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Derrick, Edward Holbrook (1898–1976)

by R. L. Doherty

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Edward Holbrook Derrick (1898-1976), medical practitioner, was born on 20 September 1898 at Blackwood, Victoria, second of four children of Clement Herbert Derrick, a native-born schoolteacher, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Sweetman, from England. Educated at Wesley College, Edward entered Queen's College, University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1920; M.D., 1922). On 14 June 1918 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, but, as a medical student, was not called up for service. He was appointed resident medical officer at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital in 1920 and next year was Sir John Grice cancer research scholar at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Research in Pathology and Medicine. Having been awarded a free passage to England, in 1922-23 he worked as a pathology assistant at London Hospital. Derrick's programme of postgraduate training, directed at preparing himself for work as a medical missionary, was interrupted by illness: one brother had already died of tuberculosis, and Edward's own battle with that disease had a major influence on his life.

He returned to Australia in February 1924. While 'in search of a curative climate', he spent over ten years in country practice, holding brief locum-tenencies at Yea, Victoria, Curramulka, South Australia, Broken Hill, Tibooburra and Coolamon, New South Wales, and at Killarney, Mareeba and Innisfail, Queensland; he was also employed at the Austin Hospital, Melbourne. He settled for several years in North Queensland, at Irvinebank and then at Mount Mulligan. On 11 March 1930 at the Methodist Church, Irvinebank, he married a nurse Margaret Gina Quadrio. With his health restored, he resigned from Mount Mulligan in 1934 to begin a private practice in Brisbane.

In June 1935 Derrick was appointed director of the Queensland Department of Health Laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology. His investigation of a series of unexplained fevers in abattoir workers defined a disease entity not previously described which he named Q (for Query) fever. He succeeded in transmitting the infectious agent of that disease to guinea-pigs and collaborated with (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet to identify it as a rickettsia later named Coxiella burnetii. Subsequent studies showed survival of the organism in bandicoots and the tick Haemaphysalis humerosa, but it was left to scientists in the United States of America to discover the major source of human infection in bovine placenta. Derrick and his laboratory staff studied other agents of febrile disease in Queensland, and made several contributions, including the first isolation of Leptospira pomona. Both it and Coxiella burnetii proved to be of worldwide importance.

Heavy routine commitments and the dispersal of staff during World War II hindered research. In 1944, in his annual report to the secretary for health, Derrick suggested the creation of a research unit to explore disease problems in Queensland. Next year he was appointed chairman of an advisory committee whose recommendations led to the establishment of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane. In 1947 he became its deputy-director; he succeeded Ian Mackerras as director in 1961. Derrick continued to investigate fevers of unknown origin in North Queensland, taking a key role in studies based at Innisfail which led to the discovery of many new serotypes of leptospires, and greatly extended knowledge of leptospirosis and scrub typhus in that area. Responsible for establishing a virology unit at the institute, he fostered its growth until the major part of its programme was concerned with viruses or virus diseases. The appearance of epidemic Q fever in shearers in western Queensland allowed further studies of that disease.

Interested from 1960 in the epidemiology of asthma in Queensland, Derrick carried out a long series of studies, especially of two annual seasonal peaks of incidence. He retired as director in July 1966, but continued to work as an honorary research fellow at the institute and published a further twenty-one papers. Director (1966-73) of the Queensland Asthma Foundation's research bureau, he maintained an association with that organization until his death.

Derrick's achievements were widely recognized. Among his many honours, he was appointed C.B.E. (1961). In 1939 he had shared the Commonwealth Department of Health's Cilento medal with Macfarlane Burnet; he also received the Britannica Australia Award for Medicine (1965) and the medal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1969). In 1948 he was Bancroft orator of the Queensland branch of the British Medical Association and in 1962 Elkington orator of the Queensland Society of Health. In 1966 he received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Queensland. He was a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1955), the Australian Medical Association (1968) and the Australian Postgraduate Federation in Medicine (1971). Almost half of his 126 scientific papers were published in the Medical Journal of Australia, including his classic paper (1937) on the discovery of Q fever. The journal published a festschrift issue in his honour in December 1967. His last published work—on his own experience with angina pectoris—appeared in 1976. A complete list of Derrick's publications was compiled by Mackerras in 1978.

Survived by his wife and two sons, Derrick died on 15 June 1976 in Brisbane and was cremated. Much of his career and his studies was identified with Queensland, and he had a great influence on two generations of researchers there. Modest, gentle and deeply religious, he was a meticulous scientist and a dedicated medical practitioner. His portrait by Graeme Inson hangs in the foyer of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Patrick, A History of Health and Medicine in Queensland 1824-1960 (Brisb, 1987)
  • Department of Health and Home Affairs (Queensland), Health and Medical Services Branch Annual Report, 1959-60, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1960 (34), p 103
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 9 Dec 1967, p 1067, and R. L. Doherty, 'E. H. Derrick—his published record and its background', Medical Journal of Australia, 9 Dec 1967, p 1069, and 'Obituary: Edward Holbrook Derrick', Medical Journal of Australia, 6 Nov 1976, p 731, and Bancroft Oration: Part 1, 'The Bancroft tradition in infectious disease research in Queensland', Medical Journal of Australia, 2 Dec 1978, p 560, and part 2, Medial Journal of Australia, 16 Dec 1978, p 591
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 4, no 1, 1978, p 83, and for Derrick's publications
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 13 Dec 1966, 16 June 1976
  • E. H. Derrick, Fragments of an Autobiography (no date, Australian Academy of Science Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. L. Doherty, 'Derrick, Edward Holbrook (1898–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/derrick-edward-holbrook-9957/text17641, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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