Dr Joe Williams (Photo: Pasifika Medical Association)

Farewell, Papa Joe – beacon of calm and wise leadership

Dr Collin Tukuitonga pays tribute to his mentor, Dr Joe Williams, who passed away yesterday after a battle with Covid-19. 

I have a lot for which to be thankful to Dr Joe Williams, or Papa Joe as we call him in the Pasifika Medical Association family.

I was a refugee from the military coup in Fiji at Christmas 1987, and arrived in New Zealand with a young family, not able to register immediately in my chosen medical profession.

Dr Joe Williams was a standout for me – a beacon of calm in those uncertain and stressful days. He was enormously helpful as I prepared myself for registration as a doctor. 

Papa Joe was kind and thoughtful and very wise. He was always calm. My enduring memory of him is of a gentleman and a scholar, never rattled and always impeccably dressed.

He was the classic mentor, quick to praise, slow to criticise and never a negative word about anyone. He was a gentle and quiet leader and a great mentor to many.

The Pasifika Medical Association’s conference in Niue in 2019: from left, Dr Francis Agnew (PMA board member); Dr Joe Williams (PMA patron); Gaylene Tasmania (general secretary health and social services, Niue); Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna, Hon Billy Talagi, Niue minister of health; Akaiti Puna, wife of PM Puna; Dr Collin Tukuitonga

Since those early days, I have had a lot of interactions with Papa Joe, as we navigated our way in medicine and Pacific politics in New Zealand and across the Pacific region.

His achievements in New Zealand and the Cook Islands are well known. What is less well known is his enormous contribution to improving health and health services across the small islands of the Pacific region. Papa Joe was an outstanding health minister and diplomat for the region at global negotiations.

Papa Joe was the patron of the Pasifika Medical Association (PMA) working in New Zealand and across the Pacific. PMA is a family of Pacific health professionals. 

He was one of the health ministers who helped create the Healthy Islands (Yanuca) Declaration in 1995 – a vision of a healthy, safe and prosperous Pacific region where the young and the old thrive and age with dignity. Healthy Islands remains a vision of hope and health, and a Pacific region where the environment is protected forever.

His achievements in health in the Pacific region are many and varied. He was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for his leadership in eradicating filariasis from the Cook Islands.

Above all, Papa Joe was a keen supporter of young health workers across the region at regional WHO and Pacific Community forums. He recognised the importance of political support in health care, and he was good at it.

We will miss you, Papa Joe, but we will carry on your legacy. We have come too far to stop now and I know that you expect nothing less.

Moe mai rā e te rangatira.

Dr Collin Tukuitonga is associate dean Pacific at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.




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