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Sir Peter Gluckham on Sir Graham Liggins

Sir Peter Gluckman, Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor on the death of New Zealand’s outstanding medical scientist, Sir Graham Liggins

Sir Graham (Mont) Liggins FRS passed away today (24 August 2010) after a long illness.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, working out of National Women’s Hospital and The University of Auckland, Mont made a series of highly original observations that totally changed our understanding of pregnancy and birth. Importantly, he made discoveries which led him to develop the first treatment which made it possible for babies who were born prematurely, with lungs that were not functioning properly, to have a chance to breathe and survive.

The experiments that he undertook to demonstrate this were amazingly innovative and ground breaking. From a set of extraordinary insights and understandings of unexpected observations, he recognised that by giving steroid hormones to the mother he could mature the organs of the fetus to the extent that, even if it was born prematurely, its lungs could work. With extraordinary speed and in conjunction with Professor Ross Howie, he translated his discovery into a clinical trial which was remarkable for its rigour. The trial demonstrated that indeed the survival premature babies could be increased considerably.

This observation changed the face of neonatology worldwide and has been responsible directly and indirectly for saving an enormous number of lives. Without doubt it is considered the single most important advance in obstetrical and perinatal research of the last 50 years. He made many other important and ground breaking findings about the birth process and reproduction.

His international reputation has been without equal. He received a host of international awards. He was extraordinarily generous to his peers and many laboratories around the world benefited from his insights and assistance. In his retirement he continued to take an active role in the support of other researchers, particularly those in the Liggins institute which is named in his honour, and in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the University of Auckland in which he conducted his research.

Mont was a generous mentor and he continued to give me wise advice throughout my career. He remained committed to the principle that New Zealanders could undertake research of enormous impact and of the highest quality while remaining in New Zealand.

His last years were filled with health difficulties and personal tragedies including the loss of his wife Celia and one of his sons. We extend our condolences to his children, grandchildren and extended family. I have lost a great friend, mentor and hero.

Sir Peter Gluckman


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