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Robert Hughes Black (1917–1988)

by Yvonne Cossart

This article was published:

Robert Black, by Nora Heysen, 1950s

Robert Black, by Nora Heysen, 1950s

National Library of Australia, 45540209

Robert Hughes Black (1917-1988), professor of tropical medicine, was born on 20 December 1917 at Willaura, Victoria, son of Victorian-born parents Robert Nicol Black, bank manager, and his wife Margaret May, née Rountree. After attending many schools, Robert completed the Leaving certificate at Parramatta High School, Sydney. He studied medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1939) and was awarded the university medal. In 1940 he was a junior resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and in 1941 senior resident medical officer at Innisfail District Hospital, Queensland. He married Dorothy Rosemary Elsie Tandy, a medical practitioner, on 9 December 1941 at St Alban’s Church of England, Innisfail; they divorced in 1952.

On 8 November 1941 Black had been appointed as a captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Militia. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 22 July 1942 and served with the 19th Field Ambulance and the 117th Australian General Hospital, Toowoomba. In June 1943 he was posted to the 106th Casualty Clearing Station and two months later embarked for New Guinea. At Lae he attempted to cultivate malaria parasites in vitro under very basic conditions. In July 1944 he was sent to the 2nd Blood and Serum Preparation Unit, Sydney Hospital, where he had some success in growing Plasmodium falciparum in red blood cells in the test tube. Returning to the tropics at the Land Headquarters Medical Research Unit, Cairns, Queensland, in December, he used this technique to show that anti-malarial drugs, as metabolised in the body, were active against cultured parasites.

Placed on the Reserve of Officers on 6 June 1946, Black worked that year as a bacteriologist at the Institute of Medical Research, Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney. He was awarded a doctorate of medicine by the University of Sydney (1947) for his study of the chemotherapy of malaria in vitro. After travelling to England as a ship’s surgeon, he worked as a United Kingdom Medical Research Council fellow (1946-48) at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (DTM&H, 1947). Returning to Australia to the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (Commonwealth Institute of Health), University of Sydney, he was appointed medical officer (1949), lecturer (1951), senior lecturer (1956) and professor (1963). He participated in international malaria surveillance, and wrote over two hundred papers and monographs, including a series of reports on eradication programs for the South Pacific Commission and the World Health Organization. From 1955 he served on the WHO expert advisory panel on malaria. In 1959 he was appointed consultant in tropical medicine at Army Headquarters as a temporary lieutenant colonel. Promoted to temporary colonel in 1964, he advised on the use of combined therapy for drug-resistant strains of malaria during the Vietnam War and championed the re-establishment of an army malaria research unit. He was placed on the Retired List in 1979. In Australia, as the public expert on malaria, he was active in practitioner education, surveys of receptive areas and, from 1969, in maintaining the central register of malaria cases. He retired from the university in 1982.

Black’s early research was focused on the parasite and the mechanisms of the host response, but his experience in many areas, including New Guinea, the Pacific islands, South-East Asia, Africa and Australia, convinced him that narrowly based control strategies were inadequate. He vigorously supported ecologically based studies of insect vectors, while his own interests broadened to include anthropology. He undertook a study of life on a coconut plantation in the Solomon Islands as part of his training with the University of Sydney (Dip.Anth., 1963). Appreciating the critical role of social factors in effective control programs, he advocated training in social science for public health workers. He also urged national support for malaria research and surveillance in the face of drug-resistant disease in the Asia-Pacific region.

While in New Guinea during World War II, he had met Nora Heysen, who was working as a war artist. They married on 20 January 1953 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney; the marriage ended in 1972. On 10 July 1976 he married 31-year-old Gail Lorraine Grimes, a nurse, at the registry office, Sydney. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1965 and was awarded the Darling Foundation medal and prize by the WHO in 1986. Frequent travel abroad, coupled with a reserved manner and introspective temperament, sometimes impeded his professional collaborations and placed a strain on his personal relationships. He had a keen interest in amateur radio, writing several technical papers on the subject. Survived by his wife, and the son of his first marriage, Black died of cancer on 17 March 1988 in the ambulance carrying him from his home at Strath-field to the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Malaria: Proceedings of a Conference to Honour Robert H. Black (1984)
  • F. Fenner (ed), History of Microbiology in Australia (1990)
  • Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2 (1994)
  • T. Sweeney, Malaria Frontline (2003)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 7 Aug 1989, p 171
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Dec 1963, p 13
  • PRO1437 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Yvonne Cossart, 'Black, Robert Hughes (1917–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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