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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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David Geoffrey Penington (1930–2023)

David Penington was a public intellectual. He was a physician who scaled the heights of academia. However, he never overlooked opportunities to tackle the practical problems within his community.

In the early 1970s when practising as a specialist haematologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, David Penington was active in collaborating with Tenants’ Union representatives to improve access to healthcare for residents on the north Richmond public housing estate. The result was the North Richmond Health Family Care Centre, which today – now North Richmond Community Health – continues to be a leader in working with migrants and refugees.

Some 45 years later, and then well into his 80s, David donated significant sums to stimulate creation of a drug-diversion program at a local rural community level. Based in Mansfield in north-east Victoria, a GP-centred program now helps people with problematic drug use as an alternative to exclusive reliance on the justice system. The program is successful and has been rolled out elsewhere.

These are two examples at extreme ends of a remarkable Australian career dedicated to advocacy, direct action and public policy reform in order to improve the human condition.

David Geoffrey Penington had no particular need to assume a mantle of health and education activism. Born in 1930, David was the middle son of Geoffrey and Marjorie Penington. He grew up in comfortable settings in suburban Kew, attending Carey Grammar and Scotch College. With a father, an uncle and two brothers who were also medical practitioners, his career was never in doubt.

After initially enrolling in medicine at the University of Melbourne (where David lived-in at Queen’s College, with which he formed a lifelong association), a scholarship allowed David to enrol at Oxford University and subsequently graduate with a master of arts and doctor of medicine. David trained and worked at the London Hospital becoming a consultant physician specialising in haematology. It was during his time at Oxford he met and married Audrey.

David Penington gave up a promising public and private practice in London to return to Australia with a young family in 1968 to take up a mixed clinical and academic position under Professor Carl de Gruci at St Vincent’s Hospital, later succeeding him as professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne. His capacity for leadership was quickly recognised by his medical peers, with David being appointed dean of the then faculty of medicine in 1978, a position he held until his appointment as vice-chancellor in 1988.

David had returned to Australia complete with a “Harley Street specialist” Daimler motor vehicle. But, it was the family Toyota Crown station wagon his children remember most. David’s love of the Australian outdoors led to regular weekend camping trips often traversing rough bush tracks. When the Crown inevitably got bogged, it was David who stayed at the wheel instructing the rest of the family when to push.

David’s medical specialist expertise led to his appointment as chair of the Australian Red Cross National Blood Transfusion Committee in 1973, an appointment that inspired later leadership in public health policy. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic arrived in Australia, minister Neal Blewett appointed David as chair of the National Aids Task Force, a position he held from 1984-87. David was instrumental in guiding the widely admired Australian response, which treated AIDS as a medical rather than a social problem, implementing medical solutions such as the national needle exchange program, a radical and fiercely opposed public health initiative at the time. This reform has an important place in Australia’s successful fight against HIV/AIDS.

David served as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne from 1988-1995. He took on that role with the very clear intent to make Melbourne Australia’s leading university.

He initiated radical overhauls of key academic disciplines and recruited to Melbourne a cohort of outstanding researchers. He was fearless in driving through radical internal reforms that strengthened university governance and practices. Several of these reforms were new to the sector, not just to Melbourne. The most contested was the introduction of annual staff appraisals!

His vice-chancellorship coincided with what has become known as the “Dawkins Reforms” of Australian higher education. In part, the reforms resulted in the merger of the university and college of advanced education sectors.

He was born to lead during this period. First, he was successful in negotiating mergers that strengthened Melbourne’s national prominence in education, agriculture and the creative arts, even if the Parkville-based Pharmacy College eluded him. Second, his willingness to wage wars and win battles made him a serious adversary for minister [John] Dawkins and his so-called “Purple Circle” of vice-chancellor advisers. David’s public defence of institutional autonomy largely thwarted attempts to impose increased regulation.

Both Melbourne University and universities generally owe a huge debt to David Penington for standing up for the sector during those challenging times.

At Melbourne, he established standards and logged impressive achievements that his successors have built on in subsequent years. Melbourne University’s current standing still draws significantly on David’s period of outstanding leadership.

David was a formidable vice-chancellor, probably one of the last of the “hero CEOs” both able and willing personally to deal with anyone and anything. Colleagues recall appointments in his office anticipating a lengthy conversation on their pet proposal, only to be back-pedalled out of the office in less than 10 minutes having agreed unreservedly to David’s own agenda. The skills of an accomplished medical specialist! Administrative matters such as student enrolment queues or graduation ceremony errors received just as much critical attention as major government reforms.

Robert Hannaford’s brilliant portrait of David with his clear blue eyes and steely gaze still strikes fear into many who worked with David at that time.

It was during this period that escape to his Mansfield retreat on the Delatite River became so precious to David and his second wife Dr Sonay Hussein. David was an avid fly fisher and a keen planter of trees, especially eucalypts. Longstanding friend Sir Ed Byrne recalls fishing with David. While highly enjoyable and companionable sojourns, the only trout ever caught were on David’s line. David was less of a farmer, however. His bullocks were often left to become too fat to load up from his own cattle yards.

David continued to be active in public life after completion of his vice-chancellorship. He became inaugural chair of Cochlear Ltd, one of Australia’s outstanding biotech commercialisation successes. David chaired Bio21 Australia for several years establishing a voice for the biotech sector. He was president of the Museums Board of Victoria from 1994-2001, overseeing the opening of the Immigration Museum and the relocation of the Melbourne Museum to its present home in Carlton Gardens. As a member of the FourSight Associates consultancy group, David continued to collaborate with former colleagues to help shape public policy. He worked with Victorian premiers Jeff Kennett and Steve Bracks in efforts to secure drug use policy reforms.

David’s own account of a full and adventurous life is set out in his autobiography Making Waves published by Melbourne University Press in 2010.

David’s contribution to higher education and public health reform is recognised through the David Penington Building in Melbourne University’s Biomedical precinct and the Carlton-based Penington Institute with its research focus on public health and drug reform. David was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1988 and recognised as Victorian of the Year in 2014.

He is survived by Sonay Hussein and his five children.

At a memorable University House function in 1995, David Penington’s University farewell proceeded in the form of a debate whether he would eventually rise to heaven or descend below. Chancellor Sir Edward Woodward was presiding. In conclusion, he declared it was still too early to tell but undoubtedly David Penington would, as the university motto states, “grow in the esteem of future generations”. Sir Edward was always spot on.

* Ian Marshman AM is a former senior vice-principal and colleague at the University of Melbourne and Professor Tony Penington is David Penington’s son.

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'Penington, David Geoffrey (1930–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 July 2024.

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