I met Wee during my B.Sci. undergrad years at Melbourne University during the mid-1970s. She came from a large Malaysian-Chinese family and coming to Australia to study meant that she was separated from the relatives and friends in her home country. She made friends easily. An excitable, ebullient personality, she enjoyed microbiology so much that she was determined to make a career out of it. Even back then it was hard to get a job in a micro diagnostic lab, particularly for science graduates who still had to be trained for several months before they were proficient at this type of work. After completing her basic degree she spent two years at St Vincents Hospital doing serology, cross-matching blood, and hoping for an opening in a micro lab somewhere.
In 1978 she was fortunate enough to land a position as microbiologist at Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital (probably the best place to work as a microbiologist !), and from then onwards she never looked back. With only a 3 year B.Sc. she had no formal research training but this didn't deter her from finding out ways of culturing difficult organisms, analysing them, and publishing her results in leading journals. Her M.Sc. in 1988 was by submission of a thesis based on her publications. Her Ph.D., by full-time research, was completed in 1993, and involved isolating and typing hundreds of Helicobacter pylori strains from clinical material. I remember her telling me the difficulties involved in collecting surgical samples from the hospitals and then immediately going back to the laboratory to put them up for culture, often finishing late at night.
Her research into Campylobacter and Helicobacter brought her international recognition. She was invited to write chapters for books, join international committees, and present her work at overseas conferences.
The closure of Fairfield Hospital (a great loss, in my opinion) and the relocation of VIDRL (Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory) close to Melbourne University allowed her to spend more time working in my laboratory at the University of Melbourne, and to assist in my undergraduate practical classes. We collaborated on a study of a novel isolate of hers, Desulfovibrio fairfieldensis (yes, named after the - now vanished - hospital), with Peter Janssen's laboratory (L. Schoenborn, Ph.D. student; Hamid Abdollahi, visiting scientist)*.
The discovery of a large lung tumour in late 1998 was quite a blow, but she battled against it with great determination, and used the last 2 years of her life to publish as much of her work as possible. After she had tried every available treatment, she died peacefully in the Austin Hospital Palliative Care unit, surrounded by her family. She had much praise for the hospital staff who looked after her. She liked flowers and gardening, and her death occurred very close to the Anti-Cancer Council sponsored Daffodil Day (24 August), so I tend to mark the occasion by buying something on this day.
After her death, her colleagues helped finalise several of her remaining manuscripts describing various interesting and unusual organisms. We had the satisfaction of seeing them through to submission, review, and final acceptance in international journals. Her name and work will live on in laboratories around the world, in culture collections, in the scientific literature, and in the memories of her family, friends and coworkers.
Mike Dyall-Smith - [last updated August, 2010]
*Note: P. Janssen moved to NZ in 2007.
This is one of the earliest pictures of Wee in my collection. I have a whole page of them here. The one below is from 1978. Wee is at far right, and we are at a BBQ hosted by Rob FInlay (far left), on his Dad's farm near Warragul. I am just left of centre (!)
Mike Dyall-Smith, 2001