NHMRC and the war years

Following our initial look at the history of NHMRC funding, we now take a look back at that dramatic period known as ‘the war years’ – 1939 to 1945.

The war years

This was a critical period in the development of the nation both from a political and historical perspective. Equally it was an important time for the very young organisation that was the NHMRC in those years. During the war years, Australian Government funding for health and medical research in Australia was initially significantly reduced and did not return to pre war levels or higher until the end of the war. Consequently during the war years Council grappled with finding a balance between adequate funding for research that supported the health of those Australians fighting the war overseas and the health of the general population at home.

The table below shows that funding for health and medical research in 1939-40 decreased by 67% to £20,000 (from £60,000 in 1938-39). In 1940-41 funding increased again to £40,000 and a steady state was then maintained until the end of the war. At war’s end, Australian researchers appreciated the doubling of funding to £80,000 in 1945-46; in real terms the increase was just 33% higher than pre-war funding.

Appropriation Value in £ $ value in 2005
1938-39 £60,000 $1,993,500
1939-40 £20,000 $648,293
1940-41 £40,000 $1,250,824
1941-42 £40,000 $1,194,607
1942-43 £40,000 $1,096,082
1943-44 £40,000 $1,052,673
1944-45 £40,000 $1,063,200
1945-46 £80,000 $2,126,400

Key players

Some of the key players on the NHMRC during the war years included:

Chairs of Council

Dr J H L Cumpston - 1939 to mid 1945. Dr Cumpston was the first Director General of the first federal Department of Health and was Chairman of the Federal Health Council which in 1937 became the National Health and Medical Research Council. Dr Cumpston retained the position of Chair of the NHMRC until his retirement at the end of the war in 1945.

Dr Frank McCallum - mid 1945 to late 1946. Dr Cumpston was succeeded as Director General of Health and Chair of the NHMRC by Dr McCallum, a renowned health administrator, in 1945; unfortunately, in late 1946 terminal illness cut short Dr McCallum’s period at the head of the NHMRC.

Not surprisingly, many of the major committees active in the NHMRC during those years were related to issues fundamentally important to the war effort:

  1. Nutrition Committee: Dr F W Clements - 1938 to 1967 - Chairman and/or Convenor in different years during that period
  2. Industrial Hygiene in Munitions Establishments: Dr H E Downes - 1942
  3. Physiological Research Committee (War Problem): Professor R D Wright - 1944 and 1945

The war years had a significant effect on the research workforce at that time. Researchers became involved in military duties or service, and for those who remained, the nature of their research work was often modified to address problems directly associated with war conditions.

Funding examples — who and what was funded in the war years

1939: Biochemistry

C.W. Ross (New grant)

Funding awarded for 1939: £558 ($18,087 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

  1. Normal standards for intravenous glucose tolerance in infants
  2. Glucose absorption in infantile marasmus and in malnutrition of older children
  3. Carbohydrate metabolism in disease involving the liver
  4. Carbohydrate metabolism in endocrine disorders
  5. Methods of improving insulin sensitivity in diabetes

1940: Bacteriology

H.F. Wilson (New grant)

Funding awarded for 1940: £500 ($15,635 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

The study of haemolytic streptococci with particular reference to:

  1. the epidemiology of infections by these organisms;
  2. their connection with rheumatic fever and acute glomerular nephritis

1941: Nutrition

Committee on Nutrition recommended research at Australian Institute of Anatomy, Canberra as part of a larger study on the determination of the Vitamin B1 content of the chief varieties of Australian wheats. (New grant)

Funding awarded for the year of 1941: £500 ($15,635 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

The estimation of human Vitamin B1 requirements by determining the tissue saturation of aneurin (Thiamine) of 200 individuals in the Air Force in Canberra.

1939 to 1942: Tuberculosis

R. Webster (New grant)

Funding awarded for 3 years (1939-1941): £900 ($28,065 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

Tuberculosis in childhood and the relation of human and bovine infection.

Report on progress of Webster’s work taken from the Report of the work done under the MREA during 1940:

A major development in the work on various aspects of tuberculosis has been the instigation of a bacteriological survey, as supplementing, if not complementing the routine radiography of recruits enlisting for service in the Australian Imperial Force. The large scale radiology initiated by the Australian Army Medical Corps authorities provided an opportunity unprecedented in this country to carry out an important and far-reaching public health research.

