By Adi Mittra
On this International Women’s Day, we focus on Prof Fiona Stanley from Western Australia who has made a huge difference to maternal and child health.
At a time where female presence was faint in the medical community, Fiona Stanley embarked on a journey that would lead to her playing a significant role in child health research. After attending St Hilda’s Anglican Girls’ School, she enrolled in a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Western Australia.
Professor Stanley’s drive to accomplish her goals were put to the test early on as her parents and her peers did not approve her decision to pursue a career in Medicine. Her parents wished for Fiona to take a purely scientific path, following her family. Her father was a virologist and Fiona says that one of her first memories is of watching, “my father blowing a spinal cord out of a mouse and injecting polio virus into the baboons in his primate colony at the hospital.’
Her peers, a male-dominated cohort, still infant to the thought of women practising medicine would consistently underestimate her or stunt their expectations of her medical presence in University and her professional career earlier on.
A sort of pilgrimage to Papua New Guinea for Professor Stanley was a crucial moment (in her own mind) and a source of inspiration and confirmation of her efforts to purse her journey in medicine. Her connection to the land stemmed from her Grandfather, a Geologist and a pioneer of sorts as he first stepped into Papua New Guinea in 1908. Here, Professor Stanley’s peer at the time, Kevin Cullen, said ‘Look, you’ve got a brain, woman. Use it. Get your degree and start making something of your life.’ Professor Stanley certainly did.
Fiona Stanley’s expertise has been in establishing evidence of social determinants of disease and development risks and in promotion of early intervention as the strongest path to prevention of maternal and child health epidemiology. Her message that resonates in the political and medical sphere is to ‘place social and environmental sustainability and population health ahead of economic growth as a national goal, and develop social policies that enhance equality, social stability and trust.’
Her research has led to the discovery of the link between folate deficiencies and neural tube defects. A neural tube defect may result in a child developing Spina bifida, where the lower parts of the neural tube do not close properly leading to parts of the spinal cord remaining exposed. Promoting the need for folate in pregnancy was a vital part of her mission to reduce these defects.
Her research has had a worldwide impact on the lives of young children and aided the medical community in developing medicines for preventing these debilitating and potentially life-threatening defects. Apart from founding the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, a hospital aiding the southern metropolitan area of Perth has been named in her Honour.
We thank you Professor Fiona Stanley for you time and research to better our lives.