(This post was updated on 28, 29, and 30 Sept, and 6 Oct)
Tributes are pouring in from around the world for the late Professor Tony McMichael AO, who was internationally recognised for his pioneering work in environmental health, particularly in climate change and health.
Professor Emeritus of Population Health at the ANU, he died early on Friday 26 September at Canberra Hospital, following complications related to influenza and pneumonia. He was 71 (DOB 3 October 1942).
Just a few days before his death, Professor McMichael was emailing colleagues about climate change and health. Colleagues have described him as a giant of public health, an eminent scientist, a generous mentor and a visionary leader.
As this 2009 NHMRC podcast notes, for many years he led the assessment of health risks for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. He said in that NHMRC interview:
“… we’ve started to disrupt the world’s climate system and very many other of the great natural systems that are this planet’s life support system, we are actually beginning to change the conditions of life on earth. And that’s a big deal. That’s what I would regard as the most important aspect of the climate change story. And we’re just now starting to realise that as we begin to see that in addition to all the other impacts that climate change has already begun to have, we can see effects on human wellbeing, human health, in some parts of the world, and we’re expecting that there’ll be many more in the future. It includes infectious diseases as an important part of the story, but it’s only part. There will be a whole range of adverse health effects.”
A 2012 festschrift in Canberra celebrated the breadth of his career and achievements:
“Professor McMichael has made seminal contributions to scientific and human understanding of the health implications of tobacco, the health risks from lead production, uranium mining, rubber production, and ozone depletion as well as climate change.
Many of those present recounted how their careers had been influenced by Professor McMichael’s’ work, particularly his seminal text: “Planetary Overload”, published in 1993, which outlined the threats to health from climate change, ozone depletion, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and the explosion of cities.
Professor McMichael’s work as a public health researcher and epidemiologist has been instrumental in the phasing out of lead in more than 100 countries; key to legal decisions to determine what constituted scientific proof in relation to harm to human health from tobacco; and profoundly influential in highlighting how the health of the natural environment and the health of the biosphere is fundamental to human health.”
Tributes will continue to be added below and a website has been established in his memory. Towards the bottom of the post are links related to Professor McMichael’s work.
Colin D Butler, Professor of Public Health at the University of Canberra
(This is an extract from a longer article).
Tony’s leadership role of the student union allowed him to meet many Australians at a formative time who would later become influential. It is reasonable to surmise that this year was a wonderful springboard – but for what? Many NUS leaders have entered politics; instead Tony was to turn to the most political branch of medicine, public health. Being the very first doctoral student of Basil Hetzel at the newly created Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at Monash University (at the time a very young university) must have added to Tony’s sense of self-reliance. Tony was not necessarily bound by the opinions and dogmas of his peers, he could also set his own compass. And he had both the intellect and the courage to do this.
The late 1960s was a time of intense concern about global population growth. McMichael was influenced not only by Paul Ehrlich and Rene Dubos, but a wide cast of ecological leaders and concerns. These led to a series of essays called “Spaceship Earth” in Nation Review, a weekly newspaper. Two decades later, just when the “cornucopian enchantment” was at its peak (ie despite the Rio Summit the time when the concerns about global population and global environmental impact arguably reached their nadir) he published Planetary Overload. Of all his books, this is the most influential and important.
By then McMichael’s reputation as a leading epidemiologist was well-established, and this book may have seemed a gamble. Indeed, before its eager acceptance by Cambridge University Press (facilitated by Professor, later Sir Andy Haines) the same manuscript was dismissed by a reviewer for Oxford University Press.
At that time the integration of Earth System Science and health was scarcely beginning, though the foundation had been laid two decades earlier by Dubos. McMichael has clearly been the most successful and influential thinker to build on that legacy. Today, ecological public health courses are emerging as legitimate and indeed vital.
McMichael died less than a week after perhaps the greatest global climate protest so far in history. US President Obama, assisted by the recent steep fall in price of solar and some other forms of renewable energy appears to genuinely understand the job-creating, economy-saving and civilisation-preserving potential of a rapid transition to clean global energy.
