College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

7 December 2020

The origin of a legacy

Have you ever wondered what it takes to start a medical school? They are often considered the jewel in the crown for universities and bring with them influential people, research and prestige. For James Cook University, the fight for a medical school began in the late 90s as a Game of Thrones style political battle.

Former Deputy Vice Chancellor of Tropical Health and Medicine, Professor Ian Wronski found himself in the middle of a ‘Battle for the North’ when he embarked on a crusade to create a better health workforce for regional, rural and remote communities.

Riding on the success of the Masters of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Professor Wronski had built impressive momentum in the health sector at JCU. Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Pharmacy and Sport Science were established, but Medicine was the next critical piece in the puzzle.

As we celebrate 50 years of JCU and 20 years of the Medicine program, Professor Wronski reflects on the key players in the battle and what it took to bring medicine to JCU.

Michael Wooldridge opening the Medicine buildings
Professor Ian Wronski
The opening ceremony of JCU Medicine building 5 December 2000 (Left), Professor Ian Wronski (Right)

The battle for the North

The end of the 90s saw the beginning of a torrid campaign to establish a medical school. No one had done this for 25 years and pretty much all the other medical schools opposed it.

We recruited Bob Porter, who was Dean of Medicine at Monash University, to become Planning Dean for the school. There was a lot of political support from North Queensland in Member of Leichhardt Warren Entsch, Member for Herbert Peter Lindsay, Member for Kennedy Bob Katter and also politicians in Mackay. Peter Lindsay in particular made it his job to get the school, and Bob Katter also played a big role. It was quite bloody. I think Peter Lindsay around that time said it was the "bloodiest political campaign he'd been in". It wasn’t just a university against universities and state against state, but we had the State Government against the Federal Government and divisions in Queensland Health about whether they would support it.

Ultimately, the Federal Government agreed to provide the places for JCU. We started with just 60, which wasn't enough. But they were worried we weren't going to pull it off and maybe it was a case of ‘we might give them some more later’, which they did. We had our first intake in the year 2000 with 600 applications for those spots.

Really, it created a revolution in northern Queensland higher education. Medical schools bring a whole lot of content, it's not the only thing, but a lot of research spins off because of areas of interest. There are a lot of things that come with it, which is why so many universities want them. There are a lot now, but there wasn't then.

Planning Dean Bob Porter celebrating the funding
Michael Wooldridge Peter Lindsay Bob Katter and Ian Wronski
Celebrating securing funding - A/Prof Errol Maguire and Vic Callinan, Prof Ian Wronski, A/Prof Trevor Wood and Planning Dean Prof Bob Porter (Left), Dr Michael Wooldridge, Peter Lindsay, Bob Katter and Prof Ian Wronski at the opening (Right)

Battle lines laid

The other part of the medical school was the merger of JCU and the Northern Queensland Clinical School, which belonged to the University of Queensland (UQ).

It was led by Professor Richard Hays, who was working for UQ in the clinical school at the time. Ultimately he jumped ship and became the first Dean of the JCU Medical School, with Bob Porter still Planning Dean. The politics in the merger weren't pretty.

UQ was generally very hostile to everything in health at JCU. The Anton Breinl Centre in the early 90s was under threat. There was a national review that suggested that it didn't have a context to survive and that it should be merged with UQ. So right through the 90s, up until the early 2000s, the tension over this between JCU and UQ was pretty significant. Some of them never got over it.

It wasn't until Peter Brookes became Dean of Medicine at UQ that things started to calm. I still remember the occasion… I'm sure he does. We went out to dinner when I was in Brisbane. He took me out and we had an expensive dinner. He said, "So right, I've given you a really good dinner and wine, so now let’s work out how to stop this". We agreed that we would withdraw back into our respective territories. In those days for UQ, it became somewhere between Rockhampton and Mackay and for JCU, somewhere between Mackay and Rockhampton. The deal was that we would withdraw all of our vying and politicking to concentrate on our regions. I think when I crunched the numbers, it saved us about $50,000 to $80,000 a year of useless stuff that really came out of the previous decade. It was the Wronski-Brookes line that people talked about for quite a while, which was a demilitarised zone.

Since then things have evolved a lot, but it was very tense. Some people who led UQ at the time have never forgotten it and were still making efforts to talk about that. Like when the JCU dental school was proposed. Some of the people involved were lobbying government saying JCU shouldn't have that.

Foundation Dean Prof Richard Hays with first cohort students Dr Brad Murphy and Dr Shannon Springer

Back to the ‘Stone Age’

We had done quite a lot of things right that we have replicated every time we've created a big program.

We established a thing called the Integrated Working Party that I chaired. The thing we did right was to work out what we were trying to produce first, and then wrote the curriculum to fit that. We've done that over and over again and it's worked each time. Rather than working out what subject you've got, tether them together and call it something. We were pretty systematic and I think those formulas have stood the test of time, and many of those structures still exist.

I think we got the curriculum right. We went for a six-year program because that's what it took. People said we were going back to the 'Stone Age' because we reintroduced anatomy and science into the medical curriculum. They had sort of slipped away as the medical curriculum became smaller, four-year and five-year programs emerged. But our analysis was — what does it take to produce a graduate who's able to work in underserved populations? The answer — it takes more clinical hours. Lots of other things, too. So I think we played a really big role in reorienting medical curriculum a lot like to where it's ultimately returned in some areas.

The first JCU Medicine cohort in 2000

Proudest achievements

I count the establishment of the Med school as one of my proudest achievements during my 28 years at JCU.

It was one of the biggest battles and no one will forget it. The politicians involved never forgot it. Dr Michael Wooldridge, who was the Health Minister at the time, has become a personal friend as a result of that.

There's a funny story — Wooldridge, at one point, when Peter Lindsay was down there all the time hammering him, said ‘Look Peter, one of the reasons why I gave you the medical school was to get you out of my office!’ Because Katter, Lindsay and Warren Entsch were there all the time.

Twenty years on, it still gives me great pleasure to see our graduates out in the world doing what we intended them to do — making a difference in regional, rural and remote and underserved communities, both in Australia and internationally.

Make rural health matter. Study medicine at JCU.