CONCERT Director, Michael Barton, retires

By Linda Music

When I first interviewed Professor Michael Barton for CONCERT’s member of the month back in 2019, I was nervous. Understandably so, because just mentioning his name around cancer researchers had them talking about him in awe. Everyone I spoke to admired Professor Barton. So, in my mind he was the great-knowing king of all things cancer.  

And as we all know from history books, kings aren’t always the most easy-going people. But I needn’t have been concerned. Instead of a high and mighty king, I found a very humble and approachable man downplaying his incredible achievements.

Having spent his career working towards better services and treatment for cancer patients, not just in Australia but internationally, Professor Barton finally succumbed to his passion for birdwatching and officially retired this week.

With retirement send-off parties happening across multiple organisations it seemed fitting to talk to those people who’ve worked with Professor Barton over the years to find out more about the impact he made on them and the cancer field in general.

Views of Professor Barton

Professor Geoff Delaney, has known Professor Barton for 30 years and is probably the best person to provide an insight into Professor Barton’s career.

“I first met Michael when I commenced my career in radiation oncology in 1990. I was employed as a radiation oncology advanced trainee at Prince of Wales Hospital and Michael was a fresh-faced new staff specialist in radiation oncology. My first impressions of Michael were extremely positive. He was very supportive of registrars and appeared genuinely interested in supporting their training and encouraging them,” Professor Delaney explains.

“His initiative and drive, along with his innovative thinking led him to instigate many things in education and research in oncology that others very much take for granted today but did not exist until Michael started them.”

“I was fortunate enough to be the first PhD student under Michael’s responsibility and I always found him engaged and supportive and was also someone who would challenge your thinking. He has gone on and supervised many more, and all of these collaborators have continued to collaborate with Michael, a good sign that his support, guidance and left-field thinking are highly valued,” says Professor Delaney.

CONCERT Co-Director, Ben Smith who has worked with Professor Barton on CONCERT’s executive team for two years agrees.

“I’ve learnt a lot about leadership from Michael. He does a great job of balancing decisiveness with being inclusive and collaborative. He actively seeks out and values the opinions of others, even if they might diverge from his own and he is big on making everything as transparent as possible as part of his commitment to equality,” Ben explains.

“He’s also been a big supporter of the next generation of researchers and I’ve been impressed by the energy and enthusiasm with which he engaged with and promoted the work of early career researchers.”

But Ben was nervous when he first met Professor Barton.

“At first I found Michael pretty intimidating. He’s a freakishly smart guy with a very dry sense of humour so, at first, I didn’t really get half the things he said, or know whether to take it seriously. However, once I got used to his slightly eccentric style, I discovered he’s a very approachable and inclusive guy,” Ben says.

“I actually enjoyed most of the CONCERT Exec/council meeting we had (which is saying something given the abundant meetings during COVID), and this is thanks to Michael’s cheeky chairing skills. I feel like we not only got stuff done but had fun in the process which I think just about sums up my experience of working with Michael.”  

Professor Afaf Girgis who has known Professor Barton for ten years believes that his support has been vital to her work.

“He’s been a very strong supporter and advocate for our patient reported outcomes work for many years now. Having senior clinicians/academics like him advocating is invaluable,” she explains.

“Michael is quite strategic and also political in how he operates. I learnt from him to push for funding support even when the answer is no at first. That has paid off a couple of times.”

Professor Michael Barton received UNSW’s 2020 Distinguished Research Award for his contribution to health services research in radiation oncology

A career dedicated to cancer research

An article farewelling Professor Barton would not be complete without mentioning his incredible achievements.  Professor Delaney provides a brief synopsis of Professor Barton’s career:

“Michael’s list of achievements is huge and includes being the founder of the Australasian Radiation Oncology Lymphoma Group, a group established to significantly improve collaborative research, education, and overall radiation oncology treatment quality in the management of lymphoma.

“His landmark dosimetry study significantly improved the way that radiation was delivered in Australasia. Michael established the Basic Sciences of Oncology course which has now been running for over 27 years and provides important education in the fundamentals of oncology to advanced trainees in medical and radiation oncology, palliative care, haematology as well as employees from the allied health, nursing, pharmacology industries.

“He founded the Cancer Council Australia Oncology education committee and developed the Collaboration for Cancer Outcomes, Research and Evaluation (CCORE) a group that has become internationally recognised for its work in establishing appropriate benchmarks across a range of oncology treatments and studying current inequities in care compared to those benchmarks. This led Michael and his European contacts to develop Health Economics in Radiation Oncology (HERO), an international, collaborative health economics group in oncology who have overseen many meetings and reports to improve radiation oncology access, internationally.

“Michael was also instrumental in establishing the Faculty of Radiation Oncology, within the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists to ensure recognition of the profession within the College. He developed the Applied Sciences in Oncology online course to provide important education especially to low and middle-income countries. The course has been downloaded over 2500 times.

“Michael was the inaugural Director for the Ingham Institute and SPHERE, two very important collaborative research initiatives. He was instrumental in securing funding for the Ingham Institute building and also the building of the world’s first dedicated facility for studying MRI-linac technology. On each occasion Michael has taken these responsibilities forward and been innovative in the way he has developed these roles, including the development of strategies for research funding opportunities and collaborations. He has supervised more PhD students than any other Australian radiation oncologist (including non-radiation oncology students) and has been highly regarded as a supportive supervisor.”

 Final words

“I have been extremely fortunate that my career path has intertwined with Michael over the past 30 years, including stints at Prince of Wales Hospital, Westmead Hospital, Liverpool Hospital and University of NSW. In fact, I have probably been the person who has spent most working hours with Michael and I can truly say that I have enjoyed every minute of our friendship and work relationship,” says Professor Delaney.

From everyone at CONCERT, we wish Michael the very best in his retirement.