J. Stewart Hunter, 72, a former journalist and advertising executive who was a public information official with the old Department of Health Education and Welfare before retiring in the early 1970s, died of cancer Friday at George Washington University Hospital.

Mr. Hunter served as director of information and public affairs adviser to four U.S. Surgeons General and as information chief of the Public Health Service from 1949 to 1967.

During this time he also helped organize the public relations and information programs of the newly formed Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and was head of the HEW public affairs operation from 1953 to 1955.

From 1967 until the time he retired, Mr. Hunter was associate director for public services in the Office of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

His awards included the HEW Superior Service Award, the Hew Secretary's Special Citation and the 1975 public relations award of the Government Information Organization.

Mr. Hunter was a native of Staten Island, N.Y., and earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Pittsburgh. He taught English literature and composition at the University of Pittsburgh from 1930 to 1935 and also edited a week news magazine in that city in the 1930s.

During the World War II he served with the Navy in the Pacific aboard the carrier Wasp and attained the rank of lieutenant commander.

He then spent three years with the J. Walter Thompson Co. in Chicago and was associate director of its public relations department before coming to Washington in 1949.

He was a resident of Washington.

Survivors include his wife, Lauretta, of Washington; a daughter Mary Stewart Clark of Alexandria, a stepdaughter, Gayla Land of Washington; a brother, Norman M., of Novato, Calif.; a sister, Mrs. Augustus Waldenburg of San Francisco, and four grandchildren.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club of Washington.