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Curtin University
John Curtin Day
John Curtin Medallists

Dr Eric Tan (1998)

Upon graduating in medicine from the University of Western Australia 30 years ago, a young doctor made his first mark on Australian history.

Eric Tan, born in Malaysia of Chinese parents, became the first overseas student to graduate at the top of his class at any medical school in the nation.

This was the beginning of a lifetime of significant achievements for Dr Tan, who has not only influenced major medical procedures in Australia and overseas, but has campaigned against racism and worked tirelessly for Australia’s youth.

Dr Tan’s early vision was that the Chinese community would become part of mainstream Australia and he used his position as President of the Chung Wah Association and National Coordinator of the Conference of the Australian Chinese Community to bring this about.

Helping to establish the Western Australian Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Dr Tan has attracted political, academic and business leaders from Australia and Asia to speak at the Chamber’s renowned ‘Coffee Shop Forums’.

As a surgeon, Dr Tan pioneered the now commonplace endoscopic ‘keyhole’ surgery in Australia and has taught the technique overseas.

More recently, he established a pharmaceutical joint venture in China and set up the Vietnam International Hospital in Hanoi with the support of other Australian doctors.

His passion for harmonious community relations was evident in his involvement in organising a testimonial photograph of many Western Australian community leaders holding their hands up in harmony – the project won the United Nations Peace Prize in 1997.

Celebrating Australia Day 10 years ago were various community groups performing in the Oz Concert – staged by Dr Tan – which is now an annual event and telecast in many other countries. Reflecting this interest, he was appointed to the Board of SBS Television for three years.

His tireless work for Australian youth was highlighted during the last recession, when, with the help of some friends, he established Project Employ Youth, which found more than 1,000 jobs for unemployed young people.

He was instrumental in persuading the CSIRO to locate its National Centre for Petroleum and Mineral Resources in Perth.

Dr Tan’s keen support of many worthy causes has helped to improve the lives and made a lasting impact on many people in Australia and overseas.

John Curtin Medallists

Dr George O'Neil (1998)

Finding new ways to improve techniques and equipment in the medical field is an ongoing ambition for Perth obstetrician, Dr George O’Neil. Dr O’Neil’s inventive skills are making an impact in widely different areas of medicine.

The new medical equipment he has designed is simpler, safer, more efficient and cost effective than previous alternatives. It has enabled him to establish a business – Go Medical – to export his inventions to all corners of the world.

He also runs a busy obstetrics practice but is best known for his life-saving work in the treatment of drug addicts, which has seen the 49-year-old doctor face criticism from the medical establishment in his fight to establish the Naltrexone treatment in Western Australia.

Dr O’Neil’s courage in tackling heroin addiction in our community means he continues to be opposed by some colleagues in medical and bureaucratic circles.

His treatment has met with huge success in Perth – over 800 heroin users have been treated by Dr O’Neil, with a 75 per cent success rate.

Involving an addict’s loved ones in the healing process plays a key role in the administration of the treatment. Naltrexone always works, but the addict must come back for continued treatment.

“Most people give it up and this treatment has been sitting on the shelf for 20 years,” Dr O’Neil said.

A breakthrough in the treatment of addicts has been to involve close family and loved ones. This has made a big impact on the success of the program. “Parents are saying to me, ‘I’ve been looking for this type of help for my kid for so long – and it really works.”

Dr O’Neil’s tireless work for others includes designing a better pain management system, eliminating time-consuming processes to ease diarrhoea in sick children of Third World countries and rising to the challenges in his own home where he and his wife care for six children (one autistic).

In acknowledging him for his vision, leadership and community service attributes, the University has awarded the John Curtin Medal to Dr O’Neil in the hope that it will provide an important affirmation to him and his many volunteers that he is making a difference to the lives of many people.

Work undertaken since receiving the John Curtin Medal

Dr O’Neil’s work in the treatment of drug addiction and in more accurate drug delivery has continued to deliver research and service opportunities since 1985.

Since the year he was awarded the John Curtin Medal in 1998, his work has been shared with Curtin’s School of Pharmacy, The University of Western Australia’s School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, the Fresh Start Recovery Programme, Go Medical Industries Pty Ltd and the Department of Health in WA, allowing the development of new industries and improved patient care.

Dr O’Neil has been awarded a series of medals including the Australian Medical Association Outstanding Doctor of the Year 1999, WA Citizen of the Year 2000 - awarded by Perth City Council - and Australian Entrepreneur of the Year 2002.

In almost 20 years since the award, 11,500 patients have presented to the Fresh Start Recovery Programme, which Dr O’Neil founded. The drug addiction recovery program has established properties and services to care for patients and their families in Busselton, two locations in Northam, Kewdale, Subiaco, Mt Lawley, Warwick and Alexander Heights.

