THE CAMPAIGN to establish a medical school in Newcastle began more than a quarter of a century before its first intake of students arrived in 1978.
Proceedings were expedited with the release in 1973 of the Whitlam government’s Karmel committee report Expansion of Medical Education in Australia.
The newly established University of Newcastle and James Cook University were recommended as locations for new medical schools.
Dean of medicine at the University of Sydney, David Maddison, jumped at the chance to create a medical school free from the entrenched hierarchy of traditional models.
This was a dream come true for University of Newcastle founder James Auchmuty and vice-chancellor Don George, who had been searching for a leader for their medical school.
Professor Maddison, who took up his tenure in 1975, began with a study tour of the world’s best medical programs in the United Kingdom, Israel and Canada.
He also recruited eight professors from Australia and abroad to help realise his vision for a different approach to medical education in Australia.
Among them was Saxon White, who was working as a senior lecturer in human physiology at Flinders University in South Australia.
“The only way it was going to succeed was if we worked as a team,” says Emeritus Professor White, who retired from the medical school in 2000.
“None of us had ever created a medical school; we had all worked in medical schools and done our higher degrees in medical schools but the challenge of what our medical school would be like was a function of a whole series of briefing papers [that Professor Maddison had prepared].”
The core of their new approach to medical education was an emphasis on selecting students based on their suitability to become doctors, rather than just academic success.
The university attracted interest from 2000 students for the 63 places that were offered in 1978.
Prospective students were interviewed by a member of the medical school and a community representative.
“Once again, this confronted the older profession,” Professor White says. “If there was any detection that a student didn’t relate to another human being well then maybe that student was not the type of person who would turn out to be a doctor with the ability to form empathic relationships with children, with mothers and sick people.”
Within 10 years the problem-based learning techniques used at the University of Newcastle’s medical school were being adopted by other universities around Australia.
The course remained relatively unchanged until the 1990s when the university amalgamated with the Hunter Institute of Higher Education. In addition, the newly established John Hunter Hospital had just opened.
“With amalgamation we got more staff coming in and the medical school staff began to teach into other professional bodies,” Professor White says. “The camaraderie of the early days wasn’t quite the same.”
The medical school’s first group of students had not graduated when Professor Maddison died of a heart attack in 1981. Despite that, the foundations he laid were solid and the school was well on track to realise the vision that had attracted him to Newcastle.
“I would think David Maddison, if he was here today, he would be very happy,” Professor White says. “I know from my own experience of visiting medical schools overseas, they all know about Newcastle and some of the things they have adopted came from here.
“I think the university has come a long way and I think the medical school should be very proud that it has been part of that increase in prestige in the nation.”