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Breinl, Anton (1880–1944)

by R. A. Douglas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Anton Breinl (1880-1944), medical scientist and practitioner, was born on 2 July 1880 in Vienna, son of Anton Breinl, lace manufacturer, and his wife Leopoldina, née Stammhammer. The family came from Graslitz near Pilsen in the Sudeten German part of Bohemia. Educated at a gymnasium at Chomutov, Breinl entered Charles University, Prague, in 1899 and took its medical degree in April 1904. He decided to satisfy his interest in both research and travel by taking up tropical medicine, in which dramatic advances were then being made; with funds for only three months, he went to England to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in May. Appointed John Garrett international fellow in bacteriology, he worked under Sir Ronald Ross, discoverer of the malarial life cycle, and Professor Rupert Boyce. In April 1905, he accompanied Dr H. Wolferstan Thomas, with whom he had worked on trypanosomiasis, to Brazil on the school's Yellow Fever Expedition. Six months later Thomas contracted the disease, then Breinl. Despite a normal mortality rate of 95 percent both recovered, though Breinl developed a lifelong facial palsy. Wrecked at the mouth of the Amazon on the way home, he lost all his records, apparatus and personal effects.

He continued his research on pathogenic protozoa at the school in the Runcorn Research Laboratory and became its director in May 1907. He investigated tick fever and developed work on the effect of the drug, atoxyl, in trypanosomiasis. Bitten by an experimentally infected rat in 1907, he became the first European to be cured of sleeping sickness by atoxyl. Professor Paul Ehrlich visited Runcorn, saw the work of Thomas and Breinl on trypanosomiasis, tried organic arsenical compounds in syphilis and in 1907 developed salvarsan (606), the first successful treatment for the disease. As a referee for Breinl's Australian appointment, he described him as 'one of the leaders of modern chemotherapeutic work'. While at Liverpool, Breinl wrote or contributed to one book and twenty-one papers.

Appointed as first director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine at Townsville in 1909, Breinl began work on 1 January 1910 in converted wardsmen's quarters at the Townsville Hospital, with one assistant who had accompanied him from Liverpool. He was awarded the Mary Kingsley medal for research in tropical medicine in 1910, his engagement was extended in May 1914 for five years, and a few days later he was naturalized. Meanwhile he had investigated his territory as far north as Thursday Island, examined the Northern Territory in 1911, and in July-August 1912 had surveyed the health of Papuan coastal peoples from Port Moresby to the Mambare River. In June-October 1913 he travelled by canoe and on foot from Port Moresby to Daru. His major research in Australia was pioneering work into the physiology and biochemistry of Europeans living in the topics. With W. J. Young he published a major paper, 'Tropical Australia and its settlement' in 1919; the institute published twenty-two scientific papers while he was director.

In October 1920 Breinl quietly retired from the institute to a busy private practice in Townsville. There is strong evidence that he was under pressure to resign because of his national origin. Throughout World War I he had suffered some social ostracism through the gossip of ultra-patriots. He unsuccessfully volunteered three times for army service and, while continuing his own work, replaced, without salary, the enlisted superintendent of the Townsville General Hospital. His authoritative treatment of serious malaria cases, sent by the army from New Guinea, saved many. The biochemist Professor H. Priestley believed it a 'great tragedy' that he 'felt compelled to give up active scientific research at the height of his career. Breinl was a splendid man to work with, enthusiastic, very hard working … His knowledge of protozoology in particular, and of tropical medicine generally was great, and as a laboratory technician, he was superb'.

Besides his native German, Breinl spoke English fluently, French moderately and had some knowledge of Portuguese and Italian. He was an accomplished violinist and met his future wife Nellie Doriel Lambton, a nurse, when she accompanied him on the piano. Married in Townsville on 21 April 1919, they had three sons including twins who became medical practitioners. Having suffered for years from hypertension, he died of renal failure on 28 June 1944 in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Journal of Science, 7 (1944)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 21 Oct 1944
  • R. A. Douglas, ‘Dr Anton Breinl and the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine’, Medical Journal of Australia, 7 May 1977
  • Breinl papers (James Cook University, Townsville).

Citation details

R. A. Douglas, 'Breinl, Anton (1880–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/breinl-anton-5342/text9031, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 4 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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