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Sir Philip Halford Cook (1912–1990)

by Helen Bourke

This article was published:

Sir Philip Halford Cook (1912-1990), psychologist and public servant, was born on 10 October 1912 at Benalla, Victoria, fourth child of Victorian-born parents Richard Osborne Cook (d. 1924), Methodist clergyman, and his wife Elinor Violet May, née Cook. William Glanville Lau Cook was his brother. After attending Caulfield North Central School and Wesley College, Melbourne, Hal worked in a bank. While studying philosophy at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1937; MA, 1938), he was attracted to the embryonic area of clinical psychology. Interested in the work of J. K. Adey at Royal Park Mental Hospital, he conducted research for his master’s degree assisting Peter Bachelard at the pioneering Travancore child guidance clinic. His postgraduate studies in the field of abnormal psychology, specialising in the training of mentally retarded and maladjusted children, began at University College, London. He moved to New York when World War II began. After a brief enrolment at Columbia University, he transferred to the University of Kansas (Ph.D., 1941). His doctoral work appeared as The Theory and Technique of Child Guidance (1944).

Returning to Melbourne early in 1942, just as psychology was being recruited to the war effort, Cook was `manpowered’ into the Department of Labour and National Service as the senior industrial psychologist in the newly established industrial welfare division. The psychological testing that his team developed, initially for the allocation of women to munitions factory tasks, was gradually extended to a range of industrial occupations. After he became a permanent officer in 1946, he rose to assistant secretary (1952), first assistant secretary (1962), and permanent head (1968), replacing Sir Henry Bland. In 1965 he was appointed OBE. With the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, Cook was removed by the incoming minister for labour, Clyde Cameron, who later claimed that Cook had `put too much time and enthusiasm into preparing evasive answers’ to parliamentary questions. Cook’s leadership in the department had helped to shape the development of the Commonwealth’s vocational guidance and employment services, and the field of personnel management in Australia.

Given the job of a special labour adviser, with ambassadorial status, in Europe, Cook was attached (1972-77) to the Australian Mission to the United Nations in Geneva until his retirement from the public service. In 1975-76 he chaired the executive council of the International Labour Organisation. He was knighted in 1976. Energetic and Anglophile, he remained thoroughly committed to notions of civil service in the British tradition.

Cook also played a significant role in the professionalisation of applied psychology in Australia. He practised as an honorary (consultant) psychologist at Prince Henry’s Hospital. His distinctive contribution was the advocacy and application of Rorschach tests. Having attended the Rorschach Institute while studying in New York, he co-founded the Australian Rorschach Society in 1942. On his way home he had visited Samoa to apply these tests to study the interaction of personality and culture. His advice was sought on the interpretation of tests completed by Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremberg in 1945. He wrote The Productivity Team Technique (1951), reporting an investigation undertaken at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, London, of communication processes within industry. His articles appeared in journals of industrial relations and occupational psychology. A fellow (1943) of the British Psychological Society and chairman (1960-61) of its Australian branch, he encouraged the emergence of the Australian Psychological Society.

On 6 October 1945 at Queen’s College chapel, University of Melbourne, Cook had married, with Methodist forms, Myra Victoria Bellman, née Dean, a clerk and a widow. A `neat, spry man’ of 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm), he enjoyed playing, later watching, football, and walking. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, Sir Halford died on 4 January 1990 at Box Hill and was cremated. In 1992, to celebrate his contribution to Queen’s College as student, fellow (1972-90) and council member (1978-90), the friends of its library established the biennial Sir Halford Cook lecture.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Nixon and R. Taft (eds), Psychology in Australia (1976)
  • C. Cameron, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913-1990 (1990)
  • S. Cooke, A Meeting of Minds (2000)
  • Smith’s Weekly, 16 Oct 1943, p 11
  • Australian, 8 Dec 1967, p 3, 19 Dec 1972, p 2
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 Jan 1968, p 16
  • Nation, 25 May 1968, p 5
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1972, p 1
  • Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, June 1990, p 21
  • A. Turtle, interview with P. H. Cook (transcript, 1988, copy in Australian Psychological Society papers, University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Bourke, 'Cook, Sir Philip Halford (1912–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 30 May 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]


10 October, 1912
Benalla, Victoria, Australia


4 January, 1990 (aged 77)
Box Hill, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.