Building a knowledge factory

Roger Smith is the founding father of Hunter Medical Research Institute/HMRI.

Walking into a milk bar on Newcastle’s Darby Street in 1981, Roger Smith noticed a donation box for a Sydney based research institute, stopping him in his tracks. He had recently returned from PhD studies in London and wondered, “‘Why are we donating to Sydney? Why don’t we do research here?’

And with that, the idea for the Hunter Medical Research Society was born. Roger calls it the ‘embryo’ of what HMRI was to become. He went on to establish the Society and successfully lobbied then NSW Premier Nick Greiner for a small amount of funds to get started, changing the setup from a society to a cooperative based on Greiner’s advice.

A leading endocrinologist and distinguished laureate professor, Roger has spent his life relentlessly pursuing answers to some of medicine’s biggest questions. He was born in England as the eldest of five children. His father was an engineer who was hired to work on Australia’s first nuclear reactor. The family relocated Down Under and, even though the nuclear reactor project didn’t go ahead, Roger’s father ended up building coal powered stations, which brought the family to the Hunter region.

A classic polymath, Roger’s approach to research is, “If I can see a way of solving a problem, I’ll try. It doesn’t really matter what it is.”

He is currently working on a mind-blowingly diverse range of projects relating to quantum chemistry, micro meteorites, aspects of COVID-19, helicopter retrievals of pregnant women in Nepal, a program to deliver sanitary napkins to schoolgirls in Nepal, stillbirth, mechanisms of ageing, premature birth and novel treatments for premature labour and parathyroid gland “stuff”.

Roger, who is the Head of the Mothers and Babies research unit at HMRI, says that he first became interested in this area 38 years ago when his wife was in labour with twins. “I thought, why is she giving birth now? How did this [labour] get turned on? It made me realise that I didn’t know what determines the length of a pregnancy or what makes a uterus contract.”

We can only speculate whether Roger’s grandchildren affectionately dubbed him the “distinguished lorikeet” due to his widespread and colourful portfolio of research interests.

Looking back on the last 30 years, Roger says fondly, “HMRI is everything I dreamed of. I really like the actual building. It’s a healthy building – it makes you feel good. The chimneys on the roof are echoes of an industrial Newcastle but this is the future – this is a knowledge factory.

“I want to attract people from around the world. Newcastle is a peaceful, safe, naturally beautiful place.
“I want to integrate all aspects of knowledge by connecting engineers, architects, historians, artists and philosophers so that we can maximise the human capital of our society.

“I enjoy working. I love working. I love ideas. That’s how I can contribute.”

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