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Kemp, Richard John (1945–1995)

by Tony Allworth

This article was published online in 2020

Richard John Kemp (1945–1995), physician and infectious-diseases specialist, was born on 2 February 1945 at Greenslopes, Brisbane, son of Queensland-born parents Gordon Arthur Kemp, bank clerk (later manager), and his wife Dorothy Betty, née Giles. At Brisbane Grammar School (1959–62), Richard acted in the school drama club and gained outstanding results in the Senior public exam. He resided at Emmanuel College, St Lucia, while studying at the University of Queensland (MB, BS, 1968). The Queensland government had awarded him a medical student’s fellowship, obliging him to work in a remote area for three years. This commitment would begin following a one-year residency, which he undertook at the Royal Brisbane Hospital (RBH) in 1969, and national service, for which he had been selected in 1965. In a Presbyterian ceremony at his old college chapel, on 23 May 1969 he married Dorothy (Dottie) Jean Cochrane, a traffic officer.

On 11 April 1970 Kemp was commissioned in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Regular Army Supplement. Following his training, he was posted to the 1st Military Hospital, Yeronga, Brisbane, which received casualties from the Vietnam War. Transferring to the Active Citizen Military Forces in November 1971, he maintained his connection with the army as a consultant, rising to lieutenant colonel (1991).

Having gained obstetric and other necessary skills, Kemp was appointed as medical superintendent of Longreach and Muttaburra hospitals at the beginning of 1972. Based at Longreach, he provided weekly clinics and emergency services at Muttaburra, driving for two hours each way on an unsealed road or flying in a light aircraft. For emergency night flights the townsfolk lit flares beside the runway to guide landings, and by day a fly-past was often required to clear the strip of kangaroos. He treasured his time in far western Queensland. His characteristic commitment to patient care made a lasting impression on the communities he served.

Back at the RBH from 1975, Kemp trained in general medicine and in 1979 qualified as a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP). That year he took long-service leave and carried out honorary work in Edinburgh, spending two months at the Royal Infirmary and the same period at City Hospital, before returning to the RBH. In 1980 he went to the United States of America on a Churchill fellowship that he took up at the Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. Home again in 1981, he chose to continue in the public hospital service, rather than go into private practice. He was a staff physician at the RBH until 1986, when he was appointed as its director of infectious diseases.

Tireless in his clinical practice, Kemp ‘was intent only on his patients and on improving medicine to benefit all’ (Kemp, D. pers. comm.). He was constantly in the wards and was prepared to take calls from colleagues at any hour. For his dedication and proficiency in instructing and mentoring junior doctors, the University of Queensland’s medical faculty awarded him the academic title of clinical associate professor in 1991 and the Walters prize for teaching in 1995.

Kemp was a leader of Australia’s response to the human immunodeficiency virus–acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV-AIDS) epidemic. His empathetic, even-handed approach and breadth of vision enabled him to stand on equal footing with researchers, clinicians, carers, and HIV-positive people alike. He travelled widely, informing the general public about the infection and fostering a compassionate, non-judgmental, and reasoned approach to the epidemic.

At the State level, Kemp advised the government on matters surrounding HIV-AIDS patient care, funding, anti-discrimination, and education. He developed the government-sponsored A Doctors’ Notebook on AIDS (1990), a manual for primary-care providers, which was distributed to all Queensland medical practitioners. Among several Commonwealth roles, he chaired (1989–95) the Australian National Council on AIDS’s clinical trials and treatments advisory committee, providing advice to the government and to the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research. When vaccine research in Australia appeared to be foundering, he held workshops around the country to promote discussion and debate.

The author or co-author of nineteen publications, Kemp delivered papers at scientific meetings and lectured in Australia and overseas. He was a councillor (1984–87), vice-president (1989–92), and president (1992–95) of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases; vice-president (1989–91) of the Australasian Society for HIV Medicine; and a member of learned societies in Britain and America, and of numerous RACP and RBH committees.

In 1995 Kemp was appointed AM. A fellow (1986) and active member of committees of the Australian Medical Association, he had little time for interests outside his profession. He was a devout Anglican and enjoyed singing in his local church choir. In 1992 he accidentally pierced his skin with a needle containing HIV-infected blood and contracted the disease. As the condition progressed, he used the experience to increase his knowledge and enhance his teaching. Despite his own impending mortality, he sat with and comforted others who suffered. He died on 11 November 1995 in his home at Taringa and was cremated. His wife and their son and daughter survived him. People from Longreach journeyed the twelve hundred kilometres to Brisbane to attend his memorial service. The RACP established an annual travelling fellowship in his name. He left a cohort of health professionals more skilled and caring than they might otherwise have been and a community better able to understand and respond to diseases such as AIDS.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Allworth, A. ‘Kemp, Richard John.’ Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Last modified 30 May 2018. Accessed 2 November 2018. https://www.racp.edu.au/about/college-roll/college-roll-bio/kemp-richard-john. Copy held on ADB file
  • AMAQ Quarterly (Australian Medical Association, Queensland Branch). ‘Vale Richard Kemp.’ December 1995, 10
  • Kemp, Dottie. Personal communication
  • Lloyd, Graham. ‘Death of the Carer Who Became Victim.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 18 November 1995, 14
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Tucker, George. ‘Physician Helped Develop Reasoned AIDS Policy.’ Australian, 29 November 1995, 12

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tony Allworth, 'Kemp, Richard John (1945–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kemp-richard-john-27841/text35587, published online 2020, accessed online 13 April 2021.

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