The English and Hawaiian language editions of Walter Murray Gibson’s Sanitary Instructions for Hawaiians represent interesting milestones in Hawaiian public health. Gibson (1822-1888) was an American adventurer who in the early 1850s was imprisoned by the Dutch on the island of Sumatra for inciting a rebellion, which revealed his first interest in assisting native islanders against harsh treatment by Europeans and Americans. In 1859, he convinced Brigham Young to send him to Hawai’i to establish a Mormon colony on the island of Lana’i. Gibson was soon excommunicated by the Church, however, for the sale of church offices and purchasing land in his own name on the island with Church funds, whereupon he founded his own sect called the “Gibsonite Mormons.”
Gibson saw himself as a champion of the native Hawaiian people, advocating in his bilingual newspaper Nuhou for independence, a strong monarchy, and the health of the populace. A fluent speaker of Hawaiian, he became heavily involved in politics in the Kingdom of Hawai’i, gaining election to the House of Representatives in 1873 and becoming a close advisor to King Kalakaua (reigned 1874-1891).
Having $1,500 appropriated from government funds in 1878 for the purpose, Gibson published his Sanitary Instructions for Hawaiians in 1880, which he says in his preface was “designed for the use of native Hawaiians, alone, to be published in their own language.” The English language version was published primarily for “presentation to foreign physicians, heads of sanitary institutions, and philanthropic individuals, at home and abroad, who do not understand the Hawaiian language.”
Gibson championed Hawaiian culture, claiming that the original Hawaiian way of life- including diet, hygiene, folk medicine, and relationship with nature- had all been disrupted by foreign invasion. He urged Hawaiians to take control of their changing environment, explaining the concepts of germ theory, modern hygiene and sanitation, including instructions on bathing and the construction of outside privies. He also argued for the return to native Hawaiian medicinal herbs and foods such as poi, taro, and seaweed, eschewing the consumption of tobacco, opium, and spirituous liquors. After numerous ups and downs in the political fray, Gibson served variously as King Kalakaua’s Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Minister of Interior between 1882 and 1887. He eventually fled the islands after a bout of political turmoil and died in San Francisco in 1888.
The National Library of Medicine owns and has digitized the second editions of the Hawaiian and English language versions of Gibson’s Sanitary Instructions for Hawaiians, both published in 1881.
To learn more about native Hawaiian concepts of health and healing, visit NLM’s newest flagship exhibition, Native Voices.
Jacob Adler and Robert M. Kamins. “The political debut of Walter Murray Gibson.” The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 18 (1984), pp. 96-115.