Faddist or Forward-Thinker? Dove-Myer Robinson and Mid - Twentieth Century Health Reform

Image: Auckland City Council. Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 580-79140B.

Sir Dove-Myer Robinson has been remembered as a visionary environmentalist, who was ahead of his time. Robinson, or ‘Robbie’ as he became known, entered Auckland’s political scene in the 1940s, when he opposed the Brown’s Island plan that would have dumped untreated sewage into the Waitematā Harbour. He was elected to the Auckland City Council in 1953 and later served as Deputy Mayor. In 1959, he took on the role of Mayor of Auckland, and was the longest-serving mayor in the city's history, across two terms from 1959-1965 and 1968-1980. 

Known for his charismatic and gregarious personality, Robinson was often seen riding a bicycle around the city or walking from his home in Remuera to the Town Hall shirtless, earning him the title of Auckland’s ‘Topless Mayor’. 

Robinson was a strong advocate for urban planning and helped to improve the city’s bus and rail services. His efforts to address environmental concerns saw him as president of the Humic Composting Club from 1947, and the Auckland and Suburban Drainage League. He has also been remembered as a leading opponent towards fluoridation efforts in Auckland and the wider country. Although revered now (by some) as an environmentalist who was ahead of his time, some of his contemporaries viewed him as a ‘health crank’ or a ‘faddist’ – early twentieth-century slang for someone who followed a rigid diet in pursuit of health.  

Robbie the Green Leafer 

John Edgar’s biography of Robinson, Urban Legend, alleges that Robinson became interested in vegetarianism and natural foods when he travelled to Christchurch in 1924 – on honeymoon with his first wife, Adele – where they both joined the local ‘Green Leaf’ movement. The Green Leafers, as they became known, promoted a strict diet of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and brown bread, all in the name of disease prevention. 

Of particular interest to the Green Leafers were the links between diet and cancer – the Green Leaf movement was indeed an off-shoot of the New Zealand Food Reform and Anti-Cancer League, founded in 1924 by former Christchurch mayor, Dr Henry T.J Thacker, and a Christchurch printer, James Raymond Devereux. The Green Leafers were largely based in Christchurch, though the Food Reform and Anti-Cancer League also had a presence in Auckland, where the Mayor, Sir James Gunson, once presided over one of their meetings. The group were accused of being pseudo-scientific and anti-medicine ‘faddists’, though they were admittedly forward-thinking for the 1920s, as the links between diet and ‘lifestyle’ diseases were just becoming recognised.

During the 1940s, Robinson began to do his own research into nutrition, and joined the American Academy of Applied Nutrition, though he had no formal training in the discipline. Perhaps that didn’t matter; some members of the AAAN in its early years were dentists who had taken an interest in diet after witnessing dental decay amongst their patients and concluding that ‘refined carbohydrates’ were the culprit. The Academy also criticised chemical additives and antibiotics in food production, which of course, as per the tenets of the Green Leafer, aligned with Robinson’s belief in the health value of natural foods.

The Humic Compost Club

Robinson’s keen interest in nutrition helped to fuel his passion for organic gardening and soil health, believing that food grown with humus – a component of soil comprised of decomposed plants and animals – was more nutritious. As such, Robinson was generally opposed to the use of artificial fertilisers and sprays, and in doing so he developed an acquaintanceship with an Auckland dentist, and fellow Green Leafer, Dr Guy Brougham Chapman, who founded the Humic Compost Club in 1941. 

Image: Dr Guy Chapman c1943. Chapman served as the president of the New Zealand Humic Compost Club from 1941-1945.

From the late 1930s, Chapman became known for his books and radio broadcasts, where he preached the value of natural foods in lieu of medical interventions. He was accused of being a faddist by medical and health authorities, for his food as medicine approach to health and occasional dismissal of germ theory, including one series of talks where he suggested poliomyelitis was the result of a Vitamin B deficiency.

According to John Edgar, Robinson joined the Humic Compost Club a year after its formation. Edgar credits the group for being ‘ahead of its time’, even though its principles were met with ‘derision and scepticism by the unconverted’. Edgar also wrote that the beliefs of the Humic Compost Club would one day become ‘scientific orthodoxy’.   
While the value of humus may continue to be celebrated by proponents of organic gardening, at the time some scientists were sceptical of some of the Club’s claims that humic compost made plants, animals and humans immune to disease.  The Humic Compost Club’s educational pamphlet, The Living Soil, linked the present-day usage of such artificial fertilisers to poor health, suggesting that this was the reason why hospitalisations were increasing. It said: ‘[r]emember all life comes from the soil, and if the soil is sick, all other life will be.’ 

Cover of the Auckland Humic Compost Club’s pamphlet, The Living Soil, 3rd Edition, Auckland Service Print, Auckland, 1941. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The group at times felt they were the victims of attempts by the scientific fraternity to censor their activities. Nonetheless, together Chapman and Robinson brainstormed methods to bring the composting movement to Australia, where Chapman was based in the late 1940s. Chapman ran into a ‘spot of bother’, as he wrote to Robinson in 1947, when the Australian branch of the British Medical Association attempted to censor his radio broadcasts. (this is from letters between the two).


