Professor David Fergusson has tackled his fair share of “sacred cows” during nearly 35 years leading the Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS). His longitudinal study has enlightened debate and informed government policy decisions on the controversial, but significant, topics of child sexual abuse, youth drug use and abortion, to name a few. He has even played the role of “tooth fairy” to study participants when their teeth needed to be tested for research into lead exposure.
Fergusson is the 2010 recipient of the University’s highest research award, the Distinguished Research Medal. This honour acknowledges his outstanding scholarly achievement overseeing the longitudinal study of 1,265 children born in Christchurch in 1977. He is the author of more than 350 scientific papers and his work has been cited in international literature more than 11,000 times.
Fergusson, however, did not plan a career in academia. He joined the British Merchant Navy as a teenager, with plans to become an officer. But, after a couple of years, decided a life at sea was not for him.
He moved to New Zealand at age 21 and started work at an electronics firm. To earn extra money, he cleaned offices at Victoria University’s Geography Department in the evenings. It was there he discovered an interest in, and the challenge to pursue, academic life.
“I started talking to these students and realised I could do satisfactorily at university even though I lacked university qualifications.” Fergusson completed an arts degree with honours from Victoria University, studying psychology, sociology and education. He worked as a government policy advisor for about seven years, writing books and working on a longitudinal study.
It was through this study Fergusson met Canterbury paediatrician Dr Fred Shannon, who had received funding for a Christchurch-based longitudinal study and asked him to head it.
That was 1977. More than 1,200 families signed up for the study that year and today almost 1,000 are still involved.
An early paper from the study was among the first to document the association between passive smoking and respiratory illness in infants. Another body of work showed children from lower socio-economic groups were less likely to get access to preventive health care and preschool education programmes.
Fergusson is very proud that this work led government policy makers to try and ensure equitable outcomes to social programmes for all demographic groups.
Another memorable moment was in the 1980s when participants started losing teeth.
“We were interested in the relationship between low-level lead exposure in children and lower IQ, and this coincided with the kids losing teeth. I became the ‘tooth fairy’ and teeth started streaming into the unit for $1 each. We collected about 900 in all,” Fergusson recalls.
Again, Fergusson’s work influenced government policy. The research contributed to evidence leading to the removal of lead from petrol. Yet another study provided evidence to support legislation requiring the fencing of swimming pools, which led to a dramatic reduction in childhood drownings.
“My preoccupation has always been how to transform the data or evidence into useful conclusions. The ultimate aim of the study has been to make positive contributions to policies aimed at improving the health and well-being of children and young people,” Fergusson says.
An example of this was the development of the government-funded Family Start home visiting service for at-risk families. The impetus for Family Start came from CHDS data and a Christchurch-based programme called Early Start, showing the myriad negative effects experienced by children who had disadvantaged early years.
One of the biggest, and most contentious, topics Fergusson addressed in the longitudinal study was childhood sexual abuse.
“In the 1990s debate was gripped by discussions of sexual abuse and its impact on growth. At this stage participants were turning 18 and so we could ask them, as adults, about their childhood sexual abuse. It was a very sensitive and complicated ethical issue, but an important issue, so we weren’t going to be deterred.”
Fergusson decided to look at the link between sexual abuse and mental health issues – and found abuse victims were at an increased risk of a range of mental health problems. However, he believes the most controversial aspect of his research was investigating the impact of abortion on mental health.
“There are two very powerful lobby groups going head to head. One is the US feminist lobby and the other, of course, is the Catholic Church. If anyone gets in the middle of this battle you can expect to be clobbered. There have been lots of attempts to discredit our research, but it has stood up to intense scrutiny.”
Fergusson is currently advising several government agencies on how to study programmes designed to help children with serious behavioural issues.
He is also taking the longitudinal study into the new frontier of genetics. “Children who experience a bad early environment are at a higher risk of poor outcomes, including mental health problems and anti-social behaviour. Recent research suggests these outcomes may be modified by genetic factors so that the children who are most at risk of adverse outcomes are those who have both a pre-existing genetic predisposition and are exposed to an adverse childhood environment.”
Fergusson says leading the study has been the “best job in the world”.
“While running the research project is a stressful and demanding 24-hours-per-day task, the personal rewards are immeasurable. I believe that I am one of the most privileged people on the planet. Every day for the last 35 years I have been able to go to work and do exactly what I want to do, in the way I want to do it, subject to being able to get funding. Any other job would be a step down and could never be as good as the one I have got.”
- Health Research Council
- National Child Health Research Foundation
- Canterbury Medical Research Foundation
- New Zealand Lottery Grants Board
- University of Otago
- National Institutes of Health (US)
- James Hume Bequest Fund