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An Australian infectious disease epidemiologist widely admired for her global work controlling disease outbreaks and for her capacity for friendship
A leading Australian infectious diseases epidemiologist, Aileen Plant, who played a key in controlling Vietnam's SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, has died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Aileen, 58, professor of international health at Curtin University of Technology, Perth, collapsed at Jakarta airport, while on her way home from a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting on avian influenza. A heart attack was initially suspected but an autopsy identified acute haemorrhagic pancreatitis as the cause of death.
The WHO was quick in issuing glowing tributes recognising her international work on its behalf, from Africa to Asia. Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, described Aileen as “an outstanding global public health leader.”
“She never hesitated to travel to the places she was needed,” Dr Chan wrote in an email to WHO staff. “And we needed her, many, many times, in extremely challenging situations. She brought a deep sense of duty, commitment, vast experience, ethics, courage, and professionalism to her work.”
Dr David Heymann, the WHO's assistant director-general—communicable diseases, a long-time colleague and friend, noted her skills, humility, and compassion. “Aileen will live on through those whom she has helped throughout the world,” he said. “The world is a better place because of her life.”
In 2003 the Vietnamese government awarded Aileen the “people's medal for health” for her work leading the WHO's SARS team in Vietnam, the first country to control SARS. Her predecessor, Dr Carlo Urbani, died after becoming infected when investigating the outbreak.
Aileen often stressed that the achievement was a team effort and praised the Vietnamese doctors and nurses who worked through the outbreak under difficult conditions. “It's those people who really controlled SARS,” she told one radio interviewer.
Aileen, who was also a consultant to World Bank projects in China, is warmly remembered for her ability to make friends and to work with others. Her CV listed her team-building abilities as a key attribute.
“I provide unique and rapid team building skills in outbreak situations where the requirement is to undertake research and control methods in a very short time,” she said. “In what are sometimes dangerous and usually politically fraught situations, team building is of paramount importance.”
She was dismissive of the personal risks of her work. “It would be a nuisance to die and I'm not planning it,” she told a journalist preparing a magazine profile in 2004, which described her as having a “vague resemblance to an adult Alice-in-Wonderland” because of her “waist-length tresses and youthful face”.
Aileen was born in the Victorian country town of Warrigal, the fourth of eight children. Her parents, Reginald Keith Parnell and Margaret Ellen Parnell, had a car dealership and petrol station. When she was 13 the family moved to a farm near Denmark on the south coast of Western Australia.
She knew illness early in life, suffering colic as a baby and later nearly dying of meningitis. The asthma that developed in childhood persisted throughout her life. She left school at 14 to work in a bank, and later completed high school. In her early 20s she began a medical degree at the University of Western Australia.
After graduating in 1977, she worked at Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth and then at the Royal Darwin Hospital before undertaking a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene in London. She returned to Darwin as chief medical officer and deputy secretary of the Northern Territory Department of Health and Community Services from 1989 to 1992. Her work in the Northern Territory engendered a lifelong commitment to Aboriginal health.
Throughout her career Aileen sought a balance between policy and research, describing as a professional highlight her role as founding director of the master of applied epidemiology programme at the Australian National University. Her CV noted that its graduates now fill key positions in Australia and internationally.
Aileen was also instrumental in establishing the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre, of which she was deputy director. Professor John Mackenzie, the centre's director, said she was a “national treasure.”
“Her compassion, her common touch treating everyone the same, her decisive mind, her professionalism, her commitment, her sense of humour, and her wide perspective all contribute to a great Australian and an unsung hero of our times,” he said.
In her first year of medical studies, Aileen married a fellow student, Roger Plant, now a general practitioner in Queensland. They divorced not long after graduation but their families remained close. “Aileen felt she gained considerably because she got three sisters-in-law and she considered one of them her best mate to the very last day of her life,” said her brother, Reg Parnell.
At the funeral and memorial service, attended by several hundred people in Perth on 13 April, Aileen's talent for friendship was celebrated as much as her professional achievements.
In his eulogy, Professor John Mathews, a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne and a long term friend, celebrated a “wonderful human being.”
“She was greatly admired for her idealism and commitment, her integrity, her empathy, her humility, her energy, her originality, and the breadth and depth of her intellect,” he said.
“These personal qualities, together with her capacity to work round problems, and problem people, underpinned her many achievements. She was also great fun to be with.”
Aileen was known for having an “inbuilt bullshit detector.” “If someone was being pretentious or bluffing, Aileen could really see through them,” Professor Mathews told the BMJ.
Several friends, knowing Aileen's wicked sense of humour, said that she would have appreciated the irony of dying in a departure lounge and having a memorial service on Friday the 13th.
Aileen loved cooking and music, and had an interest in tarot cards and creative writing. She had begun a novel based on her SARS experiences in Vietnam, and a textbook on communicable diseases, co-authored with friend and colleague Professor Charles Watson, is in press.
Aileen is survived by her siblings and 33 nieces and nephews.
Aileen Joy Plant, professor of international health, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia (b 1948; q Perth 1977; DTM&H, MPH, PhD), died from acute haemorrhagic pancreatitis on 27 March 2007.