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Dr John Gunther: PNG’s colonial 'driving force'

Sir John Gunther - "Easily the strongest single driving force in the PNG Administration”(Sir Paul Hasluck)

| Australian Dictionary of Biography | Edited extracts

CANBERRA - Sir John Thomson Gunther (1910-84), medical practitioner, public servant and vice-chancellor, was born on 2 October 1910 in Sydney.

He studied medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1935. His mother had been one of the early women medical graduates there.

Gunther represented Sydney in inter-university boxing and rugby. After a year’s residency at Sydney Hospital, he applied to be medical officer with Lever’s Pacific Plantations Ltd and, working out of Gavutu and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, he travelled widely to over 30 of Lever’s properties including to Milne Bay.

In 1938 he married and moved to Mount Isa in Queensland, then – as World War II neared Australia in 1941 - he was commissioned as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force medical branch.

The RAAF sent Gunther to Papua in September 1942 where, by ensuring the use of anti-malarials and protective clothing, reducing the numbers of mosquitoes and arguing for a quicker return to duty, Gunther lessened the impact of malaria on service personnel in Port Moresby and at Milne Bay.

In December 1944 he took command of the Tropical Research Field Unit in New Guinea; after conducting research on Bat Island, near Manus. Demobilised in June 1946, he said he had a “very interesting war”.

Offered the position of director of public health in PNG in 1946, Gunther agreed to go to Port Moresby before deciding. He worked from a tin-roofed office with a mud floor, had few resources and faced the problems of a population devastated and neglected by war.

He was then 35 years old, of medium height, strongly built, and aggressive in speech and movement. He worked hard and played hard.

Gunther’s main problems were recruiting trained personnel, carrying services to remote communities and protecting the many recently contacted communities from new diseases. By employing refugee doctors from Europe and by training expatriate and indigenous medical assistants, Gunther built up the staff.

He arranged for those few Papua New Guineans with sufficient education to go to the Central Medical School in Suva before the Papuan Medical College was established in 1958. A system of aid posts, sub-district hospitals and district hospitals supported by medical patrols brought most people within a day’s walk of medical care.

The department concentrated on readily diagnosed diseases with known cures, vaccinated widely, and introduced maternity and child health clinics and mobile units, and a malaria control policy (including controversial insecticide spraying).

Permitting briefly trained staff to treat patients, and bypassing other safeguards observed in advanced countries, involved risks but Gunther argued that overall the policies had saved thousands.

As director of public health, Gunther approved the start of the Highlands Labour Scheme in 1950, organised the medical services after the disastrous Mount Lamington eruption of 1951 and directed the initial response to the degenerative disease kuru.

He had inherited a system of racially segregated hospitals; in the face of white opposition new hospitals were designed as single buildings with separate paying and non-paying wings. The health service was a major achievement of the Australian postwar administration of PNG.

Appointed assistant-administrator in 1957, Gunther gradually won the confidence and friendship of Territories Minister Sir Paul Hasluck and administrator Sir Donald Cleland. The three men dominated the making and implementing of Australian policy in PNG for the next seven years.

Gunther was government leader in the Legislative Council, chairman of the select committee on constitutional development that recommended the establishment of the first House of Assembly with universal suffrage, and a member of the Currie commission on higher education in Papua and New Guinea that led to the creation of the University of Papua and New Guinea.

From 1964, Gunther was the senior government member in the new House of Assembly, responsible for getting government business through the house.

A fair speaker, well briefed, respected and combative, he was a dominant member, who objected to increased interference from Canberra: “Any influence I’d had with Cleland and Hasluck I lost entirely in 1964-1965,” he said.

He was a special representative at the United Nations in 1965 when Australia was under pressure to give PNG independence.

Gunther was appointed foundation vice-chancellor of the University of Papua and New Guinea in 1966. Although inexperienced in university administration he brought to it a determination to get things done, a shrewd assessment of staff, a tolerance of beliefs, and an office and house open to all ranks and races.

He lost arguments to bring medicine, engineering and agricultural science into the university from the start, but he was a strong advocate for the autonomy and standards, of the new institution.

By the first graduation, in 1970, UPNG had the finest buildings and grounds then built by the Australians in their colony, and the campus was a centre of creativity and scholarship.

On his retirement in 1972 Gunther served as a director of Bougainville Copper Pty Ltd. He was appointed OBE in 1954, elevated to CMG in 1965 and knighted in 1975.

Long debilitated by emphysema, Sir John Gunther died on 27 April 1984 in Melbourne. There is a bronze bust by John Dowie and a Gunther building at UPNG. Paul Hasluck said that in postwar Papua New Guinea Gunther “was easily the strongest single driving force in the Administration”.

Footnote by Keith Jackson

In 1965, flying to Port Moresby from Sydney after leave, I sat in the aisle seat beside John Gunther, then assistant administrator of Papua New Guinea. Dr Gunther was very engaging and interested in how I was finding life as a highlands schoolteacher. I was suitably awestruck by the encounter.

When the drinks trolley rolled down, Gunther ordered a scotch, I (although a beer drinker) emulated him and did likewise. The hostess asked me whether I would ‘something with it’ – and I responded “yes, dry ginger ale”. Whereupon Gunther waved an  admonishing hand and interjected “no he won’t; he’ll have it with water”, adding for my benefit, “you don’t ruin a good scotch.”

Read the late Hank Nelson’s full biography of John Gunther here:


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