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04 Dec

University of Newcastle 50th anniversary: Serving up the best medicine

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Professor David Maddison, Sue James and John Birch outside the original faculty of medicine.● Celebrating 50years: Read more
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THE CAMPAIGN to establish a medical schoolin Newcastle began more than a quarter of a century beforeits first intake of students arrived in 1978.

Proceedings were expedited with the release in 1973of the Whitlam government’s Karmel committee reportExpansion of Medical Education in Australia.

The newly established University of Newcastle and JamesCook University were recommended as locations for newmedical schools.

Dean ofmedicineat the University of Sydney, DavidMaddison, jumped at the chance to create a medical schoolfree from the entrenched hierarchy of traditional models.

This was a dream come true for University of Newcastlefounder James Auchmuty and vice-chancellor Don George,who had been searching for a leader for their medical school.

Professor Maddison, who tookuphis tenure in 1975,began with a study tour of the world’sbestmedical programsin the United Kingdom, Israel and Canada.

He also recruited eight professors from Australia andabroad to help realise his vision for a different approach tomedical education in Australia.

Among them was Saxon White, who was working as asenior lecturer in human physiology at Flinders University inSouth Australia.

“The only way it was going to succeed was if we worked asa team,” says Emeritus Professor White, who retired from themedical school in 2000.

“None of us had ever created a medical school; we hadall worked in medical schools and done our higher degreesin medical schools but the challenge of what our medicalschool would be like was a function of a whole series ofbriefing papers [that Professor Maddison had prepared].”

The core of their new approach to medical education wasan emphasis on selecting students based on their suitabilityto become doctors, rather than just academic success.

The university attracted interest from 2000 students forthe 63 places that were offered in 1978.

Prospective students were interviewed by a member of themedical school and a community representative.

Emeritus Professor Saxon White. Picture: Ryan OSland

“Once again, this confronted the older profession,”Professor White says. “If there was any detection that astudent didn’t relate to another human being well thenmaybe that student was not the type of person who wouldturn out to be a doctor with the ability to form empathicrelationships with children, with mothers and sick people.”

Within 10 years the problem-based learning techniquesused at the University of Newcastle’s medical school werebeing adopted by other universities around Australia.

The course remained relatively unchanged until the 1990swhen the university amalgamated with the Hunter Instituteof Higher Education. In addition, the newly established JohnHunter Hospital had just opened.

“With amalgamation we got more staff coming in and themedical school staff began to teach into other professionalbodies,” Professor White says. “The camaraderie of the earlydays wasn’t quite the same.”

The medical school’s first group of students had notgraduated when Professor Maddison died of a heart attackin 1981. Despite that, the foundations he laid were solid andthe school was well on track to realise the vision that hadattracted him to Newcastle.

“I would think David Maddison, if he was here today, hewould be very happy,” Professor White says. “I know frommy own experience of visiting medical schools overseas, theyall know about Newcastle and some of the things they haveadopted came from here.

“I think the university has come a long way and I think themedical school should be very proud that it has been part ofthat increase in prestige in the nation.”

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