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Making Waves

Volume 6 Number 7 July 12 - August 8 2010

Public attitudes on illicit drugs have some distance yet to travel before rational solutions prevail, according to a leading public health expert and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor David Penington. By Silvia Dropulich

“Seeking to influence public and medical opinion on important health issues has been met with somewhat mixed success, but was also part of a commitment to contribute to the community as a doctor,” writes Professor Penington in his memoirs.

The memoirs, Making Waves, Medicine, Public Health, Universities and Beyond was published by Mieggunyah Press and has just been released by Melbourne University Publishing (MUP). It details the drives of a leader who at every stage of his working life has never shunned public controversy in a bid to improve lives.

Professor Penington continues to be an active patron of a national needle and syringe organisation and is kept informed by the “remarkable” Alex Wodak, who founded the needle and syringe program and continues to be a national and international campaigner for rational policies on illicit drugs.

“My contributions early in the AIDS epidemic had certainly been positive for the community, minimising irrational prejudice against homosexual men, and had helped get things onto a constructive public health course, even if not meeting all the demands for control of all strategies by those pursuing an agenda of gay rights,” says Professor Penington.

Appointed at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, Professor Penington fostered new medical research speciality areas in haematology, medical oncology, endocrinology, gastroenterology and later neurology and renal disease, a strategic development for a public hospital in the 1970s.

At the University of Melbourne, he was Professor and then Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, before becoming Vice-Chancellor in 1988. During his tenure, he strongly resisted major and damaging government intrusion into the operations of universities, all the while reforming the education, research and management practices at the University of Melbourne.

He has been at the forefront of national public health policy for more than 20 years, including four years chairing the National AIDS Task Force for the Hawke government. In 1984 he was the Chair of the National Committee of Inquiry into a dispute between the government and the medical profession over public hospitals, which was key to the implementation of the Medicare system. He has also led two inquiries into illicit drug policies.

“The University of Melbourne was certainly a changed institution at the end of my eight-year term, and I watch with pleasure as its evolution and progress continue under the leadership of my successors,” says Penington.

“Health care continues to evolve.

“I have had a fortunate life”.