Pioneering female scientist awarded Florey Medal

Tayla Gentle / October 29, 2013 11:07 AM

Professor Ruth Bishop is a biomedical sleuth, a disease detective.

In the lab, alongside her team of scientists, she, piece by piece, puts together the clues to solve human health puzzles.  

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And almost forty years ago, as she studied what was beneath her microscope, she made a hugely significant discovery, one which would contribute to saving millions of children around the world.

Professor Bishop, of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Victoria, was a leading member of the team that discovered the human rotavirus, a deadly gastro virus which leaves children dangerously dehydrated.

In uncovering the cause and nature of this common type of gastro, Professor Bishop’s research led to the proliferation of an effective, and life-saving, vaccine.

On Monday night at the Canberra awards ceremony, Professor Bishop, now aged in her 80’s, stepped up to receive the prestigious Florey Medal.

And in doing so, became the first ever woman awarded the prize.

"It was like most scientific discoveries. You just follow the clues that are there and try and assess the next thing to do.

“With me it was the knowledge that most children admitted to hospital with acute gastro-enteritis had no known cause," she said.

"It was a long way between discovery and development of a safe and effective vaccine. I predicted at the time it would take five years, in the end it took nearly 35.”

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Professor Ruth with her team

While the vaccine is widely available in over 100 countries, almost half a million children still die from rotavirus each year, mainly in developing countries.

A new Australian vaccine for newborns is currently being trialled in New Zealand and Indonesia, which hopes to tackle the infection in these developing nations.

Neil Byrne, a spokesman for the Florey Medal, says Professor Bishop is one of Melbourne’s “quiet achievers”.

"What she's made happen has had a huge impact around the world and it's time to recognise she's one of our unsung heroes,” he said.

Although retired now, Professor Bishop continues to mentor and support young scientists.

Sources: The Age, ABC

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