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Leader in Aboriginal health receives honorary degree

3 May 2017
Naomi Mayers OAM celebrated for her exemplary career

The University of Sydney has conferred a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) upon Naomi Mayers OAM, for her work delivering and transforming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health care. 

A photo of Naomi Mayers at the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, Sydney in the early 80s

Dr Naomi Mayers at the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, Sydney, in the early 1980s. 

An advocate, leader and reformer, Dr Mayers has been at the forefront of change in health service provision to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities at local, state and national levels for over 40 years.

One of the founders of the first Aboriginal community-controlled health service in Australia in early 1972, the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, Dr Mayers worked as its Administrator, Company Secretary and finally Chief Executive Officer until her recent retirement. Over 40 years, she guided its transformation from a small shop-front into a nationwide network of services.

A photo of Dr Naomi Mayers at the citation.

Dr Naomi Mayers at the University of Sydney.

A Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri woman, Dr Mayers was also a founding member of The Sapphires, the all-Aboriginal music group from country Victoria that formed the basis of the popular 2012 film of the same name.

Presented with the honour during a graduation ceremony at the University’s Great Hall, Dr Mayers acknowledged the importance of collaboration and persistence in achieving change.

“We’ve come a long way since the Aboriginal Medical Service first opened its doors, thanks to the efforts of so many people,” she said.

Of course there remains much work to be done and I urge the younger generations to continue fighting to close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes.
Dr Naomi Mayers

Congratulating Dr Mayers, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston said her work had made a tangible difference to countless people.

“Australia owes a debt of gratitude to Dr Mayers, for her impressive contribution towards improving health care policy, system delivery and access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.

“She dedicated her working life to achieving health equity, and the empowerment of her community, in Redfern and beyond.”

At the age of 18, Dr Mayers began her work in health as a nurse, at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, the Home Hill Hospital in Queensland and St Andrews Hospital in East Melbourne. She was also a board member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

She was a founding member of the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW and the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO, now the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation); founding president of the Federation for Aboriginal Women; and a member of the first Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission Regional Council (Metropolitan Sydney).

A photo of Dr Naomi Mayers.

Dr Naomi Mayers.

She was a witness during the inquiries of the 1977 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Health, and in 1981 she was appointed as a consultant by the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists.

Dr Mayers was also Chair of the National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party, which authored a pivotal report that introduced innovative Aboriginal health sector reforms which helped shape the 167 Aboriginal Medical Services across Australia today. 

She was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1984 in recognition of her services to the community and holds a doctorate in Aboriginal Affairs from Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney.