Ian Reay Mackay (MBBS 1945, MD 1953): 1922 – 2020

Professor Ian Mackay AM was a pioneer of research into autoimmune diseases – conditions in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own organs and tissues. His research led to a new era of ‘immunosuppressive’ treatments for autoimmune diseases such as autoimmune hepatitis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren’s syndrome, therapies that diminish the immune response to reduce disease symptoms.

Ian Reay Mackay

Professor Mackay was educated at the University of Melbourne, later training at Hammersmith Hospital, UK, with Dame Sheila Sherlock, a pioneer in the then-emerging field of hepatology. After working in the United States, in 1956 Professor Mackay was invited to work in Melbourne at the Clinical Research Unit, a joint initiative between the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.


It was an exciting time in the nascent field of immunology: Institute director Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet had postulated that certain diseases might be caused by a misdirected autoimmune attack, although this was at the time a controversial – and even derided – theory. Professor Mackay applied his experience in hepatology to study hepatitis – liver inflammation – and with colleagues developed a blood test that revealed that some cases did indeed have an ‘autoimmune’ component.

He pioneered the use of immunosuppressive drugs for the treatment of autoimmune hepatitis, a condition that disproportionately affected young women. His work led to a transformation in the prognosis of autoimmune hepatitis, from a disease that had previously been a death sentence to an illness in which patients led close to normal lives.

Under the framework of the Clinical Research Unit, Professor Mackay and Sir Macfarlane Burnet (MBBS 1922, MD 1924, LLD 1962) collaborated in the clinic and the laboratory, revealing a range of diseases caused by autoimmunity – diseases which until then had been considered of unknown cause. Their 1963 book The Autoimmune Diseases was a landmark publication. In 2012, the Medical Journal of Australia commemorated the 50th anniversary of the book, describing it as ‘a founding text’ that ‘marked the beginning of autoimmunity as a clinical science. Its insightful concepts and novel ideas inspired a generation of clinical and basic immunological researchers.’


Professor Mackay devoted the rest of his career to work at the Institute and the Royal Melbourne Hospital – becoming head of the Clinical Research Unit in 1963 – until his retirement in 1987, and continued to make many breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of autoimmune diseases.

After his retirement, research was never far from his mind and he contributed to many productive research collaborations and held a research position at Monash University. He also continued to write both research publications and academic texts, as well as the book Intolerant Bodies: A Short History of Autoimmunity (written with Professor Warwick Anderson (BMedSc 1980, MBBS 1983, MD 2004). This won the General History Prize in the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards 2015.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton AO said Professor Mackay was truly a scientific pioneer. “Ian’s research changed the understanding of the causes of autoimmune diseases, making an enormous impact on how we study them and saving and improving countless lives through better treatments,” he said.

“We will remember Ian’s incisive mind, exacting standards and laser like focus on solving major clinical problems. He was a pioneer of the Institute’s commitment to translational research and shaped the Institute we have today.


Professor Mackay’s legacy will live on at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. In honour of his remarkable contributions, the Professor Ian Mackay Travel Scholarship Fund has been established to support the bright young scientists who will be making key discoveries in the years to come. These scholarships will enable the next generation of the Institute’s scientists to travel to scientific conferences across the globe, helping them build crucial professional and collaborative networks, and ensuring they can present their latest research to their peers.

Find out more about Professor Ian Mackay’s work and his scholarship fund.

1. Roberts-Thomson, PJ, Jackson MW, Gordon TP. A seminal monograph: Mackay and Burnet’s Autoimmune Diseases. Medical Journal of Australia, 2 64 012, 196(1):74-76