The Univeristy of Melbourne The Royal Melbourne Hopspital

A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital


23 Jul 2020

A short history of the Doherty Institute

Written by Professor James McCluskey AO, FAA, FAHMS

This article was first published in the Celebrating five years of the Doherty Institute impact report.

The history of the Doherty Institute dates back to 2006 when I was the Head of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. The idea was sparked following the University’s unsuccessful tender to manage the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza. And it just so happened that the Department of Microbiology and Immunology needed a new building.

That tender was won by The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL), directed by Dr Mike Catton, who remains as VIDRL’s Director today, and the Doherty Institute’s Co-Deputy Director. University of Melbourne Professor Roy Robins-Browne, the then Deputy Head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and I went to see Mike to discuss how we could work better together; we wanted to try and create something bigger than the sum of its parts.

From this conversation, the concept emerged of bringing together the University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, including the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory, and parts of the Department of Medicine (Royal Melbourne Hospital), with the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s VIDRL, WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, VICNISS Coordinating Centre and the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service. 

This initiative drew on existing entities. We were not creating a new entity that would require a massive recruitment exercise, rather an ecosystem that would work closely with the State and Commonwealth Governments and could be a one-stop-shop for infectious disease threats and the immune response to them. We wanted to integrate our research, education and public health activities. It was a compelling logic for co-location focused on infrastructure and idea exchange; those tearoom and corridor conversations are the genesis of so much collaboration.

We had two strokes of luck. The first was that the then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, had created the Higher Education Endowment Fund for capital developments at ‘universities of national importance or local significance.’ This meant we had something we could apply for. The second was the converging force of the Global Financial Crisis. The Prime Minister that followed Howard was Kevin Rudd, and his response was to hunt around for shovel-ready infrastructure projects, and we had one.

The Commonwealth gave us $90 million, the Victorian State Government, led by Premier John Brumby, provided $55 million and the University contributed the remaining $65 million.

I will confess, there were lots of bumps in the road, including a heritage claim on the ‘magnificent’ building that used to operate on the site – The Elizabeth Tower Hotel – with its beautiful single helix staircase that people in the tram liked when it was lit up in the evenings. We had to go to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to make the case that a major new initiative in combatting infectious diseases was more important than the staircase.

We have been blessed with Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty as our namesake. In an early meeting between Mike, Roy and myself, Roy said, ‘Why don’t we call it The Peter Doherty Institute for infection and Immunity?’. That was an immediately compelling suggestion because it set the bar high. It was a wonderful gesture that Peter agreed to the use of his name.

The inaugural Director of the Doherty Institute, University of Melbourne Professor Sharon Lewin, is a great leader. It’s a very challenging job because of the breadth of activity and the many stakeholders. She has to foster collaboration between the groups by persuasion, argument and influence. I think she has been an outstanding Director and the Institute is very well known internationally in just five years of operation because of her efforts.

We have outstanding people, and it is all about the people. I think the Doherty Institute has performed magnificently, not just in research grants, but actually more importantly, in the impact of the work we do. We are signed up to some big projects — a cure for HIV, a one-shot flu vaccine — to name a few. If we could throw out a Nobel Prize winner or a vaccine for a major pathogen that would be fantastic.

Congratulations Sharon, and congratulations to all of you at the Doherty Institute.