Two lifesaving medical researchers who are helping to cure melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, have been recognised as the 2024 Australian of the Year.
Professor Georgina Long AO and Professor Richard Scolyer AO’s enduring partnership has saved thousands of lives from melanoma, which in its advanced form was fatal just a decade ago.
The researchers from NSW received the accolade from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the 2024 awards, held at the National Arboretum in Canberra on Thursday evening.
The pair are now focused on finding a cure for brain cancer after Professor Scolyer was diagnosed with an incurable form of the disease last year.
He offered himself as a test subject for a new form of experimental treatment, becoming the first person to ever receive a brain cancer vaccine.
Even though the experimental therapy was a risk to Professor Scolyer’s own life, it was through this treatment that the pair advanced the understanding of brain cancer, to the benefit of future patients.
“I stand here tonight as a terminal brain cancer patient. I’m only 57. I don’t want to die. I love my life, my family, my work. I’ve so much more to do and to give, Professor Scolyer said on receiving the award.
“I’m one of the many thousands of cancer patients who’ve travelled this path, and thousands will follow.
“Devising this world-first experimental treatment for my type of brain cancer was bold. For me, the decision to take on Georgina’s ground breaking plan was a no-brainer.
“Here was an opportunity for us to crack another incurable cancer and make a difference – if not for me, then for others.”
The University of Sydney researchers, who are co-directors of the Melanoma Institute, have developed a number of world-leading treatments following world leading research in immunotherapy.
They used their acceptance to also call for a change of approach to the sun.
“Tomorrow, thousands of Aussies will be soaking up the sun working on their tans – or, as we see it, brewing their melanomas,” Professor Long said.
“When it comes to tanning, we are swimming outside the flags. There is nothing healthy about a tan – nothing.
“Our bronzed Aussie culture is actually killing us. So we call on advertisers and social media influencers – stop glamorising tanning, or using it to sell or advertise or entertain.
“And to our fellow Australians – when you see it, call it out. Demand change.”
Professors Long and Scolyer’s pioneering treatment approach activates the patient’s immune system – as opposed to surgery and chemo or radiotherapies – meaning the malignant condition is now curable
SENIOR AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
Yolngu elder and champion of Indigenous education, Yalmay Yunupingu has been named Senior Australian of the Year.
As an educator, Ms Yunupinju became known as a fierce advocate for bilingual education, where students are also taught their Indigenous language, Yolngu Matha, as well as English at the Yirrkala Bilingual School in northeast Arnhem Land.
Ms Yunupingu’s journey as an educator began when she started translating Dr Seuss books at her local library into her own Indigenous language. She qualified as a teacher and, with her husband, the late Mandawuy Yunupinju, forged a unique approach to bilingual learning.
In 2005, she was named Teacher of Excellence by the Northern Territory Department of Education and was an Honorary University Fellow at the Charles Darwin University. Since retiring, she has been teaching the next generation about traditional healing.
YOUNG AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
Australia’s greatest Olympian, swimmer Emma McKeon, is the Young Australian of the Year.
Despite missing out on qualifying for the 2012 London Olympic at age 18, the Queenslander became Australia’s most successful Olympian of all time by the time she was 27.
“I am so humbled and honoured to have received this award, especially when you look at the calibre and achievements of the other nominees,” the 29-year-old said.
McKeon said it was a privilege to receive the award and hoped it would inspire kids to pursue their sporting dreams.
“I’ve been swimming for as long as I can remember, and I grew up being inspired by incredible athletes, putting a fire in my belly to go after my dreams and do something great with the power of determination and hard work,” she said.
“So going from that young girl to today, it’s still crazy to me that I have now done what I have in sport. And I want young kids to know that I was once in the same position they are – dreaming of one day doing something big.
“I want to have an impact on people’s lives by encouraging them to push hard and go after their dreams and what they are passionate about.
“Don’t be afraid to take on hard things and set aspirational goals, that may at time be scary. This is how we push ourselves to achieve our dreams.”
After taking a career break, McKeon returned to the sport, claiming six podium finishes at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
At the 2020 Summer Olympics, she became the first female swimmer and the second woman in history to win seven medals in a single games. She has also broken Commonwealth Games, Olympic and World records.
LOCAL HERO OF THE YEAR
Queenslander David Elliott, who discovered dinosaur bones in northern Queensland and created a new tourism sector, has won the Local Hero Of The Year award.
Mr Elliott’s chance discovery of a dinosaur fossil during routine sheep mustering in 1999 around Winton in led to the revival of Australia’s palaeontology field.
He and his wife Judy founded the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History in 2002 as a not-for-profit charity.
“I simply represent the hard work and passion of a lot of people. I’m just proud to be one of them,” he said on receiving the award.
“Dinosaurs are the star attractions in natural history museums all over the world. People love them.
“The fact that Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum has so many of them is significant and exciting. As fascinating as they are, dinosaurs are just one part of Australia’s deep journey through time.”
He also used his speech to call into focus the “decline of the Outback”.
“Keeping a small community of outback Australia alive is imperative. Our nation depends on them, just as much as they tend – depend on the transcontinental highway they service.”
PM REFLECTS ON NATIONAL DAY
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has talked up Australians, but avoided any commentary on the controversy surrounding the national holiday while welcoming the nominees for Australian of the Year.
“Our national day is our chance to do so much more than simply count our blessings. We pause to reflect on everything that we have achieved as a nation, as a people,” he said.
“All that we have created and built and learned through all the ups and downs of our history.
“The challenges we have faced – together. The opportunities we have seized – together. The tests we have passed – together.
“And it is together that we look to the future. We do so with courage. We do it with optimism. And when times do turn tough, we let it bring out the best in our character.”
He also said the country’s thought with Queenslanders who were on Thursday night facing the onslaught of severe Tropical Cyclone Kirrily, which is expected to cross the coast soon.
He also thanked the “class of 2023”, the winners of last year awards who are on hand to pass on the baton.