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Personal profile

Biography

I am a medical and public health sociologist. I received my sociology training from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. My research and writing reflect longstanding interests in two academic areas. The first area of interest is the history, anthropology, sociology, and social psychology of human dying behavior and experiences. These studies examine dying conduct in illness (palliative, ageing, cancer, and intensive care) and non-illness contexts (war, disasters, death camps, death row, suicide) and from 12 months to a few hours either side of the clinical pronouncement of death.  My work ranges from studies of prolonged dying from chronic illness, debates on the determination of death (brain death), to mystical/altered states of consciousness among adults and children near-death (near-death experiences, deathbed visions, terminal lucidity).

My other field of research is the development and assessment of public health (health promotion) practices for care of the dying, caregivers, and the bereaved. I am interested in the application of public health strategies for community development, social ecology, public education, services redesign, and civic policy development to create or enhance practices for communities participating in end-of-life care. I am widely recognized as founder and one of the leading advocates of the international public health movement in palliative care, also known as the ‘compassionate community’ or the ‘health promoting palliative care’ approach. This approach has been incorporated into national palliative care policies in many countries around the world, including the UK.

Before coming to Northumbria, I worked internationally as a university professor in Australia (La Trobe University), Japan (University of Tokyo), England (Universities of Bath, Middlesex, and Bradford), and the USA (Universities of Minnesota and Vermont). With Julian Abel, I am co-editor of the Oxford Textbook of Public Health Palliative Care (2022) and a contributing author to the Lancet Commission Report on the Value of Death (2022). I have been an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences since 2011; co-founder and Associate Director of the national charity Compassionate Communities UK; and a past President of both the Association for the Study of Death and Society and Public Health Palliative Care International. I am an honorary professor in theology and religion at Durham University, and in family medicine at McMaster University Medical School in Canada. I joined Northumbria University in 2024 as Professor in Health and Social Care.

Research interests

  1. Public health policies, service development, and civic practice models of care in end-of-life care (in aged, cancer, palliative, bereavement, & intensive care sectors)
  2. Sociological and policy perspectives on ageing
  3. History, sociology, and social psychology of dying conduct and experiences
  4. Anthropology of mystical/religious/altered states associated with dying and bereavement
  5. Sociology of health and illness
  6. Health promotion, community development, public education, services redesign, civic policy development, and social ecology
  7. Health humanities – storytelling as a modality for developing death, dying, and grief literacy in public and professional education
  8. Religion/faith cultures and the health services

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being

Education/Academic qualification

Sociology, PhD, University of New South Wales

Award Date: 13 May 1987

Sociology, BA (Hons), University of New South Wales

Award Date: 13 May 1978

External positions

Professor, Durham University

Professor, McMaster University

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