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Strong, Walter Mersh (1873–1946)

by Donald Denoon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Walter Mersh Strong (1873-1946), medical administrator, was born on 24 September 1873 at Camberwell, Surrey, England, son of Richard Strong, gentleman, and his wife Ellen Emma, née Mersh. Educated at Alleyn's College of God's Gift (Dulwich College), London, in 1892 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1895; M.A., 1899; B.Ch. and M.B., 1903). His university career included first-class honours in the natural sciences tripos and election as a scholar in 1895. At St Thomas's Hospital, London, he earned his membership of the Royal College of Surgeons and a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (1903). In 1914 he gained the diploma of Tropical Health and Medicine.

At the age of 30 Strong joined the Daniells anthropological expedition to British New Guinea (later Papua) to investigate cancer. Although deployed as a doctor, he was attracted to ethnographic research and contributed to C. G. Seligman's The Melanesians of British New Guinea (1910). Disenchanted with the expedition, he resigned in Port Moresby in 1904 to become assistant resident magistrate at Kairuku, Central Division. His ethnographic interests persisted and his next publication, in the 1910-11 Papua Annual Report, was a note on languages of the North Eastern Division of Papua where he had been promoted resident magistrate in 1908.

In 1912 Strong was drawn back into medicine when Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) Hubert Murray deputed him to investigate and control dysentery among Papuan labourers. The heavy attrition of administration doctors accelerated Strong's promotion to chief medical health and quarantine officer after World War I. He presided over a small staff and a budget which was inadequate at best (£18,175 in 1928) and dangerously so during the depressed 1930s when the allocation shrank to £13,758. Strong stretched minimal resources to maximum effect.

When he arrived in Papua the medical priority was to preserve the health of expatriates and to minister to indentured labourers, while guarding the quarantine chain. Papuans outside the formal workforce seldom troubled medical officers until the 1920s when the introduction of arsenical injections to treat yaws gave Western medicine a sudden popularity and imposed new demands on services. Mission personnel were taught to give these injections. Strong's pamphlets on dysentery and nutrition encouraged plantation managers to intervene in health matters. His most widely consulted pamphlet was the Handbook on the Treatment and Prevention of Disease in Papua When Medical Advice is Unobtainable (which is to say, most of the time). Medical resources were also supplemented by a Rockefeller Foundation grant to fund hookworm control.

During the Depression Strong proposed a programme for training Papuans as medical assistants. In 1933-35 he taught basic science to small groups, then dispatched them to the University of Sydney for several months in a course specially tailored by Dr F. W. Clements. Strong entrusted wide responsibilities to Papuans as extension workers and dispensers, thereby enlarging the reach of the department without bursting its slender budget. Resources were also husbanded by an implicit policy of disregarding women: Strong did not inquire into women's health issues from his ethnographic research of 1904 until he noticed mission medical work in the 1930s.

In the era before antibiotics, when Western medicine offered little to tropical populations, Strong was probably wise to insist upon quarantine and segregation as preventive tactics, since he had only Epsom salts and other purgatives for therapy. Political imperatives required disproportionate resources for the health of expatriates, but, by astute use of mission workers and Papuan medical assistants, he redirected effort and personnel to extension work among villagers.

Strong married Mary Gwendolen Evans, an English journalist, at Samarai on 5 February 1927, though she is not mentioned in his 1941 will. Tall, lean, bespectacled and aloof, he impressed and puzzled his Australian colleagues and Papuan subordinates. He was Murray's kind of man: not a narrow technician, but animated by wide-ranging curiosity. He doubled as government anthropologist until F. E. Williams was appointed in 1928. Strong's ethnographic work is now disregarded, but the Rockefeller Foundation representative Dr Sam Lambert (who criticized most other doctors) thought well of his medical abilities, and Murray (who admired his administrative skills) made him a member of Papua's Executive and Legislative councils from 1920. He retired in 1938 to a plantation near Rigo which he had acquired from Beatrice Grimshaw. His expertise became redundant in an era of miracle drugs and bottomless budgets; even his Papuan medical assistants gradually leached out of medical work. In his own time, however, he embodied the most humane and effective approaches—as well as the narrow focus—of Western medicine. Strong died at his home near Port Moresby on 4 October 1946 and was buried in the local cemetery. Much of his estate, sworn for probate at £6669, was bequeathed to the University of Sydney for the education of Papuans and for medical research.

Select Bibliography

  • S. M. Lambert, A Doctor in Paradise (Lond, 1942)
  • F. West (ed), Selected Letters of Hubert Murray (Melb, 1970)
  • V. H. Wallace, The Wallace Story (Melb, 1973)
  • E. Kettle, That They Might Live (priv pub, Syd, 1979)
  • D. Denoon, Public Health in Papua New Guinea (Cambridge, Eng, 1989)
  • D. Denoon, ‘Walter Mersh Strong’, in B. G. Burton-Bradley (ed), The Medical History of Papua New Guinea (manuscript, privately held).

Citation details

Donald Denoon, 'Strong, Walter Mersh (1873–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strong-walter-mersh-8702/text15229, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 27 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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