Pioneering figure in children's health



ASSOCIATE Professor Bob MacMahon, whose influence extended beyond leadership in paediatrics to include being a founding governor of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, has died of cancer at his home in Mitcham. He was 79.

As a professional, he performed the first foetal operation in Australia, and later, after considerable research, the first in utero repair of diaphragmatic hernia. He also pioneered in utero laser vesicostomy.

He founded the Australian Society for Parental and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) in 1974, and served on the research and ethics committee of the Monash Group of Hospitals for 40 years, including president from 1999 to 2009. He taught at all levels of health care up to university and clinical research, and his combined lectures with the paediatric pathologist, Dr Leo Cussen, entertained and informed decades of medical students at Monash University.

MacMahon contributed to 10 textbooks and wrote more that 60 research articles in medical journals. As an educator, his legacy includes several current paediatric and general surgeons.

Born in the Sydney suburb of Eastwood, the youngest of six children, he lost his nearest sibling to gastroenteritis in infancy. Later, his mother became a chronic invalid and his father, a railway clerk, assumed the main parenting role. The two girls and three boys learned to work as a team and MacMahon carried over this early spirit of co-operation into the rest of his life.

At age 16, a scholarship took him to the faculty of medicine at Sydney University, from where he graduated in 1954. He spent four years training at the Royal Newcastle Hospital, and used his spare time to surf and play rugby union for Newcastle Wanderers.

He spent time at the hospital running "well baby clinics", aimed at improving nutrition of small premature babies this challenge remained one of his lifelong passions. Later post-graduate training took him to London, Edinburgh and finally Glasgow, where he decided to become a paediatric surgeon and where he met a feisty junior doctor, Bessie McDonnell, whom he married in 1962.

After a year of experimental research in Denver, MacMahon obtained a master of science degree from the University of Colorado and returned to Australia in 1965. He worked as a research surgeon with sick children at Royal Alexandra Hospital as the first Fairfax surgical fellow at the Children's Medical Research Foundation.

In 1967 he was appointed inaugural head of the department of paediatric surgery at the Queen Victoria Medical Centre (later Monash Medical Centre) in Melbourne and at Monash University. Three years later he was appointed associate professor of paediatric surgery.

Surrounded by like-minded and courageous colleagues at Monash, they pushed the boundaries of what was possible. His interest in the nutrition of premature infants flourished and, with an enthusiastic team, he ran a clinical and laboratory research program in amino acid and mineral metabolism.

This extended the boundaries of infant care and achieved worldwide recognition. Between 1970 and 1975 intravenous feeding in small premature babies in the hospital increased their survival from 18 per cent to 71 per cent. His hospital and clinic care was multidisciplinary long before the term was coined elsewhere.

He founded ASPEN in 1974 and with typical foresight ensured that all health care providers pharmacists, dietitians, ward staff, doctors, laboratory technicians, social workers and others should be of equal status, dependent only on their contribution and not their title. This organisation has consistently encouraged wide-ranging research into nutrition in health and disease, and one of its prizes is named after him.

He reserved a particular place for those less fortunate in life the chronically ill or those with multiple anomalies such as spina bifida, for whom he devoted special clinics on Saturday mornings so that working parents would be least inconvenienced. He admired the resilience of children with life-threatening illnesses, which led to his early involvement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

He took the opportunity of a children's unit being within a general hospital to assist in the creation of a multidisciplinary antenatal diagnostic and management facility, which has helped to advance perinatal care of babies born with congenital anomalies.

In 2010 he was made a Member in the Order of Australia (AM) for his pioneering work.

In retirement he enjoyed camping in the bush and surfing. With retired neighbours, he formed an exclusive "Flog" club which is golf spelt backwards, which was the way they played.

He is survived by his wife Bessie, four daughters, eight grandchildren, his sister Sheilah, and brother Bernard.

Robert Stunden is a paediatric surgeon Eileen Rooney is Bob MacMahon's daughter.

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