If we are to survive as an advanced, wise and compassionate species, the work of people like Tony McMichael will increasingly be recognised as fundamental to the shift that we are engaged in.
Professor Anthony Capon, Director, International Institute for Global Health, United Nations University (UNU-IIGH), UKM Medical Centre, Kuala Lumpur
While we have lost one of the world’s public health gurus, there is no doubt that Tony’s legacy will continue to inspire public health generations to come.
Professor Martin McKee CBE, European Centre on Health of Societies in Transition, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Tony was totally inspirational. Although I don’t work on climate change – sadly I do more to increase it – we did write some papers on what might be termed futurology together, the challenge of depletion of resources. However, we also had many absolutely fascinating discussions at their house in Primrose Hill when they were in London (although Tony did make sure of this by adding place cards with topics for conversation sometimes!). Although we only met up infrequently in recent years I shall greatly miss him, and global public health has lost a true hero.
Fiona Armstrong, Climate and Health Alliance
He was a generous mentor and wise counsel. He was a quiet champion of CAHA’s work, an inspiration and guide. As Maria Neira from WHO said at his festschrift: “Tony is the guru on climate and health”. What will we do without him? Thank goodness for the many PhDs he supervised, and colleagues he mentored, because he leaves behind a living legacy of champions for environmental protection and climate action. But such a contribution to human knowledge in the field – it will be a long time, if ever, that it could be matched.
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, School of Arts & Social Sciences, City University London, London
What a truly great person and a giant thinker about public health. How very, very sad but what a legacy of work and inspiration. He’s been a key figure in the renaissance of ecological public health thinking and analysis; indeed, I would say, the key figure.
Colin L Soskolne,Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, Edmonton
We are all, I am sure, grief-stricken at the loss of such a GIANT of a colleague whose legacy will endure through each of the topics that he so deeply reflected on and made so accessible….the world has lost a major force for good!
Professor Corey Bradshaw, University of Adelaide, wrote at his blog:
…he was one of the foremost thinkers and visionaries in the relationship between environment and human health…A powerhouse in the general and multidisciplinary approach to the drivers of declining human health, Tony researched everything from classic human epidemiology to the sociological aspects of declining human health in the face of climate disruption…. He was the sort of man to inspire people to think outside of the box. I am deeply saddened by his passing, even though I only knew him superficially. He was a visionary, and his absence will impoverish the field of human wellbeing research and management for many years.
Professor Elizabeth Waters, University of Melbourne
Tony McMichael’s contribution to high quality evidence and standing up for climate and health, and the social determinants of health, was incredible and extraordinary; as well as being kind, gentle, clever, strategic, and a determined public health leader. Tony’s legacy will be to keep bringing the evidence on determinants of health and scrutiny of industry influence on evidence into public debate. Sincere thoughts to his family, friends and colleagues.
Stephen Leeder, Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of Sydney, and Editor-in-Chief, Medical Journal of Australia
I visited Tony in Canberra Hospital a week ago. We chatted about letters received at the MJA following publication of his (and colleagues) open letter to the PM seeking inclusion of climate change on the upcoming G20 agenda. One letter suggested that we were scurrilous fascists and another Russian socialist lackies. He found this entertaining.
We also discussed his vulnerability, how one or more chronic health problems diminish reserves in all body systems. He was disappointed that the flu had caused a deterioration in his tenuous renal function.
We chatted about the fact that we had first appeared together on Peter Ross’ evening ABC program Nightcap in 1971 or 2, discussing suicide rates and the work that Basil Hetzel and others had done to reduce the availability of barbiturates and how female suicide rate had fallen.
He has an active writer on environmental matters and edited a newsletter I think at Monash called Spaceship Earth – the lines were clearly drawn for his outstanding career in ienvironmental epidemiology and public health. His festschrift detailed all of these contributions and his strong commitment to the artistic world through music and of course the joyful experience of many in being his friend and the love and loyalty of his family.
