DSc recognises outstanding contribution
Professor Neil Pearce, Director of the University’s
Centre for Public Health Research in Wellington, has been awarded
the University’s highest award for science.
Research director Professor Nigel Long says the Doctor of Science
degree has been conferred on Professor Pearce because of his
many years of work on epidemiology methods and their application
in research into non-communicable diseases.
His wide-ranging research has included studies of asthma, occupational
health, socio-economic factors in health, Mäori health,
cancer and environmental health.
Many of these personal interests of Professor Pearce are now
reflected in the research projects being undertaken within
the Centre and funded by the Health Research Council,” says
These include nationally-significant projects on respiratory
disease, occupational health, cancer, Mäori health, Pacific
health, and socio-economic factors in health. All are now key
areas within the Government’s new health strategy.”
Professor Pearce has visited more than 80 countries teaching
epidemiologic methods, doing collaborative research projects,
and taking a few detours along the way. During the 1980s his
main research interest was in occupational epidemiology, and
he co-authored the leading textbook of occupational epidemiology.
He also conducted some of the first occupational epidemiology
studies in New Zealand, including a series that discovered
that meat workers are at greater risk of certain forms of cancer.
He also steered one of the first studies that showed that electrical
workers were at increased risk of leukaemia because of exposure
to electromagnetic fields.
In the 1980s, Professor Pearce published the first studies
showing large socio-economic differences in death rates in
New Zealand. He worked with the late Professor Eru Pomare on
studies that showed that high Mäori death rates were not
only due to socio-economic factors, but also to problems of
cultural safety and access to health care.
Professor Pearce also worked on the first studies in the Bay
of Plenty to show that hepatitis B infection and carriage were
major public health problems in New Zealand, and which developed
and successfully tested the low-dose vaccination that was eventually
Professor Pearce led the epidemiology studies that first established
that the beta agonist fenoterol was responsible for an epidemic
of asthma deaths in New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s. These
studies led to the Ministry of Health restricting the availability
of fenoterol in New Zealand and the asthma death rate immediately
fell by two-thirds.
In the 1990s he undertook ground-breaking research into the
causes of asthma. This has included establishing (with colleagues
in Auckland, London and Germany) the International Study of
Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC), which is coordinated
by Dr Innes Asher at the Auckland School of Medicine. This
has grown into the largest health research project in the world.
Related research by Professor Pearce has shown that the importance
of allergens for asthma has been overstated and that non-allergic
mechanisms account for more than half the cases. These non-allergic
mechanisms are now being investigated in joint research by
the CPHR and the Malaghan Institute for Medical Research. He
has authored a textbook of asthma epidemiology.
Finally, he has made significant contributions to epidemiologic
methods, and has played a major role in the debate on the future
of epidemiology. He has published a series of papers on the
need for epidemiology to rediscover the population perspective
and to use theories and methods that take the population context