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Thorp, Roland (1915–1987)

by Rosemary Einstein and Graham Starmer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Roland Herbert Thorp (1915-1987), pharmacologist, was born on 29 November 1915 at Guildford, Surrey, England, son of George Herbert Thorp, costumier’s assistant, and his wife Matilda Ann, née Williams. Roland was educated at Archbishop Tenison’s Grammar School in London. In 1937 he joined the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories as an assistant to the chief pharmacologist, John William Trevan. Thorp studied at the Chelsea College of Science and Technology (B.Sc., 1939) and the University of London (B.Sc. Hons, 1940, Ph.D., 1947). The title of his doctoral thesis was ‘The pharmacology of derivatives of azaphenanthrene’.

During World War II Thorp was involved in the production of penicillin at a hurriedly built facility at Dartford and served in the Home Guard. He married Dorothy Aubourne Edwards, a graduate botanist, on 20 March 1943 at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Scarsdale Villas, London. In 1946–49, at the instigation of Charles Kellaway, Thorp established a purpose-built biological assay laboratory for Wellcome at Dartford, effectively separating production control from research activity.

In 1949, when Thorp became professor of pharmacology and director of pharmacy at the University of Sydney, he described the department of pharmacology as consisting of a chair and a table with three legs, and the discipline of pharmacy as being in a ‘truly pathetic state’. The pharmacy course, jointly managed by the university and the Pharmacy Board of New South Wales, was well subscribed with about 180 students. Thorp considered that his first priority was to improve the academic standing of pharmaceutical education, following the widely accepted guidelines that pertained in Britain. He envisaged courses at two levels: graduate to provide for academic pharmacy, and diplomate for community pharmacy. However, only the degree course gained State government approval and was adopted by the university. Eventually, a separate department of pharmacy, initially under the direction of Professor S. E. Wright, was formed and training was elevated to a full-time degree course, with pharmacology as a major component.

Over succeeding years, under Thorp’s supervision, carefully designed courses in pharmacology were developed and introduced for medical, veterinary science, pharmacy and dentistry students; a science degree course, aiming at the production of academic pharmacologists, was also established. A major problem was the difficulty in teaching ‘hands-on’ skills to large numbers of students. Thorp recognised that such skills were particularly important for experimental pharmacologists, but less so for the other groups. Students were exposed to experiments on isolated tissues and on both anaesthetised and conscious whole animals. The lack of well-serviced equipment prompted him to establish a substantial workshop that was capable of constructing the apparatus (mostly designed by Thorp himself) required for the teaching and research activities of the department.

Thorp’s first major research project in Australia concentrated on the pharmacology and toxicology of the glycosides of the Digitalis species, many of which had potent cardio-stimulant activity. The approach was broad and involved an input of species identification and cultivation in collaboration with Dorothy Thorp, whose pharmacognosy studies at the University of Sydney (Ph.D., 1959) focused on the genus Digitalis; and, in collaboration with Wright, T. R. Watson and H. Silberman, the separation and identification of individual glycosides and studies of their metabolism. Other major research initiatives included identification and characterisation of cardio-stimulant autacoids, mechanisms of platelet aggregation and the pharmacological activity of adenyl nucleosides and nucleotides. Earlier he had been interested in the clinical testing of analgesic drugs.

A major part of Thorp’s research was undertaken in association with various pharmaceutical companies at a time when it was still believed that university collaboration was a viable route to the development of marketable drugs. In 1956, realising that in a rapidly changing environment the department in Sydney needed to keep up with developments overseas, he obtained funding from industry for a series of visiting professors of pharmacology. He conducted tests in 1963 in an attempt to discover the causes of death of Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler; he was not successful.

Thorp was a large man. Any initial impression of austerity was soon dispelled by his quirky sense of humour. Enthusiastically supported by Dorothy, he was concerned about the welfare of the members of his department (which had risen to forty in number). Thorp listed his hobbies as radio, photography, motor camping and mountaineering. To this list could be added building houses from scratch and designing hi-fi systems. He loved open spaces and enjoyed the fact that he could stand on the verandah of his home at Mount Wilson and look towards the horizon without seeing any evidence of human activity. A man of considerable intellectual calibre, Thorp was committed to the concept of fairness. He played a major role in the staff association of the university and in the Federal Council of University Staff Associations of Australia. Chairman of the Australian Consumers’ Association for many years, he helped to found its journal, Choice; he was elected a life member in 1983.

On his retirement from the university in 1975, Thorp successfully argued for the appointment of a chair of clinical pharmacology.  The following year he was appointed emeritus professor. He was awarded Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (1953) and silver jubilee (1977) medals. In 1986 he received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Sydney. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 9 May 1987 at Launceston, Tasmania, and was cremated. The University of Sydney awards the Roland H. Thorp prize for the most proficient student in the third-year pharmacology courses and the Dorothy Thorp prize for science communication in the pharmacology honours course.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (1984)
  • Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, vol 4, no 2, 1977, p 105
  • Proceedings of the Australian Physiological and Pharmacological Society, vol 20, no 1, 1989, p vii
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 May 1987, p 11
  • private information and personal knowledge

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Citation details

Rosemary Einstein and Graham Starmer, 'Thorp, Roland (1915–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thorp-roland-15920/text27121, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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