University of Melbourne Magazine

10,000 minds, one ambition

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    Sometimes monumental institutions can hide out in plain sight in a neighbourhood where they are part of the furniture.

    The Parkville Precinct is the product of careful strategic planning in recent years, capitalising on origins that long recognised – if rather more organically than explicitly – the synergies of medical education, treatment and research. Proximity, not mere serendipity, has played a powerful role in shaping the happy accidents of collaboration.

    From the early days on its original Swanston Street site, the 160-year-old, pioneering facility that would become the Royal Women’s Hospital had an association with the nearby fledgling University of Melbourne and some of the innovators of specialist obstetric practice.

    Meanwhile the Melbourne Free Hospital for Sick Children (now the Royal Children’s Hospital) was taking shape through the late 1800s, for many years occupying the grand former home of Judge Redmond Barry (one of the founders of the University) on the corner of Pelham and Rathdowne Streets, eventually being granted a couple of acres to spread out in Royal Park in 1948.

    Back in 1929 the city burghers decided to relocate the Royal Melbourne Hospital from its crowded CBD site to land alongside the University of Melbourne. It would be another 15 years before the “new” hospital took shape. Within it was a wing containing laboratories for the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

    Founded in 1915 from a widow’s bequest to honour her entrepreneur husband, the WEHI, Australia’s oldest medical research institution, had already gained formidable scientific kudos under the 20-year stewardship of Charles H Kellaway, who had just passed the baton to his protégé, Macfarlane Burnet, who would go on to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 1960.

    The WEHI facilities were transformed again recently through a $185 million investment, its legacy and stature in immunology research continuing to define Melbourne’s credentials in the international sphere.

    Across the road, in 1971, the Howard Florey Institute opened its laboratories. Today it endures in the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, amalgamated with the Brain Research Institute and the National Stroke Research Institute within the Melbourne Brain Centre.

    Work at the dazzlingly high-tech $200 million multi-campus centre focuses on conditions including stroke, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s, motor neurone disease, brain and spinal cord injury, depression, schizophrenia, mental illness and addiction. Their pre-eminence continues to boost Melbourne’s medical brand.

    Professor Geoff McColl, Senior Associate Dean (Academic) at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, stands at the hub of it all – Grattan Street and Royal Parade – and shouts a tour over the traffic.

    “You can walk for one minute and go from what will be a world-leading cancer centre, and an infection and immunity and teaching facility on this side, to an established general adult hospital with an international reputation in stroke and in cardiothoracic surgery (RMH), then the Royal Women’s Hospital around the corner, the WEHI – where I did my PhD – and then this oldish but still iconic ’60s building that has the medical school.”

    Tucked away in various corners are the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, the Nossal Institute for Global Health, the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) biochemistry unit and Victorian College of Pharmacy – Monash University – among others.

    “There’s not a lot of places where you can stand on a corner and see such a collection. It’s an extraordinary place to work,” says McColl. Layered on top of that is opportunity for “the next phase”, gluing together the collaborative links.

    McColl sees parallels between what is occurring now and what he observed within the WEHI 20 years ago when then director Professor Gus Nossal (PhD 1960, LLD 1997) was shaking things up, exploiting the opportunities of a new building to break old barriers.

    “WEHI divisions were their own little silos to some extent. So Gus put one tea room on the top floor looking north and there were three rules when you came to work at the institute – thou shalt go to morning tea, afternoon tea, and the WEHI seminar. Gus was saying all those informal connections were very important.”

    For all the ease of electronic communications, proximity matters as much today as ever, argues McColl. “I’m a great believer in the corridor. About 30 per cent of my business is transacted in corridors.”

    By now we’re standing outside the Melbourne Brain Centre. “Here you’ve got master scientists and master clinicians coming together and saying, ‘What do we need to do around neuroscience?’ We built a building so scientists with slightly different views on the problems of neuroscience are all sitting together with the platforms of technology they need.

    “That’s the other thing that’s changed with research – the notion of me having my laboratory and all my own equipment, it doesn’t make sense. The (Gus) Nossalian thinking is to put all the platforms there. Give them the stuff to let them do what you want them to do, the cognitive bit.”