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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.
Author: Michael Roe
Print Publication Details: Michael Roe, 'Cumpston, John Howard Lidgett (1880 - 1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press, 1981, pp 174-176.