Distinguished Researcher Award 2003

During the X. ESPID Conference in Oslo, the Distinguished Researcher Award was given to Shirley Tonkin from Auckland, New Zealand. The diploma was handed over by the Executive Secretary of ESPID, Christian F. Poets, who summarized in his speech a few facts about the recipient of the prize.

I have the honour to explain ESPID's decision to give this year's Distinguished Researcher Award to Shirley Tonkin. I will start by providing a few details about her career. Because I knew nobody who had her CV, I admit to asking her out earlier during this meeting without disclosing my true reason for asking - please forgive me, Shirley, for deceiving you! To find out about her age, I even took the courage to ask her when she had retired, but instead of a response she only looked at me quite aghast and said "Retired? I have never retired!"

Shirley worked as a part-time medical officer at the Department of Health in New Zealand for many years. As part of her job she had to deal with cot death. She became first interested in understanding the mechanisms causing these deaths during the early 1970s and made interviews with approximately 130 parents who had lost their babies. She noted that many parents answered to her question "how did your baby look like when you found him" that they couldn't see the face, or that they had to turn their baby over to see his face. They also reported that their baby had "the bottom of their face squashed" when found dead.

This was the starting point for asking herself several questions and resulted in one of her first papers, which was published in Pediatrics in 1975: It proposed airway obstruction at the pharyngeal level as a cause of SIDS - a hypothesis still extremely relevant to our understanding of SIDS. A few years later, she published a detailed case study on how partial nasal obstruction, potentially triggered by the prone and/or face down position, could lead to pharyngeal occlusion.

In 1979, she became co-founder of the New Zealand Cot Death Association. Seven years later, she described infant care practices, including avoiding to place infants prone, that may reduce the risk of SIDS. More recently, she questioned the appropriateness of current guidelines for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, noting that many mothers' mouths are not wide enough to cover their baby's mouth and nose as written in almost every guideline given to parents. She also developed a method to determine pharyngeal and lower jaw dimensions from standard lateral skull x-rays.

Despite having never held a research position, she has published some 24 papers in peer-reviewed journals. In summary, Shirley has always emphasised the importance of "to look and listen" if we want to improve our understanding of SIDS and has greatly helped parents better to cope with the loss of their child.

Let me sum it up with a quote from a fellow New Zealander, Ed Mitchell. He told me when asked about her: "Shirley has been one of the most irritating people I ever worked with: she has frequently come up with the right idea, but without any data to prove it, only to be found out to be right after several years of research".

On behalf of ESPID, let me congratulate you to this much deserved honour!