Curriculum vitae: Mary E Black
Publication date: 20 Sep 2017
Mary Ethna Black has had a more varied career than most—from starting in clinical medicine to working as a director of public health in east London. Conflict has been a constant theme in her life—because she grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and because she married into a Bosnian family.
I was raised a Catholic in Northern Ireland and studied at Trinity College Dublin. I chose a Protestant/Jewish teaching hospital because I have always wanted to work out what’s happening on the other side of the fence. This was 1979 and the Troubles were in full swing. There was discrimination on the south side of the border too—Protestants couldn’t go to Catholic nursing schools, for example.
Saving the world
My plan was to become a district medical officer in Africa. I wanted to save the world! I was offered a job in what is now Zimbabwe and went off to walk the Pennine Way as a farewell to my old life. But my brother forgot to post the acceptance letter, so I stayed in England. As a senior registrar in London’s Hospital for Tropical Diseases I was on a 24 hour day, seven day week rota. I was studying, working hard, and flying high.
Early days of Aids
I was a clinician in the early days of the Aids epidemic. No one knew what it was and we called it the “slim disease” because people wasted away. It was a death sentence. Some nurses and doctors refused to treat people. I remember feeling brave yet scared as I examined patients. I also remember their courage. Later I ran the UK-wide occupational needlestick injury database and had to tell a phlebotomist she’d contracted the virus—there was no follow-up or counselling.
Woman with a pram
I got a Harkness fellowship as a young doctor and had the most amazing year at Harvard. I was bright, eager, and a bit of a star. Six years later my husband also got a fellowship and I went with him. I was totally ignored. It was a wake-up call to see what happens to a woman with a toddler in a pushchair.
I wanted to save the world but also understand the world and know why people got sick—so I moved into public health. When I did my trainee scheme public health was on a real upswing—it was very much a desirable thing to do.
When the war in Yugoslavia broke out I heard that Donald Acheson (epidemiologist and former chief medical officer of England) was going out as a World Health Organization representative. I offered to help, saying I had connections through my husband and I could organise the public health trainees to look at any data he collected. Four days later I got a call asking me to go out there. I’ve always been enthusiastic and put my hand up—it’s led me to some interesting situations.
Siege of Sarajevo
I set up the medical evacuation of patients from Sarajevo during the siege. I got an armoured vehicle and put together a medical evacuation team. I insisted on seeing all the patients myself. I travelled repeatedly across the front lines and had to negotiate safe passage. It was very dangerous and I was nearly killed a couple of times. It was an adrenaline rush and I can see why some people get addicted to working in war zones. I still have complex feelings about it, as well as nightmares.
I’ve always been drawn to work with groups such as the homeless and refugees—people on the margins of society. This was part of the drive for me to help set up a medical school in northern Queensland, Australia. The idea was to encourage more rural and indigenous graduates. It worked.
I have just completed a stint as head of digital strategy at Public Health England. We’ve just published a new strategy. This is going to be a huge cultural change—many public health staff are still in the era of Microsoft Office. The future of public health and epidemiology is real time data and artificial intelligence.
I’m thinking about my next move. I would like to do more academic, consulting, and writing work. I love mentoring and take a great interest in the next generation.
1977-82: Trinity College Dublin
1982-89: House officer and registrar posts, London and Ireland
1989-93: North east Thames regional training scheme for public health
1992: WHO area office for former Yugoslavia
1993: Medical officer, medical evacuation programme, United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Sarajevo
1993-95: Regional technical officer, WHO regional office for Europe
1996-99: Professor of public health, University of Queensland, North Queensland Clinical School
1999-2005: Roles with Unicef in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia
2006-11: Consultant for charities and non-governmental organisations
2006-11: Consultant for governments and non-governmental organisations, founded two tech companies and completed doctorate
2012-13: Project director, NHS London Strategic Health Authority
2013-14: Director of public health, London borough of Havering
2014-15: NHS leadership programme, participant
2015 to present: Head of digital strategy, Public Health England