The Menzies Centre for Population Health Research

Terence Dwyer
Med J Aust 2001; 175 (11): 617-620.
Published online: 17 December 2001

The research enterprise

The Menzies Centre for Population Health Research

A unique and supportive local population was a vital ingredient in the Centre's success

Terence Dwyer

MJA 2001; 175: 617-620

Early days: the Tasmanian Infant Health Survey and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - The post-SIDS era: taking stock - New directions - Genomics - The future - References - Authors' details - - More articles on Psychiatry

  I ACCEPTED THE CHAIR IN COMMUNITY HEALTH at the University of Tasmania in 1985 with the intention of setting up a research centre that focused on epidemiological research into preventable causes of disease. While I did not know how the centre would be funded, I was certain that Tasmania would be a very competitive site for such research. Already, valuable epidemiological studies on iodine deficiency, hydatid disease and asthma had been conducted in the absence of significant research infrastructure.1 The "Island State" provided a perfect source population for unbiased selection of cases and comparison samples or controls. Further, the land area and population size (around 500 000 people) made follow-up of cohorts relatively easy. Thus, Tasmania had important advantages for the two major strategies used to search for environmental and lifestyle causes of disease — case-control and cohort studies.

Funding from the Menzies Foundation came about through the input of three people — Basil Hetzel, then Chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Division of Human Nutrition in Adelaide, who had a close association with the Menzies Foundation; Professor Ian Lewis, Dean of the Medical School at the University of Tasmania and a member of the Menzies Foundation Board; and Eric Wigglesworth, the Director of the Foundation. To determine the likely success of such a centre, the Foundation Board held a three-day workshop attended by representatives of State and Federal health departments and the World Health Organization, notable Australians in the field of public health, and distinguished British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll.

History of the Menzies Centre
Workshop ("Towards a Centre for Population Health Research") in Hobart, Tasmania.
Official opening in January.
Collection of Tasmanian Infant Health Survey (TIHS) data began (prospective study on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome [SIDS]).
Designated as a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases.
Provides prospective evidence confirming
importance of prone sleeping position as a cause of SIDS (Lancet 1991; 337: 1244-1247).
Evidence that SIDS death rate was falling after a national campaign on infant sleeping position.
Research helps explain how prone position interacts with other factors to increase risk (N Engl J Med 1993; 329: 377-382).
First follow-up of TIHS cohort searching for early life influences on childhood diseases.
Shows that the major decline in SIDS deaths from 1991 onwards is the result of changes in infant sleeping position (JAMA 1995; 273: 783-789)
Contract signed with AMRAD pharmaceutical company. Provides funding for Genetic Epidemiology Unit.
Follow-up of the Tasmanian Infant Health Survey cohort into childhood provides important evidence about early life determinants of risk for osteoporosis, blood pressure and asthma (J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1998; 83: 4274-4279; J Bone Miner Res 1999; 14: 146-151; BMJ 1999; 319: 1325-1329; Thorax 1999; 54: 664-669).
Named "Tasmanian Icon" by State Premier. Core funding doubles.

circle Key events diamond Major scientific achievements.
Subsequently, the Menzies Foundation Board decided to support the establishment of an epidemiology research centre, to be named the Menzies Centre for Population Health Research. The Foundation then met with the Tasmanian Premier and Minister for Health, who matched the Foundation's initial contribution of $100 000 per year.

Early days: the Tasmanian Infant Health Survey and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Before my departure from Sydney University, I had been reviewing the data on disease distribution in Tasmania. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), with an annual rate in Tasmania twice the national average, stood out. The head of neonatology at the Royal Hobart Hospital, Neville Newman, convinced me that this should be the subject of a major research effort. The cause had not been clearly identified, and epidemiological research had been limited. With helpful input from Geoffrey Berry, Professor of Biostatistics at Sydney University, we planned the first prospective cohort study on this condition. Preliminary work began just before the decision of the Menzies Foundation to support the establishment of the Centre. The epidemiology research group within the Medical School at the University of Tasmania consisted of one epidemiologist, the research fellow Trevor Beard, and limited support staff. Even with the extra $200 000 that the establishment of the new Centre brought, it would not have been realistic to work on a broad front. It was decided that we would focus most of our effort on the new SIDS research program.