Robinson was likewise opposed to fluoridation of the public water supply, and he spearheaded the anti-fluoridation movement in Auckland. Chapman, too, was opposed to fluoridation – in spite of his training in dentistry – and instead believed that a healthy diet, devoid of sugar and refined cereals, was the best protection against dental decay. Robinson espoused similar values, very publicly. In 1956, Robinson made submissions to the government’s commission of inquiry into fluoridation, representing the New Zealand Organic Compost Society, as it was now known, and produced a pamphlet titled Fluoride Menaces Health, Freedom, Life. 

In 1958, Robinson organised a national symposium for anti-fluoridation groups.  In the same year, Robinson made submissions to the Dunedin City Council in light of plans to introduce fluoridation there. Robinson stressed a loss of individual liberty, and the dangers to health, calling into question the science behind fluoridation. Ultimately, Robinson called for the government to enforce a ‘new and vigorous’ nutritional education campaign to improve dental health, utilising all media platforms, including the press, radio, and film. Fluoridation was palliative at best, the pamphlet emphasised, and preventive dental care through good nutrition should be prioritised. Robinson’s pamphlet must have resonated with some; in Dunedin, and elsewhere in New Zealand, the public rejected proposals to introduce fluoridation in 1958. 

Image: Excerpt from New Zealand Herald, 30 September 1964. 

Fluoridation continued to be debated into the 1960s, and Robinson was heavily involved in these debates as President of the New Zealand Anti-Fluoridation Society. While mayor, opponents of fluoridation sent Robinson letters outlining their beliefs. One correspondent wrote to Robinson offering a ‘fresh perspective’ on fluoridation as ‘a member of the general rate paying public’, suggesting the value of public opinion over scientific expertise. Fluoridation was a form of mass medication, particularly for children, she wrote, and encroached upon one’s personal liberties. To sum up, she wrote, ‘adding fluorides to the drinking water artificially is the lazy way out.' 

Others wrote in to Robinson having compiled their own evidence in opposition to fluoridation, such as leaflets and propaganda from overseas.  Another correspondent wrote to Robinson with a copy of a letter she had sent to every M.P, defending her ‘right to reject any medication [she] saw fit’ and declaring that ‘it is the betrayal of democratic beliefs which disturbs me deeply’. She compared sodium fluoride to poison, and ended her letter by declaring a conspiracy was at play. ‘The most ardent proponents of fluoridation’, she wrote, ‘are the people who make billions of dollars and thousands of pounds selling the very foods that produce tooth decay.'

The belief that fluoridation is unnatural, a form of mass medication, and an infraction of personal liberties continues to persist in present-day anti-fluoridation circles. Until 2021, fluoridation was not mandatory and individual councils ultimately could choose whether to fluoridate the local water supply. When the Health Amendment Act was passed in 2021, it gave the Director-General of Health a mandate to direct councils to fluoridate their drinking water supplies. Yet there continue to be protests. Some groups in favour of a fluoride-free New Zealand view Robinson as a pioneer of the anti-fluoridation movement, who bravely challenged scientific consensus. Nonetheless, Robinson’s involvement with the Humic Compost Club, and his staunch opposition to fluoridation, were no doubt shaped by his experience in the Green Leaf movement in the 1920s, and his relationships with other fellow Green Leafers - and ‘faddists’ - in the mid-twentieth century. 

Author: Helen Morten

Helen is a PhD candidate in History at Waipapa Taumata Rau and the recipient of the Auckland Library Heritage Trust John Stacpoole Scholarship for 2023- 2024.

Her current PhD research explores the appeal of food faddists and diet trends in Aotearoa New Zealand from 1920- 1960, as a product of broader concerns regarding the nature of diet and disease during this period. 


Auckland Humic Compost Club, The Living Soil, 3rd Edition, Auckland: Auckland Service Print,1941, 6. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

John Edgar, Urban Legend: Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, Auckland: Hodder Moa, 2012, 79. 

Letter to Dove-Myer Robinson, dated 30 September 1964. From: Robinson, Dove-Myer, Sir, 1901-1989. Papers. Fluoridation Correspondence, A-H. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 822.

Letter to Dove-Myer Robinson, dated 24 September 1964. From: Robinson, Dove-Myer, Sir, 1901-1989. Papers. Fluoridation Correspondence, A-H. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 822.

Letter to Dove-Myer Robinson, dated 6 August 1964. From: Robinson, Dove-Myer, Sir, 1901-1989. Papers. Fluoridation Correspondence, A-H. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 822.

Further reading

Guy Chapman, Modern Food Habits, New Plymouth: Thomas Avery, 1937.

Chapman, Guy, Menus, Recipes and Why?, Auckland: Burnock Publications, 1939. 

Chapman, Guy, Z.B Nutrition Talks, Auckland: Newmarket Printing House, 1941-42.

Chapman, Guy, Nutrition: Prevention and Cure of Common Ailments, Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1946.

Peter Nicholas, Robbie of Auckland: A Biography, Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1974. 


  1. Thank you very much for this great article Helen, it provides some interesting insights into the era as well as the individuals


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