Tony McMichael

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Professor Emeritus Anthony John McMichael, MBBS, PhD (3 October 1942 – 26 September 2014) was an Australian epidemiologist who retired from the Australian National University in 2012.


McMichael grew up in Adelaide, and graduated in medicine from the University of Adelaide (1961-1967). He showed early awareness of the need to address injustice and defend the disadvantaged. As a student he spent a summer volunteering at a leprosy colony in New Delhi, India where he saw how patients were treated as social outcasts suffering from the stigma of a disfiguring disease although they were no longer contagious. This experience made him committed to tackling prejudice and also gave him a compelling insight into the need to address the causes of disease to prevent premature death and disability. The following year, whilst on a similar service trip to Papua New Guinea he met social sciences student Judith Healy, whom he married shortly after graduation. They had 2 children. He was elected as president of the National Union of Students based in Melbourne, during the globally tumultuous year of 1968.

After 18 months in general practice, he was invited to become the PhD student of Professor Basil Hetzel at the new department of social and preventive medicine, Monash University in Victoria, graduating in 1972. Studying factors that influenced the mental health of undergraduate students, he gained skills in epidemiological research which stood him in good stead throughout his professional career. He also showed early evidence of independent inquiry informed by reading the works of thinkers such as Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich who questioned the capacity of the Earth to support a growing world population with increasing consumption of resources.

He then worked at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studying the health of workers in the tyre industry. Returning to Australia he worked for CSIRO and then became the Foundation Chair in Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Adelaide from 1986 until 1994. From 1994-2001 he was Professor of Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, before returning to Australia to follow Prof Bob Douglas as the director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University in Canberra. Most recently he held an NHMRC Australia Fellowship at the ANU, where he also ran the Environment, Climate, and Health research program. McMichael died suddenly in September 2014 from flu and pneumonia, aggravated by poor renal function (he had already had a kidney transplant).[1]

Scholarly contributions[edit]

McMichael coined the term the 'Healthy Worker Effect' (later extended by others to similar phenomena such as the 'Healthy Migrant effect'), a statistical fiction that tended to overestimate the good health of populations working in noxious industries. His study established a link between benzene exposure and leukemia among tyre builders.[2][3]

While working in South Australia, he uncovered a link between lead pollution and impaired childhood neurocognitive development around an industrial plant in Port Pirie.[4] His work, and two other studies, were instrumental in the phasing out of lead in more than 100 countries.[5] Increasingly interested in underlying causes of illness, he exposed the effects of passive smoking, and also the effects of UV radiation in creating lower rates of lower rates of multiple sclerosis, which has a higher incidence in populations towards the poles. UV exposure lessens immune system activity, including misdirected “autoimmune” attacks on the body tissues.[6]

In later years, and particularly after returning to Australia in 2001, he worked on the health effects of climate change.[7] He had always been influenced by ideas of anthropogenic crises, first population growth and latterly of general planetary overload. He argued that a warming world would have significant negative effects on human health. He said “Climate change is not just about disruptions to the local economy or loss of jobs or loss of iconic species. It’s actually about weakening the foundations the life support systems that we depend on as a human species.”[8] His team showed that tens of thousands of people were dying each year from climate-induced flooding, malnutrition, and infectious diseases.[9]


  • Officer of the Order of Australia, 2011
  • Member, US National Academy of Sciences, 2011
  • Shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore and world scientists
  • Fellow, Academy of Technical Science and Engineering
  • Fellow, Australian Faculty of Public Health Medicine
  • John R. Goldsmith award, outstanding contributions to environmental epidemiology, ISEE (2000)


Tony published over 300 peer-reviewed papers, 160 book chapters and two sole-author books: Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and Human Health (1993), and Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease: Past Patterns, Uncertain Futures (2001). Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease: Past Patterns, Uncertain Futures Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease: Past Patterns, Uncertain Futures (2001) (2001). He has several co-authored or edited books. Another sole-authored book was in an advanced stage of preparation when he died. It is called When Climates Change. Famines, Fevers and Fates of Populations - Past and Future.

In 2012 a Festschrift was held to commemorate his career.[10]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ McMichael AJ (1976) Standardized mortality ratios and the “healthy worker effect”: Scratching beneath the surface. J Occup Med 18:165–168.
  4. ^ McMichael AJ, et al. (1988) Port Pirie Cohort Study: Environmental exposure to lead and children’s abilities at the age of four years. N Engl J Med 319:468–475
  5. ^
  6. ^ McMichael AJ, Hall AJ (1997) Does immunosuppressive ultraviolet radiation explain the latitude gradient for multiple sclerosis? Epidemiology 8:642–645.
  7. ^ Anthony J. McMichael and Keith B. G. (2010) Dear Climate change: Heat, health, and longer horizons PNAS 107 21): 9483-9484
  8. ^
  9. ^ McMichael AJ, et al. (2004). Climate Change. in Ezzati M, Lopez AD, Rodgers A, Mathers C. (eds.) Comparative Quantification of Health Risks: Global and Regional Burden of Disease Due to Selected Major Risk Factors, Geneva: WHO. pp 1543–1650
  10. ^ "AJ McMichael Festschrift". Australian National University 1-2 November 2012. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 

External links[edit]