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Mercy flowed through the life of leading bioethicist and microbiologist Sr Regis Mary Dunne

Bioethics pioneer: Sister of Mercy Regis Mary Dunne was foundation director of the Queensland Bioethics Centre. Photo: Courtesy of Sister of Mercy Brisbane Congregation

GIFTED microbiologist and bioethicist Sr Regis Mary Dunne has died at Mater Hill in South Brisbane where she lived for much of her 72 years as a Sister of Mercy.

Sr Regis Mary, a pioneer in a specialist field of medical science and in bioethics, died at Mater Private Hospital on April 20, aged 93.

She had lived for more than 55 years at Mater Convent in South Brisbane, before spending her latter years at Emmaus Aged Care Residence, Nudgee.

As a young Sister of Mercy from Toowoomba, Sr Regis Mary moved to the Mater after her first profession of vows in 1949 to begin training as a medical laboratory scientist.

Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation leader Sr Catherine Reuter paid tribute to Sr Dunne for her life-long commitment to Mercy, not just for her outstanding professional career.

“Sr Regis Mary’s professional career as a microbiologist, as one of the first to introduce cytogenetics into a laboratory, as an ethicist and geneticist and former director of the Queensland Bioethics Centre is to be lauded,” she said.

“However, the single word ‘Misericordia’; Mercy, gathers together the many and varied threads of Regis’ life – her broad interests, loves and skills, her long and faithful friendships, the importance of family and especially her vowed religious commitment as a Sister of Mercy across 72 years.

“Regis knew well, in her professional life and as a Sister of Mercy, that the experience of Mercy is a reciprocal one; it was in her giving mercy and making a difference, that she received mercy.”

Sr Regis Mary was born Stephanie Denise Dunne on November 9, 1926, in Toowoomba, educated there at St Saviour’s School and then at All Hallows’ School, Brisbane, before entering the Sisters of Mercy in January, 1946.

She made her perpetual profession of vows in January, 1952, during her early years at the Mater.

While training as a medical laboratory scientist there, she completed a Diploma in Medical Technology at QIT in 1954, beginning a stellar career.

Working as a microbiologist she was the first to introduce cytogenetics – the study of the number and structure of chromosomes in cells – into a laboratory and led pioneering work in that field.

In 1962, alongside Dr Neville Anderson, she set up Australia’s first genetic counselling clinic.

As well as working as a cytogeneticist, she lectured in the medical faculty at the University of Queensland from 1960 to 1979.

Sr Regis Mary spent 1979 and 1980 researching in Melbourne and later in the United States where she studied bioethics at Georgetown University and St Louis University and moral theology at Loyola University Chicago.

On her return, she was appointed the foundation director of Brisbane archdiocese’s Queensland Bioethics Centre and held the position from 1981-94.

Another former director of the Queensland Bioethics Centre Dr Ray Campbell said that even before she founded the centre Sr Regis Mary was “already very highly regarded in professional circles both in her bioethics background and her scientific background”.

“She was just very highly regarded by her colleagues in the field of ethics and bioethics,” he said.

“We have to remember that at the time the bioethics centre was established, it was only the second Catholic centre in Australia.

“Bioethics was very much a new area of specialisation and she was right at the cutting edge of the various stages of what was going on at that time, which involved debates around IVF – reproductive technologies, to put it in a more general term.

“So many of those issues were very new at the time and she was amongst the first to actually try and grapple with those issues.

“She was very much in the pioneering stage of bioethics … and she worked outside the Catholic circles. She was highly regarded right across the field.”

Dr Campbell said Sr Regis Mary helped to establish “a very high reputation for the Queensland Bioethics Centre”.

“She was consulted not just by the Church; she was consulted by the government, she was consulted by others outside the Church on so many of those issues,” he said.

“She was respected and her advice, or her opinion, was sought after.”

Dr Campbell said as a person Sr Regis Mary was “always very encouraging, very open”.

“When I was lecturing in ethics in Sydney, I visited the bioethics centre in Queensland, met Regis and we had some correspondence over an issue that I’d been working on and she was very co-operative towards the work that I was doing, and that was the first time we met,” he said.

“Little did we know that I’d end up more or less doing the same role some years afterwards.

“She was a very gentle, very caring soul – very caring.”

After her time at the bioethics centre, Sr Regis Mary served as a consultant for the Mater Medical Research Institute and the Mater Hospital from 1995-99.

Her many honours included an honorary doctorate from Queensland University of Technology; Medal for Outstanding Service from Griffith University; the inaugural National Health and Medical Research Council Outstanding Contribution Award; and being named in the Australian honours system as an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Her rite of committal and burial was held at Nudgee Cemetery on April 24.

Written by: Peter Bugden
Catholic Church Insurance

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