Last week, colleagues, family, friends and patients gathered at Sydney's Town Hall to honour the life of our dear colleague on the St Vincent's Campus, Professor David Cooper who passed away in March following a short illness.
David played a fundamental role internationally in shaping the St Vincent’s and indeed national response to the HIV epidemic since the early 1980’s. In St Vincents’ 160-year history, there are few of our clinicians who have transformed the health landscape in such a significant way.
Initiating ground-breaking, collaborative infectious disease research that has saved countless lives in Australia, and throughout the world, David was among the first responders when the HIV epidemic reached Australia in the early 1980s, and the inaugural director in 1986 of the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research at St Vincent’s, that grew to become the Kirby Institute.
Today the St Vincent’s Campus stands as one of the world’s leading immunology centres in terms of our research and clinical practise, much of this status derives from David’s leadership.
Having completed his doctorate at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney through UNSW, David was working at the Dana Faber Cancer Centre in Boston in the early 1980s, when blood samples started arriving from New York for testing. The blood was from very ill gay men, and showed signs of the devastation that the HIV virus, then unknown to the world, was able to cause to the body’s immune defences.
In an interview on ABC Radio National in 2015, David said: “I thought, I know where St Vincent’s is. If the key risk groups are the same [in Australia], which I’m sure they are, then we were going to be seeing it at St Vincent’s.” Sure enough, on his return to Sydney, Professor Cooper was soon seeing the same disease patterns in the local gay community, and St Vincent’s location quickly made it the hub of efforts to care for people with this new and frightening condition.
Professor Cooper and his colleagues enrolled a number of young men who were patients at local general practices into one of Australia’s first clinical HIV research studies. The results, published in The Lancet, led to the first description anywhere in the world of the so-called “seroconversion illness,” which defines initial HIV infection in many people.
The reverence his patients and his clinical peers held for him was
extraordinary. His clinical brilliance was only matched by his love and
compassion for his patients. He would always go out of his way to care
for and support his patients regardless of day or night, whether at home
or on the ward.
Without the swift response of David and his dear colleague Professor Ron Penny, together with the Sisters of Charity's determination and compassion in the face of profound community stigmatisation; the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Australia could have been far worse.
Go gently David.