Ralph Reader CMG 1918 - 2008

A busy life … Ralph Reader at Sydney University in 2006

Fifty years ago heart patients in Australia were treated as delicate invalids and prescribed prolonged bed rest. Few people disagreed with the belief that heart trouble went hand in hand with age. Yet heart attacks, heart failure and strokes were killing people in what seemed like epidemic proportions, accounting for two-thirds of all deaths.

In 1956 Paul Wood, an Australian cardiologist working in London, wrote in his textbook: "The sterile doctrine that atherosclerosis is an inevitable consequence of growing old has had to be abandoned." At a conference in 1959 at the Australian National University, which the prime minister, Robert Menzies, addressed enthusiastically, a group of prominent people resolved to form the National Heart Foundation. Ralph Reader became the foundation's first director in 1961 and led it for 20 years.

In 1968 Reader was the first to report a plateau then a decrease in the number of deaths related to heart attacks, heart failure and stroke. Australia was the first country to reverse the upward trend, and the role of the foundation was crucial to this success. Women, including Dame Enid Lyons and Nancy Bird-Walton, were prominent in the foundation's early growth and success.

Sydney Ralph Reader, who has died at 89, was born in Brisbane to Sydney Reader, an accountant, and his wife, Nellie. The family came to Sydney when he was a baby. After securing his Leaving Certificate from Fort Street High School, he went to the University of Sydney, where he felt no particular vocation for medicine and "would have been as happy in any other sort of university pursuit". Nonetheless, medicine "looked like an attractive sort of life" and his degree came with honours.

Graduating in 1940, he became a resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital before joining the navy as a surgeon lieutenant and serving as a medical specialist until the end of World War II. He worked on an armed merchant cruiser in the Indian Ocean, on a fleet destroyer in different oceans and as a specialist in Darwin, while continuing his studies. He also had time to marry, in 1941, Hazel Scanlon, who became a professional singer.

At the end of the war Sydney University asked Reader to conduct research into renal disease. In 1948 he received a Nuffield medical fellowship, which took him to Oxford, where he earned a PhD and Hazel became very involved in music.

Back in Australia, he earned a living in private practice before lunch, worked as an honorary medical officer until late, and lectured at university. Gus (later Sir Gustav) Nossal and Marie Bashir (now the Governor of NSW) were among his students. "By jove I had a busy life," he said later. His research led to kidney transplants at Royal Prince Alfred, where he established the first nephrology unit.

At the Heart Foundation in Canberra he was first medical director then, from 1970, director. His two decades there were devoted to public education, professional practice and research into cardiovascular disease. He helped develop policies that aimed to reduce cholesterol levels and oversaw the establishment of coronary care units in hospitals across Australia. From 1965 the foundation stepped up its campaign against smoking.

Reader discovered the effectiveness of antihypertensive drugs for patients with mild hypertension and conducted the groundbreaking Australian National Blood Pressure Study. He played a key role in the establishment of Telecom's triple-0 emergency line.

Under the drily spoken Reader, the foundation became a formidable pressure group and ran one of Australia's most successful public education campaigns. "Heart disease is very emotive," he said. He published extensively and served on the National Health and Medical Research Council and as a consultant to the World Health Organisation. Even after leaving leaving the foundation's executive positions, Reader continued as a "member at large". In all, he had 47 years with the foundation. He changed the way Australians thought about cardiovascular disease, raising awareness of risk factors and promoting policies to counter heart disease.

The Readers lived for 22 years on a farm at Tuggeranong, where he built his own yards for beef cattle and fine-wool merino sheep. The Readers grew vegetables; he did his own killing and butchering, milked the dairy cow, Francoise, and wasted nothing, even tanning the sheep's hides.

They helped set up the Canberra School of Music and he became president of the ACT division of the Arts Council. They had a place at Mossy Point, south of Batemans Bay, on the South Coast, where he fished and sailed his boat, although prone to seasickness.

Reader was made a companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1976 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Sydney University in 2006.

Hazel died in 1994 after 53 years of marriage. Ralph Reader is survived by their children, Brian, Caroline and Jeremy, six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and his brother, Harold.

Tony Stephens
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald