Many researchers, physicians, patients, family and friends mourn the recent loss of Professor Ronald Penny. He passed away on 21 December at age 82 after a long illness.
Ron, a highly-respected doctor and immunologist, and his team, were the first to diagnose AIDS in Australia in 1982. He travelled widely, particularly in the United States, to learn about this new disease syndrome. One of us (J.L.) first met him during one of these visits leading to a long-lasting friendship. Ron helped transfer knowledge on AIDS and its causative virus to his own country. He pioneered efforts to control this challenging epidemic in Australia.
Ron Penny's response to HIV was in part based on his strong passion for social justice, as he was deeply disturbed by the accompanying stigmatization and lack of respect for minority groups. Together with his staff, including his late scientific and clinical colleague, David Cooper, he identified the characteristics of a primary infection with HIV. Their observations permitted an early diagnosis of the infection at a time when very few had information on the course and the means of transmission of this new disease syndrome. His contributions and initial clinical efforts brought attention to AIDS in Australia and led to the establishment of his renowned Centre for Immunology at St. Vincent's Hospital under the auspices of UNSW Sydney. His ability to clearly communicate complex and controversial issues to a broad range of audiences made him a key member of a very small group of people that guided the initial highly successful governmental and public health responses to the HIV epidemic in Australia.
In the early 1980s, Ron pioneered the creation of the Triple S program for AIDS – one of the first multinational efforts to bring cooperative approaches to understand and control this disease: Sydney, San Francisco and Shanghai formed a collaborative unit for understanding and combatting AIDS.
Ron's dedication to his patients and his attention to important public health issues brought widespread respect and appreciation of his tireless efforts to find a solution to AIDS. He spent many hours daily directing a research program and helping patients with AIDS as well as teaching students, interns, physicians and the community about AIDS and other immunologic diseases. In the late 1960s, Ron was the main driving force in establishing the discipline of Clinical Immunology in Australia and has trained generations of physicians, including two of us (A.K., S.B.) and David Cooper. Many now hold senior clinical and academic appointments in Australia and beyond.
Indeed, Ron's expertise in the complexities of health care grounded in his expertise in immunology and infectious diseases and early responses to the AIDS epidemic was welcomed by the New South Wales state government. He served as a senior advisor to the NSW Ministry of Health on a variety of health policy areas throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In 1993, he was inducted as an Officer of the Order of Australia for his dedication and service to medical research and education.
As the first clinical immunologist in Australia and the first to identify AIDS in the country as well as an outstanding teacher and mentor, professor Ronald Penny leaves an impressive legacy. He is a true role model for future research physicians in Australia and worldwide.