Cumpston Research

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[John] Howard [Lidgett] Cumpston

[Australian Tree 1]

Cumpston, John Howard Lidgett (1880 - 1954) My 3rd cousin 2 x removed.

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

Death: 9 October 1954, Forrest, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence: • Anglican • Methodist


• army medical officer

• biographer

• medical administrator

• medical historian

• medical writer

• public servant


CUMPSTON, JOHN HOWARD LIDGETT (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.   In 1924 Cumpston is recorded as entering America aged 44.  


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.

Click on photo to enlarge:


John (left) at the entrance to the malaria station Leesburg, Georgia. With Wilbur A Sawyer.  Several months after returning from Australia, Sawyer was dispatched to the southern U.S. to check on the status of hookworm and malaria control programs in Georgia and Alabama. Drs. Charles N. Leach and John Howard Lidgett Cumpston assisted in this effort. The caption on the back of the photograph reads, "Sept. 8+/-, 1924. Dr. Cumpston of Australia and W.A.S. at the entrance to the Malaria Station, Leesburg. The pants of Dr. C. belong to Leach! Photo by Leach."


From US Profiles  in Science.  National Library of Medicine.



Click on photo to enlarge.


Companion of The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael & St George, awarded to Dr J H L Cumpston


Object type Awards

Object number




Companion of The Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael & St. George decoration in its presentation box with C.M.G. printed on top and 'Garrard & Co. Ltd.....' on the inside of the lid. The decoration rests on ultramarine blue velvet insert and it has a blue and red striped ribbon attached. The decoration is a white cross (of St. Michael and St. George) with an enamel inlaid centre piece on both sides, which is within a round blue enamel garter which reads 'Auspicium Melioris Aevi'. A spare ribbon is under the box's inlay.


Collection name

Cumpston Family collection


Maker: Garrard & Co Ltd

London, England


Associated organisation

Commonwealth Department of Health. Associated place

Canberra, ACT, Australia


Date awarded  1929


Materials: Silver, Glass enamel, Silk cloth, Velvet



Length: 160mm; Width: 90mm

Depth: 40mm

Source: National Museum of Australia


The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George was instituted on 27 April 1818 by the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and it was intended to commemorate the placing of the Ionian Islands under British protection. Originally it was intended for distinguished citizens of the islands, and also of Malta. At first the Order was conferred upon those holding high position and commands in the Mediterranean. The islands, acquired as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, were at that time very strategically placed and thus of importance to Britain.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, due to the expansion of the British Empire, the Order was then extended to those who had given distinguished service in the Dominions and Colonies, as well as foreign affairs generally.


Today, the Order is awarded to men and women who have held, or will hold, high office, or who render extraordinary or important non-military service in a foreign country. It can also be conferred for important or loyal service in relation to foreign and Commonwealth affairs.





Click on photo to enlarge


JHL on Mt Scabby.  National Library of Australia

jhl henleyyarra

'Henley on Yarra'

Melbourne's high points of colour and activity from 1904 until after World War 2 were the annual Henley-on-Yarra regattas.  They were held each year during spring, between the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups.  Melburnians flocked to the Yarra for one day and night to celebrate their river. Attendances peaked at over 300,000 in 1925.  Those with social aspirations claimed the south bank between Princes and Morel Bridges, while the working classes preferred the north bank as their vantage point.

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Cumpston, Elizabeth


Address: Surrey Hills


Page Line in Petition: 640, 1


Additional Information:

Elizabeth, daughter of John Garrard & Elizabeth Newman, was born in 1851 in Essex, England. In 1876 she married George William Cumpston, a commercial traveller. He was involved with the Wesley Ministry Trust and was treasurer of the Sunday School at the Wesley Methodist Church in Box Hill. Elizabeth was listed as a kindergarten teacher. Address in 1890 - Huddersfield Road (Zetland) Box Hill. Address in S&M 1892 was Elgar Road. Their son, Dr John Howard Lidgett Cumpston, was the first Director General of the Department of Health 1921 - 1945. Elizabeth's brother-law was Samuel B Cumpston who launched the newspaper, The Box Hill Reporter, in mid 1889. The management of the newspaper supported 'one man one vote' but did not support woman suffrage.. Elizabeth died on 7 September 1932.

