‘Superstar’ epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws dies aged 70

A global leader in infection control, Professor McLaws was a go-to expert during the pandemic.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws. Photo: AAP

Renowned Sydney epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, described as an infection control “superstar”, has died 19 months after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

Professor McLaws was already a global leader in her chosen field before the COVID-19 pandemic made her a household name, thanks to her frequent media appearances to explain new variants, tests, vaccines and infection control measures.

She was a key WHO link for Australia and a long-time professor of epidemiology at UNSW Sydney — the university she joined as a PhD candidate and remained linked to for 36 years.

She died on Saturday.

UNSW Sydney chancellor David Gonski said her co-workers would mourn a colleague “who was locally grown and became a superstar while remaining tenacious, humble, hardworking and caring”.  

“We are grateful for all she did for UNSW and Australia.

“She will not be forgotten.”

Professor McLaws wrote 180 scientific papers and provided infection control advice in numerous countries, including Cambodia, China, Mali, Indonesia, Iran, Vietnam and Türkiye. 

She developed the surveillance system for healthcare-associated infections for NSW Health and was a member of the WHO expert advisory panel on responding to COVID-19. 

She was diagnosed with a brain tumour in January 2022. 

She announced the news on Twitter, where she was a prolific science communicator.  

In July of the same year, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) “for distinguished service to medical research, particularly to epidemiology and infection prevention; to tertiary education; and to health administration”. 

At the time, she said she knew her cancer would kill her.

“I accept the fact that, when I go, I go. Sometimes, you just get the miserable diagnosis. And you can’t stop it sometimes,” she told the ABC after receiving her AO.

Professor McLaws last posted on Twitter in November 2022, sharing a submission to the Federal Government’s long COVID inquiry that she had co-authored. 

“Vaccinations have been highly effective at reducing severe disease and deaths; they are much less effective at reducing the risk of getting long COVID following COVID infections,” she wrote. 

“Most effective way to avoid getting long COVID is not to get COVID.” 

NSW Minister for Health Ryan Parks lauded Professor McLaws as a “pre-eminent voice and mind” who had dedicated her working life to population health. 

“She was never afraid to question and scrutinise decisions in the interest of achieving the best health outcomes for our community,” he said in a statement. 

“I had the honour to have met Mary-Louise on several occasions, and I valued her counsel.  

“Her legacy will serve as an inspiration to future generations of epidemiologists.”

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More information: UNSW Sydney: ‘Vale Mary-Louise McLaws, researcher and global advocate in infectious diseases and public health’; 14 Aug 2023.