Dorsch, Susan Evelyn

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MB BS 1958 PhD 1975 DUniv 1996 FRCPA

Susan Dorsch, a pathologist, was the first female Professor in the Faculty of Medicine.

Susan was born in Sydney in 1935 and graduated from medicine at the University of Sydney in 1958. That year she was appointed as a Professorial Resident Medical Officer at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, becoming Senior Resident Medical Officer in 1959.

Between 1960 and 1969 Susan worked as a General Practitioner and as Medical Officer for the School Medical Service in Harden, NSW. In 1970 she was appointed Teaching Fellow in the University of Sydney’s Department of Pathology. She began her postgraduate studies in 1971, first supported by the Anderson Stuart Memorial Research Fellowship and later by the Marian Clare Reddal and Joseph Goodburn Smith Scholarship. Using rats’ skin grafted with skin from a different inbred strain and cell transfer techniques as her experimental model, Susan studied the cellular interactions that cause transplanted tissues and organs to be rejected by the host.

In 1974 she worked as a Senior Research Officer for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in the Department of Pathology where she was appointed Senior Lecturer in 1975, Associate Professor in 1981 and Professor in 1983. During this period, Susan served on a large number of Faculty committees, including the Executive Council of the Committee to review the undergraduate medical curriculum, the Faculty Standing Committee on Admissions, and the Committee on Faculty Administration. She was very involved in undergraduate teaching and postgraduate supervision. Throughout the period after 1978, Susan was responsible for extensive revision and ongoing development of the content and methods of teaching of undergraduate Pathology, for the Pathology content of the Clinical Science Course and for the design and teaching of the course in transplantation immunology within the Cell Pathology Course offered by the Faculty of Science. She was also coordinator of final year option term projects in pathology. Over the period from 1978 to 1987, she supervised BSc (Med) and PhD students in the Faculty of Medicine and BSc (Hons), MSc and PhD students in the Faculty of Science. The research done by Susan, her research associates and students over this period was supported by a number of bodies. The projects included an investigation from 1977 to 1986 into the cellular response to foreign tissues funded by the NHMRC; immunological studies in neoplasia funded by the NSW State Cancer Council and the University of Sydney Research Fund between 1977 and 1984; research into the immunological basis of glomerulonephritis funded by the Australian Kidney Foundation for four years from 1982, and a contract from the CSIRO to examine the toxicology of cancer chemotherapy agents in 1982 and 1983.

Each of these projects apart from the CSIRO contract related to aspects of the immune response. The NHMRC funded project followed on the discovery, made during Susan’s PhD studies, that tolerance (the ability of an animal to accept foreign grafted tissue) is an active state maintained by suppressor cells which are specific to the histocompatibility antigens of the grafted tissue. Much of the subsequent work was on the nature and behaviour of suppressor cells and resulted in a number of publications in refereed journals, including Nature and the Journal of Experimental Medicine. Also relating to the immune response was fundamental research, using an animal model developed in the laboratory, into the high incidence of tumours in human kidney transplant recipients. The research into glomerulonephritis investigated the role of immune cells in a specific form of glomerulonephritis. The contract with the CSIRO involved animal trials on a potential anti-cancer drug with the object of establishing any adverse effects, particularly on lung tissue.

Susan’s research depended upon the use of high-quality inbred animal models. These were not readily available in New South Wales at the time. To satisfy the needs of her laboratory she took over responsibility for the Blackburn Animal House in the Faculty of Medicine and established it as a unit for the production of such inbred rodents. She designed the unit and its equipment, imported pedigree stock, established the inbreeding program and trained staff in its application and the general care of the animals. Once established, the animal house provided rats and mice to many research laboratories inside and outside the University and supplied breeding nuclei to other breeding units in Australia and overseas.

From 1977 to 1979 Susan was an elected Member of the Academic Board and in 1986 and 1987 its Deputy Chair. In 1985 she chaired the Committee on the Centenary of the First Women Graduates which organised the various celebrations marking this milestone in the University’s history. In 1986 she was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University and in 1989 Deputy Vice-Chancellor, which she remained until 1995. In addition she represented the University on a large number of outside bodies.

Susan also served on a number of non-University committees and boards relating to her medical and academic interests. She was on the Royal North Shore and Area Health Service Board of Directors in 1987 and 1988, and on the Northern Area Health Service Board of Directors thereafter until 1996. From 1985 to 1991, she served on various committees of the NHMRC, becoming a Member of the Council for four years in 1991.

In 1985 she was appointed to the Editorial Advisory Board of the Australian Encyclopedia for the 1988 Edition. She joined the Board of Directors of the Australian American Education (Fulbright) Foundation in 1987, chairing the Board from 1991 to 1994. She was on the Australian Selection Committee for the Harkness Fellowships Committee from 1984 to 1987 and on the Rhodes Scholarships Selection Committee from 1983 to 1986.

In 1996, Susan received the honorary degree of Doctor of the University. She remains Emeritus Professor of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Dorsch, Susan Evelyn. 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.