Professor Ron Penny AO

December 22, 2019 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Professor Ron Penny has passed away in Sydney following a long illness.

Ron Penny

Ron Penny was born in Warsaw in 1936 and the family moved to Sydney two years later.

According to the University of Sydney, Ron Penny established the first Clinical Immunology Unit in NSW in 1967, and made the first diagnosis of AIDS in Australia in 1982.

Ron graduated with honours from the University of Sydney in 1960, after which he undertook further studies in haematology, oncology and immunology in the United Kingdom and the United States. On his return in 1967, he set up the first Clinical Immunology Unit in New South Wales at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1969, this unit was transferred to St Vincent’s Hospital, initially retaining a research focus in leukaemia, myeloma, paraproteinemia and lymphoma.

In 1973 Ron Penny became Professor of Clinical Immunology at the University of NSW and in 1979, receiving the first Doctorate of Science awarded to a Member of a clinical Department by the University. According to Ron:

The first case of AIDS was diagnosed by our group in 1982, a year after the overseas description. This opened both a huge area in terms of clinical, diagnostic, teaching and research issues to address a completely new disease, and a major role for public education and new clinical service models which dramatically depended not only on hospital but [on] community and non-government organisation assistance. A major contribution, apart from research into the disease, was our group’s identification of HIV primary infection. In addition, the major participatory role both in Commonwealth and State Governments and with non-government organisations changing population behaviour in terms of condom usage and powerful control of transmission through injecting drug use, through to the introduction of expanded Methadone programs and needle and syringe exchange programs. This led ultimately to other appointments including the NSW Prison Health Service,…participation in the Drug Summit, and currently, a role in the refashioning of health services in the community to promote community based health care on the one hand, and the expansion of the NSW Health and Aged Care Chronic Disease program on the other.

The Centre for Immunology was established by the University of New South Wales under Ron’s Directorship in 1983. Five years later, he was awarded a Personal Chair in Clinical Immunology in 1988. In 1993, Ron was inducted as an Officer of the Order of Australia for “service to medical research and education, particularly in the field of clinical immunology”.

Professor Anthony Kelleher ended up doing his Honours year under the guidance of Professor Ron Penny – who together with Professor Cooper, made the first HIV/AIDS diagnoses in Australia in the early eighties – at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. He was the HIV registrar there in 1991 – “possibly one of the worst years of the epidemic”.

“With all the best intentions we were doing very badly at [figuring out how to treat HIV/AIDS]. People were getting absolutely top-notch care, but it was really just all palliation, and putting out fires,” he says.

“There was an urgent need to do something. It struck me that we had to be able to do better than we were doing, and St. Vincent’s was such an epicentre at that stage.

“I had opportunities placed in front of me, and I could see potential areas where we could fight this terrible virus.”

Throughout his long career as one of Australia’s leading immunologists, Ron Penny has served as Honorary Consultant at many Sydney hospitals, and was a Member of the Editorial Boards of prestigious international journals, as well as serving on Government and non-Government Committees. Between November 2001 and March 2002 he undertook a review of the New South Wales Red Cross Blood Service in association with KPMG.

Ron Penny was a Director of Cryosite Pty Ltd and Peptech Ltd, Health Consultant for Accor Asia Pacific, the Medical Director of Good Health Solutions, and a Member of the Scientific and Medical Advisory Board of Probiomics.

He served as an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of NSW, Senior Clinical Advisor for NSW Health, Chairman of the Corrections Health Services Board. He also served as Co-Chair of the NSW State Government’s Chronic and Complex Care Implementation Group, and was a Member of the NSW Expert Advisory Group on Drugs, the Ministerial Advisory Council on Medical and Health Research, and NSW General Practice Council.

Two prominent members of Sydney’s Jewish community have paid tributes to Ron Penny.

Vera Boyarsky told J-Wire: “Professor Ron Penny was one of a kind doctor who made his patients feel they had his undivided care and commitment to make them well unconditionally.

On a more personal note, I would have to add that his commitment to our family caring for me and finding a cure for Alex was unconditional! His loss to us is overwhelming. Medicine and the medical community  which honoured him many times has lost a giant who will never be replaced!!

Ron was a great proud Jew who will always have a special place in our hearts as we will always miss him!!

Carol Pryer spoke on behalf of her husband Barry and daughters Nicky and Kim. She said: “Professor Ron Penny was one of a kind always there when you needed him no matter what the hour. His brilliant mind was appreciated by many. He was truly committed with a passion for his work.

If it wasn’t for him,  our daughter Kim would not be here today.

He has left a very great legacy that covers the Jewish Community, the Australian Community and in fact the World Community. 

He will be sorely missed by those lives he touched. May he Rest In Peace.”

Professor John Ziegler told J-Wire: “After I gained membership of the College of Physicians in 1969 I wanted to train in a field that involved clinical and laboratory medicine in an academic and research environment. I approached Ron Penny for a reference for a job in haematology.

Ron agreed enthusiastically but suggested that immunology fit that description perfectly. He couldn’t offer me a job but organised a research scholarship. I spent the next three years in the unit at St Vincent’s, and learned not just about immunology of course but about research and how to be a thinking doctor.

I was very privileged to observe him at close quarters as a superb physician and clinical immunologist, and an enthusiastic clinical academic, attracting some of the brightest young physician trainees to his rapidly expanding unit. He encouraged me to gain further training in paediatric immunology, this being a field that at that time hadn’t been developed in Sydney.  As a result of his vision as well as his mentorship and support along with his enthusiastic professional approach, I was able to set up the state’s first paediatric immunology service at the nearby Randwick campus.

Like so many others I owe my career to Ron who was not just a boss and role model but also a lifelong friend.”

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff commented: “Ron Penny was one of the prominent community figures who publicly supported me when, as editor of the Australian Jewish News in 2000, I controversially campaigned for the right of Jewish gays to be gay. It accorded with his groundbreaking work in that field.
“He leaves a massive void in the area of medical research and we extend our deepest condolences to his loved ones.”

Ron Penny is mourned by his wife Naomi, son Mark and his wife Anne Maree Kean and their children Simon and Rebecc, his brother Gary and his wife Sue and their children Michael and Vanessa and his daughter Sheira Said and her children Joshua, Noah and Zoe.

Professor Ron Penny OA

Born: Warsaw, Poland  December 28, 1936

Died: Sydney, December 21, 2019



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