Led ban on asbestos
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