It was 3am and Professor Mary-Louise McLaws was awake working, waiting for another online meeting to start with experts at the World Health Organisation, when she developed a sudden strange headache.
“I was so tired,” the highly respected epidemiologist recalled.
“The next day my husband knew that I was really unwell … Thank God he’s the perfect husband, and he rang the ambulance, because I couldn’t make any sense out of any question.”
Mary-Louise McLaws with fellow infectious diseases experts Sanjaya Senanayake and Robert Booy at the National Press Club in February last year.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
When she got to the emergency department on Sydney’s North Shore, an MRI was arranged. Later a doctor came to see her. McLaws took one look at her face and knew exactly what she was going to say.
“The woman was gorgeous, she looked so sad. I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a brain cancer,’ and she nodded.”
By this point McLaws – who has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the General Division “for distinguished service to medical research, particularly to epidemiology and infection prevention, to tertiary education, and to health administration” in this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours – had become a household name in Australia.
“I was never anti the government, I was only upset about how our community was not cared for with early vaccines.”Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
Long admired by her colleagues nationally and globally for her influential work on infection control with the World Health Organisation, McLaws rarely, if ever, turned down a request from a journalist, doing countless interviews for television, radio and newspapers.
She said that she wanted to instil a sense of confidence in those that were listening to her: “I was at home, always wearing the same thing and always sounding the same way,” she recalled.
During the day she was also working for the University of NSW, then into the night with the World Health Organisation.
The news in January that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour led to an outpouring of tributes from thousands of people who had felt reassured by her expertise, often as great swaths of the country lived in lockdown.
Among them were Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who wrote that McLaws’ “calm, wise and informed voice has helped all of us understand and navigate this pandemic”.
Her contribution during COVID-19 is just the tip of the iceberg. McLaws has been an adviser to the World Health Organisation for more than two decades and written more than 180 research publications.
She travelled to the World Health Organisation in Geneva in February 2020 to convene with other experts as they tried to make sense of the emerging virus. At that time, she said she knew it was a “very interesting disease … that you know is going to spread”.
McLaws at her Sydney home last year.Credit:Louise Kennerley
The infection control expert was among the first experts in Australia to warn Victorians to stay away from the 2020 grand prix because of the risk of it becoming a coronavirus super-spreading event. The car race was famously cancelled on the opening day, March 13, as crowds lined up outside. McLaws was also vocal on closing the Australian border early.
She never backed away from holding governments to account on their pandemic response and was among the first experts to talk about the need for face masks, when the idea of the public wearing them every day seemed unimaginable.
In June last year, she lashed the NSW government for waiting days too long to take decisive action that could have prevented major coronavirus spreading events after the more virulent Delta variant emerged.
“The horse has bolted, but the horse started bolting last week,” she said at the time.
McLaws was also among the first to lobby for rapid antigen testing, and warned of the risks of outbreaks by keeping returned travellers in poorly ventilated hotels. She led the charge on the need for sophisticated quarantine facilities, such as Howard Springs in Darwin.
“I was never anti the government, I was only upset about how our community was not cared for with early vaccines,” she said on Thursday.
She is hopeful that a new generation of vaccines, including those that do a better job of reducing transmission, will prove the way out of the pandemic.
After receiving at least a dozen different treatments for her brain tumour, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy, there is no sign of McLaws’ cancer for now.
The uncertainty of living, or not, is something that has been more difficult for her friends and family, she said, than for someone like her who has spent a lifetime in the “logical” health and medicine fields.
She said she was overwhelmed by the flood of well-wishes from the community.
“They sent emails … I was really surprised. Not only do I love my students and Australians, Australians are very, very lovely.”
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