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Kenneth David (Ken) Muirden (1931–2022)

by Sallie Muirden

Leading Australian rheumatologist Professor Ken Muirden made his mark locally and globally. He was a celebrated researcher, clinician and medico-political advocate who worked tirelessly in the field of rheumatology. In recognition of his achievements, he received the Order of Australia in 1982.

Ken’s research paved the way for medical advances in the treatment of musculoskeletal and auto-immune conditions such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In the 1960s and 1970s he used an electron microscope to examine cells from the synovial membrane of patients with RA. He identified ferritin (iron) retention as a feature of RA.

According to the late rheumatologist, Dr Ray Robinson OBE, Ken’s research was ahead of his time: “Everyone now is talking about free radicals in inflammation, and iron is one of the most important components of the reaction which generates free radicals.”

Ken’s subsequent work with tumour necrosis factor alpha and interleukin 1 showed strong staining of macrophages in the pannus-cartilage junction area. Some of this important research was done with Sir Ravinder Maini at the Kennedy Institute in London.

Dr Robinson believed Ken’s greatest contribution was actually in the epidemiological field. In his role as secretary-general (1977-81) of the International League Against Rheumatism (ILAR) and then subsequently as president (1989-93), Ken became project co-ordinator of the Community Oriented Program for the Control of Rheumatic Diseases (COPCORD). COPCORD was a WHO/ILAR initiative that began in 1982 and continued for more than 25 years with surveys conducted in more than a dozen countries. Field research began with a small trial in the Philippines, and then a larger trial in Indonesia.

As Ken recalled: “The conclusion reached from this early data was that rheumatic complaints were just as common in this area of the third world as in first world countries. However, medical treatment was rarely available and rheumatic disease caused major disability and loss of time for work.”

While conducting the survey in Indonesia, Ken and Dr Richard Wigley asked the locals what they considered caused their rheumatic complaints. The surprising response was ‘the cold’ which the two doctors found hard to fathom in such humid heat.

A short time later Ken and Richard were caught in a tropical rainstorm while travelling in a canoe to visit a remote village. Wet through they found themselves shivering with cold. “We should not have doubted our informants,” Ken said about this.

In some ways the most unlikely aspect of Ken’s medical career is that he ever studied medicine at all. As a student at Wesley College music was by far his best subject and he spent a good deal of his time writing music for the family chamber group, the church, and playing the trombone in the school band.

Ken topped Victoria in the subject of musical appreciation in matriculation, and he spent his next five summer holidays attending Music Camps Victoria 1949-53. One of his fondest memories was of the full orchestra rehearsals conducted on Point Lonsdale beach and of the day when the tide came in too quickly and caught the orchestra by surprise.

Upon leaving secondary school, and after some family pressure, Ken opted to study medicine rather than music and he graduated in 1954. Between 1955-60 he worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital as a medical intern, and then as a resident medical officer and later as chief registrar.

As registrar he discovered that he could find consultants to help with all areas of serious illness, with the exception of joint and connective tissue problems. This was the field he could make a medical contribution to. Three years of overseas specialist training would follow.

Ken studied and worked at teaching hospitals in Canada, the UK and in the US, gaining a Nuffield Travelling fellowship to work with the distinguished Manchester professor of rheumatology, Jonas Kellgren. On the first day in outpatients, Kellgren said to Ken with a half-smile: “I will assume that you have not been taught how to examine the joints.” This proved to be the case.

While in Manchester, Ken was encouraged by Kellgren to study electron microscopy (EM) and Ken’s first study identified that the type A synovial lining cell was a macrophage, pointing to its potential role in joint disease. On his return to Australia in 1963, Ken was offered a position in Richard Lovell’s department of medicine at the University of Melbourne. Ken was the first trained rheumatologist to be offered an academic position in Australia, although this was designated as a post in medicine rather than in rheumatology. Later he became head of the rheumatology unit in the department (1973-1996).

As well as his clinical duties, Ken was involved in training many younger rheumatologists who came to work with him from many overseas countries. He had a long association with the Australian Rheumatology Association (ARA), including as honorary secretary from 1969-74 and then later as president from 1976-77. He was twice the winner of the ARA’s Parr Prize for outstanding arthritis research and received the ARA’s Distinguished Service Medal in 2012. When the ARA were looking for a member to name an overseas travel fellowship after, it was a unanimous choice that it be named in honour of Dr Ken Muirden.

Ken was also the Arthritis Foundation of Australia’s honorary medical director during the period 1978-96.

After retirement Ken returned to music, composing more than 40 works, many of which were performed at family soirees for flute, piano, violin and oboe. Several of Ken’s more ambitious works were performed by the Southern Cross Philharmonia Orchestra under the guidance of the conductor Gerald Gentry; the most memorable work being Ken’s The Web Cycle, which was sung by Tiffany Speight (of the Australian Opera) at Melba Hall, in 2010.

Ken is survived by his wife Lesley and their three children, Peter, Sallie and Christopher.

Original publication

Citation details

Sallie Muirden, 'Muirden, Kenneth David (Ken) (1931–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/muirden-kenneth-david-ken-33265/text41508, accessed 17 April 2024.

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