We exchanged a few other whimsical and gentle thoughts. I left him deeply worried. I went back the next day and the ward sister told me Judith had taken him in a wheel chair for walk. She told me where to go to look for him but I could not find him. A splendid bouquet from the Public Health Association of Australia stood alone in his empty room.
Dr Rodolfo Saracci, Honorary Director of Research in Epidemiology at the Italian National Research Council at Pisa.
I am losing a long time friend, and we are all losing one of the most thoughtful and humanistic scientists of our time (that he was an original and technically most sound epidemiologist is in a sense secondary).
Professor Andrew Wilson, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney
My memory of Tony will be of his extraordinary ability to bring together different strands of science to make the case for public health action, a great public health physician and epidemiologist.
John Mendoza, mental health advocate
Tony McMichael has been the gentle giant of the public health movement in Australia for 3 decades. When he spoke or wrote it was precise, purposeful and powerful.
I was fortunate to have a first hand experience to work with Tony in Adelaide in the late 1980s. He played a key role in getting legislation through the SA parliament to ban all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorship. Only the second jurisdiction in the world, after Victoria, to do so.
Tony not only guided the small working group of which Lyn Roberts, Cathy Charnock and I were members but he was our key link to the Premier, John Bannon, who remained cautious on this legislation. See Tony played tennis with the Premier and when things got ‘tight’ he made sure that it was a good match and the Premier won.
Getting this legislation up, is just one small example of the dozens of real world changing contributions of this great Australian. My sympathies to his family at this time.
Wael Al-Delaimy, Professor of Global Health and Epidemiology, University of California, San Diego
Tony was an epidemiologist in his own league. He was able to combine the scientific integrity, ethics, and demeanor of a nobleman with the humbleness of an overachieving scientist, mentor and a great leader. I had the pleasure to meet him on several occasions throughout my career, first during my PhD years, then when I was at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) where he lead a group of us to write the Fruits and Vegetables Monograph, but most of my interaction was when he was President of ISEE (International Society of Environmental Epidemiology) between 2008 and 2010 and I was chairing the Ethics and Philosophy Committee. There were some challenging decisions he had to take on behalf of the society that were the right thing to do but clearly negatively impacted him in terms of personal relationships but he did not disappoint by choosing the right thing. His demeanor in running meetings was unique and I learned so much from him.
It is a real loss for all of us to see him leave this world, but all of us will someday, but our reconciliation is that he left behind him such a legacy and touched everyone he met.
Sharon Friel, Director and Professor of Health Equity, Director, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, Regulatory Institutions Network, ANU
I will miss Professor Tony McMichael for many things. His visionary thought; his huge intellect; the way he combined passion and evidence in pursuit of health equity and environmental health; his mentoring of me to be bold in vision and action; and his wicked sense of humour and terrible attempts at a Scottish accent. It was a privilege to have known him.
Billie Giles-Corti, McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing, Academic Centre for Health Equity, The University of Melbourne
Like everyone, I was so saddened to hear that Professor Tony McMichael had passed away on Friday – this is incredibly sudden and sad. Tony was a leading international thinker focussed on the impact of climate change on health and I have spent sometime this morning reading some of his ideas, and listening to some of his talks. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BNMBABY4dHc
I first met Tony in the late 80s when I worked at the National Heart Foundation national office coordinating its workplace health program. Tony chaired the Heart Foundation’s tripartite Committee that brought together health, business and unions with the focus on creating health promoting workplaces. He was a formidable chair and a bit intimidating for someone new to the game, but I learnt a lot from him. It was my first experience of the complexities of intersectoral action, in action. Not easy but critical.
Tony at the time was an occupational epidemiologist who went on to become the person we know today: an international intellectual focussed on the health impact of climate change. He has been a wonderful supporter of my own work on the built form and health over the years and provided sage advice from time to time, particularly about lifting our focus from chronic disease impacts, to include climate change impacts.
Listening to his talks this morning, has left me more committed to the need for the public health community to push for compact walkable more sustainable cities. While density is ‘contested’ space in academic circles, to me it is completely irresponsible – socially, environmentally and economically – that we continue to build suburban low density development on the urban fringe.
