucker's life set him on the road to becoming the superintendent-in-chief of Wellington Hospital from 1965-84.

His first break occurred following an 18-month illness before he began his secondary schooling in Ashburton in 1934. He and his mother went to a pre- enrolment meeting at the college with the headmaster, Mr E A Cockroft. In this interview, the subject of the teenager pursuing accountancy in the family timber and building firm was raised as a career prospect by his mother.

But Mr Cockroft, seeing the potential of the youngster in front of him, told the new pupil's mother: "Mrs Tucker, your son has a good record at primary school; I would suggest he does the academic course with Latin and French and a decision about a career can be made after matriculation."

When matriculation results came out in July 1937, the letters MP (medical preliminary) indicating a pass in Latin were printed alongside his name.

After leaving school he decided on a career in medicine and went to medical school at Otago University.

In his old age, Mr Tucker admitted to having one regret in life. He never personally thanked Mr Cockroft for the advice he gave his mother. The early confidence placed in him by the headmaster helped shape his life.

His second break occurred while he was a house surgeon at Palmerston North Hospital in 1946.

Mr Tucker had applied for a postgraduate surgical course at Middlesex Hospital in London, studying for a Royal College of Surgeons Fellowship , anticipating, if accepted, to travel to England at some stage in 1947.

Much to his surprise, a confirmation letter arrived on June 18, 1946, to say he had been accepted for an earlier course.

There was a catch, however. He would have to get to London by November to guarantee the placement. Mr Tucker had no idea how he could make the journey in time. He spoke to a relative in Wellington, Alf Blackburn, who had a friend in the shipping industry.

A quick response came back from the friend. The young doctor was advised to get down to the Shaw Savill Line offices in Waring Taylor St as soon as possible because there was a ship departing for the UK in early July. It was looking for a ship's doctor. Mr Tucker got the job and began the course in late 1946.

He gained his English Fellowship in 1949 and returned to New Zealand in 1951, serving as locum surgeon-superintendent at Ashburton Hospital.

From Ashburton, he headed south down the highway to Oamaru Hospital as a surgeon from 1951-54 and as surgeon- superintendent from 1955-64.

The third event that brought him to Wellington came in the early 1960s, when the then-retiring medical superintendent at Wellington Hospital, John North, encouraged him to apply for the job.

Mr Tucker's application was successful, but he was anxious to avoid switchboard operators in Oamaru finding out the confidential news ahead of time.

He and his wife reached a prior understanding that if he mentioned there would be "no more apricots" - a reference to a flourishing tree he had planted in their Oamaru home - in a telegram following a series of interviews, the family would know he had got the position.

Early in his career at the helm of Wellington Hospital, Mr Tucker had overall responsibility for treating survivors of the Wahine disaster on April 10, 1968.

During his time as medical superintendent, he oversaw the extension of chest surgery into cardiac surgery; the expansion of cardiac diagnostic testing and diabetes services; the creation of epidemiology and rheumatology units; the establishment of gastrointestinal endoscopy and vascular surgery; the development of alcohol and drug addiction services; an intensive care unit; community health centres in Waitangirua and elswehere; the development of special paediatric services at Puketiro; Kenepuru Hospital; Wellington Women's Hospital; a new psychiatric unit at Wellington Hospital; and a new block at Hutt Hospital.

A further major development was the establishment of the University of Otago's Clinical School, which enabled medical students to undertake fourth and fifth-year studies in Wellington.

Mr Tucker always had a caring approach to young and old. He encouraged the younger members of the medical staff in their professional development.

He also learned from his patients that the human spirit could never be underestimated.

One 80-year-old woman in particular confirmed to him he should never let a person's age be the main arbiter when deciding patient treatment.

When he operated on her during his time in Oamaru, she had an "inoperable carcinoma of the pelvic colon" and had been given a short time to live. Twenty years later, Mr Tucker and his wife attended her 100th birthday, and she lived to be 107. 

Sources: Mark Tucker and Tucker family members.

The Dominion Post