William Henry Hosking, born on 26 December 1841 at Redruth, Cornwall, England, was the son of Elizabeth Phillips and her husband, William Hosking, an ironfounder. He was educated at schools in Falmouth and Taunton, then studied at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School and qualified MRCS, LRCP (London), LSA and LMI. He is said to have travelled to New Zealand as ship's surgeon on the New Great Britain, arriving at Bluff in 1863. On the voyage he had to cope with an outbreak of smallpox among the passengers.
Hosking practised at Bluff and regularly visited Stewart Island in whaling boats. He then moved to the West Coast, travelling by half-decked whaleboat to Hokitika, where he made a hazardous landing. He set up practice among thousands of goldminers in an environment where drunkenness and disorder were commonplace. Hosking was equal to the task: he was able to deal with difficult patients and calm the obstreperous with his steady gaze and firm manner. He worked at a public medical institution at Hokitika, then practised in Ross, where he was surgeon to the Ross Hospital until 1873. On 10 February 1869 at Ross he married Christina Sloane Archer, a teacher; they were to have three sons: Archer, Frederick and Rupert.
After visiting England, Hosking began his practice in Masterton in 1875. The town had been established for 20 years, during which time it had been without a doctor or hospital. It had, however, been ably served by a Scottish nurse, Selina Sutherland. In 1879, thanks largely to her efforts, a 20-bed hospital was opened at Lansdowne with Hosking as its first surgeon and superintendent.
Hosking was often to be seen visiting patients in town or the surrounding countryside in his gig or on horseback. He was short but robust, and wore a beard, top-hat, and neat frock-coat. He made countless arduous journeys, sometimes using a relay of horses, to visit patients or accident victims up to 50 miles away. He often traversed difficult roads and tracks, and on occasion dangerously swollen rivers.
The only doctor in Masterton for many years, Hosking worked long hours and was the complete general practitioner. He delivered babies and performed skilful abdominal surgery. Through reading medical journals such as the Lancet, he kept himself abreast of the latest developments in medicine and rapidly adopted antisepsis and appendicectomy. His enthusiasm for new ideas led him to import X-ray equipment and radium worth several thousand pounds for the treatment of cancer patients from all over the country. Some remarkable cures were effected. He experimented with hypnosis or 'suggestion therapy' and studied the methods of some of the foremost European experts. He operated on patients using hypnotism as an anaesthetic and treated neurotic disorders with hypnosis therapy. Hosking met opposition and criticism for his avant-garde views, but he was not a quack. Rather, he was concerned to advance patient care, although at times he was too uncritically accepting of new therapies.
Christina Hosking died in April 1890. On 13 October 1890, at Kahumingi near Masterton, William Hosking married Alice Vallance. They were to have a son, Douglas, and a daughter, Christina. In May 1899 Hosking resigned his position at Masterton Hospital 'in consequence of friction with the trustees' and was replaced by Dr William Butement. According to one account, the following year he sailed on the Gymeric with the Fourth (Rough Riders) Contingent to the South African war, in which he served as surgeon major. However, his service cannot be confirmed with official records. He may have travelled overseas at this time.
In 1902 Hosking was again in Masterton. He built a large brick house in Church Street, with a ground-floor surgery, wooden verandas and well-tended gardens. There were three maids, a gardener and a stable-hand. His son, Archer, who had become a doctor, took over the superintendency of Masterton Hospital in 1905 and held it until 1938.
Hosking now worked as a consultant, and carried out medical research in a back room at home. Outside of his work he frequently exhibited at horticultural shows, and introduced hedgehogs and toads to Wairarapa. For many years, summer and winter, he swam each morning in the Waipoua River. He endowed a swimming bath for women, named after Alice and Christina.
William Hosking died on 11 March 1917 in Masterton. He was survived by his second wife and five children. To the people of Wairarapa he had been the well-loved 'Old Doctor Hosking', a man who was short-tempered on occasion, but energetic and kindly as well. He never demanded his fee from a poor patient and many times gave his services for nothing. He may be said to represent the rural practitioner who for years formed the backbone of the medical workforce. But he was also a remarkable individual, enthusiastic, unconventional, eccentric and at times even ridiculous, who took delight in shocking the conceited and the conservative. His innovative practices ensure him of a place in New Zealand's medical history. In 1985 a new ward at Masterton Hospital was named in his honour.