5 May 2017

Professor Paul Zimmet receives Honorary Doctorate from University of Adelaide

Congratulations to Professor Paul Zimmet on being awarded an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater, the University of Adelaide (UA). The award took place on 5 May 2017. Prof Zimmet graduated from the UA's MBBS program in 1965, and also his father, in 1942, who had previously qualified in Poland (see illustration, left) - a strong medical family! Australia has benefitted greatly from the contributions of this migrant family and so many others like them.

See the transcript of Prof Zimmet's address below and video. Paul's speech begins at 14:19.
Professor Paul Zimmet's address video
Paul Zimmet transcript

Deputy Chancellor, Dr Catherine Branson
Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Michael Brooks
Distinguished Guests,
Members of Staff

Firstly, I wish to pay my respects to the Kaurna people, the custodians of this land on which the University of Adelaide stands and I acknowledge their ancestors and their spiritual and cultural heritage.

I can’t think of a greater honour for me than to be recognised with this Honorary Doctorate from the university where I graduated in 1965. But the story I want to tell you in this Address connects this occasion with the graduation in medicine of my father, the late Dr Jacob Zimmet, here at the University of Adelaide exactly 75 years ago.

This document in my hand provides the background to an extraordinary story scanning 80 years, starting at the breakout of World War 2 in Europe in 1939 and ending here in the Bonython Hall today. The University of Adelaide has been the background to this story of how our family came to Adelaide and how the university shaped my family history. It influenced profoundly our lives and I hope my Address today will illustrate to you that the degree you have received today can just be the start of a wonderful life and career for each of you and your families.

This is a copy of the medical degree my late father Dr Jacob Zimmet received from this university in 1942, very likely in this same hall, exactly 75 years ago.  It means today’s ceremony is both of historic and great emotional significance to me and the members of my family here today, and its message provides the theme of my address and advice to you as the new graduates of this great institution. 

Our family story starts in the small town of Tarnopol in Poland in 1935. My father graduated in medicine in 1935 at the Vienna University in Austria, at that time one of the world’s great medical schools. He returned to Poland and worked in an unpaid position at the Tarnopol Hospital. It was unpaid as Anti-Semitism was rife and Jewish doctors could not be “officially” employed or even paid in Poland at that time.

Realising there was no future for him in Poland, and having experienced the escalating threat and terror of Hitler’s Nazi Germany in Austria, in 1937, he applied for visas to Australia and the United States as he was certain war was imminent.

The Australian visas arrived first so in December 1938, my parents with baby Rena, their first child, left for Sydney and arrived by sea in January 1939. World War II broke out just a few months later. The family they left in Poland were taken to a Nazi concentration camp and died in their horrendous gas chambers. The only survivor was my mother’s younger brother.

My father found that his medical degree from the prestigious Vienna Medical School was not recognised in Australia as Austria was under German occupation. So, after living virtually penniless in Sydney for 6 months, he moved the family to Adelaide. By a stroke of luck, he was offered the opportunity by the University of Adelaide to re-qualify in medicine over 3 years.

My parents had to find supporting income and, as my mother had brought a Singer treadle sewing machine from Poland, they established a leather business. Mum sewed, and Dad skipped lectures at the Adelaide Medical School (when the lights went out), and rode his bike around Adelaide suburbs selling the goods!

Jacob (or Jack as he was known) Zimmet graduated MB BS from the University of Adelaide in 1942, almost 75 years ago to this day. He then obtained a position as a doctor with BHP, and moved to Whyalla. In 1950, we moved back to Adelaide for him to start in general practice, first in Hyde Park, then Glenunga, and finally on the corner of North Terrace and King William Street in the Bank of NSW building just up the road.

He was a wonderful doctor and a model for my siblings and myself and was immensely proud that three of his children, Rena, Leon and myself, studied medicine at this university and all later became Fellows of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He was equally proud of Miriam, my youngest sister, who elected instead to follow the noble teaching profession. 

In recent years, two grandsons, the sons of my wife Vivien and myself, Hendrik, a cardiologist and Marcel a paediatrician, also became Fellows of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Another grandson, my nephew Adam, also a graduate of this university, is a heart surgeon and a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

In the past, and already in the first decades of this millennium, there have been huge waves of people fleeing their home countries due to crimes against humanity and genocide, political persecution or terrorism. Like my late father’s experience that I have described, there are many from Europe who fled the Nazi terror and have made a great contribution to the South Australian community and indeed to Australia.

As new members of the medical and other health professions, I urge you to demonstrate the highest level of respect, humanity and support to those who have sought asylum here, just as Australia and the University of Adelaide have done for our family. It is very likely that some of you, the graduates today, come from families who have found refuge here in Australia for similar reasons.

Our nation has often provided a haven for refugees to re-establish their families and livelihood, be it in professional and other capacities. Yet today, our politicians are playing the numbers game, for example, with 457 visas. These political machinations, 457 visas threaten to result in a reduction and acceptance of new immigrants. Let us not forget that over 30% of Australians were born overseas and we must not ignore their huge contributions towards building our nation – in arts, the humanities, science, medicine and many other areas.

This story of our family is just one of many highlighting the huge contribution made by numerous people who arrived on Australia’s shores, made it home, and then contributed to its greatness and development in so many ways. We must continue to recognise this and ensure that as a nation, we are not bound by the “false prophets” peddling a “One Nation” introspective mentality.

This university was established in 1874, 143 years ago. Today we find it very progressive and responsive to the needs of contemporary society. So, as you leave the Bonython Hall, holding your precious, hard earned degree, your passport to the workforce and world, take with you the core values of this special institution – humility, social responsibility, professional integrity, an enquiring mind and creativity – and equally important, tolerance and a humane perspective to all who you deal with.

And I hope that you will all also apply these values in your work with our own Indigenous community. I am privileged to maintain my own link with Adelaide as a Senior Principal Research Fellow associated with Professor Alex Brown’s Indigenous Unit at SAHMRI.

And I would like to leave our medical graduates one final message and piece of advice. In your practice of Medicine, always STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN

Why do I say this?  Along with Dr Phillip Harding, I was a first-year resident here at the old Royal Adelaide Hospital and our Honorary consultant was the great Dr Mark Bonnin, a compassionate and brilliant physician. As we did ward rounds, Dr Bonnin would STOP at the bedside, he would LOOK carefully at the patient, and would then LISTEN to them then gently examine the patient.

But by then 99 times out of a hundred, he had already made the diagnosis before the examination! Phillip Harding and I would stay up all night before ward rounds deciding what blood tests to do to beat his diagnoses but never did!

So, make STOP, LOOK and LISTEN your mantra in your clinical care of your patients.
And my final words today are to again thank the University of Adelaide for the opportunity it provided to our family nearly 80 years ago to start a new life and flourish here in Adelaide. It is an exciting outcome to be here today to receive this great honour.

My heartiest congratulations to you all for a fulfilling and exciting future in health care.

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