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Anthony John (Tony) McMichael (1942–2014)

by Colin Butler and Bob Douglas

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Professor Tony McMichael, the world’s leading scholar and commentator on the relationship between climate change and human health, died in Canberra aged 71. Many people aspire to make the world a better place, few have succeeded in this task as he did.

Following his undergraduate medical student days at the University of Adelaide, McMichael was elected as President of the National Union of Australian University Students (now the NUS). After a short stint in general practice, he undertook doctoral research studies on the mental well-being of university students under the supervision of Professor Basil Hetzel at Monash University.

Encouraged by René Dubos, the Pulitzer Prize–winning visionary for planetary health, McMichael undertook postdoctoral studies in occupational health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. In that context he achieved widespread recognition for his epidemiological work on the health of rubber workers, coining the term ‘the healthy worker effect’. He then returned to Australia to lead an epidemiologic unit in the CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition, which explored nutritional determinants of a range of health outcomes. With Hetzel, then head of that division, he published The LS Factor, an important text each of whose chapters were enlivened by cartoons.

McMichael, an epidemiologic all-rounder was becoming, by the early 1980s, particularly interested in the application of epidemiology to the evolving crisis around climate change. He became the Foundation Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Adelaide in the mid-1980s and, in that setting, he published Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and Human Health in 1993. This was quickly recognised as a classic, and it set the scene for his subsequent career.

In the following year, McMichael accepted arguably the most prestigious Chair in Epidemiology in the United Kingdom, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He set a cracking pace on research into the relationship between human health and climate change and became the world’s leader of this field of research, working closely with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Health Organization and various other United Nations agencies.

We were both delighted when, in 2001, Professor McMichael was appointed to become Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University (ANU), an influential position he held with distinction for five years. During that period, he was in constant demand as the pre-eminent international authority on health aspects of climate change. He maintained his administrative and leading scholar responsibilities at ANU and a punishing schedule of international travel, even after the festschrift that marked his retirement from the ANU in late 2012. The book associated with the festschrift, called Health of People, Places and Planet. Reflections based on Tony McMichael’s four decades of contribution to epidemiological understanding appeared in 2015.

McMichael has long emphasised the central importance of human health to the environmental debate. In so doing, he has led an outstanding team of researchers not only at the ANU but globally. He has brought great distinction to ANU, including through his award of an Australia fellowship from the National Health and Medical Research Council. His national and international standing has been recognised in many other ways, including by Presidencies of the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology, and the Public Health Association of Australia, in its formative years, a post to which he brought great distinction. In 2011 he was elected to the US National Academy of Science, not only in recognition of his founding role in linking human health impact to global environmental change, but also for his important role in documenting the harm that lead exposure causes to cognitive development. This was vital in leading to the now almost universal abolition of lead in petrol. Professor McMichael was also a wonderfully supportive leader and contributor, not only for members of his various research teams and his postgraduate students, but also to many groups and institutions. For several years he chaired the Board of the Australia Institute. He contributed significantly to the Canberra-based Nature and Society Forum (now the Frank Fenner Foundation), the Sydney-based Climate Institute and Doctors for the Environment Australia, for whom he became the first scientific adviser.

Tony was a Fellow at Chatham House on Global Health Security and held honorary positions at the University of Copenhagen and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He played a significant role in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, especially by linking ecosystem change to human well-being, including health. He had many other fellowships: including the Australian Academy of Technical Sciences and Engineering (2003), the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine (1996) and the Public Health Association of Australia (2007).

His work has been recognised by several leading global journals, including a personal one-page profile in The Lancet, which justly called him a visionary of the environment–health interface. He published many articles in The Lancet, and also in the British Medical Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine and Science.

Shortly before his death, he led an open letter, co-signed by 11 Australian public health leaders, calling on the prime minister to include human-induced climate change and its serious health consequences on the agenda for the forthcoming G20 meeting. Tony McMichael contributed massively to many phases of Australian, US and British academic life. He chaired and co-chaired numerous technical working groups across a very broad range of public health topics including for the Special Programme on Tropical Diseases Research. He remained in demand as a keynote speaker almost until his passing (for example, to the International Epidemiological Association in Alaska in August 2014). He maintained a stunning publication output in peer-reviewed journals, books, chapters and other publications.

Tony McMichael was a truly distinguished Australian who has made an enduring contribution in many fields of endeavour. We regard him as one of Australia’s intellectual giants, and in many ways the heir of René Dubos. His work, while honoured, is far from complete, not least in Australia, where denial of limits to growth and other evidence of planetary overload remains seemingly entrenched.

McMichael died less than a week after the largest global climate protest in history. US President Obama, assisted by the recent steep fall in price of solar and some other forms of renewable energy, appears to have understood the job-creating, economy-saving and civilisation-preserving potential of a rapid transition to clean global energy. If we are to survive as an advanced, wise and compassionate species, the work of people like Tony McMichael will be seen as fundamental to the transition in which we are engaged.

We will miss his inspiration, humour, knowledge and leadership.

McMichael loved music and was an accomplished pianist. He is survived by his wife, Judith, two daughters, Anna and Celia, brothers, Phil and Robert, and four grandchildren, Lucian, Darius, Elias and Erica.

Other Obituaries for Anthony John (Tony) McMichael

Additional Resources

Citation details

Colin Butler and Bob Douglas, 'McMichael, Anthony John (Tony) (1942–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/mcmichael-anthony-john-tony-32817/text40824, accessed 24 April 2024.

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