The Journey to the Library

The life of Dr Thomas Moore Philson

The Journey to the Library
Dr. Thomas Moore Philson's house on Wellesley Street-High Street corner. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-B635.

Early life and military career

Thomas Moore Philson was born on 10 August 1817 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He qualified at Edinburgh in 1839 and was commissioned into the British military on 6 October 1843. He was then appointed Assistant Surgeon to the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment on 30 September 1844 and married Matilda Willmet Anderson at Chatham, Kent on 24 December of the same year.

Originally posted to Sydney, on 22 September 1845 Philson went onto Auckland on the British Sovereign. Philson served in the Northern War at Ruapekapeka Pā (10-11 January 1846) and was mentioned in despatches. He subsequently served in Wellington, Whanganui, and Auckland. He resigned his commission on 9 May 1851 and began his private medical practice in Auckland.

Practicing in Auckland

Philson had an ‘entire disbelief in microbes.’ He could not accept the possibility that the agent for any disease could be invisible to the human eye – it would be unbelievable today, for a doctor or medical practitioner to disbelieve in microbes. Instead, Philson believed health could be improved through religious repentance, though his misquoted bible verse has been recorded in official records.

“I am unable to account for the increasing prevalence of fever although something is due to the increasing population, to the hardships and exposures of the present war. I think that we shall look in vain for the second causes such as defective drainage, overcrowding, want of fresh vegetables, etc. The true cause you will find in the 90th Psalm, 8th verse … ‘For we are consumed by thine anger and by the wrath (due to us for sin) are we troubled.’ And as to the remedy repentance toward God, and faith in Jesus Christ issuing in general reformation will prove a never failing specific.’” [The correct reference is ‘The true cause you will find in the 90th Psalm, 7th verse, ‘For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.’’ KJV]
Image Description

Dr Philson's trunk is on display at the Ernest and Marion Davis Library at Auckland Hospital.

Image Description
Thomas Moore Philson. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-C6037.

Prestigious appointments

Despite his disbelief in microbes, Philson was appointed to six major positions:

1. Twice, surgeon to the Auckland Regiment of the New Zealand Militia (8 December 1856 and 26 April 1860).

2. Coroner for the Auckland District (11 January 1858, reappointed 17 January 1862); this post was extended by Governor Sir George Grey.

3. Provincial Surgeon and Superintendent of the Auckland Hospital (first Auckland Hospital 1859 – 1875, second Auckland Hospital 1877 – January 1883).

In this role, he was also Surgeon and Visiting Medical Attendant to Her Majesty’s Gaol at Mount Eden, the Fort Cautley Prison at Devonport and the Auckland (Whau) Lunatic Asylum.

4. Coroner to the Whau Lunatic Asylum.

5. Health Officer to the Port of Auckland (from 20 January 1860) inspecting inbound ships and their passengers.

6. Brigade Surgeon, holding the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the New Zealand Defence Forces (3 April 1887).

Appalling conditions

During his tenure as Superintendent, in 1865 Philson detailed the generally makeshift conditions including lack of accommodation (only 100 beds), an inadequate water supply, and a need for better facilities. Water had to be carried from the adjacent asylum to the hospital by the patients themselves. Many patients slept on the floor of the dining room and in the lofts to avoid the wind and rain in the main wards. A less than favourable review for the hospital described it as ‘ill-kempt with unsatisfactory cleanliness of the bedding and the patients themselves.’ Despite this, the average stay was 92 days!

In 1883, the second hospital was reported to have widespread vermin, filthy mattresses, and generally poor sanitation in the male wards although higher quality nursing staff in the female ward and particularly the male fever ward kept those areas clean and tidy. This had largely developed because there was inadequate funding for and training of the staff with, for example, only a single member of staff on duty overnight.

Dr T.M. Philson … attends daily from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, visits all the wards and examines all the patients. His residence is adjacent and he is at hand ready to attend in case of emergency.’ He also made daily visits to the Auckland Gaol.

A report on the Auckland Lunatic Asylum in 1879 commended significant improvements in the conditions. There was less overcrowding, greater liberty for the patients with fewer restraints, and more options for industrial occupation. Knives and forks were still not allowed at mealtimes yet white tablecloths were now provided. Many patients slept on the floor and, with little or no heating, would often stay in bed all day.

Dr Philson suffered at least four separate episodes of septicaemia in his career at Auckland Hospital.


Philson retired in 1883 at the age of 65. He was presented with a gold watch and chain, a purse of 270 sovereigns [$58,000 in 2023 terms] and an illuminated address. Dr Philson donated the purse to create a library for medical students. The Philson Library of the Auckland Medical School was opened in August 1970 – 87 years after his donation.

He continued in office as Coroner (‘by permission of the Government’), Port Health Officer and in private practice until soon before his death in 1899.

Dr Philson was a member of the Baptist Communion and attended the Baptist Tabernacle for many years. He and his wife Matilda were major contributors to the foundation of the denomination in Auckland; the preliminary meetings being held in their residence at Wellesley Street East.

The couple had 3 sons and 6 daughters. One daughter died in infancy.

Dr Philson’s casebook, personal certificates and the testimonial are deposited at the Special Collections Library of the University of Auckland. His military uniform is part of the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection.