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Gunther, Sir John Thomson (1910–1984)

by H. N. Nelson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir John Thomson Gunther (1910-1984), medical practitioner, public servant and vice-chancellor, was born on 2 October 1910 in Sydney, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born Cyril Maynard Gunther, sugar analyst, and his wife Jean Graeme, née Thomson, who came from Brisbane. Cyril, an industrial chemist with the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd, moved north to the Tweed River when John was still an infant but returned to Sydney in 1917 on being appointed manager with the importing firm of R. W. Cameron & Co. John grew up in a family well connected in business and the professions but possessing little capital.

After attending Cranbrook School, John was educated (1924-28) as a boarder at The King’s School, Parramatta, on an old boys’ scholarship. Lacking sufficient funds to go on the land, he chose to study medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, 1935), where his mother had been one of the early women medical graduates. Gunther represented Sydney in interuniversity boxing and Rugby. After a year’s residency at Sydney Hospital, in 1935 he applied to be medical officer with Lever’s Pacific Plantations Ltd, which ran coconut plantations.

Working out of Gavutu and Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, Gunther travelled widely to over thirty of Lever’s properties and made his first visit to Papua on a trip to Lever’s Giligili plantation at Milne Bay. On 1 March 1938, while on leave and working as a locum, he married Grace Rickard-Bell, née Blythe, a widow, in a civil ceremony at Bourke, New South Wales. Believing that his wife would not like the tropics, he took the position of chairman of the medical board at Mount Isa, Queensland, and investigated plumbism.

On 30 June 1941 Gunther was commissioned as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force’s Medical Branch. His early postings were to Laverton, Victoria, and Sandgate, Brisbane. The RAAF sent him to Papua in September 1942 to help combat malaria. Next month he was promoted to temporary squadron leader. By ensuring the use of anti-malarials and protective clothing, reducing the numbers of mosquitoes and arguing for a quicker return to duty, Gunther lessened the impact of malaria on service personnel in Port Moresby and at Milne Bay. From July 1943 he was based in Australia but spent much time visiting RAAF bases in Papua and New Guinea. He also obtained diplomas of tropical medicine and public health (1944) from the University of Sydney. In December 1944 he took command of the Tropical Research Field Unit in New Guinea; after conducting research on Bat Island, near Manus, he wrote a sixty-page report on scrub typhus. Demobilised in June 1946, he had had, he said, a `very interesting war’.

In 1942 Gunther’s wife had been killed in a motorcar accident. On 17 July 1943 he married Elvie Phyllis Hodge, a nurse with the RAAF, at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, Sydney. `Dot’, as she was known, cared for his two young daughters; together they had a son and a daughter. Offered the position of director of public health in the Territory of Papua-New Guinea in 1946, Gunther agreed to go to Port Moresby before deciding. Not the first choice for director, he arrived `unsung and unwanted’, worked from a tin-roofed office with a mud floor, had few resources and faced the problems of a population devastated and neglected by war. But he took the post. He was then 35 years old, of medium height, strongly built, and aggressive in speech and movement: he worked hard and played hard.

Gunther’s main problems were recruiting trained personnel, carrying services to remote communities and protecting the many recently contacted communities from new diseases. By employing refugee doctors from Europe and by training expatriate and indigenous medical assistants, Gunther built up the staff. He arranged for those few Papua New Guineans with sufficient education to go to the Central Medical School in Suva before the Papuan Medical College was established in 1958. A system of aid posts, sub-district hospitals and district hospitals supported by medical patrols brought most people within a day’s walk of medical care. The department concentrated on readily diagnosed diseases with known cures, vaccinated widely, and introduced maternity and child health clinics and mobile units, and a malaria control policy (including controversial insecticide spraying). Permitting briefly trained staff to treat patients, and by-passing other safeguards observed in advanced countries, involved risks but Gunther argued that overall the policies had saved thousands.

As director of public health, Gunther approved the start of the Highlands Labour Scheme in 1950, organised the medical services after the disastrous Mount Lamington eruption of 1951 and directed the initial response to the degenerative disease kuru. He had inherited a system of racially segregated hospitals; in the face of white opposition new hospitals were designed as single buildings with separate paying and non-paying wings. The health service was a major achievement of the Australian postwar administration of Papua and New Guinea.

Appointed assistant-administrator in 1957, although again not the first choice, Gunther gradually won the confidence and friendship of both (Sir) Paul Hasluck and (Sir) Donald Cleland. The three men dominated the making and implementing of Australian policy in the Territory for the next seven years. Gunther was government leader in the Legislative Council, chairman of the select committee on constitutional development that recommended the establishment of the first House of Assembly with universal suffrage, and a member of the Currie commission on higher education in Papua and New Guinea that led to the creation of the University of Papua and New Guinea. He directed the government response to the disruptive Hahalis movement on Buka Island, and he argued the case for separate salaries for Papua and New Guinean public servants although, disturbed by the anomalies in the two scales, he secured Robert Hawke to represent Papua New Guineans in arbitration. From 1948 he served on the research council of the South Pacific Commission. He acted as administrator in Cleland’s absence.

As a member of the Administrator’s Advisory Council and, from 1964, senior government member in the new House of Assembly, Gunther continued to be responsible for getting government business through the House. A fair speaker, well briefed, respected and combative, he was a dominant member, who objected to increased interference from Canberra: `any influence I’d had with Cleland and Hasluck I lost entirely 1964-1965’. He was a special representative at the United Nations in 1965 when Australia was under pressure to give Papua New Guinea independence.

Gunther was looking for a new challenge when he was appointed foundation vice-chancellor of the University of Papua and New Guinea in 1966. Although inexperienced in university administration he brought to it a determination to get things done, a shrewd assessment of staff, a tolerance of beliefs, and an office and house open to all ranks and races. He lost arguments to bring medicine, engineering and agricultural science into the university from the start, but he was a strong advocate for the autonomy and standards, of the new institution. By the first graduation, in 1970, UPNG had the finest buildings and grounds then built by the Australians in their colony, and the campus was a centre of creativity and scholarship.

On his retirement in 1972 Gunther spoke of his hope of leaving a `lively enquiring’ university that served both national and individual needs. At first at Buderim, Queensland, and then in Melbourne, he maintained his long-standing interest in gardening and served as a director of Bougainville Copper Pty Ltd. Appointed OBE in 1954, he was elevated to CMG in 1965, and knighted in 1975. The Cilento medal (1965) and honorary doctorates from UPNG, the University of Sydney and Monash University also recognised his contribution. Long debilitated by emphysema, Sir John Gunther died on 27 April 1984 at West Heidelberg and was cremated. His wife and four children survived him. There is a bronze bust by John Dowie and a Gunther building at UPNG. Hasluck said that in postwar Papua New Guinea Gunther `was easily the strongest single driving force in the Administration’.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, A Time for Building (1976)
  • I. Downs, The Australian Trusteeship (1980)
  • I. Howie-Willis, A Thousand Graduates (1980)
  • D. Denoon, Public Health in Papua New Guinea (1989)
  • B. G. Burton-Bradley (ed), A History of Medicine in Papua New Guinea (1990)
  • New Guinea and Australia, the Pacific and South-East Asia, vol 1, no 5, 1966, p 29
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Feb 1966, p 2, 7 Jan 1971, p 4, 28 Apr 1984, p 6
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 21 Jan 1985, p 153
  • Gunther papers, and interviews with D. Denoon, H. Nelson and I. Willis (National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'Gunther, Sir John Thomson (1910–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gunther-sir-john-thomson-12574/text22641, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 11 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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