Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cullen, Kevin John (1922–1994)

by Geraldine Byrne

This article was published online in 2018

Kevin Cullen, n.d.

Kevin Cullen, n.d.

photo provided by Cullen family

Kevin John Cullen (1922–1994), medical practitioner and researcher, and vigneron, was born on 22 November 1922 at Bunbury, Western Australia, younger son of English-born Alfred Edgar Cullen, surgeon, and his locally born wife Elvie Alice, née Clarke. Educated at primary school in Bunbury for two years, Kevin boarded at Hale School, Perth (1929–39). After studying science for a year at the University of Western Australia, in 1941 he moved to the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1946). There, he met Tasmanian-born Diana Madeline Adams who was studying physiotherapy. They married at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Sandy Bay, Hobart, on 13 July 1946 while Kevin was a resident medical officer at Hobart General Hospital.

In 1948 the couple settled at Busselton, Western Australia, setting up a general medical practice and physiotherapy rooms the next year. Cullen undertook further studies at the University of Edinburgh, and in 1958 became a member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (fellow, 1972). At the University of Western Australia (MD, 1962), while continuing his full-time practice, he completed a thesis entitled ‘A Survey of Behaviour Disorders and Related Factors in the Children of 1000 Western Australian Families.’ He was the first to be awarded the degree by the university. In 1963 he gained a research fellowship and with his family travelled to the United States of America, where he continued work on longitudinal studies of child development at the University of California, Berkeley.

On his return Cullen established an institute of medical and population studies at Busselton, the main town in a region of about 6,000 people. He saw the community as a demographic laboratory that could measure the impact of common chronic conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and his medical practice as a suitable point of intervention to monitor public health. In 1966, with Perth-based medical practitioners and researchers, he initiated the Busselton longitudinal study, which mobilised a team of volunteers to survey the health of the adult population of the district, an exercise that was repeated every three years until 1981. There were also triennial surveys of schoolchildren and a further study of the elderly was conducted in 1989. Epidemiological data derived over the period from more than 20,000 participants, which included blood and DNA samples, were of international significance as they provided scientifically verifiable evidence for the health status of an entire community, and risk factors related to chronic disorders. A large number of scientific publications, many co-authored by Cullen, arose from the survey data.

In 1948 the Cullens had purchased land at Willyabrup, south of Busselton, in the Margaret River region. An agronomist with the State Department of Agriculture, John Gladstones, published papers in 1965 and 1966 identifying the area as a suitable locality for growing wine grapes, comparing it to the Bordeaux region in France. In collaboration with their medical friend Tom Cullity, and Geoff and Sue Juniper, the Cullens established a trial acre of vines in 1966. The vineyard, consisting of eighteen acres (7.3 ha) of cabernet sauvignon and riesling vines, was established in 1971, and named Willyabrup Wines (later Cullen Wines).

The Cullens built a farmhouse and moved to the property in 1975. Diana assumed increasing responsibility for managing the vineyard, while Kevin, although actively involved, maintained his practice and research activities. He believed that they should try to perfect a cabernet sauvignon and visited Bordeaux regularly to purchase the best examples of the variety. Asserting that the wine should be full-bodied and steely in flavour, he helped make the family’s first cabernet sauvignon in 1974. He was also passionate about chardonnay and believed that the vineyard could produce a wine to rival the world’s best. Later (1986) he initiated the Cullen Wines International Chardonnay Tasting so that the Margaret River variety could be compared with other premium wines.

Cullen was a founding member (1958) of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and received its Faulding Research Award in 1970; as censor-in-chief (1971–72) he upheld standards for admission and supervised the board of examiners. He became a fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians in 1982. A foundation member of the Australian Medical Association, he won the association’s inaugural award for individual achievement in 1993. That year he was a Western Australian Citizen of the Year, and the next year he was appointed AM. Described as a man of ‘great passion’ who ‘espoused his philosophies with force and vigour’ (Welborn 1994, 11), he exuded a restless energy which he expended on long-distance running, tennis, playing the piano, and working on the family vineyard. He also exhibited ‘extraordinary charm’ (Welborn 1994, 11) and was able to inspire the Busselton population to his vision of a therapeutic community with a healthy balance of diet, exercise, and leisure. Having battled motor neurone disease for eighteen months, he died at Busselton on 9 February 1994 and was cremated; his wife, three sons, and three daughters survived him. The Busselton health studies completed fifty years of operation in 2016. Cullen Wines continued to function under the management first of his wife and then his youngest daughter. The winery’s 2006 vintage chardonnay commemorated his contribution, and the community health centre in Busselton was named in his honour.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Busselton Population Medical Research Institute. ‘Busselton Health Study. Celebrating 50 Years of the Busselton Health Study.' n.d. Accessed 15 December 2017.  http://bpmri.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/BPMRI-50-years-Booklet-2016.pdf. Copy held on ADB file
  • Cullen, Ariane. Personal communication
  • Cullen, Richard. Personal communication
  • Cullen Wines. 'Cullen Wines, Wilyabrup, Margaret River.’ Accessed 15 December 2017. https://www.cullenwines.com.au/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Halliday, James. The Australian Wine Encyclopedia. Prahan, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books, 2009
  • McCall, Michael. ‘Dr Kevin Cullen.’ Medicus, February 1994, 16
  • Welborn, Tim. ‘Promoter of Healthy Milieu.’ Australian, 16 February 1994, 11

Additional Resources

Citation details

Geraldine Byrne, 'Cullen, Kevin John (1922–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cullen-kevin-john-27505/text34904, published online 2018, accessed online 16 July 2019.

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