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Elkington, John Simeon Colebrook (1871–1955)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Simeon Colebrook Elkington (1871-1955), advocate of public health, was born on 29 September 1871 at Castlemaine, Victoria, son of John Simeon Elkington and his wife Helen Mary, née Guilfoyle. After education at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and Carlton College, Elkington studied medicine at the University of Melbourne from 1890, but crashed in finals and qualified as a licentiate at Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1896. That year on 27 August in Melbourne he married 29-year-old Mary Cassandra Parkinson; they were to have no children. Elkington mixed with the Lindsay brothers in Melbourne's Bohemia and introduced Norman's work to the Sydney Bulletin. Nationalism in the Bulletin style attracted him, and he strove to write fiction under A. G. Stephens's tutelage. Other hobbies were boxing and hunting, appropriate to this man of fine, sometimes overbearing, presence.

Elkington found congenial work in assisting Dan Gresswell of Victoria's Department of Public Health. In early 1902 he took a diploma of public health in London, bacteriology and tropical medicine being his particular interests. They intensified during a spell with the Imperial medical service in India.

The Elkingtons returned to Melbourne in mid-1903. Smallpox was then raging in Launceston, and the Tasmanian government sought help from Victoria. Gresswell nominated Elkington as the man it needed. Through August and September he worked in Launceston with panache and effect. His report on the epidemic began an oeuvre of bureaucratic prose, outstandingly pungent and skilful. On invitation, he became Tasmania's chief health officer in a newly established department.

Funding was always scanty, but Elkington achieved much. He exhorted local authorities to care about health, campaigned against tuberculosis and food adulteration, and fostered infant care. His greatest coup was a system of checking schoolchildren's health, which became a model throughout Australia. Two books, Health in the School (1907) and Health Reader (1908), were published for the Empire and Australasian markets respectively. Elkington remained a champion of tropical medicine, insisting that with its aid Anglo-Saxons could settle northern Australia. Nationalism also led him to advocate a Federal quarantine service, achieved in 1908.

On 1 January 1910 Elkington took up his post as commissioner of public health in Queensland. There a larger staff allowed more vigorous crusades. One, again in the Australian van, was to treat venereal disease with public health care for its victims—rather than by moralist preaching and/or policing of prostitutes. Food and drugs came under close scrutiny, Elkington showing himself to be a pioneer of consumer protection. Above all, in Queensland he developed his tropical interests. He cherished the Australian Institute for Tropical Medicine, funded principally by the Commonwealth and sited at Townsville.

Meanwhile the Federal quarantine service had developed. In mid-1913 J. H. L. Cumpston became its director, and in November Elkington replaced him as its officer in Queensland. The two respected each other and stayed close for the present. From 1916 Elkington's responsibilities extended to the Northern Territory, although during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 he managed Sydney's quarantine station. Expansion of the quarantine service into a Federal Department of Health owed much to his efforts, most importantly in persuading the Australasian Medical Congress of 1920 to back the scheme in order to foster tropical medicine.

After the department was established in March 1921 under Cumpston's direction, Elkington led a division of tropical hygiene. It supervised the Institute of Tropical Medicine and a campaign against hookworm throughout Australia and its territories. With some colleagues, notably (Sir) Raphael Cilento, Elkington hoped that Australia might direct health care throughout the South Pacific. His pen continued brilliantly, for example in Notes on Quarantine Practice for Quarantine Officers (1925).

Overall, however, Elkington's impact declined in the 1920s. Jack Lindsay, their nephew, suggests that only Mary Elkington's fierce ambition kept her husband at the bureaucratic yoke. Certainly Elkington's passion for travel and the outdoors waxed strong, before and after Mary's death in 1925. Cumpston and Elkington lost their intimacy, and tropical medicine some standing within the department. Elkington resigned in July 1928.

World wide travel, fellowship, reading, and writing for the Bulletin were Elkington's chief interests in retirement. He retained contact with Cilento, and so with public medicine. In Sydney on 13 April 1945 he married Ida Isabel Hood Elkington, née McBride, the divorced wife of his brother. They lived at Mooloolaba, Queensland, and his wife survived Elkington's death there on 8 March 1955.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Lindsay, Life Rarely Tells (Lond, 1958)
  • R. Cilenton (ed), Triumph in the Tropics (Brisb, 1959)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 23 July 1955, p 144
  • Historical Studies, no 67, Oct 1976, p 176
  • Brisbane Courier, 4 July 1928.

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Elkington, John Simeon Colebrook (1871–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elkington-john-simeon-colebrook-6101/text10453, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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