1941: Tuberculosis

R. Webster (Renewal)

Funding awarded for 1941: £300 ($8,959 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

  • To bring further evidence of the very serious limitations of the microscopic search of smears of sputum in the bacteriological diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis.
  • To enhance the value of the X-ray survey of the Australian Imperial Force by providing supplementary bacteriological findings.
  • To assist the Army Medical Boards by making the bacteriological findings for individual men available as they are determined.

1942: Tuberculosis

R. Webster (Renewal)

Funding awarded for 1942: £300 ($8,220 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

  • To supplement thoracic radiography directed towards the detection of pulmonary tuberculosis in universal trainees with bacteriological examinations identical with those instituted for the Australian Imperial Force.
  • To amplify observations made under the current grant regarding the limitations of radiology in the assessment of quiescence and healing; to bring further evidence of the bacteriological activity of certain minimal X-ray lesions.

1943: Publications

(New grant)

Funding awarded for 1943: Committee on Survey of War Medicine: £500 ($13,158 in 2005 values) for annual salary of Dr Colin White.

1944: Physiology and Pharmacology

Adrien Albert (New grant)

Funding awarded for 1944: £1,100 ($29,238 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

  1. Determination of the physical and chemical properties that is responsible for the activity of such antibacterial substances as are relatively harmless to man, with particular reference to the discovery of new principles in chemotherapy.
  2. Application of such knowledge to the synthesis of entirely new antibacterials of likely clinical value in the treatment of infected war-wounds and in the prevention of infection on the battlefield.

1945: Tuberculosis

X-ray Standing Sub-Committee (New grant)

Funding awarded for 1945: £2,350 ($62,463 in 2005 values)

Grant description:

The investigation into methods used for mass radiography.

Women and the war

At the 13th session in May 1942, a member of Council (Mrs I. H. Moss) tabled a brief report outlining a number of issues affecting women and emphasising the part they could play in the war effort. After discussion of the report, Council adopted a resolution urging the relief of women in industry from the care of their young children.

Resolution #5: Mothers in war industry

The increasingly important part being played by women in active national life involves the implication of a national duty to ensure that this increased activity does not result in decreased personal health, and the Council urges that steps be at once taken to provide that women employed in war industry are relieved as far as possible from the care of their young children. Any means adopted to this end should be carefully designed to avoid, as far as possible, derangement of family life.

Air Anti-G Suit

A major achievement by an Australian researcher during this time was the development of the air-anti g suit. In 1940 Professor F. S. Cotton of the University of Sydney investigated the possibility of applying his work on respiration and circulation to the problem of ‘black-out’ being experienced by fighter pilots.

Throughout 1940 to 1942, work proceeded on construction of a human centrifuge to test pressures which led to pilots losing consciousness. Early results foreshadowed the potential success of restoring the circulation (so radically affected by centrifugal force) by the application of suitably graded air pressure from feet to chest. Professor Cotton proposed to do this by building a series of air sacs into a suit and to provide the mechanical means of automatically inflating each of these sacs to the optimum pressure for each pilot.

The resulting aerodynamic suit was adopted by the Royal Australian Air Force and was officially designated the C.A.A.G. Suit (Cotton Aerodynamic Anti G Suit).

In 1945, the Chair of Council received letters from the Air Marshal, British Royal Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal, Chief of the Air Staff, Royal Australian Air Force and Sterling Professor of Physiology, Yale University (USA) commending Professor Cotton for his work on the development of the air-anti g suit that protected fliers from the effects of high degrees of acceleration, with the added benefit of his innovative work on the gradient pressure principle.

Publish or perish — more paper please

The cry to publish or perish is not new to Australian researchers. And while it was the same in the war years, the lack of available paper in those difficult times added an extra edge to the catchcry. NHMRC provided 25 shillings per page up to a maximum of £50 to provide paper to the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science to continue the practice of publishing research outcomes in that journal. This scarcity of paper caused the Council to adopt a resolution at the 18th Session in Nov 1944.

Resolution #6: The Council strongly supports the application by the Editorial Board of the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science for a 40% increase in the ration of paper to that Journal, thus enabling research work of the Council’s grantees to be more adequately distributed to medical and scientific institutes nationally and overseas.

At the following session in May 1945, the Chair reported that representations on this subject had been made to the authorities concerned and that advice had been received from the Comptroller-General of Customs that approval had been given to an increased allocation of paper for this Journal.


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