For 62 years, the UNSW Sydney’s faculty of Medicine & Health has evolved its state-of-the-art health education and training, establishing a global reputation to emerge as one of Australia’s great medical faculties.

From its modest beginnings accommodating 75 graduates who rejected the established options in favour of a new and experimental model, the gamble paid dividends for both the students and faculty alike.  

Stretching across New South Wales, UNSW’s campuses now stand as evolving hubs of medical excellence in Australia.

Showcasing our investment in comprehensive healthcare amassing prominent public hospitals, medical research institutes, and the inception of the Health Translation Hub, the faculty is a beacon of integrated research and education.

We celebrate the vanguards, who, in carving out their own careers, were instrumental in shaping UNSW Medicine & Health into the powerhouse it is today, cementing their place in the university’s History of Medicine.  



James Isbister, UNSW Alumnus, Adjunct Professor of Medicine, University of Sydney Medical School and Emeritus Consultant Physician, Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney.

It could be suggested that serendipity, acting as a third element intertwined with the forces of nature and nurture, played a notable role in influencing Professor James Isbister’s path to pursue a career in medicine and carry on the family legacy.

Apart from a brief flirtation dreaming of becoming an aeronautical engineer at age 17, his ‘free range childhood’ with plenty of hands-on activity and having a great admiration for his parents’ medical careers, encouraged a strong desire to follow on their paths.

Yet, the pivotal moment occurred when his father brought home a newspaper article advertising for prospective students at the newly established medical school at UNSW Sydney, sparking a six-decade love affair that followed. 


The Daily Telegraph news article heralding the opening of the new medical school at the University of New South Wales in 1961. Photo: James Isbister


“It didn’t take much to convince me. I headed over to the university on enrolment day with two friends and we were so impressed that we immediately enrolled,” says Prof. Isbister. 

It was 1961 and attracted by the excitement of a new venture, the three became part of a cohort of 75 students from eclectic backgrounds, to embark their undergraduate studies in the new faculty. Yet despite his enthusiasm, Prof. Isbister recalls the misspelling of ‘medicine’ on his application left a less than stellar first impression.

“Although I was competent in STEM subjects excelling in maths, physics and chemistry, humanities were a challenge in my final schooling year. I had a stutter and was tested and informed that I had a learning difficulty. There was no term for dyslexia at the time, but I was fortunate to have parents who persisted with a troublesome young son," says Prof. Isbister.

"My mother worked on my reading and English, instilling a lifelong passion for books. My father taught me exam techniques for conveying knowledge and information using algorithms, pictures, and dot points, assuring me that this would 'score marks faster than getting writer’s cramp with illegible writing and poor spelling'."


Construction of the Wallace Wurth School of Medicine and Biological Sciences buildings, 1961. Photo: Max Dupain, UNSW Archives.


Two of the first medical students to study for the B.Sc.Med - James Isbister and Henry Mok, 1964. Photo: Charles Shuttleworth Smith, UNSW Archives.


Prof. Isbister would later recount these anecdotes on UNSW’s radio station, Radio University VL2UV, describing how he overcame the hurdles of secondary education to achieve success in his foundation year of medicine, earning prizes in surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology.

“The teachers and mentors we had were quite remarkable and so committed to the success of UNSW medicine,” he says. “They set such an incredibly high standard of mentoring and exams that many students wouldn’t pass today, because they were proving themselves during those controversial early years, and in turn, we were proving them."

Our professors were patient and committed to the students, and I suspect UNSW Medicine & Health is where it is now in large part due to those pioneer professors who put their future and careers on the line against a lot of opposition and cynicism.
James Isbister

"These professors worked from the heart then and now and the university evolving its motto following COVID-19 to ‘Knowledge by Heart, Hand and Mind’ encompasses this superbly," says Prof. Isbister. 

Several of the faculty’s founding years’ academics were fellows of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, with two going on to become UNSW Deans of Medicine. One-quarter of the foundation year’s graduates became fellows of the college and the first PhD medical graduate, Professor John Chalmers, went on to become President of the College and remains an active UNSW Conjoint Professor.

