McCarthy, William

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Professor McCarthy has led the world in melanoma education, general medical education and melanoma surgery. He was the first person to gain a degree in Medical Education and the world’s first Professor of Surgery (Melanoma and Skin Oncology). He facilitated the first interfaculty workshops on medical education with the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney. He founded the Australasian and New Zealand Association for medical education and initiated and developed the Melanoma Foundation. He was also the first Australian consultant in medical education with the World Health Organization. He initiated and developed the first research Institute specifically concerned with melanoma and skin oncology, MASCRI.

Bill McCarthy began his early career with his Residency at St Vincent’s Hospital, followed by a year as Demonstrator in Anatomy within the Faculty. He then returned to St Vincent’s Hospital to take up the position of Surgical Registrar. In 1965, he travelled to Chicago and was an Instructor in Surgery and a Research Fellow in Medical Education at the University of Illinois. It was here that he became the first person to receive a master’s in Medical Education. After another two years engaged as a Surgical Registrar at Kings College Hospital and Whipps Cross Hospital in London, he returned to the University of Sydney. His association with our Faculty and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital has spanned 45 years, in which Professor McCarthy has been a major contributor to research which has seen significant advances in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of skin cancer. In 1968 he began as a Lecturer in Surgery, by 1975 he had become Sub-Dean of Medical Education, in 1989 he took up the role of Subdean (Clinical) at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and became the Director of the Sydney Melanoma Unit. In 1990 he became the world’s first Professor of Surgery (Melanoma and Skin Oncology) and the Director of the Education Unit within the Department of Surgery four years later.

During his time with the Sydney Melanoma Unit (he was Co-director from 1990), he assisted in the development of that unit from a small research and clinical unit to the largest centre for treatment of melanoma in the world. The unit is recognised as having major status in the world melanoma field and is a leading member of the World Health Organization Melanoma Group, contributing substantially to clinical care and research in the field of melanoma and surgical oncology. Over 20,500 patients with melanoma have been treated there to date, 6000 of these being in the last five years. In 1983, the Melanoma Foundation was formed with Bill as its Foundation Executive Director. This foundation has been highly successful and raises in the vicinity of 1 million dollars per year towards clinical care, administration and oncological research.

In the general medical community, Bill has initiated and conducted a variety of educational activities on melanoma and skin cancer for the Family Medical Program of the College of General Practitioners, various nursing organisations and other related professional groups.

In his capacity as Medical Education Consultant to the World Health Organization, he has assisted in the curriculum development and development of examination systems for medical education in Africa, South-East Asia and Australia.

Within our Department of Surgery, he has developed and managed the examination system and has played a substantial role in the development of the Departmental Educational Programs. His role as Chair of Surgery (Melanoma and Skin Oncology) has enabled him to play a vital role in expanding basic and clinical research in this area in Australia.[1]

Bill believes his major contribution to the field of melanoma and Skin Oncology has been the promotion of early diagnosis through public education. “Early diagnosis is vital,” he says. Thirty years ago, people did not even know what melanomas looked like. Fifty per cent of people with symptoms sought medical intervention too late – when the tumour was 3–4 cm deep – and they died. By educating people about the disease and how it progresses, only 15 per cent of people are now coming late. “I am the only person in the world to have changed the incidence graph of a tumour through a public education campaign,” he says.

He has also contributed to significant changes in the treatment of melanomas. One of the most important recent developments has been the sentinel node biopsy technique of selectively removing lymph nodes identified by lymphatic mapping. This technique is used to detect, at the earliest possible time, the presence of tumour cells in these nodes – that is, before the nodes are large enough to be evident by clinical examination. Early detection is one of the most important ways to prevent further spread of the melanoma.

Another recent development is the exploitation of the body’s immune system to prevent recurrence. Vaccine development is under way in many melanoma centres. At the Sydney Melanoma Unit, the world’s largest trial of a melanoma vaccine has been completed, but the results have not been dramatic: although a small number of patients benefited from the vaccine, it is clear that much more research is needed to improve its effectiveness. Bill admits that there are still many problems to be addressed in the field. “Melanoma is very aggressive. The recent development of surface microscopy may enable us to cure up to 90 per cent of people who present for early diagnosis, but we still have no answers for advanced cases.”

In 1993, Bill was honoured by becoming a Member of the Order of Australia. This honour recognised his contribution to the field of Melanoma surgery and education. In February 2001 Professor William McCarthy was the recipient of a special WHO award for “a lifetime devoted to melanoma research”.[1]

Currently, Bill is Emeritus Professor of Surgery (Melanoma and Skin Oncology) at the University of Sydney, Director of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Research Institute, Director of the Melanoma Foundation, and Deputy Director of the Sydney Melanoma Diagnostic Centre.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) McCarthy, William. 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.