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[Dora] Margaret [Cumpston] Spencer

SPENCER (Dora) Margaret (nee CUMPSTON), born 26.8.1916 in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, fourth child and first daughter of Dr. John Howard Lidgett Cumpston (who was the first Australian Director-General of Health) and Gladys Maeva (nee Walpole).


My father's department was transferred to Canberra in 1928. Thus I received my primary school education at 'Atherstone', Sandringham, Melbourne, and the Canberra Girls'Grammar School (at that time St. Gabriel's School), my secondary education at Telopea Park High School, Canberra, and took my Science Degrees - Bachelor with First Class Honours and Master, both in Entomology - at the University of Sydney. The degree of Doctor of Philosophy was not then available. At the University I held a Canberra University College Scholarship, a Science Research scholarship, and a Linnean Macleay Fellowship.


In 1940 I was invited to join the staff of the then New England University College (now the large and successful University of New England), initially for the Michaelmas Term, to relieve Dr Consett Davis, who was required to be absent on Air Force duties. This presented itself as a useful contribution to the war effort, so I accepted, although it meant a change from entomological research to giving lectures and practical lessons in Botany. At the end of the year I was invited to return.


I began duties as an Assistant Lecturer in Biology from 1 st March 1942, lecturing and instructing in practical classes in Zoology, Botany and Genetics. Consett Davis had returned, to stay until he was called up for the Australian Imperial Force, when Miss Nancy O'Grady (Mrs Newton Barber), a botanist, joined the Biology Department, and took over the Botany classes. At that point I became effective head of our small department in the evolving university. Nancy and I worked together until 1945. I left then to join my husband, Terry Spencer, who as a mature age student attended both Nancy's and my classes in 1941, while he awaited his call-up for training in the Royal Australian Air Force, which at that early stage in the war was struggling to handle all applicants. I recorded some of the events of those years 1940-1945 for Dr Bruce Mitchell of the History Department of the University of New England, in 15 pages of typescript. (published in Chapter 17, 'New England University College 1938-1945', pp.231-242, in The Artsfrom New England, University Provision and Outreach 1928-1998, ed. J.S. Ryan, The Faculty of Arts and the University of New England Alumni, University of New England, Armidale New South Wales, 2351,1998).


My husband returned to Sydney at the beginning of 1946 with the aim of completing his medical degree. I was asked to become Tutor in Zoology for the ex-servicemen studying

under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme at the University of Sydney. I occupied this position for three years, then when the large influx of ex-servicemen had ceased, I became Teaching Fellow in the Zoology Department for two years, until my husband was about to graduate. As he had decided to take a particular interest in tropical medicine, we went to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, that stretch of water between Far North Queensland and New Guinea. While there we visited many of the islands, and

the missions in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and had our first encounter with malaria (prelude to our later wider experience of that disease): it was an outbreak on Murray Island - our visit there is described in an article published in 'Walkabout' magazine. I also had the opportunity of visiting Booby Island with the lighthouse ship; I wrote about this in another article, also published in 'Walkabout' magazine (these articles published about 1953).


In 1953 we returned to Sydney while my husband studied for his Diploma of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. At the end of the year he joined the recently-established Department of Health of Papua New Guinea, and we went to Port Moresby, from there being posted to Minj in the New Guinea Highlands. The area was at an early stage of 'culture conflict' - the first experiments in growing coffee had just started - and the whole experience was so new, fascinating and deeply moving that it brought forth 'Doctor's Wife in New Guinea', the first of my books. I have to say, though, that the title was not my choice. We also experienced a malaria epidemic among the local people. I too joined the Health Department as an entomologist, and so began my special interest in malaria entomology. (Spencer, M. 1959, Doctor's Wife in New Guinea, Angus & Robertson).


After two years at Minj, we were posted to an utterly different area, to Fergusson Island in Papua, where malaria was not epidemic but strongly endemic, every child contracting the disease in the first year of life. For the next four years my husband and I, working together, conducted malaria field surveys and collected data, the results of which have been recorded in a series of scientific papers. What we observed and experienced in the D'Entrecasteux Islands moved me to write the second of my books, 'Doctor's Wife in Papua " Robert Hale, 1964).


