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Death of PNG’s remarkable Dr Roy Scragg

Dr Scragg's commitment to public health extended for the entire post-war colonial period and the health system he fostered doubled the average life expectancy of Papua New Guineans from 32 to 64

Dr Roy Scragg outside his iconic home in the Adelaide suburb of Glenelg just before he sold it in March  following the death of his wife, Joy (Dean Martin)


Dr Scragg’s funeral will be held on Friday 1 July at the Prospect International
Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 7 Ballville Street, Prospect, at 1.30 pm.
The funeral service will be webcast and you can link here to the livestream

NOOSA –Dr Roy Scragg, who died of cancer in the early hours of last Thursday at the age of 98, was a most remarkable man.

The richly honoured and credentialled Dr Scragg AM OBE, DUniv MD MPH MBBS, spent 27 years from 1947 to 1974 developing the health system in Papua New Guinea both as a pioneering administrator and later as a ground-breaking university professor.

Dr Scragg after being inducted as a Member of the Order of Australia last year

He was born in Feilding, New Zealand, later moving to South Australia and obtaining his medical degrees from Adelaide University in 1947.

Soon after, Dr Scragg became the first young Australian doctor to join the PNG Department of Public Health after World War II.

In 1950, he added to his qualifications a Diploma in Tropical Medicine & Hygiene and, as an epidemiologist he undertook a ground-breaking study of why the population of New Ireland was in rapid decline.

He discovered that a long-established gonorrhoea had resulted in 54% of New Ireland women being childless.

The disease was eradicated by penicillin and in 1955 Adelaide University awarded him a Doctor of Medicine for work, recorded in his thesis, ‘Depopulation in New Ireland: A Study of Demography and Fertility’.

In the same year he became the founding editor of the Papua New Guinea Medical Journal.

By 1957, Dr Scragg had been appointed as director of the Public Health Department, where he played a central role in the establishment of the curative, preventive, research and educational divisions of the medical service.

His continuing involvement with medical research created a culture in which his professional staff, in addition to their operational duties, investigated and developed treatments for cretinism, neonatal tetanus, enteritis necroticans (pikbel) and other hazardous diseases.

The health system he fostered doubled the average life expectancy of Papua New Guineans from 32 in 1950 to 64.

As director of health he also served as a member of the pre-independence Legislative Council and House Assembly.

In this role he was a member of the committee that established the University of Papua New Guinea in 1966, including its medical faculty, in 1970.

Scragg at desk in PNG
Roy Scragg working at his desk in PNG

And in 1971 he became the foundation professor of social and preventative medicine at the university and was awarded an OBE for his significant contribution to public health in PNG.

Dr Scragg returned to South Australia in 1974 and, until his retirement in 1982, was the founding coordinator of the South Australian Postgraduate Medical Education Association.

In 1982, he was awarded a fourth degree, Master of Public Health, for his thesis on the effects of health care interventions on village people in Bougainville

In 2015, Adelaide University honoured Dr Scragg’s distinguished career by awarding him an honorary doctorate.

In 2017, in recognition of his role as a founder, he received the distinguished fellow award of the Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators.

Then last year he added to his earlier OBE by being appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) to mark his significant contributions to medicine, epidemiology and medical associations.

Another of Dr Scraggs’ outstanding commitments was his 64 years as a member of the Rotary Club, which he joined in Port Moresby in 1958 and continued as member of the Rotary Club of Adelaide in 1974 until his death.

Dr. Scragg attributed a great deal of his success to his parents, both of whom encouraged him and his siblings to obtain graduate degrees.

Scragg addressing Rotary
Dr Scragg addresses a meeting of the Rotary Club of Adelaide. He was a Rotarian for 64 years

He said his career had also been enhanced by a ‘serendipitous” choice to become a doctor in “epidemiologically virgin” Papua New Guinea.

He advised aspiring doctors to continuously harness their scientific curiosity and explore new theories for treatment.

In his experience, even ideas that present themselves out of thin air deserve thorough consideration and research.

Throughout his career, he regularly documented his scientific findings in more than 25 scholarly articles which were published in peer-reviewed medical publications, many of which are noted here.

Occasionally he would draw on his vast experience of post-war PNG to correct the record if he felt the health service he had worked so assiduously to stablish and grow was maligned.

