The Life and Work of Professor Fiona Wood AM, National Living Treasure

Sue’s latest book is the remarkable story of Professor Fiona Wood AM, one of Australia’s most innovative and respected surgeons and world leading burns specialists, whose ground-breaking research and technology development has changed the lives of burn patients.

When three bombs tore out the heart of Bali on 12 October 2002 and decimated so many Australian lives, burns surgeon Professor Fiona Wood and her team were there to help. A pioneer in the field of burns and reconstructive surgery, she made world headlines with the use of her revolutionary invention of ‘spray-on skin’ to help minimise her patients’ horrific scarring.

Fiona was later made Australian of the Year, was voted Australia’s Most Trusted Person for an unprecedented six years’ running in the annual Reader’s Digest poll, and acclaimed as an ‘Australian Living Treasure’.

This is the story of her extraordinary life. Against all the odds, Fiona, the daughter of a fifth-generation coalminer in the north of England, became of Australia’s most innovative, respected, and dedicated surgeons and researchers. She talks candidly of the moving valour of her burns patients, and the heartbreak, triumph, tears, and controversies that have stalked her stellar career.

Astonishingly, she has achieved all of this while raising six children.

Sue says of her, ‘I’ve been fascinated by Fiona Wood ever since I first saw her in the media in the aftermath of the Bali bombings, working around the clock to save the survivors. She always struck me as a person of great depth, down-to-earth yet incredibly gifted, modest but obviously high-achieving and with a dogged determination to achieve the best results for her patients that just shone through.

‘I really wanted to find out more about her – where she came from, what had given her such an iron resolve and devotion, what she was doing in her research – and I wrote to her every year for at least 10 years, asking if I could write her biography. Every time, her answer was the same: Thanks but no thanks; she was too private; she was too busy; she still had too much to do.

‘Finally, in a break between COVID lockdowns, I went over to Perth and put my case once more, and she at last agreed. And what a revelation talking to her was! She’s actually from a very humble background as the child of a fifth-generation coal-mining family in the north of England who was determined to get out and make something of her life. When she went to study medicine, she only had a vague idea of what it might mean.

‘Later, in the last years of her surgical training, she married a fellow student – an Australian – and ended up coming here in 1987, and her life has been a rollercoaster ever since, from being refused jobs because she was a mother, to inventing that pioneering spray-on skin to speed the recovery of burns victims and improve their scars, and helping run a major disaster response exercise that ended up being put into practice when the Bali bombings happened. In between, there are all the heart-breaking stories of the burns patients she’s helped, and sometimes lost, the opposition she’s faced and the hurdles she’s still having to overcome.

‘She’s simply an incredible Australian, still determined to discover new things in her research to help in the treatment of burns and yet still shy of the limelight. You can’t help but be touched by everything she’s been through, and admire hugely her achievements.’

Wood is co-founder of the Fiona Wood Foundation, which conducts vital research into all aspects of the survival of burns victims, with findings and breakthroughs that have had an impact on treatment around the globe. She is also director of the Burns Service of Western Australia, a consultant plastic surgeon at Fiona Stanley Hospital and Perth Children’s Hospital, and Winthrop professor in the School of Surgery at The University of Western Australia.

