Obituary: Sir Thomas Davis

By Arnold Pickmere

Sir Thomas Davis, leader, doctor, seafarer. Died aged 90.

Sir Thomas Davis will be remembered as the man who, without inclination to military coup, became the premier of his country - after his party had lost the election and he had lost his own seat.

But then the Cook Islands election of 1978 was more of a desperate attempt by the premier of 23 years, Sir Albert Henry, to cling to power rather than an exercise in democracy.

Three months later the Chief Justice of the Cook Islands ruled that Sir Albert and other members of his Cook Islands Party had spent large sums of public money on providing virtually free flights from New Zealand to the islands for 445 supporters so they could vote.

With those votes disallowed, a new count saw all eight Cook Islands Party candidates replaced by the opposition Democratic Party, including the then Dr Tom Davis. Albert Henry later lost his knighthood and died in 1981.

For Davis, at 61, this election was a later-life episode for a man already widely recognised academically as one of the Cooks' most brilliant sons. He had also acquired a reputation as an ocean voyager.

Born in Rarotonga but educated at King's College in Auckland, Davis gained his medical degree at Otago in 1945 and went back to the Cooks.

As chief medical officer from 1949, he reorganised the Cooks' health service - a central hospital, tuberculosis hospital, satellite hospitals and dispensaries - to offer better health care in the widely scattered islands.

After achieving a post-doctoral degree in tropical medicine and hygiene in Sydney, he received a fellowship to the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston in 1952. He decided to sail there himself via Peru and the Panama Canal.

The crew of six included his first wife, Lydia, and two sons. After weeks of constant storms, they reached Peru in 83 days in their 4.4m ketch and were almost out of food.

During his academic career, which came to cover a wide range of scientific subjects, including being involved with biomedical aspects of the space programme, he published two books and more than 60 scientific papers.

In 1972 he returned to Rarotonga in a specific but initially unsuccessful bid to oust Henry.

Davis told the New Zealand government in 1974 that four islands in the 15-island Cooks group could break away from Rarotonga and integrate with New Zealand if the Cooks chose full independence.

"I am personally against it, but I don't blame them," he said, adding that the islands had been consistently denied their share of aid because they did not return members of Sir Albert's party. Their attitude had been brought about "by misgovernment, malpractices, victimisation, unequal distribution of aid and withholding the development of such utilities as electricity and water", Davis said.

About the same time, Sir Albert was rejecting a call from Davis to allow Cook Islanders living in New Zealand to vote - something which Davis was was later able to change. At the time of the 1978 election ruckus, there were 18,000 Cook Islanders in the Cooks and about 20,000 in New Zealand.

Davis, knighted in 1981, was premier (or later prime minister) from 1978 to 1987. He had his electoral ups and downs, although the Herald noted editorially that he took over the Cooks "which were then being run as if the 15 islands were a private farm which some kind of deity had created for the benefit of Sir Albert, for some shadowy foreign businessmen and for a man who claimed to cure cancer [Milan Brych]".

By the time he lost power, Sir Thomas was being described by Cabinet colleagues as having become "extremely difficult to work with". But he will remain a significant part of Cook Islands' history.

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