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Donald Brook Cheek (1924–1990)

by Basil S. Hetzel

This article was published:

Donald Brook Cheek (1924-1990), medical scientist and paediatrician, was born on 12 April 1924 in North Adelaide, third child of South Australian-born parents Royden Arthur Cheek, wholesale warehouseman, and his wife Olive May, née Brook. His father was later a well-to-do manufacturer of footwear. As a student at Prince Alfred College Donald developed a passion for science. At home he carried out chemical experiments, on one occasion accidentally spilling sulphuric acid on his bedroom carpet to the consternation of his mother. Keen on astronomy, he made a reflecting telescope. He became interested in biology and physiology, and studied medicine at the University of Adelaide (MB, BS, 1947; MD, 1953).

As a resident medical officer in 1947-50 at Royal Adelaide and Adelaide Children’s hospitals, Cheek encountered his first patient with pink disease (acrodynia). This condition, usually occurring in infants aged 5-6 months, was characterised by pink extremities, irritability, profuse sweating, elevated blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, muscle weakness and refusal to eat. Cheek demonstrated for the first time that it was accompanied by excess loss of salt in the urine and observed that it improved when salt was administered. Professor Sir Stanton Hicks, with whom he discussed his work, enthusiastically accepted these findings, and proposed a hypothesis of defective adrenal cortical gland function. With Cheek he wrote a paper, `Pink Disease or Infantile Acrodynia: Its Nature, Prevention and Cure’, for the Medical Journal of Australia (1950). Cheek considered the paper premature and suffering from `hyperbole’, but failed to persuade Hicks to modify it. The paper attracted considerable press coverage but was much criticised by the medical community, with some damage to Cheek’s local reputation. Later collaborations by Cheek, B. S. Hetzel and D. C. Hine, published in MJA (1951), revealed that there was no defect in adrenal cortical function. By this time researchers elsewhere had produced evidence that mercury poisoning was associated with pink disease. The incidence of the disease was to fall rapidly after 1954 when teething powders containing the element were withdrawn from the market.

Awarded a Rotary International medical and scientific fellowship, Cheek travelled to the United States of America in 1951 to work under Dr Daniel Darrow, an authority on water and electrolyte metabolism at Yale University, Connecticut. Cheek developed a successful method, using bromide, of measuring the extra-cellular water in the body. This immediately established his reputation at Yale. On 21 June 1952 at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Norfolk, Virginia, he married Mary Ellen Whitmore, a nurse; they were to have two daughters. That year he took up a clinical appointment at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada, while continuing to investigate electrolytes at night.

In 1953-56 Cheek was on the staff of the Children’s Hospital Research Foundation, University of Cincinnati, Ohio. The university awarded him a D.Sc. (1955) for his work on extra-cellular water and promoted him to associate-professor. In 1957-59 at the University of Texas (Southwestern) Medical School, Dallas, he carried out further studies on pink disease, using an animal model. He demonstrated a rise in blood adrenaline and confirmed that mercury-related damage to the kidney was the reason for the excessive salt loss. Returning to Australia, in 1959-62 he was senior research fellow and consultant at Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, where he pursued his work on water and electrolyte metabolism.

Cheek was back in the USA in 1962-73, at Johns Hopkins University’s school of medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, as head of a unit studying growth disorders in children. Under his direction a group of clinical and laboratory scientists and mathematicians carried out systematic studies on growth and development. In 1967 the American Academy of Pediatrics awarded him the Borden prize. His book Human Growth: Body Composition, Cell Growth, Energy and Intelligence (1968) established his international reputation. During this period he and his family lived on Gibson Island in Chesapeake Bay, and entertained many Australian visitors.

In 1973 Cheek became director of the Royal Children’s Hospital Research Foundation, Melbourne, and professor of paediatrics, University of Melbourne. This was not a happy period of his life. A poor administrator, he came into conflict with the foundation’s board over expenditure, research priorities and recruitment of senior staff. He published a second book, Fetal and Postnatal Cellular Growth: Hormones and Nutrition (1975). Resigning in 1980 because of ill health, he returned to the University of Adelaide as visiting professor in obstetrics and gynaecology and continued his work on foetal development. On 3 April that year, following his divorce from Mary Ellen, he married in a civil ceremony at Crafers Wendy Elaine Langley, née Jones, a divorcee and a restaurant manager.

A special interest in Aboriginal health and nutrition had led Cheek to carry out fieldwork, in collaboration with scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s division of human nutrition, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia during the 1970s. He now pursued the question of zinc deficiency; work at the Yalata community in the western region of South Australia eventually demonstrated that the condition was associated with bowel infection. He retired from the university in 1988.

Cheek was short, quick-witted, warmhearted and lively, but he could be impulsive. He was a keen painter who had one-man exhibitions in Australia and the USA; the outback was his favoured subject. Many of his paintings were donated to the Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Houston, Texas. Survived by his wife and the daughters of his first marriage, he died of cancer on 6 March 1990 in Adelaide and was cremated. His unpublished autobiography, `Writing the Music’ (1989), is held by the University of Adelaide library.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 4 Feb 1991, p 202
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 Mar 1990, p 16
  • Cheek papers (University of Adelaide Library)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Basil S. Hetzel, 'Cheek, Donald Brook (1924–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 June 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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