Cossart, Yvonne

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BSc (Med) Hons 1957 MB BS Hons 1959 DCP (Lond) MRC Path FRCPA

In 1975 Yvonne Cossart discovered the ‘B19’ virus, which is known to be the cause of Fifth Disease in children as well as being a cause of aplastic anaemia, hydrops fetalis and acute arthritis. She is Bosch Professor of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at the University of Sydney.

Yvonne Cossart was born in 1934 and studied at the University of Sydney, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1957 and the MB BS in 1959. It was during these years that her interest in virology was ignited by undertaking classical virology research in the University of Sydney’s Department of Bacteriology headed by Professor Patrick De Burgh. In 1959, she first became Resident Medical Officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, becoming Registrar in Pathology from 1960 to 1962. At Royal Prince Alfred Hospital she also established a virus diagnostic laboratory within the Department of Microbiology.

Yvonne then travelled to London, where she undertook postgraduate studies in clinical pathology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. From 1963 to 1966 Yvonne was responsible for the enterovirus section of the Virus Reference Laboratory in the Central Public Health Laboratory, Colindale, where she was particularly concerned with devising laboratory methods for the surveillance of the efficacy and safety of poliomyelitis vaccination. During this time, she was also a member of the Medical Research Council Committee on Vaccination. From 1963 she worked for 13 years on a five-member panel which supervised the use of specific immunoglobulins and provided clinical advice and laboratory diagnosis for smallpox, rabies and other exotic infections. At this point, Yvonne was well on the way to becoming a world leader in the field of Infectious Diseases.

After being appointed as a consultant virologist in 1967, Yvonne began work on hepatitis, which remains her main area of interest. Initially, she was involved in providing a diagnostic and clinical advisory service for the whole of England and Wales, and later in producing reagents and in reference work. Her group designed effective control measures to contain hepatitis B in renal dialysis units in the UK and participated in the trials of hepatitis B immunoglobulin as post-exposure prophylaxis for needle-stick injury. She became Chairman of the Public Health Laboratory Service Working Party on Hepatitis in 1967, a position she retained for nine years. Between 1973 and 1976 she was Convenor and Chairman of the Society for General Microbiology Workshops on Hepatitis. Further to these appointments, Yvonne was a member of numerous committees concerned with testing, epidemiological surveys and the prevention of hepatitis in hospitals and in the community. In 1975, she and her colleagues recognised a previously unknown parvovirus in blood donations and transfusion recipients. This virus ‘B19’ is now known to be the cause of Fifth Disease in children and can also cause aplastic anaemia, hydrops fetalis and acute arthritis.

On return to Australia in 1977, Yvonne was appointed Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Sydney, still under the leadership of Professor Patrick De Burgh. With outstanding initiative and enthusiasm, Yvonne began to shape an innovative foundational structure for the research and teaching of virology in the Department. Her return to Australia coincided with the first availability of hepatitis B vaccines and she was involved in studies of the immunisation of health care workers and the implementation of prophylaxis for babies of hepatitis B carrier mothers. Most recently, her group has been investigating the effect of biofilms in efficacy sterilisation and disinfection both in the laboratory and in endoscopy units. In the Department of Infectious Diseases she became Associate Professor from 1979 to 1985 and Head from 1981 to 1992. She expertly led the Department for over a decade amid major financial, managerial and structural changes within the University and the Medical Faculty. She was appointed to the prestigious Bosch Chair in 1986. Yvonne has continued her work on hepatitis and parvovirus, but her interests have expanded to include human papilloma viruses. Her work on these viruses has included both epidemiological and experimental studies.

For studies of the effects of drugs and disinfectants on hepatitis B, Yvonne worked with Karen Vickery to characterise the duck hepatitis B model infections using the Australian DHBV strain isolated by PhD student J Freiman. This model has been adopted by several other Australian hepatitis research groups and there is long term collaboration with the DHBV group at Stanford University in California.

For many years as part of the papilloma group, Yvonne and her colleagues Barbara Rose and Carol Thompson have worked with clinicians from the gynaecology service at King George V Hospital and with members of the Sydney Sexual Health Clinic to investigate the clinical and epidemiological significance of the detection of different human papilloma types in cervical scrape and cervical biopsy specimens. The group has demonstrated that molecular detection of HPV DNA in lymph node biopsies is more sensitive than conventional histopathology in identifying micro-metastases, and that archival pathological specimens of cervical cancers from the early years of this century contain the same spectrum of viruses as our current material.

Yvonne was involved in the development of the Faculty’s Graduate Medical Program and, together with M Pegler, she has developed the first year teaching program which is undertaken by all students in the current medical curriculum. The course is designed to stimulate students towards an awareness of the social and cultural determinants of the attitudes of patients and doctors, and how this impacts on the paradigm of health care adopted in different societies.

Yvonne has maintained an active involvement in Faculty and University affairs. She is currently an international journal editor and reviewer as well as a member on numerous Scientific Advisory Comittees at Commonwealth and State levels. In addition, Yvonne continues to supervise post-graduate research students at all levels with excellent success in research into the molecular basis of the virus/host interaction.

In 1998, Yvonne was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to medicine as a specialist in infectious diseases, especially in the areas of virological research, epidemiology and disease prevention, and to education.[1] [1]

Yvonne retires from her role as Bosch Professor in 2006.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Cossart, Yvonne. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.