Leader in Maori mental health. Born in Hawkes

Bay. Died in Rotorua on Sunday, aged 82

Dr Henry Rongomau Bennett was a respected, charismatic, caring man who went beyond the call of duty as a psychiatrist.


He was respected as the first Maori mental health leader when he became medical superintendent of Tokanui Hospital between 1964 and 1984.

His identity as a Maori became an issue in 1959 when he was refused a drink at the Papakura Hotel because of his race. At the time he was senior medical officer of health at Kingseat Hospital.

The incident hit the headlines and in the New Zealand Herald Dr Bennett said: "If we are going to tell the world that Maori have equality in New Zealand then this sort of thing is untenable. I want to do what I can to put a stop to this situation, not for myself but for the race."

Walter Nash, then Prime Minister, stepped in and said there was "no excuse" and the bar eventually promised to serve Maori from then on.

The public stand was unusual for Dr Bennett but his race was important, and he had a great following among Maori across the North Island.

Dr Bennett retired in 1996 after a prominent 50-year career in the mental health field. In recognition of his work, the Waikato Hospital named its new mental health wing after him in 1997.

He was also the senior medical officer at Seacliff Hospital in Dunedin between 1953 and 1958 and senior medical officer at Oakley Hospital in Auckland.

Between 1960 and 1962 he was the Auckland Mental Health Association chairman and in 1961 he was a Government representative in Montreal at the Third World Conference on Psychiatry.


Dr Bennett chaired the NZ branch of Australia and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists between 1966 and 1971 and was deputy chairman of the Waikato Arts Centre Trust Board.

He was also on the Maori Advisory Committee's board of health and a member of the Justice Department's committee on psychiatrically disturbed inmates and remand.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Australian and NZ College of Psychiatrists and a member of the NZ College of Community Medicine.

Dr Bennett was made a companion of the Queen's Service Order in 1981 for his work in public health and made an officer of the British Empire in 1986 in recognition for his work in Maori mental health.

In 1982 was given an honorary doctorate from Waikato University in recognition of his work in education.

He was pro-chancellor of the Waikato University from 1971 to 1972, chancellor in 1973 to 1978 and a member of council since 1966.

Dr Bennett is survived by his children, Jill, John, Clive, Pam and Mary. His wife, Alice, died 12 years ago. His funeral was on Wednesday in Ohinemutu and he was buried at Kauae Cemetery, Ngongotaha.