The next step was to build an appropriately skilled team. We advertised for another epidemiologist and a biostatistician, but it proved very difficult to attract qualified applicants. It seemed that Australian academics were either not interested in living in Tasmania, or were not confident their careers would flourish there. This problem was compensated for by a stroke of good luck when a young Tasmanian medical graduate, Anne-Louise Ponsonby, became our first postgraduate student, working on SIDS. She put an incredible amount of intelligently directed energy into the SIDS program, and together, with financial help from the Australian Rotary Health Research Fund, we were able to develop momentum in the project. In 1988, we initiated the first full data collection for the cohort study — a huge endeavour that involved measurements each year in 1500 infants and their mothers on three occasions in the first three months after birth.

That we could get this work under way was pleasing, but we needed to find well-qualified biostatisticians. Given the previous lack of success with advertising in Australia, I decided to use our international network. Sir Richard Doll referred Michael Jones, a young Master of Science graduate from Oxford, who was recruited to our ranks, and then Laura Gibbons, from the University of Massachusetts, joined us. This relatively small and young team of investigators coordinated the conduct, data management and analysis of the SIDS program. They also assisted with less well resourced but developing areas in cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In late 1990 evidence was accumulating from case-control studies that prone sleeping position might be a major cause of SIDS, but the research was retrospective, creating concerns that recall bias might explain the findings. We had the only prospective data in the world and were able to show that the association was equally strong prospectively, ruling out recall bias.2 A number of countries, including Australia, launched campaigns to encourage parents not to place babies on their stomachs in the cot, with astonishing results — the death rate from SIDS in Australia fell from 507 in 1990 to 139 in 1998, with similar falls in a number of other countries.3

While our work was not the only important contribution to the understanding of this major cause of SIDS, it provided an important piece of evidence needed for solving the puzzle. Later, in 1993, our team explained why prone sleeping position seemed to exert a different effect in winter than summer and a different effect across countries.4 Then, in 1995, we provided evidence that showed clearly that the fall in deaths could only be attributed to the changes in prevalence of prone sleeping position.5

This success will undoubtedly rank as one of the major contributions of the Centre in the years to come. It also established the organisation as one which, in its special location, could have a significant impact on international medical science. It was the much-needed platform that would underpin future recognition and opportunities.

The post-SIDS era: taking stock

The death rate from SIDS fell so rapidly after the prone sleeping position campaign that, by late 1991, it was clear there would eventually be insufficient cases occurring annually in Tasmania for epidemiological research (when we started the SIDS program, there had been an average of 27 cases a year for an extended period, and by 1998 there were only three). While this outcome was tremendously gratifying, it was clear that the research money to support our staff of now approximately 20 would dry up unless we repositioned our research program. This was confirmed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Regional Grants Interview Committee's decision not to recommend refunding of our cohort study for 1992. We went from triumph to a period of considerable adversity. One of our first responses was to tell the Tasmanian public that we needed its financial and moral support. They responded generously. With a major public fundraising appeal, helped greatly by our Board and new Chairman John Tomlinson, and a timely decision by the United States National Institutes of Health, we were able to continue the study long enough to thoroughly evaluate the impact of the prone sleeping intervention campaign.

In 1992, I took some time to review where we were going as an organisation and to think about where our future research opportunities might lie. I visited people like Richard Doll in Oxford, who had provided very helpful mentoring since 1987. I also had discussions with Ken Rothman (author of Modern epidemiology6), and Dimitris Trichopoulos at Harvard. These visits confirmed that, if we were to continue to conduct work of global significance, we would have to search even more thoroughly for gaps in knowledge that might be filled by an epidemiological approach. I was also convinced that we would need to develop stronger working relationships with basic scientists if we wished to use epidemiology to understand aetiology. These strategies were challenging, but all our team had learned a great deal from the SIDS research experience.

