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John Howard Lidgett Cumpston (1880–1954)

by Michael Roe

This article was published:

John Howard Lidgett Cumpston (1880-1954), first director-general of the Australian Department of Health, was born on 19 June 1880 at South Yarra, Melbourne, son of George William Cumpston, warehouseman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Newman, a pioneer kindergarten teacher. Cumpston attended New College at Box Hill and Wesley College, although his adult faith was devout, conventional Anglicanism. He had a distinguished medical course at Melbourne, 1898-1902, and immediately committed himself to preventive and public medicine. 'The medical world', he recalled of that time, 'was afire with enthusiasm for the new bacteriology, the new pathology, the new epidemiology, and these were beacons indicating the new road to the prevention of disease on a national scale'. After about a year as resident medical officer at the Melbourne Hospital and assistant medical officer at Parkside Lunatic Asylum, Adelaide, Cumpston left Australia in April 1905, intending to study public health throughout the world. An early highlight was to see American achievements, led by V. G. Heiser, in the Philippines. In London in 1906 he acquired a Diploma in Public Health and did research on scarlet fever and diphtheria which in 1907 won him an M.D. from Melbourne. He also served on the London Metropolitan Asylums Board.

In December 1907 Cumpston was appointed medical officer to the Central Board of Health, Western Australia. His interests soon ranged widely—schoolchildren's health, pulmonary disease among miners, historico-epidemiological studies of tuberculosis and diphtheria, quarantine, diet, housing, eugenics. Cumpston wrote well, if somewhat grittily, on these and broader topics. He called upon the profession to ponder 'the tendency towards nationalisation of medicine', and expounded his constant creed that 'it is certainly by sympathetic administration but always through the people, that effective sanitary progress is obtained'.

Cumpston joined the Federal quarantine service, established by an Act of 1908 and operative from mid-1909, as general quarantine officer in Western Australia on 23 November 1910; he also retained his State duties until he left Perth next year after his appointment on 20 August as chief quarantine officer in Victoria. In September the director, W. P. Norris, travelled overseas, leaving Cumpston in charge of the Federal service until May 1912. At the end of that year Cumpston moved to Brisbane as supervisor in Queensland, a State made especially important by fear of Asian diseases. Now Norris transferred to London: Cumpston returned to Melbourne in May 1913 as acting director, being confirmed in that post from 1 July. Coincidentally there developed widespread, although mild, smallpox in New South Wales. Cumpston asserted Federal power in this very difficult and delicate area. The States, led by New South Wales, struck back. Cumpston survived, receiving support from his minister, E. L. Groom. He published one monograph (Melbourne, 1913) arguing that Australia's quarantine harmonized with general practice and community needs, and another on The History of Smallpox in Australia 1788-1908 (Melbourne, 1914). The latter witnessed his remarkably vigorous research, ranging from unpublished first fleet journals to interviews with Aboriginals in Western Australia. The quarantine service issued other material which attested Cumpston's concern to gather a store of facts on which to base purposeful policies. This was a palpable aspect in which he showed affinity with American Progressives and British Fabians, although he was never a party-political man.

Cumpston had often described quarantine work in military metaphors: in 1910 he had been a command sanitary officer in the Australian Army Medical Corps in Western Australia and World War I much enlarged his role. The quarantine service did remarkably well in checking the introduction of disease by returned servicemen. Cumpston himself advised the forces on sanitation. He sat too on a wartime Federal committee 'concerning causes of death and invalidity in the Commonwealth', which reported in favour of vigorous governmental activity in health matters. From these and other sources came pressure towards converting the quarantine service into a Department of Health, although Cumpston himself did not explicitly advocate that move until 1919. A minor wartime role was to serve, in 1917-19, on the first Commonwealth film censorship board.

The immediate post-war period saw stronger agitation for a Federal department, but also the influenza pandemic. Australia's quarantine resisted virulent flu notably long (until January 1919, at least), and the ultimate death-rate was much lower than, for example, in New Zealand and South Africa; still more impressive was the record pertaining to Australia's dependencies in the Pacific. Nevertheless the episode revealed the continuing strength of State claims to autonomy in health matters. The proponents of a Federal department waited until the Australasian Medical Congress at Brisbane, August 1920, for their major onslaught. Cumpston then spoke of himself as among those 'who dream of leading this young nation of ours to a paradise of physical perfection'. In January 1921 came the final decisive influence—an offer by Heiser, now director for the East of the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board, to provide skills and training for a department. The government at last agreed and Cumpston was appointed director-general of health and director of quarantine in March 1921.

