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Mary-Louise McLaws (1953–2023)

by Malcolm Brown

from Sydney Morning Herald

Epidemics have hit the world periodically, including various strains of influenza, AIDS, Ebola and Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). But nothing has had such a dramatic impact, loomed so ominously and brought such consternation as COVID-19.

As of July 2023, it had caused almost 7 million deaths globally. Starting in China in 2019, it brought fear and consternation to every corner of society. For this crisis, which brought Australians down in their thousands, a handful of experts took the lead – Churchillian figures in a war – and not the least of these was Professor Emeritus Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, whose calm and steady pronouncements – forthright when necessary – kept society on course.

The disciplines of vaccination, mask-wearing, hand-washing, avoiding crowds, isolating individuals and groups and whatever else was necessary were spearheaded by her, speaking out at a time when the public in general was unconvinced.

If there was a driving force, she was it. But she went further than this. The professor’s contribution in the COVID crisis was part of a lifelong commitment to limiting all disease. A University of New South Wales publication, Inside UNSW, said: “Although her characteristic humility might compel her to refute this analogy, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws has served the advancement of human health to an extent comparable with Florence Nightingale’s well-documented legacy. While the 19th Century Lady of the Lamp was the first to identify infection control as crucial to limit disease, Mary-Louise has helped revolutionise global knowledge and practice in this important field.”

Mary-Louise McLaws was born in Ouse, Tasmania, on March 17, 1953. She had a brother, Barrie Cashman Laws. Mary-Louise, who was proudly Jewish, went to several public schools, the last being Gosford High School where she was a contemporary of Gabi Hollows, of Fred Hollows fame. Dreaming of becoming a pilot, or even an astronaut, McLaws excelled in her studies and entered the University of Sydney to do a bachelor of science degree then went on to do a postgraduate degree in public health.

In 1984, she became project officer for a national survey of hospital-acquired infections, taking in 270 public and private hospitals. The finding was that an estimated 150,000 patients contracted infections in hospitals every year, at a cost of $150 million.

McLaws called for a central notification system for all hospital-acquired infections. She was drawn into the SARS program in Beijing’s population and among Hong Kong’s healthcare personnel. Conscious of the acute risks for the aged and for those working in the health system, the Australian Department of Health and Ageing appointed her reviewer of Australia’s Pandemic Influenza Infection Control for Healthcare Workers.

The position of healthcare workers, exposed to the diseases they were treating and of inadvertently transmitting those diseases to others, was vital, especially in the COVID era when health professionals worldwide were succumbing to the disease. McLaws conducted the first national prevalence study of healthcare-associated infections (HAI) and created the first standardised surveillance and analytic system for HAI.

In 1988, McLaws married a company director, Dr Richard Flook. “Her brother, Barrie, introduced us as part of negotiations we were having for me to buy his wife’s family’s mine,” Dr Flook said. “Almost an arranged marriage! Our wedding invitation was a tape from us both and it included memorable songs such as Dean Martin singing That’s Amore with lines, ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore’. When I met ML, I was very impressed that she had three jobs. Great credentials for a good wife. ML was the only person I had ever met that had a mosquito collection, all neatly pinned with extremely fine pins.

“At the time the only break from work she had was on Friday night when she had a bubble bath with a glass of champagne. When I found this out, I ensured that she always had a bottle of Moet in her refrigerator.” The couple would go on to have two children, Zia and Zachary. Dr Flook was moving forward in an international career in mining, metallurgy and finance and of him she would say he was “a perfect husband, who makes great dinners and lunches”.

In 1992, McLaws graduated as a PhD in epidemiology. She joined the staff of the University of NSW as an assistant professor in epidemiology, rising to become professor, epidemiology, healthcare infection and infectious diseases control in the school of public health and community medicine.

