By Caroline Smith
The life of Floreat Wembley parishioner Dr James McNulty, or Jim as he was more commonly known, was one dedicated to public health in Western Australia, particularly through his work raising awareness of mesothelioma and other illnesses associated with asbestos exposure from the 1950s onwards.
Dr McNulty passed away on 27 January 2017 and his funeral service was held on Thursday 2 February at St Cecilia’s Church in Floreat, with attendees numbering over 400 people. The service was celebrated by Father Vincent Glynn and concelebrated by Floreat Wembley Parish Priest, Fr Andrew Albis.
Eulogies were provided by his children Mary and Patrick, who used photographs and quotes to recall their father’s humour and integrity, and his dedication to family and to God.
“Dad had a very deep, committed faith. The faith he and Mum have handed on to their children was through their actions more than their words,” Patrick McNulty said.
“I love the photo of Dad as a young boy, lined up on a set of steps outside their Belfast home with his older brother Paddy, having just delivered a fair whack to his head just as the photo is taken. He is both in pain and laughing at the same time.
“There is pride and dignity in the way they are dressed; working class, living in severe sectarian animosity. This animosity did not scar him and he developed a life-long capacity almost certainly from his parents to hold no hatred or grudges.”
Dr McNulty was born on 8 June 1926, the fourth of eight children in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He received a medical degree from Queens University – as the first of his family to attend university – and worked in the Catholic Mater Hospital for a time.
However, discrimination against Catholics made it difficult for him to find other work, so he moved to England and later accepted a position in WA.
Dr McNulty’s role was with the then Department of Public Health in Kalgoorlie, where he diagnosed respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis and the ‘dust disease’ presented by miners working in the area. In this role, he pushed for stronger dust controls and the monitoring of equipment to be placed in mines.
In 1959, Dr McNulty’s concerns took him to the town of Wittenoom – known for its asbestos mine – where workers were showing similar symptoms of ‘dust disease’.
Although authorities seemed reluctant to do anything, he was met with resistance, once describing meeting a ‘wall of indifference’.
Again, he fought for stronger management and assessment of the dust, which revealed strong asbestos contamination throughout the town. A few years later in 1966, the mine was closed, but for economic rather than health reasons.
The greater dangers of asbestos were revealed in subsequent years, through the compensation claims of people who contracted mesothelioma, even after having had only sparse contact with it.
Following his efforts in response to asbestos and its associated illnesses, Dr McNulty was appointed WA Commissioner for Public Health in 1975 and worked in this position for nine years.
In 1984, he became Executive Director of Public Health and Scientific Services in the newly amalgamated Department of Health. In this role, he dealt with issues such as a salmonella outbreak, amoebic meningitis and the AIDS crisis.
He retired in 1987 and the following year received the Order of Australia.
His contribution to public health was acknowledged by WA Health Department Director General David Russell-Weisz in an internal department statement.
“Dr McNulty made a huge contribution to the health system of Western Australia, particularly in occupational health,” he said.
“He was an early advocate of stricter dust control measures around mine sites and recognised the legacy that would result from the blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom.”