New Zealand scientist Graham Liggins dies aged 84

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sir Graham Liggins, a New Zealand scientist whose research saved the lives of numerous premature babies, has died at the age of 84. He died after suffering from a long illness.

Liggins followed in his father’s footsteps and entered a career in medicine. He trained as an obstetrician and began to work at the Auckland's National Women's Hospital in 1959. While he was working at the hospital Liggins began to investigate premature labor during his spare time. His research showed that if a hormone was administered it would speed up the baby's foetal lung maturation.

Later in his research Liggins used his surgical skills and found while experimenting on the pituitary gland of a sheep that the gland in the foetus controlled the timing of birth. He also discovered that cortisol was the hormone responsible for the actual birth. At the time of his research the President of the United States John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline lost a son who was born six weeks early.

In a controlled trial of pre-natal corticosteroids Liggins worked with Professor Ross Howie. The pair’s study showed a dramatic reduction in respiratory distress syndrome in premature babies. The study was published in 1972. Liggins's research was the first treatment available to give a chance of life to premature babies.

Several people have paid tribute to Liggins including Sir Peter Gluckman, the chief science advisor to the New Zealand prime minister. He said "Without doubt it is considered the single most important advance in obstetrical and perinatal research of the last 50 years". He added that Liggins was "arguably the greatest scientist New Zealand had ever produced".

Liggins is survived by two daughters and one son. His wife Celia and another son had previously died.