‘Brave boy’ endured much
Toll taken by diabetes too great to overcome
JOHN Cook was the middle child of Albert and Vida Althea Cook – born in 1912, two years after his brother Tom, and three years before his baby sister Althea.
In 1915 the family moved to Greenmount homestead, a sprawling cattle property and beautiful home built especially for the Cook family.
From the photographs that exist, it would appear that the Cook children had something of an idyllic childhood. John’s health, however, was a constant concern and as he entered his teenage years, was deteriorating. In 1925, by the age of 13, John had developed diabetes.
During the 1920s in Australia, treatment for diabetes was still in its infancy. Insulin had been discovered in 1922 by Banting, Best, Collip and Macleod, and had been remarkably successful in treating the disease; diary entries show that John had been treating his with the drug through injection.
Prior to the discovery of insulin, diabetes was treated primarily through the control of diet; however, at best this bought patients a few extra years.
Even with the advent of insulin the treatment was fraught with danger, as the potency of the drug was variable, leading to complications in many patients. It was also expensive and availability was sometimes patchy.
Careful monitoring of urinary sugar levels, diet, as well the use of insulin, was the key to managing the disease.
The Cooks – being a practical and organised family – made sure that John’s diet was carefully controlled and his sugar levels monitored. Notebooks in the Greenmount archives record the careful recording of daily food intake and the measurement of sugar levels, to ensure that that these were carefully controlled.
This was no mean feat. Four times daily John was testing his urine to make sure his sugar levels were not elevated. Every day he was weighing himself to make sure he was not losing weight and the gains and losses were recorded in his diaries. This would have been a difficult and tedious task for a teenage boy and worrying for his family.
In 1926 John’s diary indicates his health was deteriorating and on January 2 he notes “I got pain in side and Doctor Williams came out to see me but he said it was nothing to worry about”.
Despite the doctor’s confidence it seems any recovery was short lived. On January 3 John notes, “I got bad and the ambulance took me in to hospital and the rest of the family came in to the Imperial (hotel)”.
It was to be a long stay for John on this occasion, with his discharge not happening until March 22 of the same year, when he writes, “Daddy and Mumie came in at 10am and at 11.30am Daddy Mumie and I and all my belongings came out home. Bevan came in in the utility and took the scales out. I put on ¼ lb.”
It had been a hard stay for the 14-year-old boy. His diary notes the various comings and goings of visitors and often mentions how slowly the days were going. Days with no visitors, it seemed, were particularly hard to bear.
His father, Albert, similarly notes in his own diary that John, whilst stable, was becoming depressed. He must have been glad indeed to get back home to his family and familiar surroundings once again at the end of March.
Despite his illness John was a remarkable child and showed exceptional talent for a variety of practical pursuits – including woodwork, working on his wireless, and all kinds of mechanical interests including cars.
In the Greenmount archives, amongst his diaries and notebooks, are numerous press cuttings for cars, especially racing cars.
John also spent a lot of time designing new machines and redesigning old ones. His drawing book shows all manner of engines and devices all neatly sketched and labelled in his hand.
John had his own workshop at Greenmount, full of his tools, and these were regularly added to by his father Albert. The workshop structure is still standing today and contains many things that he owned during that time.
Articles made by the young John are housed at Greenmount, including an elaborate egg-box made for his mother Vida Althea. John was also a keen photographer.
Life continued for John with the endless cycle of injection, monitoring of diet and sugar and weight.
Albert Cook had a keen interest in alternative health and, in particular, he and Vida had been subscribing to articles relating to Christian Science.
Christian Science was developed in the 19th Century in New England in the USA by Mary Baker Eddy, who argued in her 1875 book Science and Health that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone.
In 1929 John’s mother took him to Brisbane to see Christian Science practitioners to see if they could help her son.
Ever cautious, Albert and Vida had stressed that John must continue to take his insulin, but he argued that he wanted to stop – presumably putting his faith in the Christian Science movement, and the possibility of being healed from the disease that had made him so miserable in his young years.
On Friday, March 29, 1929 John’s diary notes: “Mum and I walked up to Bowen Park and spent a while there. After dinner we went out to Yeerongpilly and I altered the earth to the wireless to try to make it work properly”. Noted next to the entry is the word “insulin”. Presumably he had been persuaded to continue his treatment at least for now.
On March 30 a different writing style makes the entry: “John got ill early this morning”. And at the bottom of the page: “John passed away at 7pm”. He was just 17 years of age.
John was brought back to Mackay and buried in the Walkerston cemetery. His headstone reads “To a brave boy”
Many eulogies were printed – this one being the most apt:
“This week the hand of sor- row has touched the home of Mr and Mrs A.A. Cook of Green- mount. Their son John has been called to a higher sphere, for death claimed him. John was a bright cheery lad and was ex- ceptionally clever, particularly in mechanical lines. Although only very young, he could as- semble the parts of motor cars with the greatest ease and wire- less work of the most difficult nature was only a mere detail to him. He could discuss most intri- cate questions and work with the most learned, and possessed the great genial character of profound meekness. The people of our little village will join with me in the expressions of sorry to the parents Mrs and Mrs Cook”
John’s legacy lives on in the Greenmount archives in the recording of his rich if short life with diabetes at that time; in his diaries and notebooks and the articles he owned and made.
He was an early recipient of the drug that has subsequently been improved and refined so that many Australians can live relatively normal lives with this disease.
Greenmount Homestead (5km west of Walkerston) is one of Mackay's most valued historic attractions. Greenmount is open from 9.30am to 12.30pm, Sunday to Friday (closed on Saturdays). Tours are available at other times by appointment.
FAMILY: Albert Cook, of Greenmount, with his sons, Tom, born in 1910 and John, born in 1912.
An example of the meticulous records kept during John Cook's treatment for diabetes.
John Cook in Brisbane on March 29.