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David Benjamin Allbrook (1923–2016)

by Malcolm Allbrook

David Allbrook, 2013

David Allbrook, 2013

family photo

David Benjamin Allbrook (1923-2016), professor of anatomy and palliative care specialist, was born in London on 4 September 1923, third of four children of Benjamin Franklin Allbrook, bank officer, and his wife Jessie Emily, née Chessher. Educated first at Franklin House, Palmers Green, London, David undertook his secondary schooling at Mercers School in the City of London. Having contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, he was sent to the country to convalesce, and then started medical training at University College Hospital (MBBS 1948). On 11 June 1949 he married Mary Wilsdon at Southborough Church, Kent; the couple had met while he was training and she was a matron on the TB ward at UCH. He spent a year as a junior tutor in medicine at University College London, where he developed an interest in researching tissue cell regeneration; he was awarded a PhD in 1952. The couple then moved to Tonbridge Wells, Kent, where he entered general practice.

Life as a GP in post-war England had little appeal and, imbued with the spirit of adventure and inspired by the example of his hero David Livingstone, David gained an appointment as Senior Lecturer in Anatomy at the recently-founded Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda. With the role of Director of Student Health added to his responsibilities, he expanded his interests into palaeontology, and with his colleagues, Louis Leakey and Bill Bishop, participated in archaeological digs at Rusinga Island and Lake Turkana. It was here that he unearthed the 20 million year old skeletal remains of a precursor to the modern gorilla, which he named Proconsul Major. In Uganda, David showed himself to be a true polymath, drawn to almost any scientific topic he encountered, particularly the research for which he is best known, muscle tissue regeneration.

His interest in the emerging technology of electron microscopy led David to a Fulbright Fellowship and an extended sabbatical at Washington University, St Louis, USA, in 1960 and 1961. Returning to Uganda, he was appointed professor of anatomy, and entered a five-year period of intense excitement and innovation. He became dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of East Africa and continued his work in palaeontology and on muscle regeneration.

In 1965, David was appointed professor of anatomy at the University of Western Australia, taking up his appointment in 1966. He embarked on his new venture with energy and enthusiasm, and not long after he started, successfully negotiated for a new and state of the art building to house the Anatomy Department, and arranged funds to purchase an electron microscope, at that time the first in Australia. Over a twenty-one year career, he led the department to become one of the foremost in Australia and a world leader in research, recruiting a team of skilled scientists to help him train the next generation. There are few general practitioners in Perth who have not benefitted from his teaching, whether in the dissection laboratories or through his active, challenging and entertaining lectures.  He maintained his global outlook, travelling often and widely. He maintained his active involvement in the Church, and served for many years as the national president of Amnesty International.

At the height of his academic career, David held the conviction that he would return to what he believed was his true calling as a doctor. Retiring emeritus professor in 1987, he was appointed professor and inaugural director of Palliative Care at the Calvary Mater Hospital at Newcastle, a position he filled for five years, and which carried the responsibility of developing a palliative care system for the Hunter region of New South Wales, and establishing the city’s first hospice. Returning to Perth in 1992, he was appointed a consultant to the St John of God system with the function of initiating a hospice facility and an Australia-wide palliative care system. Mary, who had for some years been in declining health, died in April 1998. After enrolling to train as a hospital chaplain, David worked part time in this role at Kalamunda and Swan Districts hospitals, interspersed with frequent travel overseas.

David married Margaret Opie at the Kalamunda Uniting Church on January 6 2002. The couple spent a honeymoon in Kenya where he worked at Maua Methodist Hospital treating HIV/AIDS victims, while Marg taught at the local primary school. In Perth, he returned to teaching part-time at the Anatomy Department, and general practice at the Mead Medical Centre, Kalamunda, while continuing his chaplaincy work, and filling his spare time by attending art classes and painting. He and his wife travelled widely, including to South America, Antarctica and as close he could get to the Arctic. He joined Doctors for Africa and in this capacity visited Somaliland twice, the second time just before his ninetieth birthday.

David died on 1 August 2016, survived by his wife, four children, six grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and seven step-great grandchildren. A man of compassion, energy and character, he had the capacity to make friends wherever he went, regardless of who they were or what they were doing. People were drawn to him, and he to them. With a strong sense of self, and a powerful Christian faith, shyness, boredom, orthodoxy, and under-confidence were not terms that featured in his personal lexicon. The Allbrook laboratory in the Anatomy Department at the UWA, and an annual prize in anatomy and human biology commemorate his contribution to medical education in Western Australia.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Allbrook, 'Allbrook, David Benjamin (1923–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

David Allbrook, 2013

David Allbrook, 2013

family photo

Life Summary [details]


4 September, 1923
London, Middlesex, England


1 August, 2016 (aged 92)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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