As a result of research published in more than 100 publications by Professor Gary Hulse and Dr Stuart Reece, who have both worked closely with Dr O’Neil, an increasing number of addiction specialists in Europe, the US and Australia today accept that opioid addicts and benzodiazepine addicts are best treated with opioid blockers with new delivery systems Dr O’Neil developed in Perth, which are useful in the management of amphetamines and alcohol addictions and benzodiazepine addictions, in addition to heroin addiction.

These improvements have been associated with the development of naltrexone implants produced by Go Medical Industries, a company Dr O’Neil developed in Subiaco in 1985.

The new treatments are now attracting interest from the US government, with work currently commencing at Columbia University in New York. The locally made implants are also being used in Europe.

John Curtin Medallists

May O'Brien (1998)

As an inaugural recipient of the John Curtin Medal, Aboriginal educator May O’Brien feels honoured to be compared with former Prime Minister John Curtin.

“I am extremely surprised at the award, but also very honoured because John Curtin was also a visionary. He worked hard for his people at the grass roots level — that’s what he stood for,” Ms O’Brien said.

Ms O’Brien’s vision was that one day universities throughout Australia would have hundreds of Aboriginal students. She was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal bridging course at Curtin University of Technology to give young Aboriginal people a chance to receive a tertiary education.

“It was a long struggle to get the bridging course considered because they were worried about people getting through the back door into university,” she recalled.

“But I told them that when they were finished, they could proudly go through the front door.”

Ms O’Brien is no stranger to pride. Born in 1933 near Kalgoorlie, she recalls having to leave the local townsite at noon every day – it was a white man’s law that no Aboriginal person be in town after that.

She was placed at an early age in the Mount Margaret Mission near Laverton until 1950.

She headed for Perth where she loved high school so much that she became a qualified teacher and returned for five years to the mission that raised her.

Ms O’Brien was a leader in the field of education and in the Aboriginal community, teaching for 25 years at rural and metropolitan schools before establishing Aboriginal Committees on Education throughout Western Australia to increase the awareness and understanding of teachers of the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal people.

In 1984, she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study overseas educational programs aimed at enabling indigenous people to retain their own cultural identity while adjusting to mainstream culture.

She took early retirement 10 years ago to pursue her passion for writing children’s literature, and has continued a busy role in community service activities.

She has been active in sports coaching, served on various committees of Aboriginal concerns, and appeared before the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Parliamentary Select Committee into the Achievement of Indigenous Peoples of WA, the Beazley Inquiry into Education in 1983/4, and the Schools’ Commission Consultative Group (the Karmel Report).

“I have a lot of energy and I am so interested in people and what I can give back to WA and my country,” she said.

John Curtin Medallists

Priya Cooper (1998)

Priya Cooper had just broken a world record in the 400-metre freestyle when she heard she was one of the inaugural recipients of the John Curtin Medal.

“It has been an incredible day for me,” the 24-year old Curtin student exclaimed after knocking more than two seconds off the record at the recent Paralympic World Swimming Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Ms Cooper, who has cerebral palsy, virtually leapt into the deep end of competitive swimming when she took up the sport as a form of therapy. Top performances at a school carnival revealed her swimming potential, and in her first national competition she won a staggering nine gold medals.

Her swimming career gathered momentum and in 1994 she went to the World Swimming Championships for the Disabled in Malta as captain of the Australian team.

She was female captain of the Australian team at the tenth Paralympic Games in Atlanta and won numerous gold, silver and bronze medals for her efforts in the pool. Winning the most medals of any Australian athlete at the Atlanta Paralympics, she carried the Australian flag at the closing ceremony.

“Curtin has done so much for me,” Ms Cooper said. “Everyone has always been really helpful with my swimming and helping me achieve all my goals. So to get this honour from the University is just amazing.”

The health promotion and journalism student balances her studies with a rigorous training schedule and still finds time to give motivational talks on her subject, ‘Success is a Choice’. Her talk recently received a standing ovation at a Sydney Olympics Organising Committee function attended by 800 people.

Ms Cooper is no stranger to medals and awards. She holds an Order of Australia medal, and her accolades include being selected as an Australia Day Ambassador, Ambassador for Sydney 2000, being nominated for WA Sports Champion of the Year and Coca-Cola Sports Star of the Year, being inducted into the Australian Institute of Sport Hall of Fame and receiving the Institute’s Outstanding Achievement award.

But the John Curtin Medal is a huge thrill.

“It is a great honour to receive this inaugural award and even be nominated,” she said. “Knowing of John Curtin’s history in WA and Australia and his connection with the University, it’s amazing that I am even considered in that league.”