While overseas, I also upgraded my skills in organisation and management by attending a management course in Salzburg, led by Peter Drucker, one of the world's most prominent management theorists.

New directions

The perspectives gained during my overseas visit were incorporated into planning from 1992 onwards. The major new strategy we decided on was to follow the Tasmanian Infant Health Survey (TIHS) cohort, now numbering 11 000 infants and children. The focus would be to search for links between early life exposures and later disease, using our extensive database of infant measurements that provided information on more than 450 variables measured during the first three months of life. One disease we looked at was asthma, an important disease for which preventable causes had not yet been identified and for which there was a shortage of good epidemiological data. This investigation would be coordinated by Anne-Louise Ponsonby, with help from David Couper, a biostatistician who had joined us from Seattle. We also increased our activity in research on the development in childhood of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Fitting into this theme was the new program started by a recent recruit from the Garvan Institute in Sydney, Graeme Jones (we were finally starting to see interest in work opportunities from well-qualified Australians outside Tasmania). He had a strong track record in osteoporosis in the elderly, and he used that background to focus on the impact of early-life factors on bone density in childhood.

Fortuitously, interest in the "Barker hypothesis", which concerns the impact of fetal development on later disease, was gaining momentum. We were well placed to make an important contribution in this field, and our capacity was greatly enhanced by the addition of Ruth Morley, from the Institute of Child Health in London.

Supplemented by smaller research efforts in cancer and adult cardiovascular disease, by 1994 we were able to see evidence that the research program was growing again. Between 1994 and 2000, the team was able to attract 17 new NHMRC grants from 38 applications submitted. This overall level of success was built on the tremendous preparedness of the Tasmanian public to be involved in the research. Response rates for case-control studies in this period were about 90% for cases and 80% for controls sampled from the electoral rolls, with comparable figures for cohort follow-up.

In addition to our growing research effort we took on an important role in ensuring that knowledge was transferred to countries with less developed research capacity. The World Health Organization designated our institution as a Collaborating Centre for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) a decade ago. That role has expanded steadily to the point where the Centre is assisting in studies on CVD in countries including Vietnam, Fiji and Samoa, where CVD and diabetes are producing an unexpectedly high disease burden.


For the first seven years (1988-1995) the Centre focused solely on the environmental and lifestyle causes of disease. Meanwhile, others had been using the deep family pedigrees available in Tasmania to search for genetic causes of diseases following a Mendelian pattern of inheritance. Novel genes or linkages were discovered for several conditions, including multiple endocrine neoplasia and Huntington's disease.

These successes were based on special features of Tasmania that are replicated in few other locations, namely (i) a population descended largely from identifiable founder families; (ii) comprehensive genealogical records; (iii) a modern healthcare system capable of identifying disease outcomes; (iv) a demonstrated capacity to involve the population in studies; and (v) organisational structures to facilitate the research.

In 1995, David Mackey, a Tasmanian medical graduate and ophthalmologist at the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, approached us. He was undertaking important work in Tasmania on the more complex genetics of glaucoma. He wanted a base in Tasmania, and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, in Melbourne, was seeking a Tasmanian institution to manage new research and development syndicate funds to support his research. We accepted the role and our interest in the use of epidemiology to find genes for human diseases increased. Then, in 1996, the Australian pharmaceutical company AMRAD approached us about increasing its involvement in gene discovery in Tasmania through the Menzies Centre. We agreed, on the condition that the funding would be for a genetic unit that would employ people who could provide intellectual input to the work from a Tasmanian base. AMRAD signed a contract in 1997 for a five-year grant of $2.5 million, and, in 1998, we attracted Tasmanian molecular geneticist Michele Sale to coordinate the work. With financial and other help we were able to very quickly get projects under way in multiple sclerosis and osteoarthritis, and have continued to develop activity with Cerylid, a spin-off from AMRAD formed to operate its discovery arm. The genomics development has also led to an increase in postgraduate student training at the Centre, with five PhD students currently enrolled.

