In 2001 the physicist and former Young Australian of the Year Bryan Gaensler told an Australia Day function that the nation lacked commitment to science: ‘We certainly have the levels of determination and innovation required to become world champs in science as well as sport.’71 Gaensler cited university cutbacks and unfavourable tax laws as the key causes of concern. By contrast, the Australian of the Year award has shown a strong commitment to the importance of scientific endeavour. The 1999 Australian of the Year, Sir Gustav Nossal, was a tireless promoter of science in Australia; he explained that he would like to see Australia’s ‘fabulous scientists’ revered in the similar way to Don Bradman or Patrick White – ‘to stand beside them, as a different kind of Australian icon.’72 Nossal’s former boss and mentor Sir Macfarlane Burnet expressed a similar view when he won the first Australian of the Year award: ‘It does indicate that the community thinks that science is important, which pleases me.’
Several of the scientific winners received a vote of confidence from the Nobel Foundation in Sweden in the lead up to their Australian of the Year honour, including Burnet, Sir John Eccles, Sir John Cornforth and Peter Doherty. In fact, of the seven Australians who have won a Nobel Prize since 1960, five have gone on to be an Australian of the Year the following January (the fifth being author Patrick White). Australia’s most recent Nobel laureates, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, might consider themselves unlucky not to have been named Australian of the Year, although they were named joint winners at the Western Australian state nominations for the 2007 award.
Sir John Cornforth won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1974 for his work on enzyme-catalysed reactions. He is unusual among scientific Australians of the Year in not coming from the medical sciences. Burnet, Eccles and Doherty all won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Other medical researchers to have won the award include immunologist Sir Gustav Nossal, child and maternal health expert Fiona Stanley, and cervical cancer vaccine pioneer Ian Frazer. Notable medical practitioners to have won the award include the surgeon and war veteran Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, ophthalmologist Fred Hollows, paediatrician John Yu and burns expert Fiona Wood. Apart from Cornforth, the only scientific winners without a background in medicine have been the palaeontologist and climate scientist Tim Flannery and the naturalist and television presenter Harry Butler.
Sir Gustav Nossal offers two reasons for the prevalence of medical scientists in the Australian of the Year awards. He notes that ‘Australia, as a small country, has a surprisingly fine record when it comes to medical research. We punch well above our weight.’ He recognises, however, that it is not simply a matter of fine achievement, but also public perception: ‘Of the many pursuits in the field of human endeavour, few touch the heartstrings more than medical research.’74 Medical researchers and practitioners have the potential to transform the lives of the disadvantaged, the helpless and the maimed. Fred Hollows devoted his career to curing blindness in Third World countries, and in Australia’s Aboriginal communities where Third World conditions prevailed. Experts in children’s health such as John Yu and Fiona Stanley rightly attract the admiration of many. Fiona Wood, the pioneer of spray on skin, was lauded for leading the burns team at the Royal Perth Hospital, which did great work following the horrific Bali Bombings in 2002.
The scientific winners of the Australian of the Year of the year award have usually been unanimously endorsed by the media and have attracted little controversy. The key exception was Professor Tim Flannery, who was honoured for his commitment to raising consciousness about the global challenge of climate change. His award created waves at the time because he vowed to continue his critique of the Howard Government’s environment policies. With climate change emerging as key issue in an Australian election year, the Australian of the Year award once again flirted with political controversy. Importantly, the choice of Flannery drew attention to the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, the Prime Minister was not directly responsible for the selection of the Australian of the Year.