Prof John Newnham: Senior Australian of the Year

A world leader in prevention of pre-term birth, the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age, Professor John Newnham AM never expected to be an Australian of the Year. 

It’s been an important milestone for him, helping achieve recent federal funding for the Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Alliance to a support a national education and outreach program to safely lower rates of preterm birth. 

The deadline for nominating someone for the 2022 Australian of the Year is 31 July 2021. Get in quick and nominate someone achieving incredible things like Professor Newnham. Nominate now at 
Being the 2020 Senior Australian of the Year

I never set out to become an Australian of the Year. Nothing could have been further from my mind.

My working life has been, and is, as an obstetrician specialising in the care of women with complicated pregnancies and sick unborn babies. In that role, I have always seen myself as being no different to thousan
ds of other healthcare professionals across Australia. Just another fortunate person who has been given the privilege of being taught medicine, been influenced by the joys and tragedies of working in an environment of clinical care, and then immersed themselves in research to try and find the best way of helping both individuals and the community as a whole.

I’ve never expected people outside my professional bubble to have much interest in what I do and what my peers and I value.

So I was totally shocked to receive a telephone call informing me that I was under consideration for an Australian of the Year Award. 

I almost said no. Working as a clinician in the highly sensitive area of childbirth comes with a constant need to maintain the confidentiality of my patients’ stories, and for me, a need to separate my private life from my working day. 

But the Australian of the Year Awards provide wonderful opportunities to promote the field of your passion. For me, that’s spreading the message that events before birth are critical to our future health and illness, and that many diseases are best prevented before birth rather than later. 

For that reason I said yes.

My journey in 2020

My year as the 2020 Senior Australian of the Year did not unfold as expected. A year full of travel and talking to community groups soon turned into months of lockdown due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Instead, I busied myself doing frequent online updates for pregnant women in Australia and elsewhere, sharing the latest information on how this virus is best avoided and what it may mean for them and their unborn babies. 

But as the lockdowns were lifted, I soon discovered what an amazing opportunity I had been given and how valuable the Australian of the Year Award can be in promoting a cause.

One of my chosen career goals has been to work out how to prevent babies being born too early. 

Preterm birth is the single greatest cause of death in young children and one of the major causes of lifelong disability. Until recently, it had been thought that this complication of pregnancy could not be prevented, but we showed in a whole-of-population study across Western Australia that we can indeed safely lower the rate. The program is known as “the whole nine months” and you can read all about it here.

The lessons learnt from this project could have slowly withered away. The opportunities provided by the Award, however, enabled us to promote the findings across Australia and we now have the world’s first national program designed specifically to safely lower the rate of preterm birth throughout our nation. 

Federal budget progress

In May of this year, the Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Alliance was funded in the federal budget, providing us with the resources to make Australia the world’s first nation to strategically lower its rate of preterm birth – thus preventing the single greatest cause of death in young children.

This is the world’s first national preterm birth prevention program and its origins are firmly rooted in the success of our pioneering WA program delivered by the Women & Infants Research Foundation (WIRF). 

The funding will support a national education and outreach program to safely lower rates of preterm birth through the Alliance which is managed by WIRF.

Would building our national program have been possible without the Award of 2020 Senior Australian of the Year? Possibly, but not likely. 

Mine is just one of many stories of how the Australian of the Year Award system helps us to promote individuals who are making an extraordinary contribution to our nation. As a people, many aspects of our lives are enriched by the process and we need to give it the high value that it deserves.

Decisions on the Awards are not made by government but by our people. And any one of us can nominate those who we consider worthy by going to #NominateNow via The deadline for nominations this year 31 July 2021.