John Gunther

John Thomson Gunther (1910-1984), Australian medical doctor, public servant and the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). Gunther won a scholarship to Kings School, Sydney, and graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney in 1934. In 1935 he joined Lever’s Pacific Plantations in Solomon Islands where he became interested in malaria. In 1938 he accepted a research post with Mt Isa Mines where he investigated lead poisoning in outback Australia. He joined the RAAF and was posted to New Guinea after the Japanese invasion in 1942. After the war he was invited by the Australian Minister for External Affairs to become Director of Public Health in New Guinea.

He arrived in Port Moresby in 1946 to find few staff, poor facilities and a high incidence of malaria, yaws, tuberculosis and tropical ulcers. With the help of funds provided under Australia’s “New Deal” for PNG, and new drugs, such as antibiotics, developed during the war, he embarked upon a large scale health campaign. His work with PNGans was hampered by the largely racist white community which expected priority in health service. Gunther revived the prewar Native Medical Assistants Scheme (later Aid Post Orderlies) under which semi-literate PNGans were trained to recognize major common diseases and administer premeasured doses of medicine. He organized a large-scale vaccination campaign against tuberculosis in the highlands. In 1964 he sent students to the Central Medical School in Suva to be trained as Medical Officers. He was in favor of repealing the ordinance under which PNGans were forbidden to drink alcohol. In 1962 he became Acting Administrator. In 1966 he became the first and one of the best Vice-Chancellors of UPNG. In 1972, when Gunther retired to Australia, UPNG was a well established scholarly institution with a high reputation.

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