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Emeritus Professor Bruce Armstrong from the University of Sydney's School of Public Health visited UWA's School of Population Health in April. Professor Armstrong is a significant person in the history of epidemiology and public health at UWA, and has been the colleague, supervisor and mentor of some of our top WA and UWA public health professors - including E/Professor Michael Hobbs, E/Professor D'Arcy Holman and Professor Fiona Stanley.
Professor Armstrong gave three lectures while he was here:
- Become an Investigator in the 45 and Up Study: Australia’s largest cohort study
- SURE – A unique, national resource for ensuring security of health data used for research
- PSA testing for prostate cancer: Developing national guidelines
Staff and students were keen to attend these lectures - and to learn about Prof Armstrong's role in the formation of their own School of Population Health.
His biography is below.
Bruce Armstrong was born and educated in WA. He was educated at the Seventh Day Adventist Central School and Perth Modern School before going to The University of WA, from which he graduated BMedSci(Hons) in 1967 and MBBS with Honours in 1969.
Bruce did his intern, resident and registrar years at the Royal Perth Hospital, was mentored in internal medicine by Prof Dick Joske and passed the MRACP examinations in 1972. He had, by then, begun to realise that his interests lay in preventive medicine and its underpinning science, epidemiology. Profs Michael Hobbs and Michael McCall advised him to do a PhD with Prof Sir Richard Doll, who was then Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford.
Supported initially by a one-year UWA FA Hadley Travelling Scholarship and later an NHMRC award, Bruce studied with Doll from 1972-1975 and wrote a thesis "Dietary factors in the aetiology of cancer of the human urinary tract". He also published, with Doll, a paper "Environmental factors and cancer incidence and mortality in different countries, with special reference to dietary practices", which was featured as an Institute for Scientific Information 'Citation Classic' in 1987 and proved to be seminal in the subsequent development of research into diet and cancer. A tea-room conversation with Richard Peto (now Sir Richard Peto FRS) helped Bruce to get the stats right.
While there were hopes for full development of academic public health in WA, they had not eventuated by 1975 when Bruce sought to return to WA. He thus accepted the offer of appointment as Senior Lecturer in Medicine in a new academic medical unit at the Repatriation General Hospital, where he spent 1976.
Michael Hobbs, seeing that this wasn’t the best for Bruce, persuaded the then Commissioner of Health, Dr Jim McNulty, to offer Bruce the vacant position of Director of Health Research and Planning in the Health Department of WA (DoH WA), which he took up in 1977. These working hours allowed Bruce to spend several hours each day back in the University Department of Medicine developing a research program in cancer epidemiology.
At the DoH, among other things, he began to use the State’s earliest linked data (linked public hospital separation records for individual patients) and, having the luxury of a secretary, he helped Fiona Stanley, who had returned from England to the Departmental position of Medical Officer, Child Health, to access the scientific papers she needed for her research (also being enabled, in many respects, by Michael Hobbs).
Fortuitously, Bruce’s office was next to that of the Department’s Deputy Commissioner and Director of Public Health, Dr Lawson Holman. Lawson asked Bruce if he would supervise his son D’Arcy during a period of vacation scholarship in the Department. D’Arcy’s project initiated melanoma epidemiology in WA. Meanwhile, Michael Hobbs was quietly persuading the Secretary of NHMRC, Dr Ken Edmondson, to gain NHMRC funding for an NHMRC Research Unit in Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine in WA.
Ultimately, his persuasion bore fruit and the NHMRC Unit was established in the Department of Medicine at UWA, with Bruce as its Director and Fiona as its Deputy Director. Highly productive in research into the epidemiology and prevention of disease across the life course, the Unit played a leadership role for over ten years in developing modern epidemiological research in Australia. D’Arcy Holman was the Unit’s (and Bruce’s) first PhD student presenting his thesis entitled "Risk factors in the causation of human malignant melanoma of the skin" in 1982. In 1987 Bruce was appointed Professor of Epidemiology and Cancer Research (a Cancer Council WA funded Chair) and became head of the Division of Social and Preventive Medicine within the Department of Medicine (still no separate academic development in public health). The University’s failure to deliver promised research support, however, led Bruce to consider his options.
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