Led ban on as­bestos

The West Australian - - OBITUARIES - John McIl­wraith

JIM McNULTY Pub­lic health doc­tor Born: Belfast, 1926 Died: Perth, aged 91

Jim McNulty was a cen­tral fig­ure in one of Australia’s worst health dis­as­ters, fight­ing for years to over­come of­fi­cial ap­a­thy.

There is still no cure for mesothe­lioma, the dis­ease caused by ex­po­sure to as­bestos fi­bres, but his ef­forts con­trib­uted to the end of min­ing of as­bestos and its re­moval from wide­spread use.

Thou­sands of peo­ple have died from the dis­ease — there are con­flict­ing es­ti­mates of the num­ber — many of them in WA.

The ubiq­ui­tous na­ture of the toll em­braces some bizarre el­e­ments.

For ex­am­ple, as­bestos was used in the fil­ters of wartime gas masks made in York­shire, where 140 former fac­tory work­ers later died.

Jim McNulty, as a re­cently qual­i­fied doc­tor, em­i­grated with his wife Betty to Perth in 1956 to work in the Pub­lic Health De­part­ment, his main task the di­ag­no­sis of TB and min­ers’ dust dis­eases such as sil­i­co­sis.

He was based at Kal­go­or­lie and was con­fronted with an ac­cep­tance of “dust dis­ease”, as such com­plaints were then known, as an in­evitable re­sult of un­der­ground min­ing.

Jim later re­called the at­ti­tude at the time was that dis­ease was a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of work­ing in in­dus­trial trades and the re­sul­tant lais­sez faire ap­proach to workplace health dan­gers. “Sadly, there was such a va­ri­ety of things that were wrong,” he ob­served later.

He fought to have more mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment in­stalled in mines and more strin­gent dust con­trols.

Jim’s in­volve­ment in the Wit­tenoom tragedy be­gan in 1959, again meet­ing a wall of in­dif­fer­ence.

Min­ers were be­gin­ning to dis­play the symp­toms of dis­ease. He later re­called that Wit­tenoom was “a hor­ri­ble place” and a par­tic­u­lar hor­ror was the ca­sual way in which mine tail­ings were scat­tered through­out the tiny town — in the school play­ground, for ex­am­ple.

He fought to im­prove dust man­age­ment and had more in­ten­sive stud­ies car­ried out which con­firmed the ap­palling level of con­tam­i­na­tion.

As the full ex­tent of the tragedy un­folded, the mine was closed, in 1966 — but for eco­nomic rea­sons.

For thou­sands of peo­ple who had passed through Wit­tenoom, the worst was yet to come. The wave of cases which be­gan of­ten in­cluded peo­ple who had been in Wit­tenoom only briefly.

The tragedies were par­tic­u­larly poignant for many of the min­ers who had come to Australia from refugee camps in Europe af­ter World War II and had been di­rected to the mine (a con­di­tion of their mi­gra­tion was that they had to work for two years in em­ploy­ment nom­i­nated by the gov­ern­ment).

In the half cen­tury since Jim McNulty’s early ef­forts to re­duce the ef­fects of as­bestos min­ing there have been labyrinthi­ne le­gal pro­ce­dures, com­pen­sa­tion has been paid to fam­i­lies, and elab­o­rate pro­ce­dures have been in­tro­duced to re­move as­bestos from the com­mu­nity (as a cheap build­ing ma­te­rial it was widely used for decades).

In a later in­ter­view Jim said if he had known it would be so hard to close the Wit­tenoom mine he would have “rung his bell louder”, but that was not his way.

As his fam­ily re­calls, although he was fully aware of its short­com­ings and fail­ings he was a man of the sys­tem. “He be­lieved in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and the proper work­ings of gov­ern­ment and the law.”

Jim McNulty was born in his grand­mother’s house in Belfast, on June 11, 1926, the fourth of eight chil­dren. He was the first child in his fam­ily to go to univer­sity. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in medicine from Queens Univer­sity, Belfast, he worked in the Catholic Mater Hos­pi­tal.

He was then un­able to con­tinue his train­ing in North­ern Ire­land, as Catholics could then not work in the ma­jor Protes­tant teach­ing hos­pi­tal, so he moved to Eng­land.

He was of­fered a post in WA, and with Betty, his wife of only a few weeks, sailed for Fre­man­tle. Their ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion: Kal­go­or­lie, a test of adapt­abil­ity for a cou­ple from Ire­land.

His chil­dren were amused that for all his great skills, he was in­ca­pable of tun­ing a ra­dio prop­erly, op­er­at­ing a VCR, speak­ing in a soft voice in church and hand­writ­ing even a short leg­i­ble sen­tence.

Jim’s progress through the State’s civil ser­vice con­tin­ued. In 1975 he was ap­pointed com­mis­sioner for pub­lic health and held that po­si­tion un­til 1984. In that year the three agencies of pub­lic health, hos­pi­tals and men­tal health were amal­ga­mated to form the De­part­ment of Health.

He be­came ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Health and Sci­en­tific Ser­vices, one of sev­eral mem­bers of the ex­ec­u­tive of the new de­part­ment.

His post re­quired at­ten­tion to many pub­lic-health is­sues, in­clud­ing sev­eral ma­jor sal­mo­nella out­breaks in Perth, the ap­pear­ance of amoe­bic menin­gi­tis and the ar­rival of AIDS.

He re­tired in 1987, af­ter 31 years in the pub­lic ser­vice. He was awarded the Or­der of Australia in 1988.

Dr D.J. Rus­sell-Weisz, di­rec­tor gen­eral of the State Health De­part­ment, summed up his life this way: “Jim was as renowned for his dry wit and de­vo­tion to fam­ily, as he was re­spected for his ad­min­is­tra­tive skills, sup­port of col­leagues and achieve­ments in pub­lic health.”

Jim McNulty died on Jan­uary 27.

He is sur­vived by his wife Betty, three daugh­ters, two sons (a third de­ceased) and 13 grand­chil­dren.

Dr Jim McNulty fought to over­come of­fi­cial ap­a­thy. Pic­ture: Nic El­lis

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