Emeritus Professor Basil Donovan AO

Sexual health leader Basil Donovan made UNSW Emeritus Professor

News | Published on 22 Nov 2023

As he approaches retirement at the end of 2023, Head of the Kirby Institute’s Sexual Health Program, Professor Basil Donovan AO, has been named a UNSW Emeritus Professor. 

The appointment was announced by Kirby Institute Director, Scientia Professor Anthony Kelleher, at a special event celebrating the 44-year career of Prof Donovan. 

“Basil has been a pioneer of sexual health research in Australia, across a career spanning over four decades. That his lifetime of dedication to improving health both as a clinician and a prolific researcher, and his many contributions to UNSW and the community at large have been honoured in this way is richly deserved,” says Prof Kelleher. 

Celebrating a champion of health 

Colleagues, friends and family gathered on Wednesday 8 November to celebrate and reflect on Prof Donovan’s impactful and, as was referenced throughout, ‘colourful’ career. 

In announcing the Emeritus Professor appointment, Prof Kelleher said that Prof Donovan was one of the early adopters of “embedding research in primary care; something that people are exhorting us to do today.” He paid tribute to his longtime colleague’s good humour and wry grin, but passionate and steadfast commitment to the people and communities his work serves.

Scientia Professor John Kaldor, who has worked with Prof Donovan for over three decades, reflected on his extensive research career and thought leadership in setting up key collaborations and early studies in HIV and sexual health that formed the foundation of Australia’s leadership in its approach to health. “Basil was really the right person at the right time, coming along as a researcher and a clinician in the early days of HIV, to work with researchers, to work with the communities, to work with people affected, and to really make a big difference to what we understand today,” he said.

A longtime collaborator and friend of Prof Donovan’s, Julie Bates AO, paid tribute to his impactful work advocating for and alongside marginalised communities, in particular sex workers. Ms Bates, who last year received the ACON HIV Hero Honour award with Prof Donovan, thanked him for his dedication to communities and “helping advance better clinical practice and sensible public policy. Your legacy shall be a beacon to those who come after you to continue to respect the partnerships with people and communities you have so steadfastly engaged with, and which is so necessary for better outcomes in health and social wellbeing.”

A colourful career: 44 years of HIV and sexual health research

Having grown up on a farm outside the small NSW town of Barham, Prof Donovan’s interest in health and desire to understand the health challenges that arose in his youth was a key motivator in setting him on a medical career path. After a stint as a graduate in Blacktown District Hospital, he made the move to a more specialised practice, landing a role in 1979 at what was then known as the Sydney STD Clinic, where he encountered the terrible stigma towards sexually transmissible infection that he spent the ensuing years working hard to debunk: “It had all of these threatening signs on the walls. It basically said, if you’re in this clinic, you’re effectively a criminal.” It was a sign of the times, but Prof Donovan and his colleagues provided the non-judgemental healthcare to the clinic’s diverse and colourful patients that he became well known and respected for throughout his career.

This early experience paved the way for what would become Prof Donovan’s legacy; a commitment to equitable access to health for all communities. It is this approach that he brought to his clinic, his research, and his advocacy.

Prof Donovan is widely regarded as having put sexual health research on the map in Australia, creating the first dedicated sexual health Masters course in the late 1980s, and in 1988 was one of the founding Fellows of the Australasian College of Sexual Health Physicians. This established sexual health as a medical specialty, attracting and retaining the high calibre of sexual health researchers that have since worked to improve the sexual health of communities across Australia and the world. 

As a clinician, he was instrumental in establishing dedicated sexual health care in Sydney, especially during the HIV epidemic. He co-founded the Taylor Square Private Clinic, which was where he met the late Professor David Cooper AC, who in 1983 approached Prof Donovan to assist with recruiting 1,000 gay men for Australia’s first cohort study to track the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “These men came in 6-monthly and completed a very detailed questionnaires about behaviour and symptoms. We examined them, took blood for immunology and other purposes,” said Prof Donovan. “Through this work, we discovered this acute illness that occurs when you first acquire the virus which was unknown before that time.” It was upon this early research, and first identification of the seroconversion illness, that the Australian Government funded the establishment of the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, which became the Kirby Institute, with bipartisan support.

David Cooper, Basil Donovan, Brett Tindall
David Cooper, Basil Donovan, Brett Tindall


From the 1980s, Prof Donovan joined together with other sex worker advocates to first measure the prevalence of STIs in brothels, which were then illegal. Then, through various committee appointments and working with key government officials, he advocated for access to health interventions such as condoms and STI testing for sex workers, and eventually decriminalisation of sex work: “If the aim of criminalising sex work is to lower the incidence of sex work, then it’s an absolute failure. It doesn’t matter what the law is: people go and consume sexual services at the same rate, irrespective of the law.”

This work, alongside key people including Julie Bates, led to STI and HIV prevalence among sex workers being reduced to the negligible levels they are today.

Having collaborated with the likes of Scientia Professors David Cooper, John Kaldor, and Andrew Grulich for many years on a number of key HIV and STI studies, Prof Donovan officially joined the Kirby Institute in 2006, and established the Sexual Health Program in 2009. Through his research program, he has led seminal studies with diverse, often hard to reach populations including sex workers, prisoners, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and sexually and gender diverse groups. Importantly, Prof Donovan has mentored a generation of sexual health researchers, who are making an enormous impact in Australia and around the world. 

An impactful legacy: “I think we are all obligated to nurture the future”

Two of Prof Donovan’s most recent research projects are set to continue well into the future. The ACCESS project is a network of 120 clinical sites and laboratories across Australia that provides essential, de-identified clinical data that forms the basis for a range of infectious disease surveillance and monitoring activities. The benefit is mutual too, because the sites are able to access the data reports, which assists with education, policy and practice. 

The second key undertaking was documenting and monitoring the effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine: “Australia was the fastest and highest, most vaccinated population in the world, and we were the first people able to document at a population level that this vaccine works, and it works really, really well.” 

Prof Donovan said that research is what had helped him “keep my sanity” in the face of HIV, and concluded his lecture with some key lessons he has learned throughout his illustrious career: “Timing is absolutely crucial in public health research. If you come up with the right findings at the right time, it could have an effect. Always bring other disciplines, and the community, with you. Just stay curious; don’t get bored. And the other thing, which is my personal thing, is avoid stampedes. If everyone else is running at a research question, go and find another question. You know I don’t like crowds.”

Following Prof Donovan’s lecture, one of his former postdocs, and now Professor Rebecca Guy, shared some final reflections about her colleague, mentor and friend. She recalled his sharp memory, soft-touch approach to mentoring, and reflected that his quick wit and humour “make life just that little bit better.” 

“He’s community minded, but he doesn’t bring a personal agenda with it. He does it for humanity and for human rights, and not for his own personal gain. And most importantly, he’s been a wonderful friend to me and to many people at the Kirby.”

Rebecca Guy and Basil Donovan, 8 November 2023.
Prof Rebecca Guy and Emeritus Prof Basil Donovan AO, 8 November 2023.