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Cecil Evelyn (Mick) Cook (1897–1985)

by Tim Rowse

This article was published:

Cecil Evelyn Aufrere (Mick) Cook (1897-1985), medical practitioner and administrator, was born on 23 September 1897 at Bexhill, Sussex, England, son of James Whiteford Murray Cook, medical practitioner, and his wife Emily, née Puckle. Dr Cook migrated to Australia in 1898 and his wife and two sons followed in 1900. `Mick’ grew up at Barcaldine, Queensland, where his father was medical superintendent of the Victoria Hospital, and attended The Southport School (dux 1914). In 1915 he began medical studies at the University of Sydney (MB, Ch.M., 1920; MD, 1929; DPH, 1931). After a residency at Brisbane General Hospital, he practised with his father at Barcaldine, in hospitals at Mount Morgan and Longreach, and as a general practitioner at Hughenden. Working his passage to London as a ship’s medical officer, he attended the London School of Tropical Medicine (DTM&H, 1923) and won a Wandsworth scholarship.

On the advice of John Cumpston, Cook used his scholarship to survey Indigenous health in tropical Australia in 1924-25, visiting Aboriginal people in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. He received his MD for his report The Epidemiology of Leprosy in Australia (1927). On 4 March 1924 at Coreena station, Barcaldine, he had married with Anglican rites Jessie Winifred Miller (d.1978). In December 1925 he joined the Commonwealth Public Service. At the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine, Townsville, he surveyed hookworm in the Cairns region and sometimes doubled as Townsville’s quarantine officer.

In March 1927 Cook became the chief medical officer and chief protector of Aborigines in North Australia (Northern Territory from 1931). He served as Darwin’s only medical practitioner for six months before he was able to focus on developing a public health system. In 1929 he set up a training school for nurses and a tuberculosis clinic at Darwin Hospital, and a medical benefit fund. Next year, after founding the Nurses’ Board of North Australia, he took leave in Sydney to study anthropology (under Alfred Radcliffe-Brown) and public health. He established general hospitals at Katherine (1931), Tennant Creek (1936) and Alice Springs (1939), and a hospital for lepers outside Darwin (1931). In 1934 he began to subsidise his colleague Dr Clyde Fenton’s private Gipsy Moth aeroplane and the two men established the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service. His admiration for this venture softened his initial scepticism towards John Flynn’s (Royal) Flying Doctor Service. In 1936 Cook was founding chairman of the Northern Territory Medical Board. Becoming aware of the high rate of infant mortality in the Aboriginal population, he commenced infant welfare services at the new Bagot Reserve, Darwin, in 1937. He had been appointed CBE and awarded the Cilento medal in 1935.

Worried that the fertility of Asians and `halfcaste’ Aborigines exceeded that of Europeans, Cook encouraged young European families to settle in the Territory, and he searched for ways to `uplift’ the morality and standard of living of `half-castes’ so that they might interbreed with Whites. He was proud to report in 1934: `Practically all half-caste children of both sexes, formerly left to live with aboriginals in compounds and bush camps … have been removed to half-caste institutions under Government control’. `Half-caste’ women were crucial to his `uplift’ strategy. He would not allow them to marry unless they were worthy (in his eyes) of a European or `half-caste’ partner who met his standards. Lest they be `removed’, he defined as `European’ the children of such unions. His phrase `breed out the colour’ had as much to do with reclassifying individuals of Aboriginal descent as with skin pigment in the literal sense.

Cook championed `full bloods’ by prosecuting unauthorised visitors to reserves, and he defended Woolwonga Reserve from covetous settlers. In 1936 he appointed Theodor Strehlow as a patrol officer, based at Jay Creek, to protect Aboriginal interests. Generally critical of the social impact of Christian missions, Cook threatened with loss of subsidy any that did not meet his standards in sanitation, nutrition and education. He made it mandatory for licensed employers of Aborigines to report their employees’ illness or injury. Because the pastoral economy had subverted the tribal economy, he argued, rural employers must provision their employees’ many relatives. His relationship with Alice Springs townsfolk was strained when he urged them to admit Aboriginal patients to their proposed hospital in 1932 and when he allowed a Catholic mission to the Arrernte in that town in 1936.

