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Sir Raphael West (Ray) Cilento (1893–1985)

by Mark Finnane

This article was published:

Sir Raphael West (Ray) Cilento (1893-1985), medical practitioner and public servant, was born on 2 December 1893 at Jamestown, South Australia, second of five children of South Australian-born parents Raphael Ambrose Cilento, stationmaster, and his wife Frances Ellen Elizabeth, née West. His paternal grandfather, an Italian migrant, had run a shipping business in Adelaide. After attending Jamestown Public School, `Ray’ became a pupil-teacher in 1908. He taught at Port Pirie in 1910-11. Completing his secondary education at Adelaide High School and Prince Alfred College, he studied medicine at the University of Adelaide (MB, BS, 1918; MD, 1922). On 26 November 1918 he was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. Next month he arrived in Rabaul. There he became acquainted with the field of tropical medicine and sent reports on medical conditions in New Guinea to senior administrators in Rabaul and Melbourne. Failing to secure a continuing role, he returned to Australia in September 1919 and his military appointment terminated in Adelaide next month.

On 18 March 1920 at St Columba’s Church of England, Hawthorn, Cilento married Dr Phyllis Dorothy McGlew, who had been a fellow student. Later in the year he obtained a post as a physician to the sultanate of Perak, Federated Malay States, where he gained expertise in tropical medicine and acquired a lifelong interest in the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. In 1921 he was offered employment back in Australia, as medical officer for tropical hygiene with the Commonwealth Department of Health, based at the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine, Townsville, Queensland. His appointment entailed study at the London School of Tropical Medicine (DTM&H, 1922), which he completed with distinction. Next year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He became a leading figure in the field; appointed director of the AITM in 1922, he was seconded in 1924-28 to Rabaul as director of public health for the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Developing a research interest in the survival of Europeans in tropical environments, he published The White Man in the Tropics (1925), in which he defended the White Australia policy.

With John Cumpston and John Elkington, Cilento helped to shape policy and practice in the development of quarantine and tropical disease management. In 1928 he succeeded Elkington as director of tropical hygiene and chief quarantine officer, Brisbane. The division closed in 1934 and he transferred to Canberra. In September that year he accepted an appointment as the first State director-general of health and medical services in Queensland and returned to Brisbane. Knighted in 1935, he threw himself into the task of creating a new public medical system, writing legislation for general medicine and for mental health. To help him with this work, he studied law and was admitted to the Bar on 29 April 1939. Not opposed to private practice, he nevertheless endorsed a salaried health service; his ideas, published privately in Blueprint for the Health of a Nation (1944), provoked serious conflict with other members of the medical profession. He advocated the establishment of a medical school at the University of Queensland. The university awarded him an honorary MD in 1935. In 1937-46 he was honorary professor of social and tropical medicine and he served (1935-46, 1953-56) on the university senate. Active on the new National Health and Medical Research Council, he supported the establishment in 1945 of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. He also pursued his own research, especially into the state of Aboriginal health.

In World War II Sir Raphael was prevented from contributing to the war effort when he came under suspicion from the Commonwealth security services because of his Italian name and rumours about his associations with the Italian government and with organisations such as the Dante Alighieri Society. His commitment to public service found a new outlet when his expertise in preventive medicine resulted in his engagement in May 1945 with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He worked first in the Balkans on malaria control and then in Germany. In July he was the first civilian doctor to enter Belsen concentration camp. Next month he was appointed UNRRA director, British zone, occupied Germany, a post requiring administrative capacities of a high order to manage the refugee problem and to prevent the outbreak of disease. In 1946 he joined the UN Secretariat as head of the division of refugees in its department of social affairs. The following year he became director of its division of social activities based in New York. In 1948, as director of disaster relief in Palestine, he declared his sympathies with the dispossessed Palestinian refugees. He resigned from the UN in 1950.

In spite of his distinguished international service, Cilento failed to obtain a significant appointment on his return to Australia. Eventually he resumed private medical practice part time, while pursuing other public activities. He made two unsuccessful attempts to enter the Commonwealth parliament: he stood as a Democratic Party candidate for the Senate in the 1953 election and, as an Independent Democrat, challenged Sir Arthur Fadden in the seat of McPherson in 1954. His mix of progressive social policy, free trade and internationalism did not help his political ambitions. He was an early advocate of the importance of Australia’s Asia-Pacific context. An active historical researcher, he was president of the (Royal) Historical Society of Queensland (1933-34, 1943-45, 1953-68) and of the National Trust of Queensland (1966-71).

Critical of `idealistic socialism’ for lowering `vitality in a national sense’, Cilento otherwise remained a forceful advocate of state medicine. A man of his time in his fascination with the interaction of population and resources, he conceived of `the conquest of climate’ as `primarily, essentially, the conquest of disease’. His difficulty in finding suitable appointments in later life was matched by his failure to develop beyond his earliest ideas. His history of Queensland, Triumph in the Tropics (1959), written with Clem Lack, regurgitated arguments of the 1920s, but added offensive commentary on Aboriginal societies. The book’s language reflected attitudes that emerged strongly in his private correspondence. Yet his research on Aboriginal health in the 1920s and 1930s, the state of which he regarded as threatening the `survival of the race’, had prompted severe criticism of government policy and administration. In later years he was tempted to embark on moral rearmament enterprises, and allied himself with the extreme right of Australian politics, including the Australian League of Rights.

In a long marriage over more than six decades, Cilento’s occasional infidelities were forgiven by the loyal and supportive Phyllis. Survived by his wife, and their three sons and three daughters, Sir Raphael died on 15 April 1985 at Oxley, Brisbane, and was buried with Catholic rites in Pinaroo lawn cemetery, Aspley.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Gregory, Vivant Professores (1987)
  • R. Patrick, A History of Health & Medicine in Queensland 1824­1960 (1987)
  • D. Denoon, Public Health in Papua New Guinea (1989)
  • R. MacLeod and D. Denoon (eds), Health and Healing in Tropical Australia and Papua New Guinea (1991)
  • F. G. Fisher, Raphael Cilento (1994)
  • R. Kidd, The Way We Civilise (1997)
  • Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol 23, no 2, 2000, p 248
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 16 Sept 1985, p 259
  • Cilento papers (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

Mark Finnane, 'Cilento, Sir Raphael West (Ray) (1893–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 December, 1893
Jamestown, South Australia, Australia


15 April, 1985 (aged 91)
Oxley, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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