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Vale Professor Mary-Louise McLaws – “a giant loss for epidemiology, public health and good public policy”

Introduction by Croakey: The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has joined health leaders, politicians, journalists and community members in expressing sorrow at the passing of epidemiologist Professor Emeritus Mary-Louise McLaws AO, as well as warm appreciation for her contributions to public health, policy and health communications.

McLaws, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in January 2022, died on 12 August, aged 70.

Many tributes acknowledged her role in communicating with the public during the COVID pandemic. Federal Health Minister Mark Butler said she provided “an incredibly calm, articulate voice at a time that was very frightening to Australians”, bringing “great reassurance to the Australian people”.

Colleagues described her “gentle and calm presence on camera and a way of cutting through scientific terms and jargon to get to the heart of what really mattered to viewers, readers and listeners”.

“Yet she was also not afraid to question whether authorities were making the correct decisions,” colleagues wrote at The Conversation.

“She expressed concerns that too few measures were being taken to stop the virus spreading through the air and about the time it took for rapid antigen tests to become publicly and freely available.

“We hope her legacy will help pave the way for universities to encourage and train their scientists and academics to work confidently with journalists to communicate their research to the public.”

McLaws was co-author of an article published in the Western Pacific Surveillance and Response journal two days after her death, ‘Communicating health and science to the public: a role for scientists and academic researchers’, which stated:

“Considering the insights gained from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to prioritise and invest in science communication training and build capacity for scientists and academic researchers to engage with the media.

“Equipping infectious disease experts, virologists, epidemiologists and many other academic researchers with effective public engagement and science communication skills may enable them to become influential champions in rebuilding trust in science during future disease outbreaks.”

When McLaws tweeted out the news about her diagnosis on 15 January last year, the response on Twitter was enormous.Described as a “national treasure” by Burnet Institute Director and CEO Professor Brendan Crabb, colleagues at UNSW Sydney provided the tribute below.


Tribute from UNSW Sydney

UNSW Sydney has paid tribute to Professor Emeritus Mary-Louise McLaws AO, who worked tirelessly as a world-leading epidemiologist with expertise in hospital infection and infectious diseases control.

She played a hugely influential role in spearheading major widespread improvements in infection control, helping save innumerable lives over the last 30-plus years.

In her most recent position as Professor of Epidemiology, Healthcare Infection and Infectious Diseases Control in UNSW Medicine & Health, Professor McLaws became a household name during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She provided considered, calm and life-saving information through countless media interviews for television, radio and newspapers in Australia and across the globe. Viewers became accustomed to seeing her perfectly symmetrical bookcase against a bright blue wall and her stylish eyewear on the evening news. Her expertise and advice were also sought by the world’s leading health organisations.

UNSW Chancellor David Gonski AC said: “We mourn the passing of a UNSW academic who was locally grown and became a superstar while remaining tenacious, humble, hardworking and caring. We are grateful for all she did for UNSW and Australia, she will not be forgotten”.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed his admiration for Professor McLaws.

“You spoke truth, you took on the pandemic of disinformation, you helped keep us safe, for that we owe you so much.”

UNSW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Attila Brungs said Professor McLaws was outstanding in her contribution to public health in Australia and globally.

“Her wealth of knowledge and experience was invaluable during the recent COVID-19 pandemic when she tirelessly responded to media enquiries and became such a trusted voice.

“She was also a highly valued member of the UNSW community and will be deeply missed by her students and colleagues.”

Professor Vlado Perkovic, Dean of UNSW Medicine & Health and Acting Provost – Faculties, said Professor McLaws was a formidable force and will be dearly missed.

“Her 36 years in UNSW Medicine & Health were marked by her ground-breaking research, unwavering dedication and a relentless pursuit of improvements in infection control helping save innumerable lives. While the world got to know her as a scientific and informed expert, here at UNSW, we were so fortunate to call her a colleague, mentor and educator. I thank her for her enormous achievements and contributions, and extend my deepest condolences to her family, friends and community.”

Lifetime of achievements

In mid-December 2022, Professor McLaws joined more than 100 guests who gathered at UNSW to celebrate her lifetime of achievements and contributions.

Nine inspiring speakers, including Mr Turnbull, Dr Kerry Chant AO, NSW’s Chief Health Officer and Deputy Secretary, Population and Public Health, UNSW’s Chancellor and video messages from colleagues around the world, including from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Israel, as well as some of her PhD students, spoke about her pioneering infection control expertise.

Mr Gonski announced the UNSW Mary-Louise McLaws AO Clinical Education Rooms, a teaching and education space in UNSW’s eastern extension of the new Prince of Wales Acute Services Building. Professor McLaws was thrilled with the space, chosen for its proximity to the hospital’s new infectious disease unit.

