Armstrong, William George

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BA 1884 MB 1888 ChM 1888 DPH 1895 (Cantab)

William George Armstrong was born in England and emigrated to Australia at about the age of 16. He was a master at Sydney Grammar School from July 1881 to January 1884 and during that time studied Arts at the University of Sydney where he graduated BA in 1884. He entered the Faculty of Medicine the same year and graduated in minimum time with honours in 1888. Armstrong was part of the first cohort of students to graduate from the medical school and, as names were read alphabetically by the Chancellor, was the first to be conferred (this is supported by oral tradition in the Armstrong family). After graduation, he entered general practice, first at Tingha, a tin-mining town in north-western NSW, and later at Bowral. After some time there, he went back to England to obtain a Diploma of Public Health at Cambridge in April 1895. Candidates were required to get practical experience of outdoor sanitary work and William appears to have done this by working in the slums of Whitechapel.

On his return to Australia, he began a career in public health when he was appointed Medical Officer to the City of Sydney in 1898 and City Health Officer (later Medical Officer of Health) in 1900. He held these posts until 1913, when he became Deputy Director General of Public Health; in 1920 he was appointed Director. Following the death of W H Goode, he was appointed University Lecturer in Public Health in 1904, a post he retained for 16 years.

William was one of the pioneers of public health and child welfare in Australia, and early in his career (1900–1901) was engaged in the control of an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney. He became actively involved in medical moves to reduce infant mortality from gastroenteritis and issued a pamphlet advocating breast-feeding as a safeguard against the disease, which was sent to all mothers as soon as they registered a birth. At his instigation, a trained health visitor was appointed to visit these mothers in their homes. William was also instrumental in the creation in 1914, of a baby health centre in NSW, the forerunner of a state-wide service. The dramatic drop in infant mortality effected in NSW between 1900 and 1940 can be attributed largely to his efforts. As a lecturer in Public Health from 1904 to 1920, he was one of the first graduates of the School to occupy a lecturing position at the University of Sydney.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise(2008) Armstrong, William George. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.