A focus on sustainable healthy, liveable and cities is critical for both social and environmentally sustainability – reading the Sunday age article on Cranbourne focussing on the social impact of urban planning reminds me again that we ignore these issues at our peril http://www.theage.com.au/national/-10lrj6.html. As a public health community we need to ensure that our research is connected to policy and a constituency of advocates who can help create the tipping point necessary to ensure we produce better outcomes that create healthy and sustainable cities. None of us can do this alone.
So if anything good can from the passing of a valued colleague who has contributed so much in his 71 years, is to redouble our commitment to keep going and to do better. If not now, when? Vale Tony we are much the poorer for your loss.
Simon Chapman, Professor, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney
That is so, so sad news. He was a true giant of Australian and global public health. He was a beautiful, principled, deeply decent and impishly humourous man too. I first met him in Adelaide in the mid 1980s when he was so encouraging and supportive of me in my first senior job. He was cultured, entertaining and passionate. His work on the public health implications of climate change was truly pioneering.
David Shearman, E/Professor of Medicine, Hon Secretary, Doctors for the Environment Australia (This article is cross-posted from the DEA website)
There will be many tributes to his life and work nationally and internationally which will document his books, papers, awards, involvement with the World Health Organization, his election to the US National Academy of Sciences and many other achievements.
My tribute will be different; it will document his key role in the formation and work of Doctors for the Environment Australia and offer thoughts on what we can learn from him. Progress for humanity requires we learn from each other and I will define what I and others learned from Tony; that is what would have pleased him most.
Tony worked tirelessly behind the scenes to assist Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). I have recently written about how and when DEA was formed. Tony’s role was crucial in 1999 and subsequently. The early meetings of the committee were in his department in Canberra and with his guidance, he fostered our first scientific meeting at the Shine Dome, The Australian Academy of Science. He was the first member on our Scientific Advisory Committee and was in the thick of early work with DEA to help the AMA and the College of Physicians to try to come to terms with climate change. The DEA newsletters in 2014 illustrate that he was still heavily involved in advocacy with the letter on the G20 to the Prime Minister and his endorsement of DEA in our Prospectus for Fundraising.
In 2013 he co-authored a revision of the DEA Climate Change and Health Policy and the DEA Climate Change and Health Position Statement, which he had been revising at intervals since he wrote it in 2002. Over the years he was involved in many other DEA initiatives, one of the most important being in 2008 when he co-authored “Climate Change Health Check 2020” for DEA and the Climate Institute which linked climate change science with the spectrum of climate related illnesses that doctors might be seeing in 2020.
Tony and I first met in his office in the late seventies after I had arrived from Scotland to the Chair of Medicine in Adelaide; the topic was how to develop an animal model for carcinoma of the colon; he was Research Scientist with the Division of Human Nutrition, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). At that time there seemed to be little interest in population health but in several subsequent meetings, our discussions strayed into his appreciation of the work of the Ehrlichs whereas at that stage in my development, my thoughts had not graduated from Silent Spring and from the Monkey Wrench Gang!
Tony became Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health, Department of Community Medicine, University of Adelaide in 1986 and became a close colleague and friend. By the end of his time in Adelaide, his classic book Planetary Overload (1993) heralded his leadership in this topic; it should be read by every doctor and medical student.
What can we learn from Tony’s life?
The unassuming manner and ever-present smile endeared him so he was an easy team player. In fact he delivered results just as much as a team member as by his academic excellence. He was the only person I can ever recall who consistently came out of the most difficult Faculty meetings with a reassuring smile on his face “The meeting will be better next time”.
In a society with many would-be-leaders and individualists, his team involvement displayed to me that humanity and our profession must stand together in confronting its formidable problems.
His extensive contributions were possible because of meticulous scholarship, analysis and on many occasions vigorous debate to embrace the thoughts of others. This process is evidenced by the extensive acknowledgement section in “Planetary Overload”; each acknowledgement indicated significant participation.
