Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Armstrong, William George (1859–1941)

by Claudia Thame

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William George Armstrong (1859-1941), physician, was born on 29 May 1859 at Leigh, Essex, England, eldest son of Lieutenant Richard Ramsay Armstrong, R.N., and his wife Eliza Susannah, née Malet, of Jersey, Channel Islands. He was educated at King's School, Canterbury, and about 1873 went to New Zealand with his mother. In 1878 the family settled at Hunters Hill, New South Wales, and he attended Sydney Grammar School. He worked on the Singleton Argus in 1878 and next year was a sub-editor on the Sydney Mail. While attending the University of Sydney (B.A., 1884; M.B., Ch.M., 1888), he taught at his old school.

After a nine-year engagement, on 9 February 1888 Armstrong married Elizabeth Jane, daughter of Rev. C. F. Garnsey, at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney. He practised medicine at Merriwa, Emmaville and Bowral before going to England in 1894; next year at the University of Cambridge he gained the necessary qualifications for a diploma in public health (conferred retrospectively in 1912) and became a fellow of the (Royal) Sanitary Institute, London. As part of his studies he visited the famous 'consultations de nourrissons' conducted by Pierre Budin at the Charité hospital, Paris, and was deeply impressed by this scheme to advise mothers on the feeding and care of infants.

On his return to Sydney, Armstrong was appointed medical officer of health for the Metropolitan Combined Sanitary Districts of Sydney in March 1898 and became city health officer in 1900. Four years later he launched the infant welfare movement, three years before his more famous colleague Truby King in New Zealand. In 1905, as president of the public health section of the Australasian Medical Congress in Adelaide, he published an important article, 'Some lessons from statistics of infant mortality in Sydney', in its Transactions. He believed that approximately half of the 106 infant deaths (in their first year) per 1000 live births in 1901-05, had occurred because of mismanagement of feeding, and that mothers should be educated in the care and breast-feeding of babies rather than in the overseas trend of providing impoverished mothers with ready-made artificial baby-food.

Armstrong engaged a qualified health visitor to advise mothers of all new-born infants in the city of Sydney. In 1912, when two additional staff were employed to cover the inner suburbs, 4686 visits were made. Armstrong's team referred those needing regular supervision to the Alice Rawson School for Mothers at Darlinghurst, founded in 1908 as a subsidized voluntary agency. In 1914 both operations were combined under the Baby Clinic Board, of which Armstrong was president. The movement expanded rapidly, despite administrative problems, and by 1918 there were twenty-eight clinics in New South Wales. After 1919 the board worked closely with the new Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies. In the Medical Journal of Australia, 28 October 1939, he claimed that the sharp decrease in infant mortality was partly due to his advisory and supervisory programme.

In 1913 Armstrong had transferred to the restructured Department of Public Health as senior medical officer of health and deputy-director-general. In 1904-20 he lectured at the university. Over the years he sat on several government administrative boards. He was esteemed for his work during major epidemics of bubonic plague, small-pox and pneumonic influenza on which he reported extensively in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and in the Medical Journal of Australia. Influenced by the ideals of J. Ashburton Thompson, he advocated disease-prevention through environmental control, sanitary improvement and public education. After acting for a year, from 1 July 1922 Armstrong became director-general of public health and president of the Board of Health until he retired on 28 May 1924; he stayed on the board until 1941. He was medical superintendent of Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd until 1935.

With a trace of his father's restlessness, Armstrong frequently moved house. As a young man he enjoyed billiards, tennis, swimming, cycling and photography; later he owned a small yacht and gardened. He took his family to almost every Gilbert and Sullivan opera professionally staged in Sydney. In 1925 he visited Jersey to see his sister Amy, who had married her cousin Reginald Malet de Carteret, seigneur of St Ouens Manor. Armstrong died at Vaucluse on 27 December 1941 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and a son John Malet, who had a distinguished career in the Royal Australian Navy.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1914-15, 4, 169, 1923, 2, 1205
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 28 Feb 1942
  • C. Thame, Health and the State (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • private information.

Citation details

Claudia Thame, 'Armstrong, William George (1859–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/armstrong-william-george-5054/text8425, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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