James Lawson

James Sutherland Lawson (born 6 May 1934), commonly called Jim, is an Australian public health doctor and scientist. He lives in Australia, but has spent many work related periods in far flung countries including the former Belgian Congo, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, many Pacific Island nations including Fiji and Samoa and more recently the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Jim wanted to become a professional Australian Rules footballer but instead achieved fame as the father of 2 boys and 6 girls who in turn have helped create 18 grandchildren (at the time of writing – 2011). This is a prolific outcome for a man who lectures on population problems and the need for family planning.


Early life in Australia

Jim Lawson was the youngest of 3 children of Jack and Kitty Lawson of Castemaine an old gold mining town in rural Victoria and the grandson of Harry Lawson a sometime Premier of Victoria. During the second  world war years, Jack Lawson at the age of 40, made an amazing transition from country town lawyer to become the adjutant of the Australian bomber squadron 455 based in the United Kingdom. Despite the death and destruction this was the most exciting and rewarding time of his life. Managing a European based bomber squadron during wartime was very different to managing widow’s estates in far off rural Australia. During the war Jim attended the local primary and high school before he was sent as a boarder to the private Scotch College in Melbourne. In those days there was no competition to gain entry to Medical School and so Jim began medical studies at the University of Melbourne despite a most undistinguished academic record at school. He struggled through the long 6 year course but came good at the end with the prize in surgery and a top place as an intern at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

He was always interested in child health and so Jim began training at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. The need for adventure to replace life as a footballer led him to join a 1961 International Red Cross expedition to the Congo. Together with an Australian surgical friend and colleague, Gerry Joyce, Jim managed a District Hospital that had been abandoned by the Belgians following the Congo independence movement and revolution. These were exciting but dangerous times. All Westerners had fled except for a small group of Christian nuns and priests who stayed on to nurse the sick and injured. Jim and Gerry conducted cross border trips into the then British Uganda to buy petrol and medicine. During one trip their vehicle broke down in the middle of the forest jungles and they had to be rescued from hordes of wild pigmy tribesmen. They were dismayed to learn that after their departure many of the nuns were raped and killed and the fathers shot to death.

After a period working in London hospitals as an emergency doctor, anaesthetist and children’s medical officer, Jim returned home to the Children’s Hospital. His main aim was to find a nice wife. Finding a nice wife is no easy task. Jim had imagined that his football prowess would be of advantage but to his dismay this was not so. However, the move back to the Children’s was a good option as each year a new crop of lovely young girls arrived as trainee doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and others all of whom Jim checked out. His big chance came when he was appointed as Acting Medical Director of the Hospital charged with getting everything ready for a visit by Queen Elizabeth. This meant Jim was required to inspect all Departments of the Hospital. He undertook this onerous task with relish as a friend had advised him of a new social worker who had a delicious derriere. Excited by this news, Jim immediately proceeded to the Social Work department to checkout this exotic young lady. Her name was Margaret Ralton and she did indeed appear delicious, so much so they were married not many months later.


Papua New Guinea

Soon after their wedding Jim and Margaret left for Port Moresby the capital of hot and humid Papua New Guinea. Jim was to manage the children’s ward of the local hospital and Margaret was to work as a kindergarten teacher. This was the period when the fearful disease kuru or “laughing disease” was first recognised in the New Guinea highlands. Because the features of this disease – severe muscle contractions and wasting associated with profound destruction of the nervous system – certainly no laughing matter, had similarities to diseases of the nervous system of young people in Western societies, there was a great deal of international scientific interest. D. Carleton Gajdusek was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery that kuru was caused by infectious agents, later identified as prions, which were transmitted by post death cannibalistic practices. This was of great interest to Jim who was sufficiently stimulated to commence research into the best ways of treating Papuan children suffering from a range of infectious conditions including pneumonia, diarrhoeal disease and meningitis. Jim was later awarded a Doctorate in Medicine for this research.


Melbourne again

Jim and a very pregnant Margaret returned to Melbourne following Jim’s appointment as Medical Director of the Western General Hospital. These were very happy years for the new family. Tom was the first baby followed by Harriet. This was a difficult period in Australia (1964 -1969) because due to migration and a high birth rate, the population was growing at a much faster rate than services such as hospitals and doctors. Jim became interested in Australian politics mainly because he saw activism as the best way of improving the hospital and health system. He began writing and publishing reformist books and articles. Then he was head hunted by the Tasmanians.



The new family, by now Tom, Harriet and Mary, moved to Hobart with Jim as Director of Tasmanian Hospital and Health Services. Tasmania is lovely for families, small, safe, friendly and with a good cool climate. But it is not so good for young activists like Jim who became frustrated by the micromanagement of Government Ministers, one of whom actually ordered bandages and scissors for the local hospital. Then, George and Amelia were arrived. Margaret justified this constant procreation by arguing it was better to make local Australian babies than having to import migrant strangers. Naturally she omitted the fact that both she and Jim were descendents of migrants, the first of whom came to Hobart in January 1823. In 1974 Jim was head hunted again, this time as Director of Health for Northern Sydney.



