Dr Joe Williams has long been a respected doctor within the Pacific communities in New Zealand and worked right up until he contracted Covid-19 last month. He died from the virus on September 4.

He has been described as a mighty tōtara - a giant figure and a leader in the Pasifika health sector in New Zealand and around the South Pacific region.

But at his core, Dr Joseph "Papa Joe" Williams lived a servant's life - dedicating himself to helping people and pushing for the betterment of those most vulnerable.

Born 85 years ago in the Cook Islands, he was one of six children to William Tou and Tarita Rota from the village of Ureia, in Aitutaki.

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He grew up in island paradise and would not forget his roots when he left for New Zealand to attend Northland College before going on to graduate from the University of Otago's medical school in 1960. He also gained a Master in Public Health from the University of Hawaii.

In the early 1960s, he returned to the motherland where he worked at the local hospital and became a medical superintendent, surgeon, physician and director of health and social services.

Papa Joe: The father

Daughter Karin Williams, the eldest of the four Williams siblings, has vivid memories of that time and of their father as a young working man.

"We had a house on the beach and he used to grow crops, for export, in his plantation at the back of the house. We had pigs and ducks and chooks.

"He was a keen gardener and a keen fisherman. All of us kids would go out fishing with him in the lagoon. I can still see him with his straw hat and the hooks on it."

Dr Joe Williams was also a keen gardener. Photo / Williams family
Dr Joe Williams was also a keen gardener. Photo / Williams family

From an early age she and her siblings - Richard, Joanna and Jamie - knew how important their father's role in society was.

"We always knew we shared him with everyone. He was very, very dedicated to his job. People know about his public face, yes, but he was the same way to the family.

"Each of us had to be stitched up by him at some stage. He could make you feel really calm - but sometimes we got told off too," she laughed.

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"We all thought we were his favourite. He'd never tell you up front, but he'd go around the corner and tell somebody how proud he was of you."

A life in politics

Dr Williams also had a long political career in the Cook Islands after first being elected to parliament in 1964.

He later won the seat representing Cook Islanders living overseas from 1994 to 2003 and held several cabinet roles including Minister of Health and a brief stint in 1999 as Prime Minister.

His leadership would also result in him being made a Companion of the Queen's Service Order, in 2011, for services to the Cook Islands community.

Dr Joe Williams pictured during his time as the Cook Islands Prime Minister in 1999. Photo / Williams family
Dr Joe Williams pictured during his time as the Cook Islands Prime Minister in 1999. Photo / Williams family

Throughout that time, Williams continued to work to help improve the health of his people and pushed initiatives like the Healthy Visions movement that sought to improve health systems in the Cook Islands and other Pacific nations.

Pacific health leader Dr Collin Tukuitonga, a colleague and friend of Williams, said one highlight was the recognition by the World Health Organisation of his work to eradicate lymphatic filariasis in the Cook Islands.

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Also known as elephantiasis, the parasitic infection causes parts of the body to become grossly enlarged.

"That's a really important achievement. Imagine having a huge leg especially in the islands? It's a hugely debilitating illness. You couldn't work in the plantation, for instance.

"Dr Williams had a keen interest in tropical diseases and he worked hard to see that become completely eradicated in the Cook Islands."

He also served as a member of WHO's executive board in the 1990s.

Pacific health leaders Dr Collin Tukuitonga and the late Dr Joe Williams. Photo / Supplied
Pacific health leaders Dr Collin Tukuitonga and the late Dr Joe Williams. Photo / Supplied

Tukuitonga, the Associate Dean (Pacific) and Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Auckland, said Williams continued to be a hugely popular general practitioner when he and his family came back to New Zealand and set up his health care clinic in Mt Wellington, Auckland.

"He had an overwhelming support and following from the community."

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The 'eczema guru'

Williams soon became known as the go-to doctor for anyone who was suffering from eczema - a skin ailment that affects many Māori and Pacific communities.

Many of the cases who turned up included babies or young children with severe rashes all over their face or body. Adults who had long been plagued by rashes also sought him out.

But it was a concoction he developed - mixing an antifungal cream and a steroid - that would land him in hot water with the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal.

In 2017, Williams was found to have prescribed the mixture without proper analysis of the consequences or adequate formal research and he was slapped with a hefty fine.

Dr Joe Williams with his sister Manuae Scheel, the last surviving sibling. Photo / Williams family
Dr Joe Williams with his sister Manuae Scheel, the last surviving sibling. Photo / Williams family

President of the Pasifika Medical Association Group Dr Kiki Maoate and a nephew of Williams, said: "He was deeply hurt and offended by that process carried out.

"What was sad about that process was that he felt they should've been thinking about the people who he had been helping."

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Despite the tribunal's ruling, thousands of people who had been treated successfully by Williams came out to support him; and a petition to clear his name reeled in about 12,700 signatures.

'Thank you Papa Joe'

One of the families he helped was the Morgan whānau - who visited several doctors, dermatologists and spent about $1000 on creams in a bid to find a cure for their son's eczema before someone finally dropped the name "Papa Joe".

Kym Morgan said her son Makorea, now 9, had "full blown" eczema all over his body except for his face by the time he started school.

"I swear after only seven days of clean eating and applying Papa Joe's special mixture of creams, our son Makorea's skin had cleared."

Morgan's other son Maakoha, now 2, also suffered from eczema and it was straight to Papa Joe when that happened.

"I only met Papa Joe twice but in those two visits he made a lasting impact on our lives and we will forever be grateful to him."

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Memorial services in Rarotonga and Australia have been held in the last few days and a private service to honour Williams in Auckland will take place this week.

He is survived by wife Jill, four children and six grandchildren, and sister Manuae Scheel.

Daughter Karin said: "People felt safe with Dad. He made you feel like you were under his shelter. I'll miss that."