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Thompson, John Ashburton (1846–1915)

by Patricia Morison

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

John Ashburton Thompson (1846-1915), medical officer and epidemiologist, was born on 31 July 1846 at Kensington, London, eldest child of John Thompson, solicitor, and his wife Emma, née Hitchcock. He was educated at St Paul's and University College schools, Guy's and Middlesex hospitals, London (L.R.C.P., M.R.C.S., L.M., L.S.A., 1868), and the Free University of Brussels (M.D., 1876). From 1872 he combined an appointment with the Great Northern Railway Co. with private practice and in 1877 was elected councillor, Obstetrical Society, London. In poor health, he visited New Zealand and several Australian colonies, doing insurance work.

Obtaining a diploma in public health (Cambridge, 1882), Thompson migrated next year to Australia. Early in 1884 he served briefly as resident surgeon of the Hospital for Pacific Islanders, Mackay, Queensland, during a dengue outbreak. Confronting appalling conditions, he peppered the government with telegrams and submitted a report proposing radical remedies. In Sydney he witnessed a smallpox epidemic and in July was appointed a temporary medical officer by (Sir) Charles Mackellar, president of the Board of Health. Promoted deputy medical adviser and chief medical inspector to the board in August, Thompson was the only trained epidemiologist in the colony. He became the board's driving force.

Pressure for a public health Act failed in 1885, but Thompson's exhaustive report tracing a typhoid outbreak to a polluted dairy well in Leichhardt resulted in the Dairies Supervision Act (1886). With few legal powers to support him, he publicized the problems: in evidence to commissions of inquiry; in papers read before medical congresses, the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society of New South Wales; and, helped by his brother Gerald, anonymously in the press. Ashburton's first-hand reports on outbreaks of infectious disease and insanitary 'nuisances' established him as an authority. In 1884 he was special delegate to the Australasian Sanitary Conference of Sydney, in 1887 a member of the Government Asylums Inquiry Board and in 1891 official delegate to the International Congress of Hygiene and Demography, London. He chaired the inquiry into lead poisoning at Broken Hill (1892-93) which resulted in effective safeguards. He was also an examiner at the University of Sydney (1892-99).

Appointed chief medical officer and president of the Board of Health in 1896, Thompson helped (Sir) George Reid to draft the 'comparatively incomplete' public health bill which was passed in November. With a sure hand, he built a small but effective service, although its legal powers remained scattered in many Acts. He appointed the microbiologist Frank Tidswell and two medical officers of health: William Armstrong in Sydney and Robert Dick in Newcastle. A fellow (1905) of the Royal Sanitary Institute, London, Thompson helped to establish a local board of examiners to supply trained sanitary inspectors; as chairman (1900-13), he examined 367 candidates. His policies stressed disease prevention by environmental control, sanitary reform and education. Insistent that State rather than local government should control public health, he was to have national influence in areas such as quarantine and food laws.

An able, if irascible, administrator, Thompson was a better epidemiologist and published many articles on the subject. His skill in smallpox diagnosis was 'unerring' and his prize-winning study of leprosy in Australia (1897) won him a world-wide reputation. His observation and analysis of the 1900 bubonic plague and its recurrences endorsed the unfavoured theory of the French scientist P. L. Simond that the flea was the transmitter of the plague bacillus. Thompson's reports were 'models of cogent reasoning' and his conclusions—verified by the second Indian Plague Commission (1905)—were of prime practical importance in combating the disease; he showed that plague is primarily a disease of rats, transmitted only by the flea to rats and humans, and could best be prevented by making occupied buildings rat-proof. Saluted by his peers overseas, he addressed the 1906 meeting of the American Medical Association, Boston, and the Royal Society of Medicine, London, of which he was a fellow. In Australia he passed unhonoured.

At St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, on 21 August 1902 Thompson had married a widow Lilian Simpson, daughter of Sir Julian Salomons; they lived at Woollahra. Energetic and hard-working, he was reticent and quietly spoken. His recreations were music and theatre. While not always popular among his colleagues, he commanded their respect. Thompson was a member of the Australian Club and the Thatched House Club, London. Retiring in 1913, he died of a cerebrovascular disease on 16 September 1915 at South Kensington, London. His wife, a stepson and stepdaughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Cook, The Epidemiology of Leprosy in Australia (Canb, 1927)
  • L. F. Hirst, The Conquest of Plague (Oxford, Eng, 1953)
  • C. R. Boughton, A Coast Chronicle (Syd, 1963)
  • E. Ford, Bibliography of Australian Medicine 1790-1900 (Syd, 1976)
  • C. J. Cummins, A History of Medical Administration in New South Wales 1788-1973 (Syd, 1979)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 25 Sept 1915
  • Journal of Royal Sanitary Institute, 36 (1915), p 435, 70 (1950), p 73
  • Health, 3, no 4, 1925
  • G. Marr Thompson, newsclippings (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Patricia Morison, 'Thompson, John Ashburton (1846–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-john-ashburton-8789/text15413, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 November 2014.

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

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