Millennium's Deborah Dunsire: Woman of the Year - Pharmaceutical Executive


Millennium's Deborah Dunsire: Woman of the Year

Pharmaceutical Executive

A View From Africa

Dunsire's parents were born in a small mining town in Scotland. Her father dropped out of school at age 13. He should have worked in the mines, but his mother wanted something better for him, so he became a carpenter. Life went along just fine until the 1940s and early 50s, when Scotland hit a building slump. Rather than stay there, he went looking for work in far-off places, first the Shetland Islands and then Africa. In the 1960s, he took Deborah's mother, whom he'd first me in elementary school, to Zimbabwe, where they married and Deborah was born.

Her parent's bold journey would color the rest of her life. "Nobody moved from that town—it just wasn't in the fabric of that society," says Dunsire. "Yet my father's initiative took him to another place. He's a person who never believed in boundaries and he passed that on to me."

Dunsire remembers a childhood of sunny afternoons spent swimming, riding bikes, and building forts in the forest. By the time she reached high school, her family had moved to South Africa, and Dunsire herself was solidly focused on academics. She performed brilliantly—she was named the top female student in her state, and selected as the national runner-up for a Rhodes Scholarship.

In 1980, Dunsire enrolled in the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. At first, she studied occupational therapy, but she noticed she was getting better grades than the medical students in some of the classes she shared with them. She began to rethink her focus. "A therapist always works under the orders of a physician," says Dunsire. She tells a joke: "'What do they call the guy who came last in his class at graduation day? They call him doctor.' I remember thinking, 'I don't know that I want these boys telling me what I'm going to do with the patients.'"

Dunsire made the switch. She would soon experience up-close the major health disparities between black and white South Africans—and realize that she could make a difference. For a med school project, she worked in a rural maternity clinic, a desperate place that served poor women. "Women were coming with newspaper to cover the beds where they delivered," remembers Dunsire. "That wasn't acceptable to me. Through outreach efforts and advocacy we managed to change that for the clinic—to get more nursing staff, and also more facilities...even just sheets, pillows, blankets, and laundry services."

After graduation, Dunsire became a general practitioner in Johannesburg. There, she was expected to make house calls. The phone would ring in the middle of the night, and Dunsire would get in her car and visit the ill. It was a chaotic career, but an extraordinary learning experience. In South Africa, a physician treated not just the ailments of Western society, such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, but also the diseases of the Third World—malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition.

At one point, feeling that she needed better balance, Dunsire applied for and won a fellowship in ophthalmic surgery. The program didn't start for nine months, though. In the meantime, young Dr. Dunsire found herself in the unusual circumstance of having time on her hands.


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