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Nathaniel Burnett (Bertie) Ham (1865–1954)

by M. John Thearle

This article was published:

Nathaniel Burnett (Bertie) Ham (1865-1954), physician and public health administrator, was born on 13 June 1865 at Smythesdale, Victoria, fifth of nine children of David Ham, an English-born sharebroker and member of the Legislative Council, and his wife Mary, née Jones, from Ireland. 'Bertie', as he was known from childhood, was educated at Grenville College, Ballarat, and Wesley College, Melbourne. After studying arts at the University of Melbourne in 1887-88, he was apprenticed to Cornell & King, chemists of Ballarat, and registered as a pharmacist in 1890. He then enrolled in medicine at Melbourne, completed his studies at Guy's Hospital, London, and qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1896. That year Guy's medical school awarded him the Golding-Bird gold medal for sanitary science. In 1900 he was awarded an M.D., with distinction, at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

Ham was a good cricketer, playing for Ballarat against Lord Sheffield's English team and later for Guy's Hospital. On 26 April 1897 at the Zion Chapel, Llandudno, North Wales, he married with Baptist forms Margaret Roberts. In 1899 he published a Handbook of Sanitary Law for the Use of Candidates for Public Health Qualifications, which eventually went to twelve editions.

Appointed Queensland's first commissioner of public health from January 1901, Ham tackled the problems of bubonic plague, food adulteration, sanitation and infectious diseases. His Report on Plague in Queensland, 1900-07, (Brisbane, 1907) received worldwide recognition. At a time when the role of fleas in transmitting plague to humans was being evaluated, he made several vital observations on the survival of the insects after leaving their host rat and their increased activity with suitable environmental conditions. In the area of food adulteration, his initiatives led to Queensland's being the first Australian State to draw up food standards laws; he also called for uniformity in food standards throughout Australia. Ham introduced compulsory notification of diseases, including tuberculosis and hookworm. He was, as well, founding president of the Queensland branch of the Life Saving Society of London (Royal Life Saving Society) in 1905.

In 1909 Ham was appointed permanent head of the Department of Public Health, chairman of the Board of Public Health and administrator of sanatoria for Victoria. His enlightened, non-moralistic attitude set the direction for venereal disease legislation, which was adopted almost Australia-wide during World War I, establishing principles that are followed today. He wrote prolifically, published widely in Australian medical journals and provided reports on public health issues for the governments of Queensland and Victoria.

Following differences of opinion with the minister for health W. H. Edgar, in May 1913 Ham resigned and returned to England. On the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as medical officer in the Irish Guards. At the end of the war he became deputy commissioner of medical services to the Ministry of National Services and Pensions in London. Thereafter he was in private practice in London. He investigated allergy, pioneered inhalation therapy for chest diseases and published books on skin diseases, nervous disease and psychotherapy. As Bertie Burnett-Ham he died on 28 March 1954 in Orpington Hospital, Bromley, Kent. A daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Winders, Surf Life Saving in Queensland (Brisb, 1970)
  • R. Patrick, A History of Health and Medicine in Queensland 1824-1960 (Brisb, 1987)
  • M. J. Thearle, ‘Dr B Burnett Ham: Father of Queensland’s Department of Health’, Medical Journal of Australia, vol 161, 4 July 1994, p 55
  • M. J. Thearle, Crisis or Consideration. Public Health Measures in Queensland Following the Appointment of Dr B Burnett Ham as the First Commissioner of Public Health 1901-1909 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1994).

Citation details

M. John Thearle, 'Ham, Nathaniel Burnett (Bertie) (1865–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Burnett-Ham, Nathaniel

13 June, 1865
Smythesdale, Victoria, Australia


28 March, 1954 (aged 88)
Bromley, Kent, England

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