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Dr Peter John Healy

K Walker B O’Rourke J Dennis Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, Menangle, Australia

Portrait Peter Healy

Born in the NSW country town of Cowra in 1940, Peter Healy was the second youngest of four boys. He grew up in Cowra and then Mandurama, before the family eventually settled in Pennant Hills. With limited education prospects in Mandurama, Peter boarded at St Gregory’s Agricultural College in Campbelltown at the age of 12, an experience that left him with a lifelong revulsion to sago, tapioca and custard. Despite the emphasis on football and religion, he graduated Dux of St Gregory’s and secured a Commonwealth Scholarship to study veterinary science at Sydney University, a path also taken by his eldest brother, Brian. Peter graduated with Class II Honours in 1963, coming second in his year to his good friend, David Fraser. After a short stint as Veterinary Inspector at Wagga Wagga, Peter returned to Sydney University to commence a PhD in the Department of Veterinary Pathology, under the guidance of Professor Cliff Gallagher. He was awarded a PhD in 1967 for his thesis detailing the pathogenesis of macrozamia poisoning, including the biochemical disturbances that lead to necrosis and lipid accumulation in the liver. He was then appointed to the Veterinary Research Station at Glenfield, NSW, to commence what would become a career spanning 40 years with the Department of Agriculture.

Peter’s work was acknowledged in 1972 with a Churchill fellowship for his “skills and technique of enzyme analysis not available in Australia”. The grant supported research at the Rowett Institute in Scotland on isoenzymes of serum alkaline phosphatase (SAP). Results relating changes in SAP activity to the 24 h post birth closure mechanism for absorption of immunoglobulins from the gut of newborn lambs was groundbreaking research that initiated productive discussions within the scientific community. The process of rigorous peer review proved the value of Peter’s sound, methodical approach to his work.

Alongside Drs Rod Falk and Ray Bayfield, Peter played an integral role in the Biochemistry laboratory at Glenfield throughout the 1970s, delivering both a diagnostic and research function to producers. Along with providing routine tests for copper, selenium, vitamins, lead and arsenic levels in livestock, his role in developing a biochemical assay to diagnose alpha mannosidosis in Angus cattle proved the driver for a passion that continued until his retirement — to identify the biochemical and molecular basis of genetic disorders in cattle, and offer producers and breed societies the tools necessary for their management and eradication. His aim was twofold: minimising the animal welfare impacts of lethal or debilitating genetic defects, as well as preventing associated production losses.

Peter was a visionary, very quickly understanding the potential of adapting and applying the newly emerging DNA technologies in medical research to the veterinary diagnostic field. In 1987, he and his wife Julie worked at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Here, they defined the mutation responsible for citrullinaemia in Holstein Friesians, developing the first of what was to become many PCR-based heterozygote detection tests for autosomal recessive defects in livestock. He fostered both national and international collaboration, benefitting both the medical and veterinary fields with animal models of human diseases and heterozygote detection tests, respectively. He pioneered the use of tail hair roots as the preferred source of DNA to avoid misdiagnoses of genotype that occurred with blood from bovine twins due to haematopoietic chimerism. He was instrumental in laying the foundations of molecular tests that are the hallmark of diagnostic functions at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute today. Peter authored more than 80 scientific publications and multiple book chapters throughout his career, and formally mentored one MSc (Julie) and two PhDs (Prof Peter Windsor & Julie). He delivered practical research outcomes in an inclusive manner that fostered cooperation between the broader scientific community, field colleagues, breed societies and producers. This skill is best exemplified by his shared success with Dr Keith Reichmann from Qld DPI, and John Croaker from the Australian Brahman Breeders Association, at managing Pompes Disease in Brahmans. Peter’s legacy continues in the EMAI Biotechnology laboratory under the innovative direction of another mentee, Dr Brendon O’Rourke and his colleagues.

Peter’s scientific contribution was recognised in the Australia Day Honours List in 1992 with a Public Service Medal, and a 40 year Meritorious Service award from NSW Agriculture in 1999.

A heart murmur diagnosed in 1987 during a medical examination in preparation for a dairy delegation to Kuwait with Dr Peter Mylrea, personalised deleterious inherited conditions for Peter. Heart disease was the nemesis of each of his three brothers, and he was clearly no exception. Rather than lament his genetic lottery, he channelled the same single-minded determination he showed as a scientist into his retirement from EMAI in 1999, returning to his roots of a full-time rural life. Again, the progressive visionary, he chose solar, wind, and water power in preference to a grid connection on their Braidwood, NSW, farm. He quickly acquired the skills necessary to transform an undeveloped 240 acres of largely "billy goat" country into a working venture, while minimising native animal disruption with several “in perpetuity” wildlife corridors. A small Angus stud was established, keeping Peter in touch with an industry he worked with for so long to help genetically improve, while at the same time providing a mechanism to mentor visiting students interested in agricultural or veterinary pursuits.

Cheating death in 2003 following a myocardial infarction in a GP waiting room, Peter eventually succumbed to a progressively weakened left ventricle in November 2019—consequences accelerated by two rounds of infective endocarditis. He was a man of principle and integrity, and his humble, stoic and always cheeky nature will be fondly remembered by those who were privileged to know him. He is survived by his children Gregory and Jacqueline from his first marriage with Janet, four grandchildren, and his soulmate, Julie.


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