One inspirational and demanding mentor to whom Prof. Isbister admits he will always be grateful to and cites as sparking his interest in physiology, was Professor Paul Korner: "He grounded me in physiology as the most important pre-clinical discipline for my career in haematology."

Another notable influence was Professor Jim Lance, one of Australia’s most distinguished neurologists and Prof. Isbister’s undergraduate mentors, who he remained in contact with until his passing in 2019.

“All my undergraduate and most of my post-graduate mentors have now passed on, but their influences remain with many of the early graduates of the new medical school,” muses Prof. Isbister. 


UNSW Emeritus Professors Jim Lance, James Isbister and Paul Korner. Photo: James Isbister.


Prof. Isbister completed his postgraduate training in internal medicine at St Vincent's Hospital where he was a member of the team that performed the first successful allogeneic bone marrow transplants in Australia and was instrumental in devising early treatments for autoimmune disease.  

Training and working in Papua New Guinea and later at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, further fuelled his developing passion for what would become his forte of more than six decades. Receiving a Bachelor of Science (Medicine) with Honours in Physiology in 1964, Prof. Isbister was one of the first undergraduates to qualify from the faculty, earning a Bachelor of Medicine / Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) with honours, four years later.

“The specialty that gave me the feeling of holistic medicine was haematology. It provided a seamless link between laboratory and clinical medicine, and I knew I had found my calling,” says Prof. Isbister. “Although doing bone marrow transplants treating leukaemia and lymphoma was my day work, I was enthralled with transfusion medicine because every speciality is involved in blood - you can’t get away from it!”

Practising under the likes of Professor Bob Pitney, one of Australia's pioneer haematologists, whom Prof. Isbister credits with giving him unparalleled exposure within the field, his career trajectory has had a major research and teaching focus on transfusion medicine and patient blood management. 

Widely regarded as an innovator who championed the transition of blood transfusion from a product-centric approach to one that prioritises the wellbeing of the patient, Prof. Isbister’s work in oxygen transport, haematological supportive therapy, and distinguishing patient blood management from donor blood management, have marked and progressed global pivotal advancements within the area.


Medical students James Isbister and Henry Mok in training.  Photo: James Isbister


Having previously served as Head of the Department of Haematology and Transfusion throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he was appointed as and remains an Emeritus Consultant Physician at Royal North Shore Hospital since 2004, and has chaired the transfusion registry at Monash University, Melbourne; the Advisory Committee and Board Member of the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood; and the National Blood Authority Patient Blood Management Steering Committee.

“When I turned 60, I had to re-evaluate my career. My view was to have a retirement from clinical work and to refocus,” he says. “Haematology is such an intense specialty unless you are on rounds every day. I didn’t want to roll into retirement so expanded my expertise into less intense areas.”

Recently celebrating his 80th birthday, it is clear Prof. Isbister has little intention of slowing down, even these days during what he refers to as his ‘second retirement’. It is not in his blood.

“I am still able to mentor young colleagues in various research activities and despite being a ‘cured’ dyslexic, I have always enjoyed writing, with more of it these days based around medical history,” says Prof. Isbister. “UNSW is diligent in ensuring that those principles are instilled into the students. I believe this comes back to the origins of the university.”

Acknowledging the influence by his own UNSW mentors, Prof. Isbister is emphatic on the importance of nurturing a long-term vision when supporting the current generation of medical students within the faculty. 

“Plan the stages of your life, put your gap years in and keep your interests varied and options open. You’ve got to do something other than medicine really well. A lot of disciplines are overlapping now fortunately. In my day, you were locked into a career and if you were dissatisfied, you wouldn’t be particularly good at anything else.

“And perhaps most importantly, maintain your moral compass. Ethics should be your anchor, not just in practising medicine, but throughout your life.”


UNSW Wallace Wurth School of Medical Sciences, 2023. Photo: UNSW, Sydney.