Cumpston Research

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John Howard Lidgett Cumpston pg 2

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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.

One of JHL's many books.


'This volume is dedicated to the memory of





and the many unknown or forgotten humble builders of our nation, who, after tragic

deaths, lie in lonely graves in the still silent places of our land.'


Title: Health and disease in Australia: a history.

Personal Authors: Cumpston, J. H. L.



'This book is a thoroughly researched work on the epidemiology of disease in Australia since the first European settlement in 1788. The work was written in 1928 but has not previously been published.


Cumpston wrote with authority as well he might, being Director-General of Health for the Commonwealth of Australia between 1921 and 1945.

The subject is first covered generally, then under the morbidity of groups, by specific disease and finally from a legislative point of view.

The epidemiological tables and graphs are clear but sometimes the print of the explanation is so small that it is difficult to read. The layout of the page is old fashioned in appearance as it is in two columns. This might be an effort to attach the tables and graphs more closely to the text that relates to them but it presents a rather daunting appearance to the reader. The editor's notes and introduction are spread across the page in a single column which is easier on the eye.


As might be expected the text shows its age; epidemiological tables do not go past 1925/6 and some references are archaic, e.g. von Pirquet reaction rather than BCG in testing for tuberculosis, and references to Mossman and Barcoo fevers and

'Bung eye'. The editor says that he has tried "not to intrude too much on the original work", but, although he provides notes to the background and gives additional references, it would have been helpful if he could have provided some explanation of these arcane diseases.


Another aspect of the work which shows its age is the exclusion of the Aborigines from much of the statistical information. Cumpston does not apparently include them in his general morbidity and mortality tables and only mentions them with reference to specific diseases. For example on p. 276 he says that it does not appear that Aborigines were affected by tuberculosis before the arrival of Europeans but there is no indication of how they were affected after 1788. However, this may be for lack of evidence.  


The editor's introduction gives a biographical outline of Cumpston and puts him and his work in context. Although the book was presumably intended for the Australian public the lack of a good map of the continent is an irritation to a reader whose knowledge of its geography is limited.


This work is literate and of general interest: it is surprising that it has not previously been published.'


Mary Gibson


Publisher: AGPS Press, Australian Government Publishing Service



"Cumpston was undoubtedly the greatest figure in Australian public health in the 20th century,  Cumpston helped to lay the foundations for the long lifespan Australians enjoy today,  He foresaw the need for encouraging medical research, and Commonwealth-State cooperation in health matters. Both were very innovative for the time."


'In The People's Health: Public Health in Australia, covering 1788 to the present day', Dr Milton Lewis, senior fellow in the School of Public Health

Obituary for JHL CUMPSTON  British Medical Journal

Nov. 6, 1954


J. H. L. CUMPSTON, C.M.G., M.D., D.P.H.

Dr. J. H. L. Cumpston, who was Director-General of Health for the Commonwealth of Australia for nearly a quarter of a century, died on October 9 at the age of 74.


John Howard LidgettCumpston was born at Melbourne, on June 19, 1880. From Wesley College, Melbourne; he entered Queen's College, Melbourne University, as a medical student and graduated M.B. in 1902, taking the B.S. degree in the following year. He proceeded to the M.D. in 1907. After graduation he held house appointments at Melbourne Hospital and as assistant medical officer at the Parkside Asylum, Adelaide, before coming to London as a member of the staff of the Western Hospital under the old Metropolitan Asylums Board in 1906, the year in which he obtained the D.P.H. of the English Royal Colleges.


Two years later he returned  to Australia to assume the duties of his first public health appointment as medical officer of health for Western Australia, a post he relinquished in 1911 to

become chief quarantine officer for Queensland.  In 1913 Cumpston was appointed director of quarantine for the Commonwealth, and in 1922 he became, in addition, Director-General of Health. He filled both posts with great distinction until he retired in 1945. The responsibility he had to shoulder in this dual capacity was no light one, for during his tenure of office Australia was welcoming immigrants in large numbers. In addition, the country's immense coast-line makes the

work of a quarantine officer exceptionally difficult. For his services Cumpston was appointed C.M.G. in the New Year Honours of 1929.


On the occasion of the Centenary celebrations of the British Medical Association in 1932 Cumpston returned to London to serve as a vice-president of the Section of Public Health. In 1937 he was appointed chairman of the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia, and in 1942, during the last war, he did good service as director-general of the Emergency Civil Practitioner

Service. Four years ago he visited Java, Malaya, and Siam on behalf of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.


Cumpston undertook a good deal of historical research on health subjects and published books on the history of smallpox, plague, and intestinal infections in Australia. Other books from his pen include The Practice of Maritime Quarantine and Public Health in Australia. For recreation he turned to fishing, particularly seafishing, and in his younger days enjoyed the rather unusual pastime of bookbinding. He married Miss Gladys M. Walpole, daughter of Dr. G. A. Walpole, and had

three sons and four daughters.

The Times, Monday October 11, 1954; pg 8; Issue 53059; col D Obituaries



Our Melbourne Correspondent reports the death of Dr. John Howard Lidgett Cumpston, CMG, MD, Director General of Health for the Commonwealth of Australia from 1922 to 1945.  He was 74.

He was born at South Yarra, Melbourne, on June 19, 1880 and was educated at Wesley College and the University of Melbourne.  He graduated BS in 1902, thereafter proceeding MD, and was for a time medical officer to the Metropolitan Asylums Board in London.  He was appointed Director of Quarantine for Australia in 1913, a post which he held until his retirement in 1945.  During the 1939-45 War he was Director-General of the Emergency Civil Practitioner Service.  In 1950 he undertook a mission to Java, Malaya and Siam for a United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.  He was the author of a history of smallpox in Australia and was made a CMG in 1929.

He married in 1908 Gladys, daughter of Dr G A Walpole of Tasmania.  There were three sons and four daughters of the marriage.

Article CS136139595

jhl cumpston book front

UK Medical Register 1913  


Name  CUMPSTON, John Howard Lidgett



Dr. Cumpston to Return to Canberra  Dr. J. H. L Cumpston, who has been advisor to the Ceylon Government on health matters is expected to return to Canberra at the end of March or early in April. Dr. Cumpston has booked a passage on a liner leaving for Australia on March 7.

He went to Ceylon five months

ago at the invitation of the Ceylon Government to advise on

health matters in that country.

He is a former Commonwealth

Director of Health.


The Canberra Times Saturday 28 January 1950

SUDDEN DEATH OF DR. J. H. L CUMPSTON The death occurred suddenly at his home in Forrest on Saturday of Dr. John Howard Lidgett Cumpston, world authority on public health and former Commonwealth Director-General of Health. Dr. Cumpston, who was 74 years, was the founder of the

Commonwealth Department of Health and had been largely responsible for the Australian

quarantine system.  He was born in Melbourne and was educated at Wesley College, graduating in 1902 at the University of Melbourne with final honours in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

He was appointed Medical Officer . of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, London, and returned to Australia as Medical Officer of Health in Western Australia. In 1913 he became Director of Quarantine and was largely responsible for the high standard of the Australian service. When the Commonwealth Department of Health was created in 1922, he was appointed Director-General. He was responsible for the creation of the National Health and Medical Research Council in 1937 and

was the first chairman. He had also acted as Commonwealth  Director of Quarantine and was largely responsible for the high standard of service.  1917-18.

Dr. Cumpston was an authority on tropical diseases and was the author of a History of Smallpox in Australia, History of Plague in Australia, History of Intestinal Infections Australia, aud Public Health in Australia.  During the war he was Director-General of the Emergency Civil Practitioner Service foundcd in 1942. After retirement as Director General of Health, in 1945, Dr. Cumpston's services were availed of in the international health field. In 1949 he was appointed to advise on the Health Service of Ceylon, and he was to have left for Colombo shortly to report on the progress of the service. In 1950 ho undertook a mission to Java, Malaya and Siam for the United Nations

International Children's Emergency Fund. Dr. Cumpston came to Canberra on the transfer of the

Health Department in 1928 and identified himself in many phases of Canberra life. He was one of the original niembers of the A.C.T. Advisory Council and was chairman from 1931 to 1935.

