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Wright, Eric Joseph (1912–1979)

by Albert Speer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Eric Joseph Wright (1912-1979), medical practitioner, was born on 11 December 1912 at St Leonards, Sydney, second child of Joseph Clement Wright, carpenter, and his wife Violet May, née De Meur, both born in New South Wales. Educated at Lewisham Public School, Eric joined the Department of Public Health, Papua, as a medical assistant in 1930. He travelled throughout the Territory on foot, sometimes on patrols of up to 1500 miles (2414 km). During the 1939 influenza epidemic in the mountains behind Port Moresby, which killed one in eight of the population, he was compared to the 'bare foot healers' of China. In the following year he established at Divinukoiari (in the Northern Division) a school for medical assistants, believing that they should be trained in their own country.

Unable to join the armed forces because of poor health, Wright studied medicine (from 1942) at the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1948). He also completed a diploma of tropical medicine (1951). Returning to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea as medical officer at Rabaul, he later set up a private practice among the town's Asian population. Shirley May Chan Wong, née Hee, a locally born Chinese nurse, worked for him as a receptionist. They were married on 18 July 1959 at the United Church, Boroko, Port Moresby.

Wright had rejoined the Department of Public Health in 1958 as assistant-director of medical training. One of his first achievements was to see to fruition plans for the establishment of a nursing school in Port Moresby, at which he did much of the teaching. Under his authority a second school of nursing was established at Rabaul in 1959. As a foundation member (1964) of the Nursing Council of Papua New Guinea, he insisted on a thoroughly professional training for the country's nurses.

In 1960 the Papuan Medical College, established to train indigenous doctors (previously educated in Suva), enrolled its first twenty students in temporary accommodation. Wright was appointed principal. Despite the lack of buildings and equipment, he was able to attract motivated and dedicated staff. He acquired the nearby Boroko newsagency and used some of the profits from the business to supplement government funds for the construction of the college's permanent buildings which were opened in 1964. Active in the Boy Scout movement in Sydney in his early life, he continued to participate in scouting in Papua New Guinea. In 1974 he was elected to the Port Moresby City Council.

A small man, Wright was 'a complex personality, at times brilliant in foresight and understanding, unorthodox, and frequently intolerant of others who did not see things in the same way he did'. In 1975 his deemed interference in the political affairs of the emerging nation and his close association with Josephine Abaijah's separatist Papua Besena movement led to his expulsion from the country. He left Port Moresby on 21 August and, in failing health, rejoined his family in Sydney. Suffering from cancer, he died of acute myocardial ischaemia on 21 December 1979 at Lewisham Hospital and was cremated; his wife, and their son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Kettle, That They Might Live (Syd, 1979)
  • I. Downs, The Australian Trusteeship (Canb, 1980)
  • B. G. Burton-Bradley (ed), A History of Medicine in Papua New Guinea (Syd, 1990)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Dec 1943, p 37
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28, 30 Aug 1973, 29 July 1975
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Albert Speer, 'Wright, Eric Joseph (1912–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wright-eric-joseph-12075/text21663, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 14 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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