Whitehorse Women who signed 1891 Woman's Petition

Dr. Cumpston Hopeful.

The director of Quarantine (Dr Cumpston) does not anticipate a recrudescence of the induction epidemic in Australia. He believes the epidemic has reached its height in Sydney.


Argus (Melbourne, Vic.)Thursday 3 July 1919


Staffs of the Health Department and the Institute of Anatomy said farewell to the retiring Director-General of Health (Dr. Cumpston) at the Department's offices on Thursday.  More than 50 officers were present for the function, during which Mr F. L. Fawcett, Dr. F. W. . Clements and Dr. F. Mccallum spoke for members of the staffs in wishing Dr. Cumpston future happiness.

Dr. Cumpston was the recipient of two wallets of notes, one from the staff of the Health Department throughout Australia, and one from the Canberra staff.  Dr. Cumpston's term expires on June l8, when Dr. Mccallum will become Director-General. The Canberra Times  Monday 4 June 1945  


Spencer - Cumpston

The marriage of Margaret, eldest daughter of Dr. and Mrs  J. H. L. Cumpston, of "Greystones," Forrest, and Aircraftman T. E. Spencor, only son of Mr. and Mrs. T. N. Spencer,  "Moorabinda," Tenterfield, was quietly  celebrated at St. Paul's Church Frankston (Vic.) on December 13.

The bride, who wore an all white ensemble, was given away by her brother, Dr. A. G. Cumpston.

The bride, who is lecturer in zooology at the University College, Armidale, will resume her duties at the commencement of the College year.  Guests at the Hotel Ainslie in the past week include Mr. W. Stuart, of Sydney; Mrs. Ross, of Manly; Mrs W. F. Pattinson and Master W. Pattinson, of Manly; Sergeant and Mrs McLaughlin, of Strathfield ; and Miss Beryl Lewis, of Vaucluse.


The Canberra Times  Wednesday 24 December 1941

DR. CUMPSTON Cancels Tokyo trip.  It was announced in Canberra last night that the Director-General of Health (Dr. Cumpston) has cancelled arrangements for his voyage to Japan where he was to have attended the League of National Health Conference on Asiatic disease.


The change of plans is reported tobe due to last-minute development which have rendered Dr. Cumpston's presence desirable in, Australia.

The Canberra Times Wednesday 17 February 1932

DR. CUMPSTON TO VISIT INDIA In response to an Invitation cabled by the Indian Government, the Director-General of Health (Dr. J: H.L. Cumpston) will visit India at the end of next month.

Dr. Cumpston will act as an expert adviser on health matters. When he returns to Australia, he

will again take up his old post until it is necessary for him to retire under the age limit early next June.  It is understood that in India Dr. Cumpston will be joined by expert advisers who have been Invited from other countries. The. proposed conference results from the decision of the Indian Government to set up a health survey and development committee to inquire into all aspects of Indian health organisation. The committee will Investigate public health administration, medical; relief, medical research and similar subjects and will make recommendations for future developments. The invitation issued by the Indian Government to the Commonwealth is believed to have been inspired partly by the resemblance which the Federal system in Australia bears to the

Indian system. Moreover, the Indian Government has, for many years, been in touch by correspondence with Australia on health problems, and is now desirous of benefitting by Dr.

Cumpston's long experience as Director-General in Australia and his close association with the latest developments in health administration and research here. Dr. Cumpston will travel to India

and also return to Australia, by air.  The Canberra Times Wednesday 13 September 1944 

Mr. Walter Eugene Deravin, MJB. B.S. (Melbourne, 1903),

and Mr. John Howard Lidgett Cumpston, M.B. (1902) B.S. (Melbourne, 1903), were registered as legally qualified medical practitioners at the

latest meeting of the South Australian Medical Board,


The Advertiser (Adelaide, S. Aust. : 1889)  Saturday 20 August 1904