This is an account of the two administration health services, and of those provided by the missions, through three succeeding regimes in British New Guinea/Papua and four successive regimes in German New Guinea/Territory of New Guinea. It also traces the evolution of Australian health administration in relation to the health services of Papua and New Guinea. Because the missions - although subsidised by the Administrations - developed medical services of their own before and quite separate from the administration services they are considered separately.
Development of the health services was affected by the considerable constraints of insufficient finance, unfamiliar terrain, unfamiliar peoples and unfamiliar diseases. It was also affected by the emergencies of recurring epidemics of introduced diseases, by the interruption of the First World War and by the crisis of the Great Depression years. While in spite of the war years development was more or less continuous in Papua, New Guinea suffered almost complete disruption of health services for seven years, except to military personnel, during the years of occupation by Australian troops between 1914 and 1921.
Nonetheless before the 1930s both the Papua and New Guinea health services were stable and expanding. Increasingly they were able to retain medical staff and to send officers to Australia for postgraduate training in tropical medicine and hygiene: also to undertake increasing medical training and dispersal of both European Medical Assistants and indigenous personnel on patrols and into village societies. The importance of adequate nutrition became a central issue, and continuing campaigns were conducted against hookworm, yaws, gonorrhoea and leprosy.
The period of eighteen years between the establishment of Australia’s Commonwealth Department of Health in 1921 and 1939 included an exploration of Australia’s potential role in relation to health matters in Papua and New Guinea and more widely in the Pacific Region. The first, and a significant, contribution was that made by the Commonwealth Health Laboratory in Rabaul. As possibilities were explored and tried, or discarded, it became clear that the best means for Australia to assist in the health problems of the two Territories was by providing appropriate training for medical and other health personnel and for missionaries, and by conducting field surveys and research to help elucidate the epidemiology and pathology of diseases and questions of entomology.
Other appropriate action was the initiation and conducting of international conferences on health matters of common concern, and the undertaking of the receipt and distribution of epidemiological intelligence for the Austral-Pacific Zone, of which New Guinea was a part.
The period of the study ends in 1939, when the inevitability of war, and the likely inclusion of New Guinea in the conflict, became apparent.