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Robertson, Thorburn Brailsford (1884–1930)

by G. E. Rogers

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Thorburn Brailsford Robertson (1884-1930), biochemist and professor, was born on 4 March 1884 in Edinburgh, only child of Thorburn Robertson, insurance clerk and actuary, and his wife Sarah-Ann, née Brailsford. His mother took him to South Australia in 1892 to join his father who worked for a mining company at Callington. Robertson attended the Misses Stantons' School, New Glenelg, and, after private tuition, entered the University of Adelaide in 1902, studying physiology (B.Sc., 1905) under Professor (Sir) Edward Stirling. Robertson showed exceptional ability in abstract thought and considered a career in mathematical physics, as a result of Professor (Sir) William Bragg's teaching. In 1905, however, he became assistant lecturer in the physiology department at the University of California, Berkeley, led by the famous Jacques Loeb. Under his influence Robertson developed a physico-chemical outlook and research skills which he always retained. Idealism permeated all his thinking and, courageously, he attacked and later refuted many doctrines then accepted.

Robertson gained his Ph.D. degree from the University of California in 1907, and his D.Sc. from the University of Adelaide in 1908, an extraordinary achievement at the age of 24. In Adelaide on 1 July 1910 he married Jane Winifred Stirling, his former professor's daughter; they had a daughter and two sons. That year Robertson was promoted associate professor of physiological chemistry and pharmacology at Berkeley, becoming full professor in 1917. The following year he accepted the chair of biochemistry at the University of Toronto, Canada, but moved to the chair of physiology at Adelaide in 1919 on Stirling's retirement. The decision was unusual in that Robertson had gained international prominence in biological research and it meant the sacrifice of opportunities which Adelaide lacked. He lived at Stirling, in the hills.

The ensuing eleven years saw enormous achievements. Robertson revealed organizational abilities, flair for research and tremendous energy by establishing the modern discipline of biochemistry in the university's small medical school. He had been appointed as professor of physiology, but in 1922 publications he described himself as professor also of biochemistry. His was the first professorial appointment in Australia to embrace biochemistry; his allegiance to it, rather than human physiology, resulted in his becoming in 1926 professor of biochemistry and general physiology, with (Sir) Stanton Hicks teaching the clinical aspects of human physiology and pharmacology to medical students.

Robertson was a tall, popular man who, despite his drive and leadership was gentle, tolerant and understanding of colleagues. An excellent lecturer, he was, foremost, an inspired and inspiring investigator who greatly influenced the development of a research outlook in the medical school. He modernized the teaching of his subjects to both medical and science students, setting up new curricula, including an honours course in biochemistry; his format remained until 1952. His insistence was crucial in the detailed planning of the Darling building, opened in 1922, housing the disciplines of physiology, biochemistry and histology. To promote the interaction of clinical medicine and fundamental science, he founded the Medical Sciences Club of South Australia and in 1924, in conjunction with the club, and Professors (Sir) John Cleland and F. Wood Jones, the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science. The journal's ninth volume (1932) includes a list of his publications. He was a major force in the formation of the Animal Products Research Foundation of the university and of its graduates' association.

Robertson attracted several young research workers; although his interests were broad they were concentrated on studies into growth and senescence of cells and animals, stemming from his work with Loeb. He aimed at explaining these phenomena as physical and chemical entities. His experimental skills were with proteins; he published a monograph on their physical chemistry in 1912 in German, later in English, and his research on growth usually involved an aspect of proteins. For example, he isolated an anterior pituitary fraction which he called tethelin, patented it, and characterized its effect on animals' growth rate; this finding did not survive later work. He made another vital contribution by establishing and improving a method for the preparation of insulin. It was manufactured in the Darling building for the first time in Australia, under licence from the insulin committee of Toronto University, for use on diabetic patients in the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital—in 1923, within a year of Banting and Best's published discovery of the hormone and its relationship to diabetes.

Robertson enjoyed music and art and was well read in philosophy, history and classical literature. He pioneered many avenues of thought, publishing some 170 papers, textbooks, essays on the philosophy of science and research, even children's storybooks. He despised the commercialism sometimes associated with scientific research. His interest in the mechanisms of growth and longevity in animals culminated in the publication of The Chemical Basis of Growth and Senescence (1923) and earned him a description as Australia's first experimental gerontologist. In 1926 he was appointed to membership of the Reale Accademia dei Lincei, Rome.

In 1927 the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research invited Robertson to form and direct the work of a division of animal nutrition, located in the university. Field stations were established across Australia. He remained professor but gave up most of his teaching and concentrated on experimental work on growth, and the demands of founding a new national research laboratory.

Robertson contracted influenza in 1929-30, but continued working in the laboratory despite extreme summer heat. His health undermined by overwork, an asthmatic from childhood, he died on 18 January 1930, in the prime of life. His ashes were scattered in Waterfall Gully, a part of the Adelaide foothills which he had loved. His wife and children survived him; his sons pursued medicine and science. A stained-glass window designed by Edith Lungley overlooks the rear stairway of the university's Mitchell building as a memorial to one 'who dared to follow the consequences of a mechanistic science to the rules of human conduct'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. B. Robertson and W. H. Bagot, An Account of the Darling Building (Adel, 1922)
  • W. G. K. Duncan and R. A. Leonard, The University of Adelaide, 1874-1974 (Adel, 1973)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 22 Feb 1930, p 268
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 1930
  • Gerontologia, 4, no 70, 1960
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 23 Jan 1930
  • Times (London), 28 Jan 1930
  • PRG 136/1/2 and D5390 (State Library of South Australia)
  • CSIRO Archives (Canberra).

Citation details

G. E. Rogers, 'Robertson, Thorburn Brailsford (1884–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-thorburn-brailsford-8239/text14425, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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