Thus in 2011, when he felt Emeritus Professor Donald Denoon of the Australian National University had, not for the first time, detracted from the role of PNG doctors and medical assistants to enhance the role of kiaps in colonial public health matters, he wrote....

Denoon’s short paragraph on health continues his hypercritical attack on the public health service that pervades his historical review ‘Public Health in Papua New Guinea’ (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

His derogatory use of “stretcher bearers” denigrates both the army private with dedication but no medical training and medical assistants who came from the Australian Army and ANGAU, with medical experience and/or training.

The “quasi-military campaigns” were never “escorted by kiaps”. This comment implies improved safety for the medical assistant but this is far from the actual scene.

The Sinclair/Speer patrol into the Southern Highlands and other patrols into uncontrolled areas were joint ventures to determine the future administration and current health of the people.

Medical assistants were often required to accompany kiap patrols whenever they were available to provide care for the patrol carriers and provide village care, which in turn acted as a bait for village cooperation.

The disease eradication and control campaigns were not “over-ambitious” as through these Public Health Department endeavours the expectation life increased over 25 years from 32 to 52 years – no mean achievement.

His only criticism of kiaps is that “the Administration began to recruit indigenous kiaps precisely when the career itself was becoming obsolete” is a measure of the kiaps understanding of the future.

Dr Roy Scragg was always a man of clear view, strong mind and acute understanding of affairs. With his death this week, we have lost another giant of Papua New Guinea's emergence as an independent nation-state.


Dr Scragg  splendid in his PNG outfit  at a Rotary lunch to mark PNG Independence Day
Dr Scragg,  splendid in PNG 'colonial uniform' , at a Rotary lunch to mark PNG Independence Day

On behalf of PNG Attitude contributors and readers, condolences are extended to Dr Scragg's extended family:

Children & in-laws Robert and Barbara, Peter and Rosita, Alison and Grant, and Ian

Grandchildren Declan, Emily, Sophia, Dominique, Angela, Maree, Michael, Michael, Jackie, Melanie, Carla, Victoria,
Alexander, Amy, Juliet, Christian and Sean

Great-grandchildren Imogen, Ethan, April, Michele, Matteo, Harper, Damon, Darius and Rhianna


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Alison McCauley

Thank you to Kieth Jackson and friends and all that have contributed to this article on my late father, Roy Scragg. This has been shared to many family members and is a great reflection on his achievements. A journey of a life time which took his family on many different experiences in life. Even to the end of his life his mental capacity and recall of history, names and events were remarkable. Unfortunately, a diagnosis of cancer was marking his end, but sadly it came a lot quicker than expected after a surgical procedure! The consequence of, took us all by surprise and I am sure for dad as well!
A life of many achievements and well lived. Daughter Alison

Carla Scragg

Thank you for this wonderful write-up, and thank you to Dr Christie for your words. I only ever knew Dr Scragg as "grandpa". I don't think I will ever fully understand the significant contribution he made. I'm feeling deeply saddened by his passing, and this has given a lot of comfort and brought back some fond memories of that strong mind! It's been really wonderful to read this, and I appreciate you sharing.

Tom Turner | MB BS FRCP Edin | Webmaster

More about Roy on the AMA SA History committee website:

Dr John Christie

I owe my medical career to Dr Roy Scragg.
In late 1965, after completing high school at Rabaul High, I applied for entry to the Papuan Medical College (PMC) now the medical faculty of UPNG. Frankly I had little idea of what I wanted to do post high school and it was at my fathers urging that the application was made. My father was then working for the Public Heath Department in Rabaul. My families connections with PNG goes back to the late 19th century and my father saw the opportunity of PNG.
I think it was totally unexpected by the health authorities that a non PNG person (i.e. white person) would apply for entry to PMC to undertake training to become a medical officer. I was flown to Port Moresby and interviewed personally as to my suitability by Dr Scragg, then the Director of Public Health. At the end of the interview Dr Scragg advised that I could commence at the college the following February. At the time I thought it was normal procedure and it was not until a few years later that I had an inkling as to the machinations that may have gone on behind the scene with my unexpected application.
I guess Dr Scragg took a chance on me fitting in at the college and being of some benefit to the health services of PNG!!
I am eternally grateful to Dr Scragg for that chance.

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