Leeder, Stephen Ross

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BSc (Med) 1964 MB BS 1966 PhD 1975 FRACP FAFPHM FFPH (UK)

Stephen (Steve) Leeder was Foundation Professor of Community Medicine at the University of Newcastle and Dean of Medicine at the University of Sydney, both roles in which he pioneered substantial developments to the curriculum and delivery of medical education. He has served in an executive capacity on numerous state and federal health advisory committees and has been integral to the implementation and adoption of health goals and targets for Australia. His epidemiological research around asthma and cardiovascular disease has contributed to our understanding of the importance of parental smoking as a risk for children, and to strategies towards the prevention of asthma.

Following graduation in Medicine from the University of Sydney and internship at Royal North Shore Hospital, Steve and his wife Dr Dorothy Leeder went to the western highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1968 to serve as medical officers at the Tinsley Hospital at Baiyer River. Like many before and after him, the PNG experience proved formative. “I saw what good public health measures can achieve,” he says, “immunisation saved the children in our area from a whooping cough epidemic that exacted a terrible toll in unimmunised neighbouring valleys. Fifteen years of mobile mother and child health care in the villages had cut maternal and infant mortality to rates similar to Australia’s. And there were several interesting research questions – about respiratory health – that intrigued me.” Baiyer River was a study centre for the research work of Ann Woolcock and her husband Ruthven Blackburn, and Steve worked with them during their annual visit to Baiyer River in January 1969.

Returning to Sydney, Steve again worked at Royal North Shore Hospital, this time as a Medical Registrar until 1973, attaining his Membership of the RACP. In 1971 he commenced his doctoral studies, with Woolcock, Blackburn and Godfrey Scott, in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He also worked as a part-time Clinical Assistant in Thoracic Medicine at RNSH and did locum general practice work in French’s Forest on the weekends. During this time, he began his academic career as a Visiting Lecturer in Chronic Disease Epidemiology with the Diploma of Public Health students at the University of Sydney. “I think that consolidated my interest in non-communicable disease. It has stayed with me,” says Steve .

In 1974, having completed his PhD on the factors affecting the lung function of 14,000 Sydney schoolchildren, Steve and his family moved to London, where he worked St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School for 18 months with Walter Holland and others on the effects of parental smoking on children’s health. He was at St Thomas’ at the same time as Les Irwig, now also Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney. In late 1975, he moved to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, a medical school with a radical and new approach to medical education using problem-based learning in groups. “Somehow,” Steve says, “McMaster had made public health methods and knowledge, especially epidemiology, interesting for medical students! I wanted to see how it was done!”

In 1976, he returned to Newcastle, Australia, as the Foundation Professor of Community Medicine at the University of Newcastle, a role he held until 1985. This school, under the deanship of David Maddison, former Dean of the University of Sydney, broke new ground in Australia in medical education, importing much of the philosophy of McMaster University described above. Steve played a senior role in the development of student assessment methods, and community-based studies in asthma and cardiovascular disease were established. “Ralph Reader of the National Heart Foundation was a major supporter and encourager,” says Steve. “He had far more faith in us than we had in ourselves, I think, to establish a major heart attack register. But we did it!”

Steve’s persistent connections to McMaster and its active Department of Clinical Epidemiology led, via support from Kerr White and the Rockefeller Foundation, to the establishment the Asian and Pacific Centre for Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Newcastle as part of the International Clinical Epidemiology Network. Trainee clinicians from Indonesia, Thailand, China, and other countries came to Newcastle (as well as to McMaster and Pennsylvania). “That was an exciting era,” Steve observes, “The network was brilliantly conceived and persists to this day.” He also served as a Visiting Medical Officer in Thoracic Medicine at the Royal Newcastle Hospital and the Wallsend District Hospital, NSW Steve’s time in Newcastle ended in 1985 when he moved to the Department of Community Medicine at Westmead Hospital. He worked there for over a decade, building a substantial presence in applied epidemiology, preventive medicine and community outreach with a large group of colleagues, many of whom have progressed to senior positions in public health in Australia.

In 1994, he took on the additional responsibility of Pro-Dean for the Faculty with special tasks in relation to the development of the proposed new curriculum. In 1997, he was appointed Dean. During this time he oversaw the implementation of the new graduate educational program and the formation of an extensive rural education network for medical students. “I did not foresee the huge developments that Michael Wooldridge championed in rural medical education,” Steve says, “they were generously funded and, with the huge support of clinicians in rural areas and great leadership, they flourished.” His other achievements as Dean included the strengthening of decentralised, cross-disciplinary Schools within the Faculty, and the development of a strategic approach to research development.

Upon concluding his six years as Dean, Steve took study leave to work at the Earth Institute and Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. There he and his colleagues assessed the impending effects of diseases including heart disease and stroke on developing economies. “I must say I was staggered by what we found, especially by the inroads heart disease was making into the young workforce in developing nations and that it was, truly, a major women’s health problem as well. All the international health aid, bar 2 per cent, goes on other things. We have yet to come to terms with the epidemic chronic diseases in the developing world.”

Steve is also Director of the Australian Health Policy Institute at the University of Sydney. The Institute provides a high-level capability for authoritative, independent, non-partisan analysis of major health policy questions which confront Australian and international health systems. Recently, a new Menzies Centre for Health Policy has been established, with AHPI and the Australian National University. Steve has served on the Senate of the University of Sydney for several terms, had two double terms as President of the Public Health Association, and one triennium as Chair of the Health Advisory Committee of NHMRC.

In addition to these university and hospital appointments, Steve has been active on numerous non-hospital state and federal advisory committees, holding the position of chair or president for many. He currently chairs the Human Research Ethics Committee at Westmead and the New Interventional Procedure Assessment Committee. He is a Board Member of the Institute for Health Research which is a coalition of universities and research centres in NSW, working to foster world-class research to improve health outcomes, services and planning. He is also a Councillor of the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine whose mission it is to improve and protect the health of populations through the practice of public health medicine, including education and research.[1]

In 2004, Steve was made an Officer in the Order of Australia for services to medicine as an academic and administrator and to public health through research, education , policy development and advocacy of greater community awareness of environmental and lifestyle health issues.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Leeder, Stephen Ross. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.