Thereafter he became Professor of Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, London, UK. My happiest memories of him were the many occasions of arriving early mornings in London from Australia, taking the tube into London and walking around to the London School for a coffee and natter with him. It was there that DEA was conceived.
His prodigious productivity was based not only on his intellect but on his ability to manage his time. When DEA asked for help he answered positively saying what he could do and when he would deliver by scheduling it into his program.
As secretary of DEA, I have in my care all Tony’s communications with us over a decade or more. It is a vast correspondence providing advice and input on meetings with politicians, climate information for use politically, how to approach changes in Heath Acts, arranging for students going to overseas departments, discussions over IPCC reports – he had persuaded me to be involved in two successive reports, and even information on coal fired power plants (long before we had a policy). All in all it demonstrates a huge behind-the-scenes involvement in a non-government organisation, which is unlikely to be matched by any other leading scientific expert.
Clearly he recognised the responsibility of the medical scientist to communicate his findings to elected representatives and to the public and he did this through his involvement with DEA and with many other organisations including the Climate Institute.
He further recognised the importance of having an organisation such as DEA with a predominance of clinical doctors who promulgated population health.
Despite his fame and commitment, nothing would be too much trouble in relation to students. I could write to him saying that DEA had a student wanting to take a year out to help with climate change; the response would be “Can I arrange a program for her/him”. He always recognised the true balance we should all have between scholarship and teaching.
The success of DEA to recruit hundreds of medical students into full membership delighted him and he readily provided his student lectures for all to use, for example Climate Change (natural & ‘unnatural’) Past and Future Risks to Health.
His illness and the way he handled it tells us much about his resolve and we can learn from it. He was in Adelaide from Canberra one day to join us on a visit to a Federal Minister. On taking the lift instead of the stairs he made the excuse “I had my kidney transplant three weeks ago”. He had given a commitment and he fulfilled it.
His attitude was to keep his medical problems in their place so as not to interfere with his mission, and he displayed the impression of a detached bystander in the amusing comments he made to me and others about the delivery of his care by his clinical colleagues; he made light of his considerable medical challenges.
In his penultimate stay in intensive care, I can imagine him worrying about his box of unanswered emails; his recovery was then signalled to me by the email one-liners saying – he was in ICU and would answer soon; then these became two liners with decisions – and I can imagine the anxieties of his medical carers when he took to his PC in the ICU; then he was home. His final email to me epitomised Tony.
On 24.9 he writes “I moved home yesterday, and am now coming to terms with the need for a different balance in daily life (about which he had been scolded many times)…………Will send a donation soon”. Obviously he had come across a DEA appeal for funds, unanswered for 3 weeks. What a man – worrying that he had not helped us when so many other problems confronted him! My last words to him “Great you are home, take care and it’s good to hear you are rebalancing! Don’t worry about a donation, we need your brains more than your money!”
Alas, thirty six hours later he was dead and Medicine and the World had lost a great man at the peak of his wisdom.
Out thoughts are with his wife Judith and their two daughters.
Public health nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM
Tony McMichael was an inspiration – a passionate campaigner for public health, always backing his desire for a better world with evidence delivered in a calm and considered manner. What a loss!
Dr Catriona Bonfiglioli, Senior Lecturer Media Studies, UTS
Professor McMichael was a key leader in discovering determinants of health beyond individual control and an excellent communicator of public health news, giving public health professionals, journalists and the wider public the chance to know and understand these threats to health and wellbeing.
Extracts from ‘An appreciation’, published by the School of Public Health at the University of Washington
Obituaries are always full of superlatives. Professor Emeritus Anthony (Tony) McMichael deserves all of them….One would not know when meeting Tony that he was a scientific giant, providing insights that will continue to inform research and policy for years to come. He was the most humble and gracious of men, and a kind and thoughtful friend and mentor to many people worldwide….He also had a delightful sense of humor. The opening of his keynote address to the 20th World Congress on Epidemiology in Anchorage in August was typical. After graciously thanking his hosts for the invitation, Tony looked at his notes and said he should have listened to his wife and cleaned his glasses…
Read more here.
