From the Solomon Islands to SARS and COVID: How Stephen Corbett’s career in public health came into sharp focus

Blacktown Vaccination Hub opening. Left to right: Prof Stephen Corbett (Director of Centre for Population Health), Chantelle Mackenzie (Clinical Midwifery Educator)

When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Stephen Corbett knew he had to delay his retirement and lend his expertise to the one-in-one-hundred-year event.

“Over the last two exhausting years we have been engaged daily in debates about how to manage the pandemic in its many guises – from managing cases and their families to the bigger issues such as how to keep vital industries and institutions from buckling under pressure,” the Associate Professor said.

After 18 years working with Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) including two years on the response to COVID-19, the Director of Centre for Population Health is saying farewell and retiring this week.

It has been a great privilege to work in public health western Sydney over the last 18 years. We have trained and built a wonderful team in infectious disease control, environmental health, immunisation, health promotion and chronic disease prevention,”

Stephen Corbett Director, Centre for population Health

His career began at the University of Queensland, where he graduated in 1975, followed by work and training in general practice in western Sydney, Wollongong, and London before an esteemed career in Public, Environmental and Occupational Health.

“My interest in public health was sparked as a fifth-year student on a placement on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands,” Stephen reflected.

“I was given the job of cycling between villages collecting evening blood samples to look for the presence of the parasite Wuchereria bancrofti which causes filariasis, better known as elephantiasis.”

Stephen established himself as Director of the Environmental Health Food and Nutrition Branch in NSW Health for 13 years before transitioning to WSLHD in 2003.

“A few months before I started in western Sydney, the SARS epidemic broke in Hong Kong and I became convinced, based upon data published on the internet on the spatial spread of the infection, that a large SARS outbreak in an apartment complex in Hong Kong was due to airborne transmission of the virus over long distances,” he said.

Stephen developed a strong and lasting interest in airborne infection in public health, convening a national workshop on airborne infection in 2006.

“The insights and networks established at this time have been put to great use throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stephen said.

For many public health is a marginal activity which is literally and metaphorically ‘out in the back’ of the health care system… but COVID has brought into sharp relief the importance of public health knowledge and skills.”

Stephen has contributed greatly to his field, not only within his work with WSLHD, but with his academic research and his work with universities, as well as shaping the minds of students in his field.

“Stephen’s career and contribution to the innovation of population/public health, both in Australia and overseas, has been incredible, while also being a well-recognised academic,” said, Jasmin Ellis General Manager, Integrated and Community Health at WSLHD.

“On behalf of the District and Integrated and Community Health, I would like to thank Stephen for his incredible service and wish him well in his research over the next couple of years – he will be dearly missed.”

“I am very proud to have been involved in developing a public health medicine specialist training consortium in western Sydney, jointly managed by our unit, the National Centre for Immunisation Research and ICPMR,” Stephen said.

“Since 2010, eight specialist public health physicians have graduated from our program. They are all now gainfully and securely employed in managing different aspects of the COVID pandemic.

“During the pandemic we have worked with scores of volunteers – aircraft mechanics and other defence personnel, speech pathologists, social workers nurses, retired professors and Chief Health Officers and crucially medical students.

“I hope that their insights into what public health is and what it can be will lure some of them back.”

Thank you Stephen for all your work in western Sydney during your 47 year career and all the best in your well-deserved retirement.