Tributes for nursing treasure Putiputi O'Brien

28 August 2015

Nursing taonga Putiputi O'Brien RN QSO passed away this month aged 93.  NGAIRA HARKER of the College of Nurses Aotearoa, HEMAIMA HUGHES of Te Kaunihera o Nga Neehi Māori o Aotearoa (the National Council of Māori Nurses) and KERRI NUKU of Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa NZNO pay tribute to this special nurse. 

Ngaira Harker's tribute on behalf of the College of Nurses Aotearoa at the passing of College patron Putiputi O'Brien

Ngāti Awa has laid one of its most precious taonga to rest with the passing of Putiputi O’Brien.  The daughter of Ngāti Awa chief Eruera Manuera and his wife, Pareake, Putiputi was born and raised in Te Teko in the eastern Bay of Plenty. Her tribal affiliations include Ngāti Awa, Te Arawa and Tūhoe. 

Puti Puti O’Brien, was one of the first Māori nurses in New Zealand.  She began her training at Waikato Hospital School of Nursing in 1941 and graduated in 1945 as a registered general and obstetric nurse.

She began her career as a public health nurse in Te Teko when the only way into the remote country areas was by horseback. Later she completed her maternity and Plunket training, and worked for more than 50 years in the eastern Bay of Plenty, central North Island and south Waikato areas.   She is still remembered in Wairoa, my hometown, where she worked as a public health nurse and supported many whānau in Wairoa.  It was here where she met her husband Tom O’Brien. 

On retiring from the Health Department, Putiputi worked in community health with Midland Health as a district health coordinator and the manager of the Ngāti Awa ki Rangitaiki health initiative during which time she was behind many innovative health promotions.

As a Māori nurse Nanny Puti was able to walk in both worlds and throughout the years has articulated eloquently the positive influence that nursing has made within Aotearoa.  It is indeed a long career that Putiputi has had and she has shared freely her knowledge to all within nursing. 

Patron and proverbs

She became a founding trustee of the Tipu Ora Charitable Trust in 1991 and was also the patroness of Smokefree Nurses Aotearoa. She was a recipient of the Akenehi Hei award from Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa NZNO for her contribution to Māori health. In 1987, she was awarded the Queen’s Service Order for her contribution to a wide range of community and welfare organisations at local and national levels. She has been patron of Te Kaunihera o Nga Neehi Māori (National Council of Māori Nurses) since 1984.

On becoming the Patron of the College of Nurses, Aotearoa (NZ), Nanny Puti gifted to the College a whakatauki (proverb):

Kia taha, kia puawai, te maramatanga

The illumination and blossoming of enlightenment. 

This epitomised her positive attitude to life and her approach to care and was also the source for the name of the College newsletter Te Puawai (The Blossoming).

Nanny Puti has always been known and respected at a national level however it is in Te Teko where her loss has truly been felt.  Nanny Puti was the ‘Queen of Te Teko’ and the community of Te Teko is only now coming to terms with the gap she has left in the community.   She is an icon within this region and remained in her whare next to her marae surrounded by her whānau within Te Teko where she continued to support her community.  

Trailblazer fostering next generation

We were fortunate to have Nanny Puti as our ‘cover-girl’, together with her beautiful daughter Pare, in promoting and supporting Te Ōhanga Matora Paetahi – Bachelor of Health Science Māori Nursing.   They have been inspirational in their support of establishing a Māori nursing school within Whakatane.   At the inaugural opening of the programme we had Nanny Puti as our guest of honor and to everyone’s delight including Putiputi, we relived her experiences through some old footage riding on her horse and reliving some of her amazing experiences and challenges within her career.   We were all delighted in watching her laughing and realizing that it was ‘her’ in the clips. 

She was a trailblazer and the tauira (students) who were fortunate enough to re-live this with Nanny Puti will have this memory of her in this magic moment.   We were so fortunate to be able to fulfill one of her dreams, which was to see Te Ōhanga Mataora Paetahi delivered from within the culturally-strong environment of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi

Nanny Puti dedicated her life to what she later described as ‘absolutely, positively nursing'.   In Nanny Puti’s words:

“Nursing by its very essence is about positive impact, we just need to tap its full potential in every setting and every context … Let's together reach out and grasp the fullness of what we have to offer and turn all our energy to achieving a 'positive impact' rather than wasting energy on what leads to negativity. Let us collectively agree we are absolutely, positively nursing.”

The College of Nurses has been truly privileged to have had Putiputi O’Brien as our Patron and thank her whānau for sharing her with us all.

Hāere, hāere, hāere atu rā koe e kui ka moe nei o whatu, ka mahue nei te manehurangi

O te putiputi o te rātā whakaruruhau ki ritoroti a to pā harakeke ka heke nei tōna momo.


Putiputi O'Brien was also patron of Te Kaunihera o Ngā Neehi Māori o Aotearoa (National Council of Māori Nurses). Hemaima Hughes pays tribute:

E te whānau pani, tēnā koutou katoa.

Kua  hinga koe ataahua Whaea Putiputi

E te pohutukawa nui,

Takoto mai i runga i te rangimarie o te Karaiti,

Ko koe  te  kawa whakaruruhau o tātou ākonga me ngā neehi Māori o Aotearoa.

E te pou tokomanawa e kore rawa koe e warewaretia

Takoto i runga i te aroha

Kei te maumahara tonu tō kōrero i o tātou ākonga me ngā neehi Māori o Aotearoa mo te hauora o ngā iwi Māori me ngā tangata katoa.

‘Tomo mai ki te akoranga hauora

whakahokia ki te ao whanui’

Haere atu rā koe i runga tō waka tūpuna o Mataatua.

No reira, e te rangatira whaea, haere, haere, haere atu rā.

Moe mai i tō moengaroa.


To the bereaved family, greetings.

You have fallen beautiful Aunty Putiputi

O giant pohutukawa, lie in the peace of Christ

You are the shelter of our Māori nursing students and nurses of New Zealand

Our great pillar, you will never be forgotten

Lie peaceful in our love.

Your advice to all Māori students and Māori nurses to ‘enter to learn and go forth to serve’ (for the health of the  people) will always be remembered.

Go to your waka Mataatua to the gathering place of your ancestors. Therefore Aunty our esteemed leader,  farewell, farewell, rest in peace.


Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere of Rūnanga o Aotearoa NZNO, pays tribute to Putiputi:

Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa pay tribute to Putiputi O'Brien and honour her outstanding Māori leadership. Putiputi worked tirelessly to improve the health and wellbeing of our people.

As a recipient of our most prestigious award Putiputi was acknowledged and admired by her peers for maintaining the integrity and values of manaakitanga, kaitiakitanga and wairuatanga as she went about fulfilling her vision of building a strong and resilient Māori workforce, in what were challenging times.

There is a Māori proverb that goes:

Kua hinga he totara i te wao nui a Tāne

A totara has fallen in the forest of Tāne

A totara is a huge tree that grows for hundreds of years. For one of them to fall is a great tragedy.

Although we have lost a significant wahine toa we must take comfort from her vision that has inspired many young and old, Māori and non-Māori who follow in her footsteps and her dream will continue and remain in our hearts and the to grow into strong Māori leaders.


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