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Saluting Professor David Cooper

The world has lost one of the most respected scientists in the field of HIV/AIDS, Scientia Professor David Cooper AO, who passed away on Sunday 18 March following a short illness. As Director of the AIDS Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney and head of the Kirby Institute from its inception, Professor Cooper was literally at the forefront of Australia’s HIV response from the very beginning.

His ground-breaking research led to the first written description of the seroconversion process, which was published in The Lancet in 1985. Professor Cooper was also one of the first clinical scientists to recognise the metabolic toxicities of antiretroviral therapy and instrumental in proving the efficacy of combination treatment — a key development that undoubtedly saved countless lives worldwide.

As a result, Professor Cooper became an international figure in the global battle against HIV/AIDS. A former President of the International AIDS Society and past chairman of the World Health Organisation’s global program on clinical research and drug development, Professor Cooper was an early advocate of treatment access for all — no matter where a person happened to live. In that regard, Professor Cooper worked extensively in South-East Asia ensuring that no-one was left behind. Most recently, Professor Cooper led the NSW trial of pre-exposure prophylaxis — a trial credited for decreasing HIV rates in the state by a third.  

During a career spanning almost 50 years, Professor Cooper published more than 800 scientific papers and was on the editorial boards of several international journals. In 2003, Professor Cooper was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia for his contribution to medicine and HIV/AIDS research.

While being a world-leading HIV clinician and researcher, above all, Professor Cooper was a humanitarian. In the earliest days of the HIV epidemic, there was much ignorance surrounding the disease with some hospital staff refusing to take food trays into patients’ rooms. Professor Cooper was quick to instruct his staff to always treat patients with compassion, dignity and respect.

Those who worked alongside him, and who were often across a table from him in those torrid times, recognised a true ally to be embraced. He would furiously debate the issues when there were calls for things to be better, faster, or when an emerging issue demanded more attention. Professor Cooper would relish the engagement and was determined to find collaboration and partnership — even when there was frustration and tension over intersections of science, policy and activism. People living with HIV gave Professor Cooper much inspiration over the years, and much humility. And for that, he was much loved.

The HIV community salutes a friend, a doctor, a leader, and a true warrior who was there  from the very beginning — and who worked tirelessly to the very end.  

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