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Roy Thomas Simmons (1906–1975)

by Bryan Egan

This article was published:

Roy Thomas Simmons (1906-1975), medical scientist, was born on 29 April 1906 at Heidelberg, Melbourne, second son of Victorian-born parents Thomas Edwin Simmons, saddler, and his wife Isabella May, née McGuiness. Roy was educated at Heidelberg State School and (on a scholarship) at the Working Men's College (diploma of organic and inorganic chemistry, 1926), Melbourne. In 1924 he was appointed a laboratory assistant at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Parkville. He completed training in bacteriology and biochemistry before taking a series of secondments (1927-35) to Commonwealth health laboratories in every State. At Holy Trinity Church, Kew, on 23 September 1932 he married Iris Ethelwyn Dunstan with Anglican rites.

In 1936 Simmons returned to the new research department in the C.S.L., under E. V. Keogh. After initially working in bacteriology, he undertook blood-group research from 1940, and accepted the added responsibility (until 1956) for the production and quality control of C.S.L. products. His first research paper (1938) concerned the diphtheria bacillus; others followed on the haemolytic streptococci; but from the early 1940s his publications related almost entirely to blood groups. His rank was consultant from 1947 and senior consultant (principal scientific officer) from 1961.

Simmons was best known for his work on the Rh blood group and on the devastating results of incompatibility between a baby's blood that is Rh-positive and a mother's that is Rh-negative. He was one of a team of researchers, drawn mainly from transfusion services and hospitals, who developed an exchange-transfusion technique which, by replacing an affected newborn baby's blood, saved many lives. A later group, again including Simmons, produced anti-Rh (D) gamma globulin which prevents haemolytic disease of the newborn.

His work in applying serological techniques to anthropological research, which helped to chart the distribution of blood-group genes among the peoples of Asia and the Pacific, won Simmons international recognition. For more than twenty years he collaborated with noted anthropologists and attracted research grants from the United States of America. Between 1943 and 1971 he provided a free blood-group reference service for Australia. From 1965 the World Health Organization used his laboratory as its blood-group reference centre for the South Pacific region. In 1957-70 he worked with an American team, studying the fatal neurological disorder kuru ('laughing sickness') in New Guinea: they excluded any blood-group association. As principal or co-author, he published more than 160 scientific papers, mostly in the Medical Journal of Australia. His most prized, and unquestionably deserved, academic distinction was an honorary D.Sc. awarded by the University of Melbourne in 1965. He retired in 1971.

Handsome, alert and neatly dressed, Simmons saw himself as a person 'with average ability, application, and a will to succeed'. He delivered scientific papers at numerous conferences and relaxed by gardening at his Heidelberg home. About 1965 he developed diverticulitis. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, he died of septicaemia on 28 February 1975 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His daughters endowed the Roy and Iris Simmons award for students in applied chemistry at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Brogan, Committed to Saving Lives (Melb, 1990)
  • Health, 4 Dec 1965
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 22 Nov 1975
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, 1975
  • American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 45, no 1, July 1976
  • Pathology, 8, 1976
  • Simmons papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bryan Egan, 'Simmons, Roy Thomas (1906–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 July 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

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