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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin
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Professor Gracelyn Smallwood

Adjunct Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Molecular Sciences
PO Box 535
Belgian Gardens QLD, 4810


Professor Gracelyn Smallwood is Professor of Nursing at Central Queensland University and Adjunct Professor at the Division of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University (JCU), Townsville, Queensland (QLD).

Speaking about her life, Gracelyn states:

I grew up in a condemned house with a dirt floor, 18 siblings (14 of us in one family, five more when my father re-married) of whom I am the third eldest. My father was one of the Stolen Generation, taken from his family in the North Queensland town of Ayr and banished to the notorious Palm Island dormitories,  for the ‘crime’ of having brown skin instead of black skin.Brown babies were proof of the relationships the white men of small towns were having, so the children were removed to spare the white men’s embarrassment. We lived under the threat of the Aboriginal Protection Act in North Queensland. I struggled at school as did many Indigenous kids, because many of us thought sport would pull us through and we felt disengaged until a dynamic and caring Indigenous teacher made us realise we couldn’t rely on sport as a career move.  Back in 1967 there were few options for Aboriginal girls, so I trained to be a nurse.

In 1972, I became a registered nurse and used my qualifications to work in communities such as Alice Springs, Palm Island, remote Western Australia and South Australia. I was a volunteer member of the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health service in 1974, and worked as a volunteer Registered Nurse with two volunteer Doctors. Later I became a registered midwife and worked with the Remote Emergency Nursing Services, which took me all over remote Australia delivering babies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with no benefits of modern technology. I have also worked in remote Australia with the late Dr Fred Hollows on the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program.

I was awarded the Queensland Aboriginal of the Year in 1986 and an Order of Australia in 1992 for service to public health, particularly HIV-AIDS education.

In 1993, I was the first Indigenous Australian to receive a Masters of Science in Public Health (JCU) for my work on HIV education in North Queensland Indigenous communities. I have been employed as an advisor to the World Health Organisation on HIV-AIDS and Indigenous communities, and by the Queensland Health Minister Ken McElligot and Queensland Minister for Family Services Ann Warner because of my expertise on health and domestic violence inequalities. My representations to the Minister for Families resulted in culturally appropriate domestic and family violence policies and positive development of the Domestic and Family Violence Act 1989 (Qld). In 1994 I became the first woman, first Indigenous person and first non-paediatrician to receive the Henry Kemp Memorial Award at the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. I completed a Diploma in Indigenous Mental Health, and have worked with acute and chronic psychiatric patients, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous, for many years.

I was invited to be special guest for the then South African President, Mr Nelson Mandela in 1997, and used the time speaking with activists including the sons of the late Steve Biko, and giving HIV-AIDS prevention talks and workshops. I was one of the small group of health practitioners who understood the risk of HIV-AIDS in Indigenous communities, and we devised the now mainstream and famous Condoman to promote safe sex in a culturally appropriate way.

In 2007 I had one of my greatest achievements, the Deadly Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Indigenous Health. I was especially delighted with this award, as it is peer- and community judged.

From 2007-2011 I held a part-time role as Special Advisor to the Vice Chancellor on Indigenous Matters at James Cook University where I was given the task of improving relationships between the University and the Indigenous community.

In October 2013 I was awarded the United Nations Association of Australia Queensland Community Award - Individual, in recognition of service to public health, in particular HIV AIDS, contribution to Australian Universities, and consultation to the World Health Organisation. In 2014, I received the prestigious award of NAIDOC Person of the Year. I was also formally recognised for my contribution of 45 years to health and human rights advocacy and became a member of the Queensland Mental Health and Drug Advisory Council. I also received James Cook University Outstanding Alumni Award in 2014.

In 2015 I was appointed Member, The Harvard FXB Health and Human Rights Consortium; a Member, North Queensland Primary Healthcare Network (NQPHN) Clinical Council for the Townsville-Mackay region; member of Townsville Hospital and Health Board and a Member, Federal Ministerial Advisory Committee on Blood Borne Viruses and Sexually Transmissible Infections. I was also awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM).

In 2011, I completed my PhD thesis Human Rights and First Australians Well-being. My PhD has been published by Routledge in London as a hardback monograph. The publication is titled Indigenist Critical Realism.

I am a Birrigubba, Kalkadoon and South-Sea Islander woman born in Townsville in 1951. I have been advocating against the racism and violation of human rights against my people for the past 45 years. My parents also did so for 50 years, and my grandparents for another 50 years before that. I have dealt with almost every disease, both nationally and internationally, however I have never been able to come to terms with the ugly disease of racism.

Last updated: 13 October 2016
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