Andrew Leigh MP (an extract)
…Our earth is finer for Tony McMichael having walked upon it, having contributed his ideas to the realm of academia and having brought his passion to policy debates which will affect us and our grandchildren. I honour his memory and the work that he did during his 71 years.
Read more here.
Jonathan Patz, Director, Global Health Institute, Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, University of Wisconsin-Madison
In my heart I wonder if, after the historic UN Climate Summit, Tony’s soul was satisfied that he had helped to bring us this far and the world has finally (with leadership and political will) recognised his teachings of Planetary Overload, and are making meaningful efforts to turn away from the precipice. I will always remember Tony as mentor and brilliant teacher, wonderful & humorous friend, and inspiration to all.
Professor McMichael is survived by his wife, A/Professor Judith Healy, daughters Anna and Dr Celia McMichael, four grandchildren, and his brother, Philip, an eminent sociologist.
AO (Office, Order of Australia); Fellow, Academy of Technical Science and Engineering; Elected member, US National Academy of Sciences; Fellow, Australian Faculty of Public Health Medicine
Professor Tony McMichael, MBBS, PhD, is a medical graduate (Adelaide University 1967) and epidemiologist (Monash University 1972). Before his recent ‘retirement’ he held an NHMRC Australia Fellowship at the Australian National University. He was previously Professor of Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 1994-2001, and then Director of ANU’s National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health (2001-2007). He is Hon. Prof of Climate Change and Health at University of Copenhagen, Hon. Fellow of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Fellow of Australian Academy of Technological Sciences, and ex-President of the International Soc of Environmental Epidemiology. In 2011 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), and was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences. Prof. McMichael has played a pioneering role in developing research on the health risks and burdens from global climate change and other large-scale environmental changes. He has been an advisor on this topic to the WHO. During 1993-2001 he headed the assessment of health risks for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and for the (international) Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. His interest in patterns of infectious disease emergence and spread has entailed chairing an Expert Reference Group for the (WHO-based) Tropical Diseases Research Program, 2008-12, focusing on the joint climatic-environmental-agricultural-nutritional influences on infectious disease emergence and risks in poor populations. Having worked on occupational disease epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, subsequently during 1976-2003, at CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition and then University of Adelaide (Community Medicine), he studied dietary and environmental influences on specific diseases (including the impact of early-life environmental lead exposure on child intellectual development). His publications include over 300 peer-reviewed papers, 160 book chapters, two sole-author books (Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and Human Health, 1993, and Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease: Past Patterns, Uncertain Futures, 2001; both with Cambridge Univ Press), and several co-authored or edited books.
State Finalist Australian of the Year 2010 : Environmental and health visionary
Professor Tony McMichael is the world’s leading scholar and commentator on the relationship between global climate change and human health. An epidemiologist, he was previously Professor of Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and is currently President of the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology. In the 1990s, Professor McMichael pioneered research on the health risks of climate change, and he now heads the research program at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University which is the largest and most internationally active program of its kind in the world. He has been an advisor and consultant on environmental health issues to the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Environment Program, the World Bank, and other international bodies. Described by international journal Lancet as a visionary of the environment–health interface, he is one of Australia’s intellectual giants.
Leading epidemiologist and public health researcher Professor Tony McMichael has been honoured with a two day festschrift in Canberra to celebrate his work on the occasion of his retirement from the National Centre for Population Health and Epidemiology at Australian National University (NCEPH-ANU).
Current and former colleagues, students, and members of the national and international public health community gathered to reflect on, and pay tribute to, the work of the man described as “the world’s leading scholar and commentator on the relationship between global climate change and human health.”
Read more here.
During the late 1980s it became increasingly clear to Professor McMichael that the emerging evidence of new, global and environmental changes — such as the then-controversial greenhouse effect — posed very real and significant risks to human health. In this conversation, Professor McMichael discusses the challenges he now faces: to understand better how climatic conditions affect human health; to detect the emerging impacts of climate change on health; and to estimate the likely future impact.
Read more here.
This interview was conducted in 2010