Frederick Richard Edmund Emmett was born at Nelson on 11 December 1903. His parents were from Lancashire, England; his mother, Ellen Emmett, née Hardman, had worked in a cotton mill and his father, Adam Butterworth Emmett, a labourer, later became a grocer. He was educated in Takaka and Nelson and at Wanganui Technical College.
On leaving school Emmett worked for his father as a grocer and fruiterer in Aramoho, Wanganui. In 1926, with his brother John, he opened a music and radio shop in Victoria Avenue. Trading as the Emmett Music Company, they specialised in the sale of sheet music and records and sold and repaired musical instruments and radios. For a few years from 1939 they ran a branch shop in Palmerston North. Emmett also became a piano tuner and qualified as a radio and radar technician. On 12 August 1939, in Wanganui, he married Kathleen Mary Norris; they were to have two sons, one of whom was stillborn.
In the late 1930s Emmett attended a talk on radiesthesia, or medical dowsing, given by a visiting English radiesthesist, Herbert George. Radiesthesia is based on the premise that all matter emits vibrations or radiations, and diseased organs give off different vibrations from those of healthy organs. Emmett heard that illness could be diagnosed by picking up these vibrations with a pendulum in much the same way as dowsers detect water or minerals with a dowsing rod. People who can dowse, especially radiesthesists, are considered to have extrasensory perception.
Emmett became increasingly interested in radiesthesia through teaching night classes on radio and radar to radio operators during the Second World War. Reading widely on the subject, he learnt about the use of colour in diagnosing and treating ailments. He began experimenting with colour therapy and was so successful that people were soon coming to him for treatment. To locate the imperfect vibrations given off by an ailment, he would hold strands of coloured cotton, representing perfect health, and a bobbin or ‘rotoscope’ in one hand and point his other hand at the patient’s body. After pinpointing and diagnosing the ailment, he would decide on a remedial colour to counteract the condition. Cotton strands of the colour were then put in a small box containing a specially charged coil, which would transmit the colour vibrations into the patient’s body.
By 1948 so many people were seeking treatment that Emmett decided to become a full-time therapist. His practice was conducted in three rooms above the music store, which continued to operate under a manager. Patients received treatment for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Emmett’s treatment could also involve dieting and the taking of vitamins, minerals and natural herbs. His patients came from throughout New Zealand and overseas; some were young, but the majority were aged between 50 and 75 and most were people for whom conventional medicine could do no more. Among the many ailments he claimed to have treated successfully were skin disorders, some forms of cancer, arthritis, diabetes and sinusitis. Sometimes he would refer patients to medical practitioners or to chiropractors. He seldom advertised: most patients came to him through word of mouth.
Emmett was chairman from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s of the Herbert George Radiesthesia Association. He twice petitioned Parliament in the 1950s to have colour therapy recognised by the minister of health, but was unsuccessful. His wife helped in the music store for many years and was later assisted by their son, Rodney, who also worked as a colour therapist with Emmett from 1965 to 1974.
Outside his work Emmett had numerous interests, including photography and collecting stamps, coins and cigarette cards. Brought up a Baptist, he became a British-Israelite in his 20s, later serving for 30 years as president of the Wanganui Branch of the British-Israel World Federation. From around the time he went into business he was an active member of the Wanganui Male Choir for 50 years. He was also a member of the New Zealand Independent Order of Rechabites. From 1947 to 1952 he served on the Wanganui Public Museum board of trustees and was vice president in 1950–51.
Frederick Emmett was still working as a colour therapist when he died in Wanganui on 3 July 1974. He was survived by his wife and son. He is remembered for his contribution to commercial and community life in Wanganui, but more especially as a pioneer of colour therapy in New Zealand.