In my February Making History column, about the connection between physiotherapy and the physical culture movement, I referred to Cora Wilding: a notable figure in New Zealand society and one of our early physiotherapists. 

Cora founded the Sunlight League in New Zealand, was instrumental in establishing the Youth Hostel Association, and was one of the most passionate advocates for the physical culture movement.

She was born in Christchurch, the daughter of Frederick Wilding and Julia Anthony, both passionate advocates for physical fitness.  Cora’s brother, Anthony, would later become a Wimbledon tennis champion and Davis Cup player and Cora herself was very keen on sport, representing Nelson Girls’ College in hockey and tennis.


Cora Wilding

Cora’s interest in the outdoors led her to pursue a career as a landscape artist, spending time in Europe with Frances Hodgkins and others – benefiting from her father’s generous allowance.  A desire to serve her country in the First World War brought her back to New Zealand in 1917 and led to her enrolment at the Dunedin School of Massage.  She practised only briefly in New Zealand and England on graduation, but during her time in Europe she would visit the Children’s Clinic of renowned Dr Auguste Rollier in Leysin, Switzerland – a visit that would change her life.

Rollier was famous for his beliefs in the curative properties of sunlight (or heliotherapy).  He claimed to have successfully treated thousands of cases of tuberculosis of the bones, joints and skin.  After Cora’s visit to the clinic, she returned to New Zealand and immediately put into practice Rollier’s ideas, establishing health camps around the South Island, managed by the newly formed Sunlight League. 

The Sunlight League worked to improve the health of children by exposing them to fresh air, sunlight, exercise, healthy diets and dental hygiene.  The League’s aims were undoubtedly based on the principles of eugenics – a term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, which drew directly on Darwin’s own ideas of natural selection – and argued that selective breeding and conditioning of “stronger” members of society would enhance the individual and collective strength of the race. 

One of the League’s aims stated that it sought to “educate people…in the knowledge of the laws of heredity, the importance of civic worth and racial value, and by the study of eugenics to exchange racial deterioration for racial improvement” (Gush, 2009, p. 4).  To this end, Cora “carefully selected children (mainly girls) of ‘good heredity’ from ‘self-respecting homes’ who were capable of becoming good citizens” (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 2010).  It has recently been argued, however, that Cora’s own interests lay in the aesthetic and health benefits of health camps and youth hostelling, rather than the overtly eugenic aims of the League (Gush, 2009).

Cora may have drawn away from overtly practicing physiotherapy (or massage as it was known then) because the profession concentrated more on the development of ultraviolet technology and remedial exercise for individual patients than the population-based eugenics of physical culture, but there are undoubted parallels between Cora’s life as a therapist, and that of the social reformer. 

Dr George Jobberns, President of the New Zealand Youth Hostel Association from 1936 to 1946, once noted that “If [Cora] knocks on your door and asks you to do something, do it right away – because you will have to do it eventually anyway” (Crooks, 1982, p. 14).  Cora was clearly a highly charismatic and charming woman with a passion for the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders.  Her memoirs held at the University of Canterbury Library tell a fascinating story of some of the formative influences upon early physiotherapy practice in New Zealand. 

By David Nicholls

Further reading

Crooks, D. (1982). Cora & Co.: The first half-century of New Zealand youth hostelling. Christchurch: Youth Hostels Association of New Zealand Inc.

Gush, N. (2009). The Beauty of Health: Cora Wilding and the Sunlight League. New Zealand Journal of History, 43(1), 1-17.

Tennant, M. (1996). Children's Health Camps in New Zealand: The Making of a Movement, 1919-1940. Social History of Medicine, 9(1), 69-87.

Wanhalla, A. (2007). To 'Better the Breed of Men': women and eugenics in New Zealand, 1900-1935. Women History Review, 16(2), 163-182.

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