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Thorburn, Geoffrey Donald (Geoff) (1930–1996)

by Renn Wortley

This article was published online in 2021

Geoffrey Thorburn

Geoffrey Thorburn

Australian Academy of Science

Geoffrey Donald Thorburn (1930-1996), medical scientist and physiologist, was born on 2 February 1930 at Marrickville, Sydney, younger child of New Zealand-born Donald Cyril Thorburn, motor driver, and his wife Vera Sabina, née Collings, born in New South Wales. Geoff was educated at Canterbury Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (BSc (Med), 1954; MB, BS, 1956; MD, 1972). After a medical residency (1956–57) at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he began his research career as a cardiovascular-renal physiologist with fellowships (1958-60) at RPAH and the University of Sydney. On 21 November 1958 at Christ Church St Laurence, George Street, Sydney, he married Alison Isabel Quodling, a nurse.

During a travelling fellowship (1961-63) in the department of physiology at Harvard Medical School, United States of America, Thorburn researched methods of assessing cardiovascular performance. He developed a novel way of measuring blood flow using an inert radioactive gas (krypton-85), which became a major technique in vascular physiology. This work later became the basis of his doctoral thesis. In 1963 he took up a senior lectureship in physiology at the University of New South Wales, resigning in 1966 to join the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) division of animal physiology at Prospect, New South Wales, as a principal research scientist (chief research scientist from 1972).

A conversation in 1968 with the New Zealand physiologist (Sir) Graham ‘Mont’ Liggins sparked Thorburn’s interest in the endocrinology of reproduction, which he proceeded to explore through studies of pregnant sheep. Over the decades that followed, his pioneering research on foetal metabolism, growth, and parturition (labour and delivery) provided the framework for eventual understanding of the complex sequence of endocrine events regulating the maturation of the foetus, and the role of the foetal pituitary-adrenal axis and placenta in the initiation of labour.

In 1973 Thorburn moved to the University of Oxford, England, where he led (1973–77) a research group at the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research, while serving concurrently as a clinical member of the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and honorary consultant to the John Radcliffe Hospital. While in Oxford, he became ill with a debilitating, chronic autoimmune condition, Wegener’s granulomatosis. Some of the acute episodes required hospitalisation, but his enthusiasm for his work continued unabated. New treatments helped slow the illness and manage its symptoms and recurrences, so that the disease did not claim his life for twenty years.

An acknowledged authority on foetal physiology, Thorburn returned to Australia in 1977 to take up a chair in physiology and pharmacology at the University of Queensland. In 1981 he moved to Melbourne as professor and head of the department of physiology at Monash University. While leading his research groups at Oxford, Queensland, and Monash, he was renowned for ‘his ability to think laterally, both scientifically and technically’ (Adamson 2018). Many of Thorburn’s team at the Nuffield Institute followed him to Queensland, and then to Monash. He thus gathered a productive, committed, and loyal group to carry on his broad range of research programs. Year after year his Monash group succeeded in obtaining major national competitive research grant funding. He served Monash as associate dean of medicine (1983-89) and chair (1987-92) of its standing committee on ethics in research on humans. Retiring in December 1995, he continued his active research at Monash until his death.

In a reference he wrote for Thorburn in 1980, Liggins observed that his collaborator and sometime competitor was ‘an affable, outspoken man who enjoys stirring controversy but has the happy knack of doing so without stirring acrimony’ (Liggins 1980). A ‘clear and concise writer and an enthusiastic public speaker’ (Jenkin et al. 2009, 118), he wrote or co-authored more than two hundred scientific papers and was a frequent invited speaker at national and international conferences. In 1994 he co-edited, with Richard Harding, Textbook of Fetal Physiology, a definitive text embodying many of his ideas.

Thorburn had ‘a restless mind and an imaginative intellect’ (Liggins 1980), and his conversations, even in informal settings, stimulated ideas and intellectual debate among fellow researchers, and in meetings in Australia and abroad. He was inaugural president (1983) of the Australian Perinatal Society, and a fellow of both the Royal Australian College of Physicians (1977) and the Australian Academy of Science (1991). Among the many honours he received for his work, he was awarded the Marshall medal (1989) of the United Kingdom Society for Reproduction and Fertility and was appointed AO in 1995.

Notwithstanding the heavy demands of his work and the challenges of chronic illness, the tall and solidly built Thorburn loved good company, conversation, music, and wine. He was a keen gardener and golfer and supported the Carlton Football Club. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died of complications from Wegener’s granulomatosis on 28 October 1996 at Prahran, Melbourne, and was cremated. Monash established the G.D. Thorburn prize in physiology shortly before his death. Subsequently the Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand named its annual visiting lecture series after him.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Adamson, T. ‘Thorburn, Geoffrey Donald.’ College Roll, Royal Australian College of Physicians. Last modified 30 May 2018. https://www.racp.edu.au/about/our-heritage/college-roll/college-roll-bio/thorburn-geoffrey-donald. Copy held on ADB file
  • Bell, Alan. ‘Standing on Giant Shoulders: A Personal Recollection of the Lives and Achievements of Eminent Animal Scientists 1965-2015.’ Animal Production Science 59 (2019): 1-34
  • Gibbs, Colin. ‘World Leader in Fetal Physiology.’ Age (Melbourne), 5 November 1996, B2
  • Jenkin, G., J. R. G. Challis, J. S. Robinson, and I. R. Young. ‘Geoffrey Donald Thorburn 1930–1996.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 30, no. 1 (2009): 109-30
  • Liggins, Graham. Reference for Geoffrey Thorburn, 7 March 1980. Staff File, G. D. Thorburn. Monash University Archives
  • Mellor, Lise. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2006.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Renn Wortley, 'Thorburn, Geoffrey Donald (Geoff) (1930–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thorburn-geoffrey-donald-geoff-31606/text39078, published online 2021, accessed online 20 May 2022.

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