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Richard Charles Nairn (1919–1995)

by Jennifer M. Rolland

This article was published:

Richard Nairn, 1963?

Richard Nairn, 1963?

Monash University Archives, 36

Richard Charles Nairn (1919–1995), professor of pathology, was born on 18 November 1919 at Liverpool, England, eldest of three sons of Richard James Nairn, joiner, and his wife Annie, née Snowdon, both English-born but of Scottish descent. Following schooling at the Liverpool Institute, he graduated with honours from the University of Liverpool medical school (MB, ChB, 1942). After residency (1942–43) at the Walton Hospital, Liverpool, he saw service in World War II as a surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (1944–46). His experiences in the Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, and English Channel (1944–45) and in the Indian Ocean (1945–46) as medical officer of the fleet minesweeper HMS Gozo honed his ‘keen sense of duty, discipline and effective organisational skills’ (Herald Sun 1995, 84). On 8 February 1946 in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), he married Barbara Kemp, a naval nurse.

After the war, Nairn embarked on a career in pathology, commencing as assistant pathologist (1946–47) at the Walton Hospital and Liverpool Royal Infirmary. He continued his studies at the University of Liverpool (MD, 1947; PhD, 1952), where he was lecturer in pathology (1948–52) and wrote his doctoral thesis on the pathogenesis of oedema. In 1952 he was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen (senior lecturer from 1960) and an honorary consultant pathologist for the north-eastern region of Scotland. In 1963 he took up the foundation chair of pathology at Monash University’s medical school, Alfred Hospital campus, Melbourne. He also became honorary consultant pathologist at the Alfred Hospital, Prince Henry’s Hospital, Royal Southern Memorial Hospital, and the Queen Victoria Medical Centre.

Nairn first organised the undergraduate pathology course for medical students, recruiting an outstanding staff from around the world and initiating an invaluable collection of pathology specimens. He served on university governing bodies and strongly influenced the shaping of the faculty of medicine. His prophetic vision of immunology as a burgeoning area of biomedical research led him to establish additional teaching and research programs for both science and medical students. The department of pathology was renamed the department of pathology and immunology in 1975. He was a demanding but committed and inspiring graduate research student supervisor and staff mentor.

Successfully combining his heavy administration and teaching commitment with a large and productive research program, Nairn was at the forefront of the emerging discipline of immunopathology, demonstrating that immune reactions could contribute to pathological processes and not only to defence against infections. He studied autoimmune diseases, especially of the gastrointestinal system, and investigated changes in cellular antigens during neoplasia, appreciating the potential for manipulating the immune system to prevent transplant rejection and to target cancer cells. Pivotal to this research were his skills in developing immunofluorescence technology, using fluorescent dyes to trace antibody binding to cells and tissues, analysed by fluorescence microscopy and flow cytometry.

Nairn’s research was well supported by research grants and resulted in 176 publications including articles, books, and chapters. He edited the seminal text on Fluorescent Protein Tracing, which was published in four editions between 1962 and 1976, as well as the nine-volume Practical Methods in Clinical Immunology series from 1980 to 1985. He served on several editorial boards for journals including Clinical and Experimental Immunology, Journal of Immunological Methods, and Immunological Communications, and was also an associate editor of Pathology, the journal of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA).

In 1964 Nairn established a clinical immunology and immunopathology diagnostic service in his department, one of the first in Australia. He played a pivotal role in the emergence of clinical immunology as a specialist medical discipline in Australia. A fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, London (1963), the RCPA (1963), the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1965), and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1974), he was awarded the Crawford Mollison prize in pathology (1972–74) by the Australian Medical Association. In 1974 the RACP and the RCPA established a joint specialist advisory committee in immunology, which Nairn chaired. He was also chief examiner (1975–80) in clinical immunology for the RCPA and a foundation member of both the British Society of Immunology (BSI) and the Australasian Society for Immunology.

His first marriage having ended in divorce, Nairn married June Alison Fordyce, a secretary, on 11 June 1980 at the register office, New Forest, Hampshire, England. After his retirement in 1984, he was made professor emeritus by Monash University, and became a director and consultant (1984–88) for Wild Leitz Australia Pty Ltd, a manufacturer of optical instruments. His recreations included chess, theatre, and literature. In 1989 he returned with his wife to England, settling at Colwall, Worcestershire. He became a member of the Edward Jenner Educational Trust and archivist for the BSI. Survived by his wife, and the two daughters of his first marriage, he died on 1 August 1995 at the Royal Infirmary, Ronkswood. The Nairn prize in immunology at Monash University is awarded annually to the top immunology honours student.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Fraser, Kenneth B. ‘Richard Charles Nairn.’ Royal Society of Edinburgh. Copy held on ADB file
  • Glynn, L. E. ‘Obituary: Professor Richard Nairn.’ Bulletin of the British Society for Immunology, November/December 1995, 209
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Richard Nairn, Leader in Immunology.’ 12 October 1995, 84
  • Muller, H. Konrad. ‘Richard Charles Nairn, Foundation Professor of Pathology and Immunology at Monash University.’ Pathology 31 (August 1999): 295–99
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jennifer M. Rolland, 'Nairn, Richard Charles (1919–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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