A high-wire act: Dr Brendan Murphy on writing the rule book

By Emily McAuliffe

It's been almost two years since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, during which Trinity alum Dr Brendan Murphy made some of boldest public health decisions in Australia’s history. Here he talks about gut instinct, overcoming shyness and souvlaki-fuelled study sessions.

Dr Brendan MurphyIn mid-January, Brendan Murphy (TC 1973) issued a media release stating that the Australian government was monitoring a novel coronavirus that had emerged in China’s Wuhan region. The statement assured there was ‘no cause for alarm’ for Australians, but Brendan – then the Chief Medical Officer, who was preparing to step into a new role as Department of Health secretary – was on high alert. He had become aware of the virus on New Year’s Day and was tuned into early reports of human-to-human transmission in the weeks that followed. ‘That’s when we got really worried,’ he says.

At this point, the World Health Organisation had not issued a travel alert for China, least of all any suggestion of border closures, but key onlookers – Brendan included – were getting twitchy. The virus had started to spread, and while the US planned, Australia acted, becoming the first nation to bring down the grill on arrivals from China.

Would it be the right move? Brendan wasn’t sure.

‘There wasn’t a rule book, so all we could do was look at the evidence,’ he says. ‘Every measure you take in a public health sense takes a couple of weeks to have an effect, so sometimes you have to read the tea leaves and follow your gut.’

The bold move – and the travel restrictions that ensued – proved to be the circuit breaker that shielded Australia from a catastrophic first wave of a pandemic that would lead to a clamp on civil freedoms and push economies and health systems to the brink.

As the virus accelerated, and government controls were tightened, Brendan and his team nursed a heavy responsibility for the knock-on effects of their decisions. And it was the words of Brendan, delivered daily as the key spokesperson, that would seek to educate and comfort as Australian cities, airports and businesses were plunged into near dormancy.

Despite having their wings clipped and socialising policed, most Australians came to appreciate Brendan’s straight-talking yet sensitive delivery as they looked to the government for guidance. Some were learning for the first time that the role of Chief Medical Officer actually existed.

A self-described shy student, Brendan credits his Trinity years with building his confidence – putting him in good stead for roles such as Head of Nephrology at St Vincent’s Hospital and CEO of Austin Health, both in Victoria. He was appointed Australia’s CMO in 2016, a position that demanded up to eight media appearances a day during the COVID-19 crisis.

Upon taking his first top-level leadership role at the Austin, Brendan admits to having felt ‘a bit of a fraud’, leading 8500 people and managing an $8.5 million budget with no formal management or finance training. His post-college career ambition had been to work as an academic physician, which he did – becoming a nephrologist and researcher – before coming to the realisation that a typical 30-years-plus career in academia wasn’t his calling.

‘I had a big interest in health system reform and thought if I could go to the federal government as a senior political adviser, I could do a lot in workforce reform, Medicare reform, research reform and the like,’ says Brendan of his decision to take on the CMO role. ‘I thought I’d have a go.’

That ‘have-a-go’ attitude lingered from Brendan’s college days, where he joined the orchestra and squash team … and learnt to party. ‘I didn’t work terribly hard in those first few years, but I had a lot of fun.’

After two years living on campus and three years house sharing, Brendan returned to Trinity in his last year of medicine and bunkered down in Upper Bishops’ with plenty of coffee and 3am souvlakis to prepare for his final exams. ‘I didn’t participate as much in college life in that last year; I was almost catching up on those past years of study I should’ve done earlier.’

The crammed study paid off and led Brendan to a fulfilling career, so much so that he makes the enviable claim that he’s never not wanted to go to work. ‘I’ve had the huge privilege of enjoying every job I’ve ever done,’ he says. ‘Even as a junior doctor working 120-plus hours a week, I loved every minute of it. I think it’s helped that I’ve changed careers fairly dramatically on different occasions, but I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Not everyone gets to enjoy what they do every day.’

Brendan Murphy and Sally Walker wedding at Trinity College

Brendan Murphy met his wife Sally Walker – a former student of Janet Clarke Hall who became Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University – on the Bulpadock and the couple were married in the Trinity College Chapel by Trinity’s fifth Warden, the Revd Dr Evan Burge, in 1979. The couple are shown here with Burge in the background and Brendan’s groomsman and ex-Trinity student Dr Stuart Anderson (TC 1973) on the right.

This article first appeared in issue 89 of Trinity Today.

11 Mar 2021
Category: People