UNSW announced the Mary-Louise McLaws AO Research Student Support Award to help students achieve a PhD in the School of Population Health. In recognition of her distinguished service to academic work and the development of the University, Mr Gonski also announced the award of Professor Emeritus to Professor McLaws.

Joining UNSW during her PhD candidature in the mid-80s, Professor McLaws continued as an academic in the faculty of Medicine & Health. She attributed much of her drive and success to her PhD supervisor and mentor, the late Professor David Cooper AC.

He was in the process of setting up his research laboratory when the two met in 1986 and he was quick to recognise her potential. Professor Cooper invited Professor McLaws to work for him.

Professor McLaws’s motivation to enrich the UNSW community and society at large appeared to be inexhaustible. Her contributions to teaching in the School of Population Health showed great dedication, energy and drive towards her students. She excelled in her role as a mentor and advisor. Professor McLaws proudly supported PhD candidates throughout her career and focused on infection control in many countries including Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, Mali, Indonesia, Iran, Vietnam, Taiwan and Turkey.

One of Professor McLaws’s PhD students Dr Kathy Dempsey now works at NSW Health Clinical Excellence Commission.

“Words can’t express the loss, yet words were her wisdom. She was an amazing, accomplished and giving woman who has left a mark on so many. Mary-Louise was inspirational, setting new boundaries for infection prevention and control,” Dr Dempsey said.

“It is almost unbelievable she is gone, but she will not be forgotten. Our collective hearts go out to all who knew her and, of course, to her loving family.”

Another former PhD student, Dr Susan Jain, also at NSW Health Clinical Excellence Commission, said her life fundamentally changed after meeting Professor McLaws.

“The concepts she taught enriched my understanding, while also allowing for a deeper appreciation of who I am. I have been inspired by her enthusiasm for teaching, and her inclusivity of different ethnicities and cultures that allows for meaningful connection,” Dr Jain said.

“I find myself trying to follow in her footsteps, adopting her manner of teaching to accommodate diverse learning styles, pioneering evidence generation and its dissemination. I know I won’t be able to compare to her and her legacy, wisdom and knowledge, however, I will try my best to be amazing and creative as she asked on a recent catch-up.”

During her time at UNSW Medicine & Health, Professor McLaws balanced her university commitments with travelling around the world, advising governments, health professionals and NGOs. She was an influential member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program Experts Advisory Panel for Infection Prevention and Control Preparedness, Readiness and Response to COVID-19 and member of the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission COVID Infection Prevention and Control taskforce. She was a focal point for WHO at UNSW.

Professor McLaws wrote 180 scientific papers, advancing understanding, debate and the methods of research on infection control in Australia. She was on the boards of numerous associations and professional publications and, in 2017, she became a member of the UNSW Academic Board.

In June 2022, Professor McLaws was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the General Division “for distinguished service to medical research, particularly to epidemiology and infection prevention, to tertiary education, and to health administration” in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Professor McLaws was diagnosed with brain cancer in January 2022. She died on 12 August, aged 70.

Also read

At The Conversation: ‘Stay safe’ – Vale Mary-Louise McLaws, a champion for the power of clear science communication

Virginia Trioli at ABC: Mary-Louise McLaws, renowned epidemiologist who helped guide Australia through the pandemic, dies aged 70 from brain tumour

Other statements

In other statements, NSW Health Minister Ryan Park paid tribute to her “significant contribution to keeping the community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“She was never afraid to question and scrutinise decisions in the interest of achieving the best health outcomes for our community,” he said.

“Her legacy will serve as an inspiration to future generations of epidemiologists.”

Dr Rodney Pearce AM, Chairman of the Immunisation Coalition, acknowledged Professor McLaws’s contributions to the Coalition and said she “will always be remembered with immense appreciation and respect”.

Kim Sampson, CEO of the Immunisation Coalition said that “working with Mary-Louise over the last 15 years has been a humbling and immense privilege”.

She had been an influential member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program Experts Advisory Panel for Infection Prevention and Control Preparedness, Readiness and Response to COVID-19 and member of the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission COVID Infection Prevention and Control taskforce. Based in Sydney, she was the focal point for WHO at UNSW.

As the Honorary Advisor to the Clinical Excellence Commission, she collaborated on state-wide patient safety interventions: improving hand hygiene in healthcare care workers, reducing central line associated bloodstream infections, and detecting and treating sepsis early in patients presenting to emergency departments.

Her work has included a seminal evaluation of healthcare associated infections since 1984, and she developed the first surveillance system for healthcare associated infections as a pilot in 1998-2001 for the NSW Health Department.


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