Cook was not embarrassed by his unpopularity among many Europeans. His intellectual arrogance no doubt contributed to their dislike and to his disdain. Tall and thin, with one glass eye, he had a fastidious self-assurance as a scientific improver that sometimes spilled over into comical prolixity. Notwithstanding these tensions of manner and policy, his methods were grounded in his underlying support for northern `development’. When miners flocked to Tennant Creek in 1934, he `protected’ the local Aborigines by banning them from the newly settled zone. His ambitions for his protectorate sometimes exceeded his administrative resources and legal capacities. Against his advice, the Commonwealth separated Aboriginal and public health functions in 1939. He returned to the University of Sydney, where he taught in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Having been appointed provisional captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, in 1937, Cook transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 11 August 1941 as a major. Posted to the 2/12th Australian General Hospital, he served as a pathologist in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from October that year to December 1942. From March 1943 he was deputy assistant director of hygiene for, successively, II Corps, New Guinea Force and I Corps. His analysis of case records identified sources of infections such as typhus, dysentery and cholera. In November 1944 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and made assistant director of hygiene at Advanced Land Headquarters, located first at Hollandia, Netherlands New Guinea, then at Morotai. He developed hygiene protocols in which officers and men could be instructed, and reported on the operations in Borneo in 1945. On 22 March 1946 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

As Western Australia’s commissioner of public health from March 1946, Cook offered a swingeing critique of the poor performance of local government in that State. His interest in perinatal and infant health resulted in State legislation requiring the notification of premature and still births. In November 1949 he was recruited to the Commonwealth Department of Health, Canberra, as a senior medical officer. From 1958 until his retirement in September 1962 he was the inaugural director of the division of public health. Traffic injuries, skin cancer, native health, food standards and tobacco’s carcinogenic properties were among his many concerns. He also continued his involvement in the National Health and Medical Research Council, seven of whose advisory committees he was to chair, including its public health committee. In the latter role he contributed heavily to Australia’s campaign against poliomyelitis.

Cook never lost his interest in `native affairs’. From 1964 to 1972 he was a member of the human biology advisory committee of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, of which he was a founding member. He complained in 1969 that a once necessary paternalism had been maintained by a public service `seized with the importance of precedent’, inducing a psychology of dependency among Aborigines. Meanwhile, he believed, Aborigines were being tempted by an irresponsible mass media to blame whites for all their misfortunes. In that way, he argued in 1971, racial hatred was being fostered to an unprecedented degree.

In retirement Cook lived in Sydney and then at Burleigh Heads, Queensland. Survived by his two sons and daughter, he died on 4 July 1985 at Wahroonga, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Clinical Problems of War (1952)
  • A. S. Walker, The Island Campaigns (1957)
  • D. Snow, The Progress of Public Health in Western Australia 1829-1977 (1981)
  • S. Baldwin (ed), Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia (1988)
  • D. Carment et al (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 1 (1990)
  • A. Markus, Governing Savages (1990)
  • J. Pearn and M. Cobcroft (eds), Fevers and Frontiers (1990)
  • T. Austin, Never Trust a Government Man (1997)
  • NT Administration, Annual Report, 1927-39
  • Commonwealth Department of Health, Health, June 1962, p 53
  • A2749, item Cook C E A PS729 (National Archives of Australia)
  • H. Giese, interviews with C. E. A. Cook (transcript, 1981, Northern Territory Archives).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tim Rowse, 'Cook, Cecil Evelyn (Mick) (1897–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 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]


23 September, 1897
Bexhill, Sussex, England


4 July, 1985 (aged 87)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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