Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dintenfass, Leopold (1921–1990)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Leopold Dintenfass (1921-1990), industrial chemist and research biomedical rheologist, was born Lieb Ben Isser on 29 April 1921 at Tarnow, Poland, son of Jewish parents Isser Dintenfass, attorney, and his wife Anna, née Katzner. After his secondary education he wanted to study medicine but his family persuaded him to enrol in engineering first. Conscripted, he was sent for training near Poland’s eastern border. He completed his studies in chemical engineering at the Lviv (formerly Lvov, Poland) Polytechnical Institute, Soviet Union (Ukraine), gaining a Dipl.Ing. (Chem.) in 1946. Having learned of the deaths of his family as a result of the German occupation, he left Poland in 1946 and, via a displaced persons’ camp in Salzburg, Austria, reached Munich, Germany, later that year.

In Munich Dintenfass worked as a clerk and interpreter for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and gave lectures on chemistry for a Jewish vocational school that helped jobless and homeless refugees. He hoped to go to America but, encountering Australian migration officials, made a snap decision to apply for Australia. Knowing no English, he arrived in Sydney on 19 February 1950. After a meeting with the technical manager of Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia & New Zealand Ltd, with whom Dintenfass could converse in German, he was appointed in 1950 to a research laboratory of the ICI subsidiary BALM Paints Pty Ltd at Concord, where he worked on the formation and flow of paint. He married Irene Kurzer, an interpreter typist, on 26 September 1954 at the Mizrachi Synagogue, Bondi, and was naturalised on 29 September 1955. While working for BALM, he studied at the University of Technology (University of New South Wales) (M.Sc., 1958). In 1956 he moved to Taubmans Industries Ltd, where he was paid a full salary to undertake research for a thesis on the radio-rheology of surface coatings, which earned him a Ph.D. (1962) from UNSW.

Shortly after submitting his thesis he was asked by Bernard Bloch, an orthopaedic surgeon at Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, to undertake some studies on synovial fluid from normal and inflamed joints. Dintenfass later described this work as `like going into a field to pick flowers that had been growing completely undisturbed’. Made an honorary associate of the department of medicine, University of Sydney, in 1962, he received grants from the National Heart Foundation (1963-69), the National Health and Medical Research Council (1969-75) and drug companies to support his research. His work centred on blood flow and its use in the diagnosis and prevention of disease. In 1967-75 he was an honorary senior research fellow at the Kanematsu Memorial Institute of Pathology, Sydney Hospital, and in 1976 he was appointed its director of haemorheology and biorheology. He relocated his laboratory to the Rachel Forster Hospital, Redfern, when the Kanematsu was dismembered in 1982, and retired four years later.

Dintenfass published approximately 280 research papers and six books, the most significant of which were Blood Microrheology (1971) and Rheology of Blood in Diagnostic and Preventive Medicine (1976). He was a persistent, if self-interested, and remarkably successful lobbyist of politicians, press reporters and commercial firms. His great strength, apart from what his University of Sydney colleague Professor C. R. Blackburn called his `tenacity of purpose’, was his skill in designing a variety of instruments, `viscometers’, for making his pioneering measurements. These were crucial to his success in having an Australian experiment (number MPS77/F113) with blood samples accepted in 1977 by the United States of America’s National Aeronautical and Space Administration for use in their space shuttles of 1985 and 1988. He was an elected fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health and the International College of Angiology. Serving as secretary (1958-63) and president (1963-65) of the State branch of the British Society of Rheology, he was also secretary (1969-75) for Australia and New Zealand of the International Society of Biorheology.

Although Dintenfass had a significant international reputation, and was a regular visitor to international conferences and laboratories, in Australia his standing was not so assured. Possibly he was seen as an interloper into medicine but his thick accent, together with a reluctance to make any intellectual concessions to his audiences, did not help him. Many people were sceptical about his concept of a `viscoceptor’ (a shear-detecting mechanism in arteries and veins that contributes to the stability of blood viscosity), while others believed that a poor understanding of `biological variation’ led to his erroneous view that it was not necessary to do more than a single experiment (or even to do them at all) in reaching his conclusions.

A small, bald and bespectacled man, 5 ft 6½ ins (169 cm) tall, Dintenfass reminded one colleague of the actor Peter Lorre. He was one of the earliest Jewish-European scientists to strengthen intellectual life in Australia. In addition, he was in the vanguard of the move of physicists, engineers and mathematicians into biomedical research. Survived by his wife, he died of myocardial infarction on 4 August 1990 at Darlinghurst and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Brasch, Australian Jews of Today (1977)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Aug 1966, p 9, 11 Oct 1966, p 8, 15 Oct 1968, p 8, 18 June 1977, `Weekend Magazine’, p 14, 6 June 1978, p 6, 30 Oct 1979, p 19, 30 Apr 1981, p 14, 31 Mar 1983, `Life & Home’, p 4, 16 Feb 1985, p 13, 4 Oct 1985, p 5, 8 Aug 1990, p 8
  • Sun (Sydney), 9 Dec 1977, p 19, 26 Nov 1981, p 5, 1 Dec 1981, p 4, 4 Dec 1984, p 4
  • Australian Jewish News, 10 Aug 1990, p 8, 17 Aug 1990, p 48
  • series SP244/2, item N1950/2/2637 and series A446, item 1955/12289 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dintenfass papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Dintenfass, Leopold (1921–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dintenfass-leopold-12420/text22329, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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