Solemn recognition for Melbourne’s first Indigenous medical graduate
As part of the Melbourne Medical School’s sesquicentenary celebrations, a solemn handover ceremony was held in the University of Melbourne’s Raymond Priestley Building late last month to recognise the significant Indigenous contribution to the School’s long and distinguished history.
The gift of a possum skin cloak, commissioned by the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and fashioned by local Wurundjeri artist Mandy Thomas (nee Nicholson), was presented to the Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute’s Director Professor Ian Anderson. Later in the afternoon of the same day, Professor Anderson, the University’s first Indigenous medical graduate, was conferred the degree of Doctor of Medical Science (honoris causa).
“This is one of the highest honours the University can bestow, one infrequently proposed and sparingly given,” says University of Melbourne Chancellor Elizabeth Alexander.
Professor Anderson donned the cloak for an academic procession which included nine other Melbourne graduates honoured for their remarkable achievements and whose lives and careers have, in Chancellor Alexander’s estimation, “generated enduring improvements in the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities across the world.”
The conferral ceremony was the first of such formal University occasions at which the cloak will feature.
“The cloak is a rare and significant cultural gift,” says Professor Anderson. “It is also a gift to the University of the Wurundjeri. It honours the Wurunderji tradition, their high formal culture and their countrymen, the Bunerorong, Waudawurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, and Tungwurrung.”
Professor Anderson accepted the gift of the possum skin cloak with characteristic humility, and quietly asked guests to cast their minds back 150 years.
The timeframe is significant, marking as it does the opening of the Melbourne Medical School and pointing to a period of catastrophic impact on Melbourne’s first peoples.
“For the Wurundjeri 150 years ago the situation was dire,” Professor Anderson says. “The colonisation of Victoria had been rapid and cataclysmic. Within a matter of two decades, the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria were reduced to a tiny number.
“The historical records tell us of Wurundjeri dying of starvation in the streets of Melbourne. And for nearly 20 years, no Aboriginal babies were born who survived to leave family.
“It was at this moment that a number of inspirational men and women, including nurungaeta (leaders, elders) Simon Wonga and William Barak made a profound contribution to the futures of their people. They were nurungaeta profoundly rooted in their cultural tradition who had a vision for their people as settled farmers.”
This vision resulted in the Coranderrk settlement near Healesville which for many years ran a successful enterprise selling wheat, hops and crafts to the growing market of Melbourne, winning first prize at the Melbourne International Exhibition.
It was also around this time in 1862 that the University of Melbourne opened its Medical School with an initial intake of four male students attending its first class – a chemistry lecture – given by John Macadam (after whom the macadamia nut is named) in his own laboratory.
Some 120 years later, a young Ian Anderson, whose family are Palawa Trowerna from the Pyemairrenner people in Tasmania which includes Trawlwoolway and Plairmairrenner and related clans, and who completed his secondary education in Bendigo, started studying medicine at the University of Melbourne. He went on to become its first medical graduate, director of its dedicated Indigenous institute named after Murrup Barak, Foundation Chair of Indigenous Health, and Assistant Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Higher Education Policy.
It is significant that now, in this 150 year anniversary of the Melbourne Medical School’s establishment, population parity has been achieved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students going into the first year of medicine in universities across Australia.
“We obviously need to translate this into completions,” says Professor Anderson, “but it is a significant achievement and one worthy of much celebration.”
Professor James Best, head of the Melbourne Medical School, agrees. “The 150th anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate our wonderful history,” he says. “But it’s also an opportunity to plan a bright future, not only for the School, but for our students over the next 150 years.”