In 2005, McLaws served as World Health Organisation (WHO) adviser to China to create a national HAI surveillance. The following year, she went to Malaysia to do the same thing. Through her work with PhD candidates, she has helped with infection-control research in Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, Mali, Indonesia, Iran, Vietnam, Taiwan and Turkey.

She was appointed director of the public health unit for the Sydney South West Area Health Service and would make significant contributions to eliminate HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, as well as being pivotal in containing the spread of the swine flu. She was author of what would become a portfolio of 180 scientific papers and contributions to many other books. She was on the boards of numerous associations and professional publications. In 2017, McLaws became a member of the Academic Board of UNSW. Tragically, that year, her brother died of brain cancer.

In 2019, the COVID-19 virus started spreading and in Churchillian vein, it appeared that all her life had been a preparation for this hour. McLaws became widely known to the Australian public through her media appearances. She was also vocal about closing the Australian border early. She never backed away from holding governments to account for their pandemic response and was among the first experts to talk about the need for face masks when the idea of the public wearing them every day seemed unimaginable.

“The horse has bolted, but the horse started bolting last week,” she said. McLaws said NSW Health was not providing full details on why infected people were leaving their homes. She suggested that much of the spread could be coming from essential workers. “What the government is not telling us, which they need to, is how many of those not in isolation were essential services workers who inadvertently acquired it at work and then took it home to their household and caused x number of people in their households to be infected,” she said.

If some people were prepared to be lackadaisical, thinking they would not be infected, she was there to put them in their place. McLaws warned that the 2020 Melbourne Grand Prix might become a coronavirus super-spreading event. The car race would be famously cancelled on the opening day, March 13, as crowds lined up outside.

In February 2020, McLaws travelled to the WHO headquarters in Geneva to confer with other experts as they tried to make sense of the COVID virus. As a member of the WHO Health Emergencies Program Experts Advisory Panel for Infection Prevention and Control Preparedness, Readiness and Response to COVID-19, she had her work cut out for her.

It was, she said, “a very interesting disease ... That you know is going to spread”.

McLaws was also among the first to lobby for rapid antigen testing, and warned of the risks of outbreaks by keeping returned travellers in poorly ventilated hotels. She led the charge on the need for sophisticated quarantine facilities, such as Howard Springs in Darwin. She warned about complacency and urged the public to keep up with booster shots of the vaccine. “I was never anti the government, I was only upset about how our community was not cared for with early vaccines,” she said. In June 2021, McLaws was engaged by the WHO to help with the global outbreak of the disease.

In January 2022, McLaws was hit by a thunderbolt. She sought treatment for a splitting headache and was diagnosed with brain cancer and took leave from UNSW for surgery and chemotherapy. When she made her condition public, there was an outpouring of public grief.

On the Queen’s Birthday 2022, McLaws was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in recognition of her services to medical research, particularly in epidemiology and infection prevention, to tertiary education and to health administration. In June 2023, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD) hosted a reception for her at the Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra. One of those attending, Professor George Rubin said, “During the recent pandemic, I believe that Mary-Louise was the most trusted voice in Australia”, while Professor Robyn Richmond said McLaws’ evidence-based advice proved vital and “made us feel safe”.

When presenting McLaws with a certificate of appreciation, JBD president David Ossip said, “We, as a Jewish community, are so proud that a member of our community played such a key role on the world stage, at such a critical moment.” Emanuel Synagogue’s Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio added: “[Your] indomitable spirit shines through everything.”

On a separate occasion, media personality Lisa Wilkinson said of her: “In these troubled times, your calm, considered information and advice has been invaluable to millions of Australians across the country, and we want to thank you so much for being so generous with your knowledge, your time, and we wish you and your beautiful family all the strength in the world at this difficult time.”

Original publication

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Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'McLaws, Mary-Louise (1953–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/mclaws-mary-louise-33685/text42160, accessed 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Viney, Mary-Louise
Birth

17 March, 1953
Ouse, Tasmania, Australia

Death

12 August, 2023 (aged 70)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (brain)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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