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Bishop, Peter Orlebar (1917–2012)

by Jack D. Pettigrew and B. Dreher

Peter Bishop, by Gab Carpay, 1970

Peter Bishop, by Gab Carpay, 1970

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-86

Peter Orlebar Bishop was born in the Australian rural city of Tamworth in 1917. His mother, Mildred Bishop (née Vidal), showed substantial interest not only in the emotional well-being but also in the intellectual ‘drives’ of her children—three sons and two daughters. Her second-born son, Peter, while attending the state primary and high schools in Armidale, showed keen interest in mathematics and basic physics and wanted to be an engineer. Those interests were probably the main underpinning of a close friendship with his contemporary John Warcup Cornforth, who, many years later (1975), was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions’. Peter’s father, Ernest, had a secure job as a government surveyor for the district of Armidale in northern NSW, and his instruments may have had as subliminal effect on Peter’s passion for the construction of precise instrumentation, particularly involving optics. Recognising Peter’s intellectual abilities and drive, his mother suggested preparation for entry to medical school. Despite Ernest’s steady job, the family budget was tight. Nevertheless, the money was found and Peter, aged 14, was sent to a prestigious boarding school, the Barker College in Hornsby on the outskirts of Sydney, about 400 km southeast of Armidale.

Peter was a very popular footballer, and finally a dux, achievements that became enshrined in the school’s honour board. Apart from studying the normal high school curriculum, Peter’s mind was concentrated on competition for the Exhibition Scholarship (later called Commonwealth Scholarship), one that paid for tuition at university. In 1934, in the second attempt at the yearly examination, Peter succeeded and in 1935 enrolled in the Medical School at the University of Sydney.

After qualifying in medicine in 1940, Peter was appointed a registrar of neurosurgery and psychiatry at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. His hospital career was interrupted, however, by his service in the Australian Navy 1942–45 as a lieutenant surgeon.

In 1946, Peter, his wife Hilare (née Holmes) and their two young daughters Phillippa and Clare, moved to Oxford and later on to London. Peter started his scientific research career by building two high-gain DC amplifiers. Overall, Peter’s early papers were concerned with the design of equipment rather than the collection and analysis of quantitative neurophysiological data, the activity for which he later became famous.

In 1950, Peter and his family returned to Sydney. As a National Health and Medical Research Council Fellow, Peter received a substantial equipment grant. The grant allowed him to build a large stock of electronic components, to construct DC amplifiers and establish a neurophysiological research group at the Department of Surgery of Sydney University. In 1951, he was appointed to a Senior Lectureship in the Department of Physiology. Peter was promoted to the Readership (research professor) in Physiology in 1954 and, in the following year, after the retirement of Frank Cotton, he was appointed Professor of Physiology.

In the late 1950s, Peter worked mainly with newly appointed Senior Lecturer William (Liam) Burke and BSc (Med) student Ross Davis, who later graduated in medicine. They first published a series of papers in which they presented evidence indicating that activation of single optic nerve can result in the discharge of a neurone in cat’s LGNd.

In 1967, Peter moved to Canberra to become Professor and Head of the Department of Physiology in the John Curtin School of Medical Research at The Australian National University, where he remained until his retirement in 1982. In his new laboratories in the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) in Canberra, Peter was able to attract a brilliant international team and continue his quantitative approach to study binocular processing in the cat visual system. Overall, during the late Sydney period, Canberra period and post-Canberra retirement period, there were 18 full-length research papers on the binocular properties of striate and LGNd.

Peter Bishop was awarded the Australia Prize, the highest honour that the nation can bestow on its scientists. Peter was cited for his insights and experimental contribution to our understanding of the neural basis of stereopsis, the three-dimensional sense of extraordinary precision. Peter’s highly quantitative approach to his science might have stemmed from his adolescent ambitions to become an engineer. There was apparently an early dialectic between engineering, as represented by his surveyor father’s optical instruments, and preparation for medical school, his mother’s choice for Peter. Although his eventual medical training led him down a path involving successive Chairs of Physiology at the University of Sydney and The Australian National University, his memorable legacy is the detailed quantitative study of the visual system using instruments that he designed and were unparalleled in their precision at the time. Those instruments played crucial roles in allowing him and his students and collaborators to make several important discoveries concerning some of the mechanisms underpinning functions of the mammalian visual system. 

* This edited and abridged obituary has been drawn from the Australian Academy of Science memoir, ‘Peter Orlebar Bishop 1917–2012’, written by Jack D. Pettigrew and B. Dreher: www.science.org.au/files/userfiles/ fellowship/memoirs/documents/peter-orlebar-bishop-hras-29-2.pdf. This memoir was also published in Historical Records of Australian Science 29 (2) (2018): 162–171, doi.org/10.1071/HR17008.

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Citation details

Jack D. Pettigrew and B. Dreher, 'Bishop, Peter Orlebar (1917–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bishop-peter-orlebar-32485/text40309, accessed 6 July 2022.

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