Davis, Sir Thomas Robert Alexander

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DTM and H 1950 MBChB MPH MD honoris causa

Sir Thomas Robert Alexander Davis established the Cook Islands Democratic Party in 1971 and became Prime Minister of the Cook Islands in 1978. He was also the first Cook Islander to qualify as a doctor in New Zealand. His career and research interests, however, extended beyond these islands across the globe and into outer space.

During his oration for the conferment of the Degree of Laws, honoris causa, on Sir Thomas in 2005, the Vice-Chancellor of Otago University, Professor David Skegg, gave this account:

The young Tom Davis had grown up in Rarotonga, that jewel in the Pacific, in the supportive milieu of a Polynesian extended family. He learned to fish and surf, and started a life-long fascination with outrigger canoes as a means of ocean travel.

The Cook Islands had no high school in those days, so at the age of 12 Tom Davis was sent to King’s College in Auckland. The education there was modelled on the English public school system, an approach which Davis described later as “designed to ensure that those who make it through the system will never ever again find anything in life that cannot be taken in one’s stride with aplomb, equanimity and forbearance”. Desperately homesick at the beginning, he seemed to get caned every day during his first year. A ruder shock was the cold of the Auckland winter, which produced in him a nightmare of shivering in the dormitory at night. The fact that the local boys were not affected, and that he himself acclimatised, led to the main research interest of his later career: elucidating the ways in which human beings adapt to cold and other hostile environments.[1]

After graduating from medicine at Otago University in 1945, Sir Thomas gained brief experience at Auckland Hospital before taking an appointment as a Medical Officer with the Cook Island Medical Service. He remained in that service until 1952, becoming Chief Medical Officer in 1948. It was during that time that he completed his Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Public Health within our Faculty simultaneously making substantial changes to health services in the Cook Islands. To quote Vice-Chancellor Skegg again:

Over the next few years, Tom Davis transformed an antiquated and inadequate health system. He restored the operating theatre and dealt with a large backlog of surgery; he started a nursing school; and he promoted public health measures, always being aware that poverty underlay most of the health problems such as high infant mortality. The Assistant Medical Practitioners trained in Suva were fully integrated into a modern health service.

In 1952, he pursued postgraduate studies at Harvard University in Public Health (apparently rather than fly there, he chose to sail there in a 44-foot yacht), becoming a researcher in the Department of Nutrition upon graduation. Following this, in 1955, he took up a series of appointments as research physiologist for the United States Government; firstly as Chief of Department of Environmental Medicine’s Arctic Aero-medical Laboratory in Alaska, then as Resident Physician and Director of the Division of Environmental Medicine, Fort Knox, and then as Director of Research at the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. From 1963 to 1971 he worked for a private research consultancy, concurrently working on the biological aspects of the United States Space Program from 1957 to 1971.

For various reasons, he felt compelled to return home to the Cook Islands in 1971 where he founded the Cook Islands Democratic Party (he also composed the Cook Islands National Anthem[1].) In 1972 he became leader of the Opposition and was elected Prime Minister in 1978. He retained this lofty position until 1987. During his term of office he:

encouraged enterprise and a market economy, and consistently fought corruption. There were very significant increases in employment and in the average income of Cook Islanders, as well as social and cultural advances.[1]

Sir Thomas Davis was knighted by the Queen in 1981.

According to The Cook Islands Who’s Who, he has received further awards since then, becoming the Cook Islands Man of the Year in 1996, the Sportsman Achiever of the Year in Yachting in 1998 and the Pacific Islander of the Century (Achievers Magazine) in 1999.

Despite his retirement from politics, Sir Thomas has recently completed a term as High Commissioner for the Cook Islands in Wellington. “At the age of 87 he may have been the oldest diplomat in the world.”[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Davis, Sir Thomas Robert Alexander. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.