The young department promised to realize its proponents' hopes. While quarantine remained the basic task, work was done too in tropical medicine, industrial hygiene, sanitary engineering, provision of laboratories and sera. Cumpston found time, between 1925 and 1927, to publish further massive histories of disease in Australia. The Federal royal commission on health (1925) endorsed the department's work, and promised to give it a broader role via the Federal Health Council, which first met in January 1927, and continued regularly to do so, under Cumpston's chairmanship. Thereby it appeared possible that he and his fellows could guide the States not only on the matters above but also on tuberculosis, cancer, venereal diseases, and infant and maternal care.

Yet even before 1927 and increasingly thereafter Cumpston and his department lost much of the earlier driving idealism. Several of the most able departmental officers left its service. The director himself became more pessimistic about mankind in general and the efficacy of bureaucratic action. The removal of the department to Canberra in 1928 symbolized its relative political importance. With the Depression its budget was much reduced, Cumpston seeming to acquiesce.

The later 1930s saw revival, burgeoning into new growth, especially of Cumpston's belief in the need to cherish health rather than treat illness. In 1937 the Federal Health Council transformed into the National Health and Medical Research Council. Subsidized with relative generosity, the council sponsored much inquiry and discussion on a very wide range of health and social matters. Beyond that, Cumpston promoted initiatives in pre-natal care (a jubilee fund raised in 1935 being directed thither), an advisory council and an inquiry relating to nutrition (1936-38), child education and welfare (notably through the Lady Gowrie centres opened in each capital), and the national council for physical fitness (1939). During World War II he played an important part, via a sub-committee of the N.H.M.R.C., in drawing up an elaborate scheme for a federally organized health and medical service. Cumpston supported this blue-print to his retirement in mid-1945. By then many portents had gathered to indicate that the scheme faced impassable obstacles.

As with his career generally, Cumpston's retirement had a mixture of elements. He had the honour and pleasure of advising on health services in Ceylon in 1949, and the next year travelled through South-East Asia on behalf of the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund. He now turned to narratives of Australian exploration, notably through biographies of Charles Sturt (Melbourne, 1951), T. L. Mitchell and A. C. Gregory, the two latter posthumously published in Melbourne, 1954, and Canberra, 1972. These studies attest feeling for adventure, effort, and Australian landscape. Cumpston also attempted more ambitious, never-published work, on Milton, Carlyle and Kipling. Meanwhile his attitudes to medicine and to man became increasingly sour. Within weeks of resigning he lost faith in a national health scheme, while a manuscript history he subsequently prepared of the Health Department (published in Canberra in 1978 as The Health of the People) ended with a suggestion that preventive medicine had been 'biologically disastrous' in defying 'Nature's scheme for the survival of the fittest'.

Perhaps this pessimism sprang from Cumpston's rationalization for having failed to make Australia 'a paradise of physical perfection', or even to organize an effective programme of national medical care. By more mundane standards, the man achieved and merited much, as administrator, reformer, analyst and historian. He served infant Canberra, notably as chairman of the 'advisory council' in 1931-35 and a foundation member of the local historical society; the Australian Institute of Anatomy, administered by the Health Department, was the physical focus for much of the capital's early intellectual and academic life. Cumpston presented his extensive collection of medical Australiana to the National Library. The C.M.G. which he received in 1929 did but scant justice to his record. It might be said of him, as did he of Sturt, that his career exemplified 'the beliefs, ideals and aspirations which for centuries have inspired man's nobler efforts'.

Cumpston's personal standards always remained those of the upright, worthy, professional bourgeois. Tall, thin and bespectacled, he had a cool manner, at times sharpening into acerbity; those around him were expected to aspire, labour and achieve. He was a model paterfamilias. On 2 January 1908 at St John's Church of England, Fremantle, he had married Gladys Maeva, daughter of Dr G. A. Walpole of Gormanston, Tasmania. Mrs Cumpston survived her husband. Their seven children included Ina Mary, an academic historian of British imperialism, and John Stanley, diplomat, author and publisher. Cumpston died on 9 October 1954 at Forrest, Australian Capital Territory, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. W. Cilento, Blueprint for the Health of a Nation (Syd, 1944)
  • M. Roe, ‘The establishment of the Australian Department of Health …’, Historical Studies, no 67, Oct 1976
  • Health, Dec 1954
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 5 Feb 1955, 18 Nov 1967
  • Punch (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1913
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 Feb 1939
  • C. Thame, Health and the State: The Development of Collective Rresponsibility for Health Care in Australia in the First Half of the Twentieth Century (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • Cumpston papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Cumpston, John Howard Lidgett (1880–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 June, 1880
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


9 October, 1954 (aged 74)
Forrest, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 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.