PROFESSOR Ron Penny, the man who diagnosed the first case of AIDS in Australia in 1982 and a leading researcher in the field, died overnight.
Penny and his family arrived in Australia in 1938 after fleeing the Nazis in Poland. It was that family history that defined in his career.
After diagnosing a gay man of having AIDS, he fought hard against the discrimination that followed in Australia.
“The political issue was not AIDS itself; it was the discrimination and the repercussions of the way the straight community thought about gay men,” Penny told The Sydney Morning Herald in the early 2000s.
“The attitude was ‘they caused it themselves, it is due to their lifestyle’, and I saw that as a very dangerous process.
“Being Jewish … I think I understand discrimination – my family left Poland because of the antisemitism and I could see … that it was just the same story with different names.”
Penny, who was St Vincent’s Hospital’s Centre for Immunology inaugural director and went on to become one of Australia’s most influential scientists, made it his mission to defend the human rights of individuals.
“I was trying to kill all those stories … that you can get it from touching the handrail on a public bus, you can get it from going to the hairdressers, from gay men breathing on you or shaking hands.”
Penny was honoured by many in his field and the community as a pioneer.
Don Baxter, the former head of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations said Penny was a strong leader and more than just a doctor in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“He knew when to take risks and be publicly critical of the [health] minister – commonwealth or state – and when not to … he was very much an activist.”
Former federal health minister Neal Blewett said Penny was “one of the heroes of the early days of HIV”.
“He was quite self-effacing and quite modest and I perhaps didn’t realise how valuable he was.”
In 2008, while chair of the NSW Government’s Chronic, Aged and Community Health Priority task force, and a member of the NSW Health Care Advisory Committee, Penny was appointed to the Federal Government’s National Health and Hospital Reform Commission
In 1993 the Commonwealth recognised Penny with an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his service to medical research and education, particularly in the field of clinical immunology.