Sefton, Ann Elizabeth Jervie

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MB BS (Hons) 1960 PhD 1966 DSc 1990

Ann Sefton – a neurologist and educator–made the first observations of the way in which information is regulated by an interplay of excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms when passing from the eye to the cerebral cortex, and collaboratively provided new descriptions of the connections, anatomical arrangements and the functions of a number of visual centres of the brain. As a student, she was the first elected woman President of the Medical Society. In 1991, as Associate Dean of Medicine she initiated dialogue as to the implementation of a graduate medical program. Ann is currently Deputy -Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

Ann Sefton was born Sydney in 1936 and, initially interested in paediatrics, studied medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating BSc (Med) in 1957 and MB BS in 1960. During her studies, Ann established a students’ Medical Education Committee in an attempt to improve the way Medicine was taught. Although this Committee lacked influence, it marked the beginning of Ann’s life-long determination to better the provision of medical education. She was elected the first female President of the Medical Society and was involved in the establishment of the Australian Medical Students Association; both organisations later elected her to Honorary Life Membership. As Vice-President of the SRC, she was selected as the Sydney representative for the first group of eight Australian students to be invited to China in 1957. While Health Officer of the SRC, she wrote a report with Brian Hennessy that led to the establishment of the University Health Service. After graduating, she undertook her residency first at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1960, and then at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in 1961. She describes her first residency as exciting, but at the same time:

[I]t was also really scary because you carried a lot of responsibility and you often did it when you were dog tired. Sometimes I wouldn’t get to bed for 72 hours. It was just brutal. Being female we had to work many more weekends than the men because we weren’t eligible for the football team.[1]

From 1962 to 1964 Ann was a Liston Wilson Research Fellow. As a postgraduate student, she was also active with the committee that established the first Child Care Centre on campus, and was later involved in developing a Vacation Care Scheme for the children of staff and students. She was awarded her PhD in Physiology in 1966 and had just had the first of her two children. Despite support from some of her former teachers, there were no appropriate paths available for returning to clinical training at that time, so she decided to pursue an academic career rather than one as a paediatric neurologist.

Between 1965 and 1973 she was a temporary, part-time and then full-time lecturer in physiology at the University of Sydney, working her way up to become Associate Professor in 1985 and Professor in 1992, retaining her Personal Chair until 2001.

During her BSc (Med), encouraged by Peter Bishop who taught her electrophysiological techniques, Ann produced two early papers on visual connections, in collaboration with Bill Hayhow, which are still cited. Some of her most interesting findings during her PhD work with Liam Burke included the first observations on the way in which information is regulated by an interplay of excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms when passing from the eye to the cerebral cortex. She also developed some new descriptions of the connections, anatomical arrangements and the functions of a number of visual centres of the brain, in collaboration with Bogdan Dreher in Anatomy, at a time when interdepartmental collaboration was actively discouraged. Ann has supervised 11 PhDs and 25 BSc(Med) or BSc (honours) students.

Another intriguing and surprising observation Ann and her colleagues made, since confirmed in other areas, was that during the development of the mammalian visual system, when it would be assumed that neuronal numbers would be increasing consistently, significant numbers of cells are lost. More recently, with one of her PhD students (Paul Martin), she has made further unexpected observations in mammals with colour vision, which provide evidence that the pathways which transmit red-green information are segregated from blue pathways.

Beyond scientific research, Ann has made extensive contributions to medical education at the University of Sydney, receiving one of the University’s inaugural awards for Teaching Excellence in 1990 and in 1998, an Australian Award for University Teaching. Between 1988 and 1992 she was Sub-Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, responsible for students in the first three years of the medical program. From the 1980s, she and other colleagues became concerned that many students chose to study medicine because they achieved the excellent school results that were required; indeed, many were pressured by parents and schools to enrol. In her belief that medical students need a view of the world that extends beyond the scientific, Ann (then Associate Dean) led initial discussions in the Faculty on the development of an integrated, problem-based graduate medical program in 1991. She travelled to Harvard University Medical School in the United States where Stephen Leeder was on sabbatical leave; both were convinced that aspects of its ‘New Pathway’ medical program could be adopted in Australia. Appointed Associate Dean (Curriculum Development) in 1994, Ann was able to apply her findings to the extensive planning and development of the Faculty’s new Graduate Medical Program, which was first implemented in 1997, in collaboration with Jill Gordon and Michael Field. From 1999 to 2001, she joined the Faculty of Dentistry half-time as Associate Dean to assist in the development of a graduate entry dental program.

The aim of developing the new medical (and later dental) program was to move from didactic teaching, involving memorisation and role learning, to stimulating scientific thinking, clinical reasoning, critical appraisal and problem-solving. In an era when information is burgeoning and access to it is readily available, students need skills in locating, evaluating and applying relevant information. A priority was on effective communication skills with patients but also with other health professionals. The focus on early patient contact and clinical skill development has been extremely well received by students, staff and patients. Students needed a broader understanding of the diversity of community needs. Ethical values, awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses and the need for self-care are now included. Both the medical and the dental programs have made innovative use of information technologies from the outset and an essential component has been the rigorous evaluation and progressive evolution in the light of new knowledge and an increasing awareness of effective educational strategies.

Throughout her career, Ann has been a member of numerous committees at both the Faculty and University level, and has been invited to membership of review committees both in education and research nationally and internationally. A member of the Academic Board from 1986, she became Deputy Chair in 1986/7 and again in 1997/8, later chairing the Academic Forum (1998–2000). In 1990, with Gaston Bauer and others, she was involved in the establishment of the University of Sydney Medical Graduates’ Association, becoming its first Vice President. In 2000, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for “service to medical education, particularly in the area of reform and the development of a graduate medical program, and to physiology and research in the field of neuroscience through the study of the function and structure of the visual pathways of the brain”.[1]

Upon retirement in 2001 she was appointed Emeritus Professor and has since been extraordinarily active, particularly in the International Union of Physiological Sciences, chairing its Education committee. She is frequently invited to run medical education workshops internationally, particularly in South-East Asia, and has acted as a consultant on aspects of medical and physiology education locally, nationally and internationally. Ann was elected to the University of Sydney Senate in 2001 and again in 2005, becoming Pro-Chancellor in 2003 and Deputy-Chancellor for the term 2004 to 2007.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Sefton, Ann Elizabeth Jervie. 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.