Dr Ian Darnton-Hill reflects on his career in international public health after receiving an AO

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 20 February 2012

From Fiji to Bangladesh to New York, Dr Ian Darnton-Hill has worked around the world to improve public health.

With a focus on nutrition, Dr Ian Darnton-Hill has held senior advisory roles with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Helen Keller International, among many other organisations.

Last month, his efforts were recognised when he was awarded an AO (Officer in the general division of the Order of Australia) for his distinguished service to the international community, particularly in the areas of public health and nutrition, disease prevention and health promotion, and as a physician, academic and educator.

“[The award] is recognition that Australians can have a career in international health and that it will be seen as a valid career path, which certainly wasn’t the case when I was a student”, says Dr Darnton-Hill.

Dr Darnton-Hill says he became involved in international public health “quite by chance”, when he put his name down on a noticeboard for an exchange program to Indonesia while he was studying medicine at the University of Adelaide.

“Before then, I thought Adelaide was the centre of everything, but I soon realised that wasn’t the case”, he says.

After meeting an Indonesian child who was blind due to vitamin A deficiency he realised the potential impact of nutrition on health outcomes.

“It was such a little thing, and so cheap to fix. I think that’s when I became particularly interested in nutrition.”

He later went on to help many children who were in the same predicament when he became Bangladesh country director for Helen Keller International’s blindness and vitamin A deficiency program.

He also worked as a lead technical consultant in vitamin A for the WHO.

Dr Darnton-Hill singles out a stint with the WHO from 1990 to 1995 as one of the highlights of his career. As regional adviser in nutrition for the Western Pacific region, he helped countries in the region develop their first national nutrition plans.

“It was really exciting and interesting. It was the first time that public health nutrition was on the agenda of the WHO”, he says.

In 2001, he undertook a senior global health leadership fellowship with the WHO in Geneva, focusing on non-communicable diseases, and later worked for 5 years as a UNICEF global adviser on micronutrient nutrition.

When Dr Darnton-Hill retired from UNICEF, he was asked by Ann Veneman, then executive director of UNICEF, to return for a year to head an interagency taskforce on global nutrition based at the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome.

The taskforce worked to accelerate progress towards the first Millennium Development Goal, which aims to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

Although Dr Darnton-Hill has retired from his work with UN agencies, he continues to have a busy professional life, which sees him split his time between Sydney and New York.
He is currently adjunct professor at the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders at the University of Sydney, as well as an adjunct professor at Tufts University in the United States.

He says his award affirms the importance of Australia’s international aid contribution but adds that there is more work to be done.

“Australia should be doing even more in terms of our neighbours”, Dr Darnton-Hill says.

Other doctors on the honour roll

Officer (AO) in the general division of the Order of Australia:
Dr David Pugsley
For distinguished service to renal medicine, particularly the prevention and treatment of kidney disease in global Indigenous populations, to international medical associations, and as a mentor.

Member (AM) in the general division of the Order of Australia:
Dr Jillian Benson
Dr John Buckingham
Dr Grahame Deane
Professor Paul Fagan
Professor John Forbes
Dr John Keneally
Professor Eugenie Lumbers
Professor Ian Meredith
Associate Professor Brian Miller
Dr Harry Oxer
Dr Rodney Pearce
Dr Edward Street
Dr Anne Sved Williams
Professor Frank Vajda
Professor Garry Walter
Professor Dennis Yue

For a full list of doctors who received awards, including a Medal (OAM) in the Order of Australia, see:

  • Sophie McNamara



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