In March 2021, our focus at Health is on beating the COVID-19 pandemic. One hundred years ago in March 1921 the Australian Government created the Health Department just after the deadly Spanish flu pandemic.
The Spanish flu and COVID-19 are the 2 largest pandemics in recorded history. Last century Spanish influenza killed millions worldwide. Up to 40% of Australians fell ill and 15,000 died of Spanish flu.
The new department
A century ago infection control became a national issue after state controls on movement were not able to stop the spread of the Spanish flu. Prime Minister Billy Hughes officially created the Department of Health on 7 March 1921.
Director General Dr John Howard Cumpston led the new national Health department. He was the federal director of quarantine during the Spanish flu pandemic and suggested the creation of the Health Department. Dr Cumpston was the head of the Department until he retired 24 years later.
At first Health looked after quarantine, reporting infectious diseases, public health research laboratories, and occupational health. The 1944 Pharmaceutical Benefits Act allowed the Australian Government to subsidise medications. This led to the creation of Medibank, Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme we still have today.
Keeping the population healthy has always been our focus. In the 1920s we did pioneering work to prevent silicosis lung problems in miners. A new portable X-ray machine was used to reach remote goldfields. From 1950–60 tuberculosis was reduced with X-ray checks and vaccination around Australia. In the 1950s, pregnant women got medical checks to improve the outcomes for mothers and babies.
The last 50 years
The 1970s brought public health campaigns about the dangers of smoking. In 1974 we produced 450,000 posters and 'Please do not smoke' stickers and desk cards. In 1985 Secretary Bernie McKay banned smoking in Health buildings, the start of smoke-free government buildings. Towards the 1990s, health campaigns had a major focus on drug addiction.
In 1994 medical training moved outside capital cities to bring more doctors to rural areas. Also in the 1990s telehealth was an exciting new way to bring health advice to remote communities. Telehealth became mainstream in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
We continue to keep pace with new health and medical knowledge, and advances in technology. Our experts at the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) examined the COVID-19 vaccines to make sure they were safe and effective before Australia's vaccine rollout.
Australia's health system is one of the safest in the world. After 100 years our focus is still on improved health and wellbeing for all Australians.