When I wrote the first, and indeed the second, and submitted the manuscripts, I had little idea of what I was embarking upon - that I was entering into a lengthy correspondence with agents and publishers and readers, that I was to be involved in business matters beyond my previous experience, and that like a human child my brain child would be with me for the rest of my life - and I had no idea where to go for some sort of guidance. That guidance is now available from the Australian Society of Authors. Like every other author I found that there is very great delight in seeing one's first book in print. Another pleasure is the letters that come from relatives, from friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. Two letters I remember vividly were one from boy Basil in 'Doctor's Wife in New Guinea', who, now literate in English after schooling in Australia, had read about himself as a child, and the other from a lady who after reading the third book, 'Doctor's Wife in Rabaul', wrote at length about Rabaul and her life there in 1921-1923. There were requests too, to read somebody's manuscript, to send somebody Papua New Guinea stamps, to give talks to various groups and to schools, to find somebody's husband's grave in the war cemetery near Rabaul. It was astonishing to find how widely read the books have been, and to find that 'Doctor's Wife in Papua' was recommended reading for University anthropology students.


At the end of four years we were sent to the town of Rabaul on New Britain, New Guinea. After two outstations, town life meant another adjustment. Our area now was the far-flung New Guinea Islands, and we traveled to many of them, again conducting field surveys and collecting data, and enlarging our knowledge of the way of life of the indigenous groups we worked among. Once again the contrasts were so marked that they drew forth the third book, 'Doctor's Wife in Rabaul' (Robert Hale, 1967).


In 1961 we returned to Australia for family reasons, and my husband began medical practice in Tenterfield, in northern New South Wales. During the next years, maintaining our interest in Papua New Guinea and malaria, we analysed the large quantity of data we had collected, and wrote scientific papers, some by invitation.


In 1970 we decided we must go to an ANZAAS Congress to be held in Port Moresby; this proved a most enjoyable and memorable occasion for all who attended. We were invited to present papers: this Congress resulted in our returning to Papua New Guinea six times in the next eight years. It also resulted indirectly in my being invited to present a paper at the 9th International Conference on Tropical Medicine and Malaria in Athens in 1973, and also to contribute to a laboratory seminar at the Ross Institute of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene immediately afterwards - to a World Health Organization research grant taken up in Madang, New Guinea - to a consultancy with Bougainville Copper Pty. Ltd. on Bougainville Island, New Guinea - to invited contributions to a UNESCO seminar held in Port Moresby in 1975 and to the 15th Pacific Science Congress held in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1983. During 1975-78 I was employed for three to four months each year as a senior malaria entomologist attached to the Department of Health, Papua New Guinea, and during these visits was called upon to act as instructor at seminars conducted by the W orld Health Organization.


My husband and I were jointly asked to return permanently to Papua New Guinea, but while we had an enduring love for and interest in the country and its people, the demanding tasks of malaria investigation, prevention and control are for younger people. So in 1979 my husband again entered full-time medical practice in Werris Creek, New South Wales. Upon his retirement we returned to live in Tenterfield, New South Wales, until his death in February 2002. An obituary was published in the Papua New Guinea Medical Journal (Spencer M, Terence Edward Thornton Spencer, MB,BS,DTM&H, FACTM, 18 Apr 1917-15 Feb 2002).


Some of my writings, reviews of my books, and biographical notes have been, by invitation, deposited at the Dixon Library, University of New England. I was very pleased by this invitation, as I owe much to my years at New England University College from which this fine institution has developed, and 'Booloominbah', still the centre of activity, was my wartime home. Other material, including photographs from Papua New Guinea, is deposited with the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Other material, still with me, has been promised to the Manuscript Section of the National Library of Australia.


108/67 MacGregor Street, Deakin, ACT 2006, Australia. 20 September 2009.




See her other pages :


Page 1 and Page 2


I visited Margaret in the Canberra Hospital on 5th January 2011, and she died the following day 6th January, on the eve of the Cumpston family reunion.