The 2020 Senior Australian of the Year is Perth-based obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham AM.
Professor Newnham is one of the world's leading authorities in pre-term birth prevention which is the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age.
In accepting the honour, Professor Newnham, 67, called for more support for a new program to reduce the rate of pre-term births across Australia.
"It is now time for prevention of pre-term birth to become a national priority for Australia," Professor Newnham said.
In his speech, said for many years as part of his career he's had the privilege to care for women with complicated pregnancies and sick babies before they are born.
"As a young medical student I became fascinated by life before birth, and how little was known about the events before birth and how they may impact on our health and our disease throughout the rest of our lives," Professor Newnham said.
"I believe I have found an undiscovered continent, and I have spent the rest of my life exploring it."
He said until recently it was thought that pre-term birth could not be prevented.
"However, we have shown in Western Australia that the rate can be safely reduced, improving the lives of many people."
The program, called the Australian Pre-Term Birth Prevention Alliance, is now being rolled out across Australia.
"There is no roadmap to follow, but we should all be very proud of the fact that Australia is now the first country to have such a national program," he said.
Worldwide, 15 million babies are born prematurely each year.
In Australia, 8 per cent of babies are born pre-term and that rate doubles in the Indigenous population.