The population of Northern Sydney was about one million, big enough to justify substantial resources but small enough to be manageable. This was an exciting time in Australia as a new government under Gough Whitlam had come to power and generous resources were made available for hospital and health services. Jim grasped the opportunity and introduced a wide range of innovative services. These are summarised below as these initiatives have become a standard part of both Australian and international public health services.

(i)the organisation of co-ordinated hospital and health services on a community wide basis (Lawson et al 1979), (ii) the provision of expert hospital emergency services in place of trainee medical officer based services (Lawson 1969), (iii) development of co-ordinated rehabilitation and geriatric services (Lawson et al 1979). He also introduced a series of public health prevention programs including mandatory safety architectural glass in windows and doors to reduce profound lacerations (Oliver & Lawson 1979), (i) safe children’s playgrounds (Oliver et al 1981),  (ii) safety fences around private swimming pools ((Lawson & Oliver 1978), (iii) safe rules for rugby players to prevent quadriplegic neck injuries ( Rotem et al 1998), (iv) health promotion among isolated rural Aboriginal communities in New South Wales (Lawson & Close 1994), and (v) the successful development of groups as a means of improving social relationships among Australian mothers of new born infants(Lawson & Callaghan 1991).
While all this was going on, Alice, then Josephine and finally Esther arrived.



Yet again Jim was head hunted, this time to the University of New South Wales. This was a good move mainly because, yet again (!), politics had taken over the health services. For some time politicians had restricted their activities in health to the development of broad policies. A number of Australian politicians had made especially fine contributions during the onslaught of AIDS in 1983, this included Neil Blewett  the National Health Minister, and Kevin Stewart the NSW State Health Minister. Jim’s role during the initial AIDS epidemic was a peripheral one. An activist Sydney doctor, Alex Wodak had observed the likelihood of drug addicts contracting and spreading AIDS by the sharing of intravenous needles. Together with Jim and a very brave research student, Jail Wolk who met and talked to drug users, and documented the sharing of a single intravenous needle by up to 20 different addicts. The sharing was similar to the cameradie of the tobacco smoker but potentially much more lethal. This documentation enabled Blewett and Stewart to approve and finance an Australian national needle exchange program which, despite its’ problems, assisted the very successful control of AIDS in Australia.

As Head of the School of Public Health, Jim introduced Master of Public Health programs into the Medical Faculty at the University of New South Wales. This now 25 year old post graduate program is responsible for the education of many senior officers in health services in both Australia and the Asia’ Pacific region among  whom are Ministers for Health and Director General’s of Health of several nations including Indonesia and China (Hong Kong).


Breast and prostate cancer – the search for the cause

In 1998, at the then age of 65 years, Jim faced retirement. When preparing a research project, one of Jim’s post graduate students noted the strikingly lower risk of breast cancer among Asian as compared to Western women, this risk rose rapidly when Asian women migrated to the West. And so began a new career for Jim. He studied the scientific literature and declared to his colleagues “my presumption is preposterous but great breast cancer scientists must be missing something obvious”.

Despite having no background in biology or laboratory research, Jim initiated the first Australian investigations into viruses as potential causes of human breast cancer. The outcomes, initiated by such a rank amateur, are remarkable. Perhaps the most innovative of these outcomes are (i) the first identification  by molecular methods of mouse mammary tumor viruses (MMTV), the known cause of breast cancer in mice,  in human milk (Johal et al 2011), (ii) the first identification of high risk human papilloma viruses (HPVs – the known cause of cervical cancer) in human breast cancer cell cultures (Heng et al 2010), (iii) the first identification of HPV associated koilocytes (abnormal precancerous cells specific to HPV infections)in human breast tumors (Lawson et al 2009), (iv) the development of unambiguous evidence that high risk HPVs are present in human breast cancer and that they have oncogenic characteristics (Heng et al 2009), (v) the unambiguous evidence that MMTV is located in breast cancer cell nuclei and is associated with high expression of the oncogene Wnt 1 (Lawson et al 2010),  (vi) the first indication that some breast cancers may be as a consequence of sexually transmitted HPVs (Lawson et al 2008), (vii)  the development of evidence which contradicts the traditional scientific wisdom that breast feeding is not associated with breast cancer (Lawson et al 2007), (viii)  the development of evidence that localised breast cancers may have systemic influences in skin and hair (Lawson & Tran 2007), (ix) the first recognition that some MMTV positive breast cancers may have similar morphology (microscopic appearances) to MMTV positive mouse mammary tumors (Lawson et al 2006, Lawson et al 2010),  (x) contradiction of the scientific belief that estrogen receptor expression in normal  breast tissues is higher in breast cancer of Western as compared to Asian women thus supporting the use of tamoxifen as a treatment for breast cancer in Asia (Tran & Lawson 2004).
This research had conclusively shown that human papilloma virus and mouse mammary tumor viruses are present in up to half of all breast cancers in Western women. Whether these viruses are causal of breast cancer and not harmless parasites remains to be determined.

