It’s not every day you meet someone like University of Queensland Emeritus Professor John Pearn.
He has received every accolade you can think of, including the Order of Australia, for his outstanding contributions to Australian medicine. And yet, he’s a grounded gentleman with the ability to make everyone he meets feel special.
“Paediatrics attracts a certain kind of humble lot,” Professor Pearn explains.
Professor Pearn is as much a part of UQ as the red bricks forming the Mayne Medical School. He graduated with First Class Honours in Medicine and Surgery in 1964, and was then awarded a Doctor of Medicine in 1969 and Master of Philosophy in history in 2010.
As an internationally renowned paediatrician, Professor Pearn has served as a senior consultant at the Royal Women’s Hospital and the Royal Children’s Hospital. He’s been an advocate for child safety and legislative reforms, playing a big part in the (now) mandatory pool fence law. He also established Queensland’s first Medical Genetics Clinics, and for 30 years chaired the Queensland Paediatric Ethics Committee.
“Seventy per cent of diseases in children have a genetic component, and yet we know so little. If you think about it, the human genome wasn’t defined that long ago – in the 1990s,” Professor Pearn explains.
As well as being an outstanding paediatrician, Professor Pearn has enjoyed a second career in military medicine. As a Major General, he was appointed Surgeon General of the Australian Defence Force in 1988, and he also served as the Senior Physician and Intensivist in Papua New Guinea (1966), Vietnam (1970) and Rwanda (1994-95).
“I’ve always sought adventure, right from the days as a school cadet. I joined the Reserves the day I graduated from medicine at UQ,” Professor Pearn says, smiling.
The worst thing he has seen was the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, where 800,000 people were killed, predominantly by swords and machetes.
“I’d watched the ghastly anarchy on television and thought not going simply wasn’t an option,” Professor Pearn explains. He immediately volunteered to run the intensive care ward at the Kigali hospital, where emergency resuscitation bays had been set up amongst the rubble.
While there, Professor Pearn remembers being ambushed by about 30 Rwanda soldiers. Heavily armed, they ordered Professor Pearn and his convoy to get out of their vehicle. With firearms pointed at them, Professor Pearn stepped forward and started to explain in his best French that they were with the United Nations.
“After 30 seconds, the Army’s leader lowered his gun and said in English, ‘Are you trying to speak French?’” Professor Pearn recounts.
A few moments of silence passed when one of the Aussie soldiers suddenly burst into laughter, which broke the tension and caused the Rwandan soldiers to start laughing too. Luckily, Professor Pearn and his convoy made it out alive.
“Not being able to speak French probably saved my life!”
Professor Pearn inherits his sense of duty from his father. As the only dentist in Tully during the Depression, his father treated all kids who complained of toothache even though they couldn’t afford to pay.
“Eventually, he lost his practice because he ran out of money, so we moved to Ingham and then to Brisbane,” he explains.
Today, Professor Pearn is an Honorary Life Member of the Australian Society of the History of Medicine, which he co-founded.
“I hold a very strong opinion that history is not an optional extra, rather, it’s an essential tool for making decisions today that will very much influence the future.”
As well as a long list of clinical achievements, he has devoted his career to writing, with more than 50 books and 700 published papers on medicine, the history of medicine and health. As the UQ Faculty of Medicine Historian, he is currently compiling the Faculty’s history, and says he has “more projects than [he’ll] ever complete.”
One of Professor Pearn’s favourite memories is of a patient from Katherine in the Northern Territory. An Aboriginal man walked from the bush into the local hospital with a haemoglobin count of between 2-3, where a normal reading is between 12-15.
“I’d never seen anything like it! I immediately started calling a list of blood donors, and it just so happened that the first person on the list was the head of the local meatworks industry, the biggest industry in Katherine,” Professor Pearn explains.
“The man said “Doc, I’ll be right in,” and upon arrival, I took the donor’s blood and gave it to the dying Aboriginal man in the bed beside him.
“I thought, here is one of the richest and most privileged people in society giving blood instantly to help one of our most underprivileged people,” Professor Pearn recounts.
“This is a great place to be. What a great country Australia is.”
Professor Pearn’s book of the history of the UQ Medical School is due to be published late next year.