Being a founding member of the team that received Australia’s first Nobel Peace Prize – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) – represents only part of the energetic advocacy work performed by Dr Ruth Mitchell (BM, BS(GradEntry) ’07).
The Sydney-based neurosurgeon, currently working in the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, has been a passionate advocate for social justice since her childhood in Peru. Growing up amid civil war, a conflict fuelled by political and economic injustice, she learned from her parents that strong people do not turn away from difficult situations.
“If there is injustice, you have to do something about it,” says Dr Mitchell, who acknowledges that coming to Flinders University as an international student in 2004 to study medicine lit the fuse that set her on the path be a strident advocate. “Conflict is a deep structural problem, and if you want it to end, then everyone must become involved and commit to change,” she adds.
Dr Mitchell credits Emeritus Professor Ian Maddocks, the inaugural Chair of Palliative Care at Flinders University, for prodding her towards nuclear disarmament activism during her first year of medical studies at Flinders, in 2004. As Chair of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), Professor Maddocks compelled her to sign up as an Australian medical student representative for a global IPPNW congress in Beijing, bringing together international doctors and medical students calling for the prevention of nuclear war.
Alarmed and energised by what she learned at the congress, Dr Mitchell joined the foundation group of ICAN in Melbourne during 2006, a small group of committed doctors, medical students and nuclear disarmament activists who commenced international lobbying. Initially speaking through the medical fraternity, ICAN’s influence soon spread to also connect with government bodies around the world. This advocacy saw ICAN spread to more than 100 countries and 468 partner organisations, leading to it win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
Dr Mitchell only learned of the Nobel Prize nomination by chance, while watching a news broadcast in a breakfast café in Italy. While elated by the honour, she says the real victory was that ICAN had influenced a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons, signed by the United Nations in July 2017. “It signalled the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons, and it was a powerful moment, because it meant everyone’s hard work finally got traction,” she says. “I’m so proud to have been part of a global campaign that influenced that announcement.”
Beyond her work with ICAN, Ruth is currently the first woman Chair of the Board of the IPPNW – taking over the role previously held by her advocacy mentor, Professor Maddocks.
Her own advocacy work also extends deep into the medical profession, especially to support women in surgical careers. Dr Mitchell was the inaugural Australian Medical Association Doctor in Training of the Year in 2016, earning recognition for her work as chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Trainees’ Association and her tireless pursuit of doctors’ wellbeing and high-quality medical care, through advocacy, education and research.
She also received the 2019 John Corboy Medal from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons for her advocacy for diversity and inclusion in surgery.
Dr Ruth Mitchell has been awarded a 2022 Convocation Medal for her outstanding contributions to the global community through humanitarian services and activism as a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).