Emeritus Professor Mary-Louise McLaws OA, an epidemiologist and world-renowned public health researcher, has passed away.

A world-renowned public health advocate, Professor McLaws (nee Viney) understood that a health crisis needs experts as well as leaders. She became both for millions of Australians.

During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Australians became used to seeing Professor McLaws on their screens as she used data – not jargon – to inform us and combat disinformation.

In doing so, Professor McLaws helped save thousands of lives.

A career spent keeping communities safe

Professor McLaws – known as “ML” to her friends and family – is remembered by her colleagues as hardworking, no-nonsense and unassuming.

Professor McLaws had a passion for public health early in her career, inspired by her mentor and immunologist the late Professor David Cooper AC. McLaws gained her PhD in Epidemiology in 1992, eventually becoming Professor of Epidemiology, Hospital Infection and Infectious Diseases Control at the School of Population Health at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Professor McLaws had already led nationwide firsts in epidemiological studies, including the Australian survey of health care-associated infections in 1984.

McLaws would go on to publish over 180 research articles.

In the early 2000s, Professor McLaws was appointed as a World Health Organization advisor to China and Malaysia during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. She also worked with organisations in Beijing to review the response to SARS and health care worker safety for the Hong Kong SARS designated hospital. McLaws also worked with the WHO to combat the 2004 avian influenza outbreak.

In Australia, Professor McLaws was appointed as Director of the Public Health Unit for the Sydney South West Area Health Service, where she worked towards eliminating human immunodeficiency virus, and hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus, as well as containing the spread of the swine influenza virus.

The trusted face of science during COVID-19

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor McLaws called it first, and called it loud.

Against significant resistance, Professor McLaws was among the first to argue for mask mandates, which had been effective at capping infection levels in north-eastern Asia.

McLaws was quick to speak out about the weaknesses in hotel quarantine plans due to inadequate ventilation systems that would not guard against airborne transmission, while the national cabinet was focused on older germ “droplet” theory. McLaws also pushed for an earlier (and better) vaccine rollout.

During the pandemic, McLaws was again appointed as a WHO advisor and sat on the Health Emergencies Program Experts Advisory Panel for Infection Prevention and Control Preparedness, Readiness and Response to COVID-19. She was the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) focal point at the UNSW School of Population Health, and a member of the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission COVID Infection Prevention and Control taskforce.

Professor McLaws was calm and considered when she spoke to the public, avoiding jargon.

“My tone should always be, ‘I’m not political but I will tell you what I think as … a global epidemiologist as well and what the [WHO] and others are trying to achieve’,” said Professor McLaws.

A valued contributor to the Medical Journal of Australia

Professor McLaws was a regular contributor to the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), most recently calling for offering COVID-19 vaccination to adolescents and young adults in 2021.

The MJA’s Editor-in-Chief, Professor Virginia Barbour, paid her respects to Professor McLaws.

“As current Editor-in-Chief of the MJA, I thank Professor McLaws for her contribution to the MJA over many years,” Professor Barbour said.

“Like many others across Australia, I was very grateful for her leadership and steadfastness during the COVID-19 pandemic. On behalf of the MJA, I send our condolences to her family and friends.”

Emeritus Editor-in-Chief, Professor Nicholas Talley AC, echoed Professor Barbour’s remarks.

“Professor McLaws was an outstanding academic, international leader in public health and a voice of reason during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Professor Talley said.

“I felt very fortunate to have her authoritative voice to rely on for up-to-date information on the pandemic. She made major contributions to the MJA over her career. She was a wonderful person and will be greatly missed.”

Vale Professor Mary-Louise McLaws

Professor McLaws continued to research and contribute to research articles until her passing; the WHO published her latest article last week about communicating about health to the public.

Professor McLaws has, in turn, supervised PhD candidates in Australia, Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, Mali, Indonesia, Iran, Vietnam, Taiwan and Türkiye.

Emeritus Professor McLaws was 70 years old. She was married to Richard Flook and had two children, daughter Zia and son Zachary.

She will be missed by her community, and for her contributions to medical science.

Mary-Louise McLaws: 1953–2023

4 thoughts on “Vale Mary-Louise McLaws: epidemiologist and advocate

  1. Vivien Munoz says:

    Very good article but it didn’t say what prof Mary-Louise died of. I can’t believe she was still that young.

  2. Sue Ieraci says:

    A real loss to healthcare worldwide.

  3. George QUITTNER says:

    Not only a competent scientist…but a very glamorous and sophisticated lady. I was privileged to know her.

  4. Dr Kanaka rachakonda says:

    Very sad to Know that Prof Mary-Louise Passed Away. It was a great loss to Australian community, specially to all those in Intensive Care community looking after the sick with severe infections. She was an outstanding advocate for the science ,application and management of Severe infections in Australia and world wide. She was a rare gift to this land and she will be eternally missed

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