24 Aug 2010

Baby health pioneer Sir Graham Liggins dies

7:57 pm on 24 August 2010

Internationally noted scientist Sir Graham Liggins has died after a long illness. He was 84.

The New Zealand professor, who died on Tuesday, was best known for his treatment of babies due to be born prematurely by pioneering hormone injections to accelerate the growth of lungs.

Sir Graham, known as Mont, was born in Thames and educated at Thames High School and Auckland Grammar School.

He graduated from Otago University with a medical degree in 1949 and the following year took a Diploma in Obstetrics at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.

Later, he taught at Auckland University, becoming Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecological Endocrinology in 1971.

He first came to prominence in the 1960s when he discovered that it is babies, not their mothers, who determine the time of birth and, with a British doctor also found that babies do breathe in the womb.

Sir Graham's work led to a much deeper understanding of the birth process and transformed the practice of neonatology.

The technique of using hormone injections to accelerate the growth of lungs is now standard practice and has dramatically improved survival rates of premature babies worldwide.

Sir Graham was widely honoured for his work, becoming a CBE in 1985 and a knight in 1991 for his services to medical research.

In 1980, he received the Polar Medal for Antarctic research and the Hector Medal in for biomedical research. He was an honorary fellow of British, American and New Zealand Colleges of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

The Liggins Institute at Auckland University, committed to world-class biomedical and clinical research, is named after him.

Hero, mentor and friend

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman told Checkpoint on Tuesday that he has lost a great friend, mentor and hero.

Sir Peter says there is an enormous number of people around the world who now owe the health of their children to Sir Graham's research.

"Babies who were born prematurely 30 or 40 years ago died. It was because of his research that the beginnings of modern neonatology became possible and so many babies now survive."