The future

During the past 12 months there have been several important developments for the Centre, driven by our very committed Board, chaired by Jean Trethewey, and strongly supported by the Dean of the Faculty of Health Science at the University of Tasmania, Allan Carmichael. The Tasmanian Government introduced an "Icons Program", which supports the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and our State cricket team. To this list Premier Jim Bacon added the Menzies Centre, with a commitment to provide $500 000 a year to help our organisation develop its capabilities. This, together with a large donation in 2000 from the United States-based Atlantic Philanthropies Inc, has placed us in a previously unimagined position to recruit more staff and drive our research program.

To enable us to undertake these future developments with vigour, the University of Tasmania Council has established the Menzies Centre as an independent company limited by guarantee, remaining within the university structure. In 2002, the Centre will become the "Menzies Research Institute". Already, the Centre has grown to support a staff of 60. The new institute is likely to start 2002 with a budget of approximately $5 000 000 that will see staff numbers increase to more than 100, working on both environmental and genetic causes of disease.

A major NHMRC grant of $2 290 000 over the next five years will enable us to study a cohort of Australians first measured as schoolchildren in 1985. They will be followed up for the emergence of adult disease, and it is anticipated this will provide the first direct evidence available on the impact of childhood lifestyle and biology on diseases such as coronary heart disease. A collaboration with similar cohorts in the US and Finland has already been established. A new director of the Cohort Studies Unit, Alison Venn, who has a strong background in this research strategy, has been recruited from the Centre for the Study of Mothers' and Children's Health at La Trobe University to coordinate developments. A large adult cohort study in Tasmania, with a focus on exposures that occur closer to the time of disease development, will also commence in 2002. Both studies will benefit from the input of a now-strong biostatistics group of three staff headed by one of our own PhD graduates, Leigh Blizzard.

The level of genetic research activity will expand greatly. Tasmania presents opportunities as good as any in the world for gene discovery, and we intend to take up these opportunities. An increasing number of epidemiological studies at the Centre are focused on finding novel genes or validating candidate genes identified through animal or cell studies, or bioinformatic "data mining". This growth in activity reflects the recognition by commercial and government sources of the opportunities here, as well as the developing capacity of our genetic unit.

Increasingly, our "environmental" epidemiologists and biostatisticians are developing their interests and skills in genetic research. This has not only led to the more rapid development of a critical mass for projects on gene discovery and validation, but has also opened up the possibility for in-depth investigation of gene-environment interaction. Projects with this focus are already under way in multiple sclerosis. There is great scope for us to contribute in an internationally significant way to the understanding of gene-environment interactions using Tasmania's unique population and our skill base.

In the coming decade Australia will be relying more and more on its medical research institutes to maintain its competitive advantage in a knowledge-based global economy. We are confident that the new Menzies Research Institute will be making its contribution.


  1. King H, editor. Epidemiology in Tasmania. Canberra: Brolga Press, 1987.
  2. Dwyer T, Ponsonby AL, Newman NM, Gibbons LE. Prospective cohort study of prone sleeping position and sudden infant death syndrome. Lancet 1991; 337: 1244-1247.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Deaths, Australia, 1990, 1998. Canberra: ABS, 1998. (Catalogue no. 3302.0/3303.0.)
  4. Ponsonby AL, Dwyer T, Gibbons LE, et al. Factors potentiating the risk of SIDS associated with the prone position. N Engl J Medicine 1993; 329: 377-382.
  5. Dwyer T, Ponsonby AL, Blizzard CL, et al. The contribution of changes in the prevalence of prone sleeping position to the decline in SIDS in Tasmania. JAMA 1995; 273: 783-789.
  6. Rothman K. Modern epidemiology. Boston: Little John and Co., 1986.

Authors' details

Menzies Centre for Population Health Research
Terence Dwyer, MD, FAFPHM, Director.

Reprints will not be available from the author.
Correspondence: Professor T Dwyer, Menzies Centre for Population Health Research, 17 Liverpool Street, Hobart, 7000 TAS.

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Received 29 May 2022, accepted 29 May 2022

  • Terence Dwyer



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