Thorburn Brailsford Robertson
Pioneer of insulin manufacture in Australia
Professor Thorburn Brailsford Robertson contributed greatly to Australian society, science and industry during his short life.
Born at Edinburgh in 1884, Robertson was brought to South Australia in 1892 because his father was working for a mining company at Callington. He studied for a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Adelaide from 1902 under Professor (Sir) Edward Stirling, with an interest in physiology.
Having graduated at Adelaide in 1905, Robertson became assistant lecturer in physiology at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a PhD from Berkeley in 1907 and then a Doctor of Science from Adelaide in 1908, at just 24 years of age.
He became a full Professor at Berkeley in 1917 and the following year was appointed Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto. In 1919 he moved back to the University of Adelaide to become the first occupant of what was then called the Chair of Biochemistry and General Physiology, following Stirling's retirement. By this time, Robertson was not only Stirling's successor in physiology but also his son-in-law, having married Jane Stirling in 1910.
Robertson had a great passion for biochemistry--in fact, he is considered the first professor in Australia to embrace the field, establishing the discipline of Biochemistry in the University of Adelaide's Medical School.
In 1920 he co-founded the Medical Sciences Club of South Australia with Professors (Sir) John Cleland and Frederick Wood Jones. Robertson was a driving force behind the establishment of the Darling Building in 1922, which housed the disciplines of Physiology, Biochemistry and Histology.
Robertson made a vital contribution to the manufacture of insulin, used by diabetics. Within one year of the published discovery of insulin by researchers at Toronto University, Robertson had applied for and obtained a licence from Toronto's Insulin Committee to prepare insulin. As a result, insulin was manufactured for the first time in Australian history in 1923, in the University of Adelaide's Darling Building. Robertson was successful in devising a way of producing insulin more cheaply, quickly, and in greater volume than anywhere else in the world.
A pioneer of the physical chemistry of proteins, Robertson devoted much of his research to the problem of growth. His work into animals' growth resulted in a major contribution to agricultural science and industry in Australia. In 1927 he was approached by the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to head a division of animal nutrition based at the University of Adelaide.
He was working hard on his research at the Waite Campus when he caught influenza, then pneumonia. After several days in hospital, he died in January 1930.
By the time of his death at age 45, Robertson had published 170 papers, textbooks, and even children's storybooks.
A stained-glass window designed by Edith Lungley, which overlooks the rear stairway of the University's Mitchell Building, remains as a permanent memorial to this remarkable scientist and author. ■
(The above is derived from a number of sources, including The University of Adelaide 1874-1974 by W. G. K. Duncan and Roger Ashley Leonard, the entry for Robertson in the Australian Dictionary of Biography written by G. E. Rogers, and an obituary published in the journal Biochem in 1930.)