Migration and the search for better health

London in November does not feel like the healthiest place. With the end of daylight savings comes afternoon sunsets, a swift evening retreat to the indoors and a taste for large helpings of comforting nosh. The drop in temperature means digging out the winter gear, layering up for the chilly commute and enduring the communal fug of bodies on the tube. Pharmacies display their ‘winter wellbeing’ ranges, spruiking cough medicines and vitamins to help us fight against the inevitable sniffles, colds or worse. It’s not surprising that ‘sun break’ holidays beckon from billboards, promising warmth, fresh air and restoration over the seas. 

Australia is a long way to travel for an injection of sunshine, but as a country of migration it has long offered an image of a ‘full healthy life‘ in a temperate climate, with plenty of space to live both indoors and out. It is an image that was evoked in the aftermath of the Second World War as an invitation to Europe’s displaced and war weary. A Melbourne newspaper reported in 1948:

‘Though America is still a great magnet for migrant peoples… this country is fast becoming known to the homeless and the hungry as the fabulous land of the south where people bask in golden sunshine on beaches, and where the larders are well stocked with food’.

Your Family Will Flourish Poster2

The equation between climate and health is captured perfectly in this poster advertising the ten pound immigration scheme in Britain in the early 1950s. Under the Australian sun, a newly arrived family are blossoming with health and happiness.

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia a decade later, Adelaide general practitioner J.M. Last evoked ‘the transition from an overcast Northern European city to the clear sunlight of the Australian countryside’ as a change which could have ‘far-reaching consequences for the skin and the respiratory system’. He noted that around ten of the 500 migrant patients he had seen over the course of a year told him that seeking better health was a reason for their migration. While these numbers are small, and the reporting anecdotal, they do speak to the endurance of older medical ideas of a ‘climate cure’ for conditions ranging from asthma to tuberculosis into the mid-twentieth century.

Family histories and material culture provide another invaluable historical source on the connection between migration and health. A shipping trunk packed by the York Family to prepare for their move from London to Melbourne in 1954 is one example. The Yorks’ decision to migrate was made in the interests of their young son, Barry, who was badly affected by the toxic London fog of December 1952, in which thousands of Londoners became ill or died. As an adult Barry donated the trunk to the National Museum of Australia, and it is now featured in our virtual exhibition, alongside other objects and documents which reveal the health-related expectations and experiences of post-war migrants to Australia. You can listen to an excerpt of Barry’s interview with his mother Olive, here, in which she movingly talks about her own transformation into more outgoing, confident person as a result of her migration, and read an account of the interview written by Barry here.   

In the search for better health, post-war Australia could be viewed as a ‘healthy haven’, a safe place to start life anew and bring up children. The realities of course were much more complex. But at this time of the year, when the Northern winter is closing in, it is easy to imagine how powerful images of a warmer, brighter place could be.    


‘Australia: Fabulous Mecca of the Migrant’, The Argus, Melbourne, 24 January 1948

J.M. Last, ‘Culture, Society and the Migrant’, Medical Journal of Australia, 13 March 1961

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