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Sydney Dattilo Rubbo (1911–1969)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published:

Sydney Dattilo Rubbo (1911-1969), professor of microbiology, was born on 11 September 1911 in Sydney, elder son of Antonio Salvatore Dattilo-Rubbo, an Italian-born artist, and his wife, Mildred Russell, née Jobson, who was born in New South Wales. Educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1934), Syd qualified for membership of the Pharmaceutical Society of New South Wales. He proceeded to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he gained a diploma in bacteriology (1935). Awarded a scholarship for microbiological research at the University of London (Ph.D., 1937), he studied the biochemistry and taxonomy of fungi in blue-veined cheese. At the register office, Hampstead, on 30 July 1937 he married Ellen Christine Gray, an artist.

Later that year Dattilo-Rubbo was appointed senior lecturer in the department of bacteriology, University of Melbourne. He taught students of medicine, dentistry, science and agricultural science. For science undergraduates, he introduced a pioneering series of lectures—modelled on those he had attended in London—on bacterial metabolism and industrial fermentations. A 'brilliant and provocative lecturer', he inspired a generation of students. In 1939-42 he also studied medicine part time at the university (M.B., B.S., 1943), successfully negotiating his dual role as teacher and student. After completing a year's residency at Royal Melbourne Hospital, he returned to the department in 1944 and in the following year was appointed professor of bacteriology (microbiology from 1964).

An 'originally-minded' and 'imaginative' researcher, Rubbo (as he began to style himself) concentrated 'on structure-activity relationships of the acridines and related anti-bacterial drugs'. His investigations (in collaboration with Adrien Albert) led to the production of a new antiseptic, aminacrine, said to be the first Australian drug recognized by the British Pharmacopoeia. With J. M. Gillespie, Rubbo isolated para-aminobenzoic acid. He also helped to develop two industrial fermentation processes. The work he undertook with John Cymerman-Craig and others showed the potential value of verazide as a treatment for tuberculosis.

While maintaining his interest in chemotherapy, Rubbo turned his attention to the prevention of tetanus, the reduction of cross-infection in hospitals, and even the sterilization of spacecraft to ensure that terrestrial organisms did not contaminate outer space. His book, A Review of Sterilization and Disinfection as applied to Medical, Industrial and Laboratory Practice (London, 1965), co-authored with Joan Gardner, became a standard text worldwide. For his publications, the University of Melbourne awarded him an M.D. (1955) and the University of London a D.Sc. (1966). He was a founder (1959) and president (1960-61) of the Australian Society for Microbiology.

As professor of bacteriology, Rubbo was also responsible for the Public Health Laboratory (Microbiological Diagnostic Unit). He persuaded the State government to provide funds so that the laboratory's 'diagnostic and epidemiological services for the recognition of notifiable or infectious diseases' could be made freely available to the general community. At the same time, he enhanced the laboratory's role as a reference centre for 'bacteriological and epidemiological aspects of public health'. In addition, he publicly supported efforts to regulate the pasteurization of milk, to control the spread of tuberculosis and to reduce the incidence of food contamination.

Under Rubbo's leadership, the department of microbiology rapidly developed into the largest and best of its kind in Australia. It was a source of deep satisfaction to him that five of his senior staff were appointed to chairs in the late 1960s. His team achieved what it did despite limited funds and a chronic lack of laboratory space. Even after his department moved to a spacious new building in 1965, Rubbo remained a forthright critic of government parsimony in university funding. Although frustrated by repeated failure, he continued to crusade for increased salaries for academics and more money for research.

Outspoken on political and moral issues, Rubbo opposed Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War and campaigned with particular authority against the use of biological and chemical agents in warfare. He was interested in the arts, especially painting, sculpture and the theatre; his pastimes included tennis, woodwork, wine-making and playwriting. As president (1959-64) of the Melbourne branch of the Dante Alighieri Society, he devoted considerable time to fostering cultural relations between Australia and Italy. He was awarded the society's silver medal in 1964 and was appointed to the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy in 1967.

Rubbo was handsome, tanned and athletic, with a shock of curly, prematurely silver hair. Extroverted, energetic, generous, enthusiastic and exhilarating, he seemed to be 'propelled . . . through life at 100 miles [161 km] an hour'. With abundant plans for the future, he did not dwell either on the disappointments or the successes of the past, and deflected criticism of his 'castles in the air' with 'a disarming grin'. He died of coronary atherosclerosis on 14 April 1969 in the garden of his holiday home at Mount Martha and was cremated; his wife, and their two sons and two daughters survived him. A bronze sculpture (1974) in memory of Rubbo stands in the courtyard near the microbiology and immunology building, University of Melbourne. It was created by Norma Redpath, with whom he had lived at Parkville.

Select Bibliography

  • A. J. Woodgyer and J. R. L. 'Joc' Forsyth, Microbiological Diagnostic Unit 1897-1997 (Melb, 1997)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, May 1969, p 10, June 1974, p 9
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 July 1945, 9 Jan 1953, 3 Mar 1959, 6 July 1960, 7 July 1962, 15 Feb 1966
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 20 Aug 1949, 13 Aug 1962, 6 Jan 1964
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Mar 1953, 17 Aug 1965, 19 Apr 1966, 6 Apr 1967, 4 Apr, 14 Oct 1968
  • S. D. Rubbo, Application for Chair of Bacteriology, University of Melbourne, 1944 (copy held by author).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Rubbo, Sydney Dattilo (1911–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dattilo-Rubbo, Sydney

11 September, 1911
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


14 April, 1969 (aged 57)
Mount Martha, Victoria, Australia

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