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Thorburn Brailsford Robertson (1884-1930)

Adapted from Lumen Summer 2006

Professor Thorburn Brailsford Robertson contributed greatly to Australian society, science and industry during his short life.

Born at Edinburgh in 1884, Robertson came to South Australia in 1892 when his father obtained a position with a mining company at Callington. He studied for a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Adelaide from 1902 under Professor Edward Stirling, with an interest in physiology, graduating in 1905.

Robertson was then appointed assistant lecturer in physiology at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a PhD from Berkeley in 1907 and then a Doctor of Science as a remote candidate 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.

Following Stirling's retirement in 1919, he moved back to the University of Adelaide to become the first occupant of the Chair of Biochemistry and General Physiology. By this time, Robertson was not only Stirling's successor in physiology but also his son-in-law, having married Jane (Jeannie) 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. He was also a driving force behind the building and fitting out 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 for use by diabetics. In 1923, within one year of the published discovery of insulin by researchers at Toronto University, Robertson had manufactured the drug for the first time in Australia in the University of Adelaide's Darling Building. Robertson produced 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.

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