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No age limit on research for 74-year-old PhD Graduate

Thursday 22 August 2019 10:34pm

John-White-PhD-graduate-image
Dr John White graduated with a PhD from Otago last weekend, aged 74.

It was quite a weekend for Dr John White who celebrated his 74th birthday last Friday and then donned cap and gown to receive his PhD at the Dunedin Town Hall on Saturday.

Dr White discovered his passion for academic research and writing when he did his MA in his twenties, but turned his back on university life for a career in the public service after he married and had a daughter. “There was about a 45-year gap between my MA thesis, and my PhD thesis,” he notes.

He was drawn into public health research by his late wife Robin White (nee McPherson) when she took up a role as executive officer with the former non-governmental agency, Fight the Obesity Epidemic (FOE). Initially he volunteered to help her with the accounts, but soon became FOE’s research officer.

"What we were fighting for then, there has been virtually no progress. Things like getting rid of junk food advertising to children, taxing unhealthy products, only having healthy food in schools ..."

“Suddenly I found myself doing lots of writing about obesity. And I did quite a lot of advocacy work, and what I always found was that the things we were trying to do came up against business interests or, in the case of obesity, the food industry.”

“What we were fighting for then, there has been virtually no progress. Things like getting rid of junk food advertising to children, taxing unhealthy products, only having healthy food in schools, but what seemed like common sense things to do to public health people couldn’t win over the government. My interpretation was that it was the power of the food industry that was stymying progress.”

In 2010, as part of his research for FOE, he began planning to analyse submissions to the panel conducting the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy.

His goal was to better understand the influence of the food industry over government policies, using food labelling on packaged, processed foods as a case study.

But it was a chance remark from a public health professor, who asked, ‘if you are going to go to all that trouble, why don’t you turn it into a PhD?’ that led him to start work on his doctorate.

His PhD thesis, Business Influences on government decisions affecting public health: a case study from Australia and New Zealand, was eight years in the making – with Dr White taking three years out to care for wife Robin when she became ill with terminal cancer.

He is very pleased, he says, to have been able to dedicate his thesis to Robin, who was the catalyst for his work.

"What can we do about reducing the ability of business to produce products and services that damage public health has become my big thing, and what I expect will remain my big interest forever really."

With academic research and writing a personal passion, graduating at the ceremony in Dunedin on August 17 was just a “little candle on the icing” of his work over the previous eight years, Dr White says.

“I absolutely love doing academic research and writing, so whenever I completed a major piece of work on my thesis, and felt I had worked it out and nailed what I wanted to say, each of those were the big highlights for me.”

Dr White, who did his research at the University of Otago, Wellington, plans to continue writing academic papers and advocating for change.

He is already at work on a new research paper examining the influence of the regulatory environment in Australia and New Zealand on the development of the Health Star Rating system on food packaging.

“It was by accident that I got into public health, because my wife happened to get a job in public health, but it wasn’t long before it became my overwhelming interest. What can we do about reducing the ability of business to produce products and services that damage public health has become my big thing, and what I expect will remain my big interest forever really.”

Dr White’s PhD was supervised by Associate Professor George Thomson from the Department of Public Health and Professor Louise Signal, Director of the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit both from the University of Otago, Wellington.