International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Dr Cecil Evelyn Aufrere Cook

    Status Physician
    Country Australia


    Cecil Evelyn Aufrere Cook, MD, CBE (1897-1985) was a British-Australian doctor and policy advisor who studied the health of Aboriginal Australians. His chief contribution to leprosy research was his doctoral thesis, The Epidemiology of Leprosy in Australia (1927).

    Building on the earlier studies of leprosy done by John Ashburton Thompson, Cook conducted a survey of leprosy among Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Western Australia between 1924 and 1925. It was this survey that formed the basis of his doctoral thesis, for which he earned his MD qualification from the University of Sydney in 1927.

    Cook served as Chief Medical Officer, Chief Health Officer, and Chief Protector of Aboriginals and Quarantine Officer in the Northern Territory from 1927 to 1939. In this role, he initiated health surveys and established clinics, hospitals, and medical training centres for the population of the area. He enforced standards of education, nutrition, and hygiene at Christian missions. He continued to take an interest in the effect of leprosy on Australian communities: advising the Queensland State Government, he argued that the families of leprosy patients should receive a living allowance 'equal to the earning power of the leper before the onset of the disease' (quoted in Genever, p. 52). The suggestion was not implemented.

    Cook held white supremacist views, and saw Aboriginal people and non-white immigrants as a threat to the white race in Australia. He was especially concerned about the threat posed by half-Aboriginal people, and advocated what he called 'breeding the colour out': marrying half-Aboriginal women to white men in the belief that the 'inferior' Aboriginal traits would be eradicated after several generations.

    The theories of leprosy Cook put forward in his 1927 doctoral thesis were influenced by his fear of miscegenation: he believed that leprosy was sexually transmitted, and that Aboriginal women were largely responsible for its transmission. He proposed that leprosy first entered Australia through Chinese and Pacific Islander immigrant men, who then had sex with Aboriginal women because no women of their own races were available. Thus, Cook feared, Aboriginal women could sexually transmit leprosy to white men (who were also presumed to seek Aboriginal women as sexual partners only when no white women were available). Cook's proposals for eradicating leprosy, therefore, involved keeping Aboriginal communities isolated, 'fostering [a] natural antipathy' between European and Aboriginal people, and encouraging more white women to settle in tropical regions of Australia. (Bashford and Nugent 118-20)

    From 1939, Cook taught in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney. During World War II, he served in the Australian Army Medical Corps, and afterwards became Commissioner of Public Health for Western Australia. He was Director of the Division of Public Health from 1958 until he retired in 1962. He remained an adviser on leprosy to the Public Health Advisory Committee of the National Health Research Council until 1969.

    He was awarded the Cilento Medal in 1935 and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He died on 4 July 1985.


    International Journal of Leprosy, Centennial Festskrift edition, Vol 41, No 2. 1973.

    Bashford, Alison, and Marie Nugent. 'Leprosy in tropical Australia.' In Bashford, Alison, and Claire Hooker, eds. Contagion: historical and cultural studies. Vol. 15. Psychology Press, 2001.

    Tim Rowse, 'Cook, Cecil Evelyn Aufrere (Mick) (1897–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (2007). Accessed online 14 December 2015.

    Genever, Geoffrey. 'Queensland's Black Leper Colony'. Queensland Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2008: 59-68.


    The Epidemiology of Leprosy in Australia (Canberra, 1927)

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