PUBLICATION DATE: 5 October 2022 RRP: $34.99 IMPRINT: Allen & Unwin

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Under Her Skin is one of the most compelling biographies I have ever read. Sue Williams has an incredible gift with words that certainly brings Professor Fiona Wood’s life into full view. Fiona is a world leading burns specialist and to say I admire her even more after reading this book is an understatement. For it is not only the amazing things she has done for burns patients but it is also the fact she never gave up: especially when faced with endless challenges. Earlier on in her career, as an exceptional innovative doctor in a male centred world, she was told she could not do certain things because she was either female or what she wanted to accomplish was impossible. Yet the word ‘no’ is not really in her vocabulary. She was up against the same age old challenges powerful independent free thinking women have faced for centuries. But this five foot one powerhouse not only had the vision of a giant who talked tall, she ultimately proved to her naysayers that she could deliver what she said she could do. And that was making her dreams and hopes of creating better survival odds for burn victims a reality through her pioneered research and technology development.
As I read Under Her Skin I kept thinking: how did she have the energy to do all she did (and continues to do so)? We can have strong ambitions and the will to turn those goals into actions but it can be like climbing Mount Everest. The challenges Fiona faced would discourage many to continue but she never gave up. Maybe her passion to help others, her skill as a surgeon and her athletic training gave her the fuel and resilience she needed. Thankfully she kept pursuing her dream and now has been acknowledged for her achievements in the current age. Her tireless work with the victims of the Bali bombings may have been the major event that brought her technology into the world’s spotlight. The fact she saved twenty eight people is pretty remarkable. But there have even more people she has helped over the years and it is wonderful she has been deservedly awarded with various titles such as the Member of Order of Australia in 2003.
What made her so special? Fiona was a daughter of a coal miner in Yorkshire, England: a life that her parents did not want for their children. Nor did they want to see them trapped in low paying jobs. So, they infused in Fiona and her siblings (two brothers and a sister) an ambition to excel. They were a high achieving family, possibly because their father was a dreamer and told them they could do anything they wanted, if they were prepared to worked hard enough.
I loved this book from the first page to the last but the final chapter title says it all: Dare to Dream. That’s Fiona’s motto really. Even in that section she is pondering some fascinating theories of how the body might be able heal itself if we can harness the realm of thought. Sounds like science fiction? Maybe but thinking outside the box as Fiona hints, is how great discoveries happen. She says “we all have a gift to give and maybe some have not discovered it yet … but we need to connect, and then have the courage to share our gifts.” In many ways it seems she is asking us to share in her vision and dare to dream, too.
Sue Williams has provided a fascinating portrayal of a resilient innovative determined woman who had a tough career start but a triumphant outcome. Yet Fiona has not been alone on the journey and this book is not only about her life but also the heroes she has met, the burns victims she has helped and the mentors she has admired. I was deeply moved by the many stories that spilled across these pages of the people she has helped survive and of those she lost. It certainly shakes up your heart, thinking and views. If you are human, you will be touched deeply by this biography. I highly recommend Under Her Skin. It is a must read for 2022. Hats off to Sue for an exceptional seamless delivery of a true story worth telling. It is clear to see why Fiona is one of Australia’s National Living Treasures. 5 Stars. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Many thanks to Allen & Unwin for my review copy.
Note: I watched Bali 2002 – a 4 part mini-series on Stan and highly recommend it, too. Fiona is played by Rachel Griffiths. And she is wearing a pearl necklace and earrings, just as Fiona does on the cover of the book and in real life at work.
Check Out: Fiona Wood Foundation

Cindy L Spear

I’ve been completely blown away by the life story of this remarkable woman. Under Her Skin by Australian author Sue Williams tells Fiona Wood’s story from her birth into a coal mining family in the north of England, her passionate desire to become a doctor, then a surgeon and everything in between. When she met her soon to be husband, who was also training to become a doctor, and they eventually emigrated to Perth in Western Australia, she had a toddler and a newborn.

Fiona was soon under the spell of Australia, the warmth, the beaches, the opportunities, and soon she began making her mark. Her determination to succeed saw her enter the field of plastic surgery, burns patients, research, new skin for the victims of both horrific and minor burns – her visions were revolutionary. Meanwhile, Fiona continued to have her children, with six well-adjusted and loving kids credited to Tony and Fiona.

All the preparation of Fiona and her teams led to the horrific Bali bombings in 2002, where Fiona would lead the way in working on twenty-eight victims who were sent to her burns unit from Denpasar and Darwin. Other survivors were sent to various burns units across Australia. Professor Fiona Wood was Australian of the Year, voted Australia’s Most Trusted Person for six years running, and is also Australia’s Living Treasure. She is also a devoted grandmother, while still working hard, and her mother Elsie back home in England, couldn’t be more proud of her daughter, the one she knew would go far way back when she was born!

I have never enjoyed a non-fiction/biography more than I did Under Her Skin and I recommend it unreservedly. Fiona Wood is an inspiration and a remarkable woman.

Brenda at Goodreads