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Remembering a mentor to many

30 July 2008

Dr Leo Cussen has passed away after 37 years of service to Monash and the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences.

The much-loved clinician and teacher will be greatly missed by his peers in academia and medical research, as well as by thousands of Monash graduates and students.

In typically humble fashion, his very last act was to finish marking papers.

Dr Cussen graduated from Medicine at the University of Melbourne, and later pursued dual specialisations in paediatrics and pathology, an almost entirely extinct combination in Australian medicine today. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia and developed a strong interest in the pathology of children's diseases, and especially of the urinary system.

Driven by the expectation of the day that Australian academics should earn their stripes overseas, in the 1960s, Dr Cussen, his wife Leonie and family of then five children uprooted and travelled to Cincinatti in the United States, where he worked as Associate Pathologist at the Children's Hospital. While in the US, he also worked at Northwestern University, Chicago, and as Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Pathology at the University of Cincinatti. The American Academy of Pediatrics recognised his expertise in diseases of the urinary system with invitations to lecture at several conferences.

A sixth Cussen child was born in Cincinatti, but Dr Cussen's American stay was short-lived, with his family returning to Australia in 1967 – 14 months into their stay – after race riots erupted just streets away from their home.

In 1971, he joined the Monash University Department of Paediatrics to develop the children's pathology section of the Queen Victoria Medical Centre, which later moved to the Monash Medical Centre at Clayton. It was a sensitive exercise, and he inspired his grateful colleagues with refreshing enthusiasm, patience and good humour for the task.

In addition to his passion for clinical practice and research, Dr Cussen owned around 5000 books and enjoyed a vast general knowledge and love of the written word. He was especially passionate about children's literature, which once drew greatly on ghoulish anecdotes of epidemics that felled the young and innocent. He could summon appropriate quotations for every situation, and took great pride in incorporating this knowledge into his lecture materials.

After retiring in 1995, he continued teaching through the Department of Pathology and Immunology at Monash, where he played an integral role in delivering lecture and practical programs to students of medicine, radiography, science and biomedical science.

His energy and infectious fervour for sharing knowledge never waning, Leo was a gentle teacher who never intimidated his students and presented material in an interesting, witty and clinically-relevant manner. Many students sent him Christmas cards, and in later years he learnt with pleasure that his white hair had earned him the nickname of 'Father Christmas'.

"I think it's time to hang up my boots", he often said in regard to his teaching, but each year returned to Monash, motivated by a sense of duty to convey his unique knowledge of children's pathology. The strongest Monash students in his field will long share in this dedication through the Leo Cussen Pathology Prize, which was established in 2005 to recognise his long service to the University.

He will be remembered with affection and respect for his devotion to his family and as a professional colleague of unfailing good humour, intellectual integrity and genuine humility. His peers and thousands of Monash University students will greatly miss him. He is survived by seven children and 14 grandchildren.

Dr Leo Cussen

Dr Leo Cussen 1930 - 2008