The Dunedin Study - DMHDRU

Dr Phil Silva, OBE

Dr Phil Silva, OBE

Founder and Emeritus Director

OBE, MA (Hons), PhD, DipTchg, FNZPsS 
Phil Silva is the founder of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study and, until his retirement from the position in 1999, was Director of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit. He undertook his tertiary academic training at the Dunedin Teachers College and the University of Otago. He was a primary school teacher for eight years and a psychologist for five years before being invited in 1971 to take up a temporary position in the Department of Paediatrics, University of Otago Medical School, to undertake a small study of 225 children alongside Dunedin paediatrician, Dr Patricia Buckfield. Dr Buckfield’s main interest was in the impact of new high-tech birth interventions on child development and she had gathered data on every baby born at Dunedin’s Queen Mary obstetric hospital between 1967 and 1973 – 12,000 in all.

However, when Phil Silva assessed a group of the children a few years later, he came up with some worrying findings: a large number had hearing, vision, language, behavioural and other problems that had gone completely undetected. He decided to take a closer look at a subset of Dr Buckfield’s sample: those children born in a one year period from 1 April 1972 to 31 March 1973, and whose mothers still lived in the Greater Dunedin Metropolitan area three years later. The parents were tracked down and asked if they would mind bringing their children in for a health and development assessment. Astonishingly, 91% of those who met the criteria were happy to spare the time to help: 1037 three-year-olds were brought in for half a day of tests and measurements. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study was born and is still going today, in no small way due to Phil Silva’s foresight, determination and ability to mobilise community involvement and secure the all-important funding.

He acknowledges that it was with the help of many, and especially the Dunedin community, that he established the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study in the early 1970s. He has written numerous reports and published papers on a wide range of health and development topics. In 1994, he was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for services to health and education.

Since his retirement as Director of the Unit in 1999, Phil Silva has served in various capacities on local and national organisations, as well as undertaking research consultancies. He is currently enjoying his retirement in Christchurch, having moved there from Nelson where he was the Commodore of the Nelson Yacht Club.