Meanwhile Jim and Margaret’s sons and daughters have grown up. All are married and most have produced children, although not to the extreme of their parents. None have studied medicine or social work.  Among the eight, there are three school teachers, a scientist, a veterinary surgeon, a police woman, a business man, and even a lady barrister (a legal advocate not to be confused with a barista).



Johal H, Ford CE , Glenn WK,  Heads J, Lawson JS , Rawlinson WD. Mouse mammary tumor like virus (MMTV) sequences in breast milk from healthy lactating women. Breast Cancer Research Treatment 2011; e publication.

Heng B, Glenn WK, Lee JHK, Tan XV, Lawson JS, Whitaker NJ. Is HPV-18 present in human breast cancer cell lines? Br J Cancer 2010;102, 1551-1552. doi:10.1038/sj.bjc.6605672

Heng B, Glenn WK, Ye Y, Tran D, Delprado W, Lutze-Mann L, Whitaker NJ, Lawson JS. Human papilloma virus is associated with breast cancer. Br J Cancer 2009;101:1345-1350.

Lawson J.S, and Heng B. Viruses and Breast Cancer. Review. Cancers 2010, 2, 752-772; doi:10.3390

Lawson J.S. , Leaver, C. ,Cullen, E.K. (1979)The Successful Development of Co-ordinated Rehabilitation and Geriatric Services in Northern Sydney. Aust. Health Review 1979;  4:1-10.

Lawson JS, Boyce NR, Cornwall J, Jones KS, Westphalen JB. The Local Area Organisation:  A practical solution to the problem of fragmented health services.  Aust. Health Review 1979;4:16-24.

Lawson JS, Callaghan A. Recreating the village:  the successful development of groups as a means of improving social relationships among Australian mothers of new born infants.  Aus J. Public Health 1991;15:64-66.

Lawson JS, Close G.  `New Public Health’ approaches among isolated rural Aboriginal communities in New South Wales, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Information Bulletin 1994;19:25-35.

Lawson JS, Glenn WK, Heng B, Ye Y, Tran B, Lutze-Mann L, Whitaker NJ. Koilocytes indicate a role for human papilloma virus in breast cancer. Br J Cancer 2009;101:1351-1356.
Lawson JS, Glenn WK, Salmons B, Ye Y, Heng B, Moody P, Johal H, Rawlinson WD,  Delprado W, Lutze-Mann L, Whitaker NJ. Mouse mammary tumor virus-like sequences in human  breast cancer. Cancer Research 2010;70:3576-3585.
Lawson JS, Glenn WK, Whitaker NJ.  Breast cancer, human papilloma virus and sexual activities. Br J Cancer 2008;98:510-511.
Lawson JS, Heads J, Glenn WK, Whitaker NJ. Breastfeeding, breast milk and viruses. BMC Women’s Health 2007;7:17-20.

Lawson JS, Oliver TI. Domestic Swimming Pool Drowning in Children.  Positive Results of a Practical Prevention Programme. Aust. Paediatric Journal 1978;  14:275-277.
Lawson JS, Tran DD, Carpenter E, Ford CE, Rawlinson WD, Whitaker NJ, Delprado W. Presence of mouse mammary tumour-like virus gene sequences may be associated with specific human breast cancer morphology. J Clin Pathol 2006;59:1287-1292.

Lawson JS, Tran DD, Rawlinson WR. From Bittner to Barr – a viral, diet and hormone breast cancer aetiology hypothesis. Breast Cancer Research 2001:3:81-85.

Lawson JS, Tran DD. Localised breast cancers may have systemic influences on skin and hair. J Clin Path 2007;60:180-184.

Lawson JS. Diarrhoeal Disease in Papuan Infants and Children, Med. J. Aust. 1967; 1:101-104.

Lawson JS. Management of the Casualty Department.  A study at Footscray Hospital. Health Care 1969;1:16-18.

Oliver TI, Lawson JS. Glass Laceration Injuries and Prevention.  Med. J. Aust. 1979;  1:190-191.
Oliver TI, McFarlane JP, Haigh JC, Cant GM, Bodie AM, Lawson JS. Playground Equipment  and accidents. Australian Paediatric J 1981;17:100-103.

Rotem TR, Lawson JS, Wilson SF, Engel S, Rutowski SB, Aisbett CW. Severe cervical spinal cord injuries related to rugby union and league football in New South Wales, 1984-1996. Med J Australia 1998;168:379-381.
Tran D. Lawson J. Rates of estrogen receptor-alpha(ER) expression are no different in low-risk (Vietnam) and high-risk (Australian) breast cancer. Applied Immunohistochemistry & Molecular Morphology. 2004;12:139-41.

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