He was for some years a member of the Council of the Canberra University College. Dr. and Mrs. Cumpston were keen members of the Canberra Horticultural Society and were  prominent exhibitors for many years. The Canberra Film  Centre was formed largely through the interest of Dr. Cumpston, who was its first president. In addition to his interest in medical history, Dr. Cumpston interested himself in historical research, particularly of the exploration of the Australian continent. He published in 1951 a history of the life and explorations of Charles Sturt, and was engaged in a work on Mitchell. He had .been one of the founder of the Canberra Historical Society, of which he was vice president, and had delivered an address to the society in July on the exploration of the Southern Districts of New South Wales. He is survived by his widow, three sons, Dr. Alan and Dr. Bruce Cumpston, of Canberra, Dr. John Cumpston, of New Caledonia, and four daughters, Margaret, Mary, Amy and Maeva. There will be a private funeral. In 1929 Dr. Cumpston was created a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

The Canberra Times Monday 11 October 1954



From October 1, cases of diabete

mollitus would receive maximum

extra butter allowance of 8 ozs a

week, said the  Director-General of Health (Dr. Cumpston) on Saturday.

A special cream allowance of 13

pints a week would be given to persons suffering from duodenal or peptic ulcers, ulceratlve colitis, active pulmonary tuberculosis, and typhoid

Dr. Cumpston said where additional butter was granted cream would not be provided, but where cream was unobtainable an equivalent quantity of butter would be made available.


The Canberra Times  Monday 27 September 1943



"Cheese-paring" Methods

Of Government

CANBERRA, February 27.

Conditions at the Canberra Hospital were uneconomical and unsatisfactory, the medical superintendent (Dr. Nott)

told the Hospital Advisory Board to-day. He said that nurses and doctors were working under grave disabilities which might at any time precipitate a crisis. Dr. Nott accused tbe Government of cheese-paring methods and severely criticised the Director-General of Health (Dr. J. H. Cumpston) and the Minister for Health (Mr. C. W. Marr) for "having ignored the urgent necessity for erecting an up-to

date hospital in Canberra." He described the suggested additions and alterations to the present building as sheer madness and a waste of money. It was decided to urge the Minister to give his immediate consideration to the erection of a new building, the

initial cost of which was estimated by one member of the board-at £50,


The Courier Mail Wednesday 28 February 1934

Inter-Departmental Competitions

About 50  bowlers attended the third annual general meeting of the Canberra Public Service Bowling

Association held recently at the Canberra Bowling Clubhouse, and the

enthusiasm which prevailed augured well for the success of the approaching season. The perpetual Challenge Shield was presented to  the Director-General of Health [Dr. Cumpston), as it had been won by the Health Department "rink''.

The Canberra Times Wednesday 17 August 1938

WHO'S WHO 1952

CUMPSTON, John Howard Lidgett, CMG 1929, MD, BS, DPH; b Melbourne, 19 June 1880; s. of George William and Elizabeth Cumpston; m. Gladys Maeva, d. of GA Walpole; three s. four d.  Educ: Wesley College Melbourne; Queen's College, University of Melbourne.  Graduated 1902; Medical Officer, Metropolitan Asylums Board, London; Medical Officer of Health, Western Australia; Director General of Health, Commonwealth of Australia, 1922-45; Director of Quarantine 1913-45; Director-Gen of Emergency Civil Practitioner Service, 1942; Chairman, National Health and Medical Research Council 1937; retired 1945.  Publications: History of Smallpox in Australia; History of Plague in Australia; Public Health in Australia.  Recreations fishing, historical research.  Address: Nares Crescent, Forrest, Canberra ACT.

An Exhibition of Material from the

Monash University Rare Book Collection 14 June - 12 October 2001


144. Cumpston, J. H. L. (John Howard Lidgett), 1880-1954.

The history of plague in Australia, 1900-1925 / by J.H.L. Cumpston and F. McCallum. (Melbourne : Dept. of Health, 1926)

Bubonic plague was unknown in Australia until 1900. There had been outbreaks in ports with which Australia had constant contact from 1894 when the plague was officially declared an epidemic in Hong Kong. From 1896 a plague pandemic spread around the world.