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Professor John Newnham named Senior Australian of the Year

A 67 year old obstetrics specialist from Perth, Western Australia (WA), Professor John Newnham AM, was named the Senior Australian of the Year for 2020 on Saturday in Canberra for his work in preterm birth prevention.

Professor John Newnham AM receiving his 2020 Senior Australian of the Year award. [Source: NADC-Salty Dingo 2020, Australian Of the Year Awards]
Professor John Newnham AM receiving his 2020 Senior Australian of the Year award. [Source: NADC-Salty Dingo 2020, Australian Of the Year Awards]

Professor Newnham is a world leader in the prevention of preterm birth, which is the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age.

As a Professor of Obstetrics, he has made Western Australia a hub for research and clinical excellence in pregnancy and life before birth.

On receiving the award, Professor Newnham says, “I was truly overwhelmed, really. It is quite something. I didn’t realise it, but I stood there with my hand on my heart [when receiving the award]. I don’t normally do that, I was just completely overwhelmed.”

Professor Newnham founded the Raine Study in 1989, the world’s first and longest pregnancy-focused lifetime cohort project.

His program has helped prevent preterm birth, receiving results of an eight percent reduction in premature births in WA.

“It has become a very big part of my life. I am primarily a clinician, I look after patients with complicated pregnancies, which I have done for a very long time. The research adds to it, and [the clinician work] adds to the research. They feed off each other,” says Professor Newnham.

“I think I have got my very best ideas from being with patients and seeing where we are strong in clinical medicine and where the gaps are. 

“Practising clinical medicine gives you your very best research ideas. Then implementing the outcome of research into clinical practice, both within your own State and now across Australia, there are some that have gone across the world, it is incredibly gratifying. 

“You don’t need any incentivising in this business, every complicated pregnancy I dealt with incentivised me because I know what we know and I know what we don’t know.”

In 2018, the Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Alliance, which Professor Newnham founded, was rolled out nationwide, with the singular aim to safely lower the rate of preterm births in the country.

The Chair of the National Australia Day Council, Danielle Roche OAM, congratulated the 2020 Australian of the Year Award recipients and highlighted the unique contributions from Professor Newnham.

“The 2020 Australians of the Year reflect the many ways in which Australians achieve and contribute,” Ms Roche said.

“Professor John Newnham’s lifetime of research has saved many thousands of infant lives and leads global practice improving the health of millions of women and babies.

“Our 2020 Australians of the Year are great examples of the Australian spirit, people who saw a problem and decided to take it upon themselves to solve it, unsung heroes working to make a difference, champions who have risen to the top through sheer commitment and hard work, and those lending a helping hand where it’s needed most.”

Professor Newnham says he is nowhere near finished with his research and will continue his campaign to reduce the preterm birth rate in Australia. 

“I think as you get older and get more senior, some things you lose, like your ability to remember names gets more difficult, and you get more tired, so there is no way I could sit and write to 11 pm, but you have a lot more experience to draw upon,” he says.

“I think you have more wisdom. I think your value changes, but is not diminished, in many cases it increases as you get older. 

“If you are keen and interested and can keep working, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t. The most important phrase in this whole business is “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” By using your brain, by keeping active, by staying engaged, you don’t lose it, you keep going.”

Professor Newnham adds that for anyone, it’s important to find work that you find meaningful and to follow your passions.

“Get yourself into a field of work you love. If you love it, it’s not work at all. If you have a passion, you are a very lucky person, and pursue it. If you work hard, keep focused on what you are trying to achieve, be kind to people whenever you can, then good fortune will find you,” finishes Professor Newnham.

Currently, Professor Newnham is Head of the University of Western Australia’s Division of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the Chief Scientific Director of the Women and Infants Research Foundation, and an Adjunct Professor at Peking University, Beijing.

Some of his achievements include being the Convenor of the World Congress in 2007 in Perth, he was Chairman of the Perinatal and Infant Mortality and Maternal Mortality, is on the Committees of the Health Department of Western Australian since 2001.

He has also received a Gold Medal from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists in the UK in 1991, and is an Inaugural member of the International Society for Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD).

The Senior Australian of the Year award is only presented to people over the age of 65 making a significant contribution to the country and is part of the Australian of the Year Awards.

Also receiving accolades for their contributions in Australia for 2020 were:

  • Australian of the Year - Dr James Muecke AM, eye surgeon and blindness prevention pioneer

  • Young Australian of the Year - Ashleigh Barty, professional tennis player

  • Local Hero - Bernie Shakeshaft, Founder of BackTrack Youth Works Program

To read more, head to the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards website

Professor John Newnham AM with his award. [Source: NADC-Salty Dingo 2020, Australian Of the Year Awards]

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