In debt for doctor’s far-reaching vision for the culture of life

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Dr Joseph ‘Joe’ Santamaria as a young medical student.
Dr Joseph ‘Joe’ Santamaria as a young medical student.

It’s said that if you aren’t on social media you don’t exist. The frightening cultural amnesia bequeathed by this nostrum was brought home at the recent funeral of the distinguished Australian medical researcher, ethical and social policy pioneer Dr Joseph Natalino Santamaria OAM.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Victories in Melbourne was full of his beloved near and extended family, medical and other colleagues – many of whom, were discovered, encouraged and mentored by the canny, wise, generous, culturally acute and funny man.

But his death was not reported by the media and little can be discovered on the internet.

Dr Joe’s untiring intellectual interest and imagination is best captured in print, his voluminous correspondence and his outstanding organisational entrepreneurship.

His last book: The Coming of Age of Dr Joe (Blue Koala, 2019) was distributed to all who attended his requiem and is a delightful assembly of stories, poems and reflections.

Dr Joe always had panoramic vision but he so often led by promoting others. He had a gift for providing bridges for people to work together on important moral and social issues, well before they became mainstream

His questing social concern and a compassion born of a deep Catholic faith spearheaded his initiatives in the areas of road safety, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, healthcare ethics, natural fertility research, the promotion of marriage and family and the cultural and faith formation of young adults.

Dr Joe died in his 96th year on 30 June. He was born to Aeolian Island (islands just north of Sicily) immigrants who came to the suburb of Brunswick in Melbourne in the 1890s.

The Santamaria family of seven grew up in their parents’ fruit shop, adapting quickly and with flair to life in Australia. The family name engraved itself into 20th century Australian life and history thanks to the role of Dr Joe’s eldest brother, B.A. or “Bob” Santamaria.

Like Bob, Dr Joe was inspired by a deep sense of intellectual and cultural engagement with the Catholic Church’s social teaching and his own vocation.

Studying medicine during the Second World War, Dr Joe worked on the vital production of penicillin. In 1948 he graduated in medicine and specialised in Internal Medicine and Haematology. For a time he worked in General Practice.

In 1966, he and a St Vincent’s Hospital team travelled to South Vietnam to train medical professionals.

His social and ethical insights were also deepening throughout the 1960s as his work in Melbourne included research into the effects of alcohol dependency and abuse among many patients, some homeless, who frequented the streets around St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy.

In 1970 through a new initiative with the Sisters of Charity, he became the Director of the Centre of Community Medicine which provided both outreach and research into the social, psychological and medical impact of drug and alcohol use.

During this time and after retirement from practice, Dr Joe’s interest in the engagement of the insights of faith, culture and medical ethics saw his collaboration with Doctors John and Evelyn Billings and their team.

Dr Joseph ‘Joe’ Santamaria, later in life, a distinguished figure on the Australian medical scene.
Dr Joseph ‘Joe’ Santamaria, later in life, a distinguished figure on the Australian medical scene.

He became Head of the Natural Family Planning Clinic at St Vincent’s and President of the Natural Family Planning Clinic in Victoria.

It was clear Dr Joe’s talent for collaboration and friendship attracted support from leading Catholic thinkers, including Professors Hilgers, Jerome Lejeune, William May and Elizabeth Anscombe, Rev Ronald Lawler, John Finnis and Colin Clarke – among many others.

Dr Joe and other senior Catholic doctors became deeply concerned about the demise of the Hippocratic tradition in medicine and the challenges to healthcare posed by technology and secular ideologies.

Through his organisational attention and vision, the later-renowned Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini was enlisted as the Director of the St Vincent’s Bioethics’ Centre and as Australia’s first hospital ethicist.

Throughout the 1980s, the Centre published papers, submissions and hosted Conferences which engaged not only with Catholic but leading bioethicists, including those who opposed Catholic ethical teaching.

At the same time, Dr Joe was also busy assisting his brother Bob in forming two Australia-wide organisations: the Australian Family Association founded in 1980 as an ecumenical and cross-cultural body for the promotion of marriage and the family over a broad horizon of economic, social and cultural issues; and the Thomas More Centre founded in 1989 to promote the education and discussion of Catholic faith and reason particularly among young adults.

In these years Dr Joe contributed to research for the Pontifical Academy for Life and collaborated personally with leading Italian theologians and bioethicists including Carlo Caffarra and Elio Sgreccia, both created cardinals.

He anticipated and promoted the “culture of life” enunciated by Pope John Paul II. During that Pope’s travels to Australia in October 1986, he became his travelling personal physician.

At his funeral, Emeritus auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott spoke of the power of Dr Joe’s prescience.

It was Joe who insisted that Melbourne needed to establish a John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family and it was Dr Joe’s driving enthusiasm which laid the groundwork for its establishment under then-Archbishop George Pell as President of the Melbourne Session in 2001.

He mentored numerous young eager researchers and activists; many will treasure enduring memories of this remarkable powerhouse.

One is of periodically losing sight of his diminutive figure in a busy Roman street after a high-powered bioethics conference in the Vatican, as he led us students, priests and doctors, humming some bars from La Traviata, to his favourite gelato bar.

Another is of his stocky figure bobbing up and down on a tractor as he and his dear Dorothy greeted guests to their mini apple and cherry farm, regaled with laughter over the serious matters of his latest writing.

Vale Dr Joe, we are in your debt. May you delight in the life and truth of God.

Pray for us to keep your balance of faith, hospitality, wry humour and intelligence alive in the Church today.