(Australian Broadcasting Corporation) ~ 21 July 2015
Obituary: Taboo-breaking doctor Priscilla Kincaid-Smith remembered as trailblazer for women
By Eliza Buzacott-Speer
Priscilla Kincaid-Smith identified the link between headache powders and kidney disease. (Photo Supplied)
Priscilla Kincaid-Smith was a world-renowned nephrologist and trailblazer for Australian female scientists, taking on breakthrough roles with the University of Melbourne and World Medical Association, and discovering the link between headache powders and kidney disease.
Dr Kincaid-Smith died at her Melbourne home on Saturday at the age of 88 from complications following a stroke.
She was the first female professor at the University of Melbourne in 1975, first female chair of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, first female chair of the Australian Medical Association and the first female and first Australian chair of the World Medical Association.
One of Dr Kincaid-Smith's most important discoveries was identifying the link between the overuse of headache powders Bex and Vincents and kidney disease in the early 1960s.
She then actively lobbied for restrictions on the availability of the analgesics.
"In doing that, she would have probably saved tens of thousands of people's kidney functions and therefore avoided them going on dialysis," her daughter, Jackie Fairley, said.
"Indeed, that condition has virtually disappeared."
Dr Kincaid-Smith was also heavily involved in setting up the renal transplant unit at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
During the 1970s, she concentrated on the prevention of renal failure before being appointed professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne, a position she held until her retirement in 1991.
Remarkable achievements 'unparalleled'
Professor Rowan Walker, director of renal medicine at The Alfred hospital in Melbourne, was tutored by Dr Kincaid-Smith.
"For their time, [her achievements] were quite remarkable," he said.
"Her research endeavours and education endeavours are almost unparalleled in renal disease. She was very much bent on preventing patients reaching end-stage kidney disease."
Dr Kincaid-Smith's family said they would remember a talented trailblazer whose passion for her work never detracted from family life.
"Her success stands by itself, but I think the thing that stands out is that she was able to balance it all," her son, Professor Christopher Fairley, said.
"It sounds preposterous that a woman would have to give up her job just because she was married. She couldn't believe that there would be such a rule.
"She always had heaps of energy for us. My brother and I were quite dyslexic but she read all our schoolbooks onto tape for us.
"I couldn't read at that time and so the audio coming through, and seeing the words, almost certainly got me through my VCE exam and that meant that I got into medicine.
"People sometimes think you can't have it all. Well, she did."
'You had to jump a higher bar as a woman'
One of four children, Dr Kincaid-Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on November 30, 1926.
A talented swimmer and hockey player, she was more interested in sport than attending classes, but being obviously bright she began university at just 16.
Though she wanted to study physical education, she was too young and ended up in a medical science degree where she topped most of her classes and ultimately discovered her love of medicine.
She studied and worked in South Africa and England, where she met her husband Ken Fairley, before relocating to Australia in the late 1950s.
But upon arriving, Dr Kincaid-Smith found that although in London she was a highly acclaimed, dual-qualified physician and pathologist, she was unable to work in Australia because she was married.
"It sounds preposterous that a woman would have to give up her job just because she was married," Professor Fairley said.
It was not just the law Dr Kincaid-Smith had to battle, with both subtle and outspoken gender discrimination rife in the Australian scientific community.
"She clearly fulfilled the criteria for promotion within the university but was held back by some men who were ideologically opposed to the idea that women can work," Professor Fairley said.
"Some women also felt she shouldn't be working, so she had to battle it on two fronts.
"She told me once she was at a swimming spot and one of the mothers turned around to her and said: 'It would be terrible to have to work.'
"This concept that you work because you loved your work, that you could love your family and your work and do both extremely well was almost foreign to Australian society at that time.
"You had to jump a higher bar as a woman than you did as a man to get recognition."
Despite the harassment, Dr Kincaid-Smith went on to play a pioneering role in renal disease research, working as one half of a team with her husband.
Professor Fairley said his father's support for his wife's career put him out of step with many other men at the time.
Priscilla Kincaid-Smith will be remembered as a trailblazer whose passion for her work never detracted from family life. (Supplied)
"It was really dad who was magnificent in his support for her at that period of time when Australia was riddled with entrenched sexism," he said.
"He is a man who was almost half a century ahead of his time in his thinking. With that support she flourished and got incredibly excited by the research and discoveries.
"When we as kids watched them at home interact about their research findings, it was like two kids in a honey pot and they just loved it."
Ms Fairley said: "She and my father together pieced together that causation between headache powders and this terrible lesion of the kidneys.
"She then lobbied the governments successfully to change the formulation of those products to remove the addictive components in them.
"She combined a remarkable career and contributed greatly to not only the health of the nation in Australia, but also internationally to the areas of research she was involved in.
Encouraged by her husband, Dr Kincaid-Smith went back to work just three weeks after having twin boys and later again returned soon after giving birth to her daughter.
When Dr Kincaid-Smith died on Saturday she was surrounded by family.
"You couldn't have hoped for more and that was testament to how close her family was to her," Professor Fairley said.
"She said: 'It is a challenge having kids and working, but just remember, there's only one thing that matters, that your kids know you love them.'
"And she certainly achieved that."