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Susan Elizabeth (Sue) Meeuwissen (1962–2000)

by Penelope Harrison

This article was published online in 2024

Susan Meeuwissen

Susan Meeuwissen

Adelaide Advertiser, September 1997

Susan Elizabeth Meeuwissen (1962–2000), anti-smoking activist and disability rights campaigner, was born on 15 April 1962 in Melbourne, second of three children of English-born parents Peter Meeuwissen, cook, and his wife Irene, née Hindle. Sue was born with cystic fibrosis, a life-limiting, recessive genetic condition that causes damage to the lungs, digestive system, and other organs. Despite her severely compromised health she attended Clayton North Primary School and Westall High School before, in 1978, enrolling at Stott’s Secretarial College, Dandenong. In 1980 she completed the Higher School certificate at Cleeland High School, Dandenong, and in 1981 studied philosophy at Monash University. Exposure to tobacco smoke exacerbated her chronic illness, which was compounded because she suffered from asthma. From the age of thirteen she had required constant medical treatment, and from the mid-1980s established the Group Against Smoking in Public (GASP), as well as working voluntarily with a range of advocacy groups to raise awareness of the dangers of passive smoking.

Meeuwissen moved to Adelaide in May 1989 because of the city’s superior air quality. She worked and studied when she could, but even in Adelaide exposure to tobacco smoke threatened her life; in May 1994 she received a double lung transplant at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne. However, her transplanted lungs were asthmatic, and she continued to experience episodes of acute respiratory distress. Though her capacity to work and study was compromised, as a result of the transplant she was energised, and she embraced opportunities to promote change. She did not let her impairments restrict her social life or political activism, and developed a reputation for being ‘feisty and enthusiastic … her energy was contagious’ (Allen 2000, 2). Later in 1994 she went to Paris to present a paper at the Ninth World Conference on Tobacco and Health.

On 18 March 1995, while visiting Sydney, Meeuwissen attended Julianna’s nightclub at the Hilton Hotel with the barrister and anti-tobacco campaigner, Neil Francey, and two other friends. She became increasingly unwell from her exposure to cigarette smoke and had to leave the venue. Two days later she lodged a complaint with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, citing the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Her complaint alleged discrimination ‘on the ground of disability which resulted in less favourable treatment in access to premises and the provision of services’ (Francey v Hilton Hotels of Australia Pty Ltd). In a separate complaint, Francey alleged discrimination as Meeuwissen’s associate at the venue. Meeuwissen’s motivation was, in her words: ‘I’m not going to be here long; I want to do some good’ (Chesterfield-Evans 2000, 70). The commission ruled that Hilton Hotels of Australia Pty Ltd had discriminated against Meeuwissen, and that she and Francey had no choice but to leave the nightclub. In a landmark decision that effectively defined clean air as a human right, the commissioner concluded that ‘asking someone to tolerate exclusion, whether because of a step or something that they cannot breathe without risk of injury is equally unacceptable and abhorrent’ (Francey v Hilton Hotels of Australia Pty Ltd). Meeuwissen was awarded compensation of $2000, and Francey $500.

In Adelaide Meeuwissen studied economics, small business, and multimedia design, at various institutions including Flinders University and the Adelaide and Torrens Valley Colleges of Technical and Further Education, with a view to establishing a web design venture. She had also become an active member of the Australian Democrats, as a branch contact and editor of the State division’s newsletter (1997–99). At the South Australian general election in October 1997, she contested the seat of Adelaide, receiving 16.5 per cent of the vote, a creditable swing to the party.

Meeuwissen was admitted to Royal Adelaide Hospital on a number of occasions in 1998 due to complications following exposure to tobacco smoke, and in March 1999 she returned to Melbourne to access treatment and family support. In May 2000, following a severe exacerbation of asthma, infection, and complications connected to transplant rejection and kidney failure, she was informed that she was at the end stage of her life. Until her death this ‘positive mischief maker’ (Bird 2000) worked on a new campaign, ‘Where People Smoke Matters,’ including a web page, ‘The Reluctant Activist, designed to connect people and promote the anti-smoking cause. She had a simple message: that breathing fresh air in public spaces was a human rights issue. As one of her final gestures, she wrote to all members of the Victorian parliament, urging stronger legislation to combat the dangers of environmental tobacco smoke, especially in the vicinity of hospitals.

Doctors turned down her appeal for a further lung transplant due to her failing body systems. She died on 18 July 2000 at the Alfred Hospital, ‘with dignity and grace and a cheeky grin’ (Perri 2000), having fought with determination and enthusiasm for what she believed in, throughout her life. Following a funeral service at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Mount Waverley, she was cremated. She was survived by her parents, and siblings Robert and Jane.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Allen, Jill. ‘Sue Meeuwissen 1962–2000.’ South Australian Democrats, August 2000, 2
  • Bird, John. ‘Eulogy: Sue Elizabeth Meeuwissen.’ Unpublished manuscript, 24 July 2000. Copy held on ADB file
  • Button, Victoria. ‘Celebrating Sue.’ Age (Melbourne), 14 June 2000, 15
  • Button, Victoria. ‘Family and Friends Keep a Campaigner’s Message Alive.’ Age (Melbourne), 26 July 2000, 10
  • Chesterfield-Evans, Arthur. ‘Sue Meeuwissen: Anti-smoking Activist, 1961–2000 [sic].’ Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 2000, 70
  • Harvey, Adam. ‘Ruling May Force an End to Indoor Smoking.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 1997, 3
  • Francey v Hilton Hotels of Australia Pty Ltd. [1997] HREOCA 56 (25 September 1997)
  • Lim, Cecilia. ‘Campaigning for a Smoke-free Environment.’ Link Disability Journal, March–April 1990, 25
  • Meeuwissen, Sue. ‘Smoking in Public Places.’ South Australian Democrats, December 1997, 6
  • Perri, Anna. ‘My Friend Sue: Tuesday, 25 July 2000.’ Unpublished manuscript, 2000. Copy held on ADB file

Citation details

Penelope Harrison, 'Meeuwissen, Susan Elizabeth (Sue) (1962–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/meeuwissen-susan-elizabeth-sue-33476/text41858, published online 2024, accessed online 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Susan Meeuwissen

Susan Meeuwissen

Adelaide Advertiser, September 1997

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

15 April, 1962
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

18 July, 2000 (aged 38)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cystic fibrosis

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation
Key Events
Key Organisations
Political Activism