Making a difference


Fiona Stanley, who founded the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth in 1990, retired as Director in December 2011, although she continues to contribute in a number of important advisory, advocacy, supervisory and mentoring roles. In the 21 years that she was Director, the Institute expanded from small, self-funding research groups and now houses more than 500 staff and students. Fiona has always stressed the importance of training Indigenous health workers to return to the community and improve Indigenous health. She has encouraged and actively assisted Indigenous health workers and the number of Indigenous health workers who have qualified from the Institute is one of Fiona's enduring legacies. Fiona is unique in my experience of high-profile leaders in encouraging her staff to talk about their family problems when at work and in listening sensitively to their problems. Professor Jonathan Carapetis, another who has made major contributions to Indigenous child health, is the new Director. Fiona is a daunting act to follow, and we wish Jonathan all strength.

Professor Fiona Stanley is an epidemiologist who has been adopted by paediatricians because of her immensely important contributions to child health and welfare in Australia and world-wide. Her work, showing that most cases of cerebral palsy are not caused by perinatal asphyxia, has had enormous repercussions for families and health-care professionals. In this issue of the Journal, we publish papers in key areas where Fiona has made a difference: folate to prevent neural tube disorders,[1] causal pathways in cerebral palsy[2] and advocacy.[3]

Fiona's work is characterised by scientific rigour and an impressive ability to transform research into action. She is passionate and committed, but always deals with colleagues and politicians with respect and uses her charm to woo them. Fiona really cares about children; her compassion and, indeed, love are palpable and earn the respect of fund raisers and politicians. In 2001, Fiona established the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving child health, which has over 1800 members. As Australian of the Year in 2003, she advocated tirelessly for improved health for all children, especially the disadvantaged. She is a metaphorical national treasure and, to her amusement, has been designated a ‘National Living Treasure’ by the National Trust. She has even appeared on a postage stamp.


Behind every great man, they say, is an even greater woman. Beside Fiona has always been Geoff Shellam, doing his share of cooking, housekeeping and minding their two daughters, while in his spare time, Geoff is a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Western Australia and has made his own important contributions in cytomegalovirus research. What a team.

This is not meant to sound like a premature obituary, nor is it meant to daunt the rest of us mere mortals or belittle the efforts of others. Most paediatricians are clinicians, and making a difference to children and families is what we do and what makes the job so rewarding. There is only one Fiona. We are all in awe of what Fiona has achieved and what she continues to do, but we should not be overawed, and we should try to draw inspiration from Fiona's career. We should try to study interventions to improve child health using good science, and we should aspire to advocate as passionately and mentor as devotedly as Fiona. As Mark Twain said, ‘Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed in the things that you did not do than in the things you did’.