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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Curtis, David Roderick (1927–2017)

by Peter McCullagh

David Curtis, n.d. [detail]

David Curtis, n.d. [detail]

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-620

The first and final years that David Roderick Curtis spent at the John Curtin School of Medical Research were, arguably, the most significant in the school’s first four decades. David, as one of the first JCSMR PhD students, was one of the last, perhaps the last, surviving individual to have shared in its temporary accommodation, and the challenges and excitement associated with participating in the birth of an institution unprecedented at that time in Australia. In his three concluding years as Director of JCSMR he accepted, and fulfilled, the dual responsibilities of preventing its dismemberment and restoring a sense of community in a damaged institution.

In his first annual report as Director in 1989, Curtis alluded to his association with the school:

I have been fortunate to see this School grow from a group of Departments scattered widely over the world in the early 1950s through a stage when four Departments occupied temporary accommodation on the University site, to the occupation of the existing building in 1957 and its subsequent growth to be now the largest and most complex biomedical research institution in Australia.

With the benefit of hindsight, David’s career interests at the time of his graduation MB BS reflected his earliest ambitions. His father’s expertise in telecommunication electronics led to his military secondment following the entry of Japan into World War II with the responsibility for supervising the transfer of the undersea telephone cable from Bass Strait to the Torres Strait to guarantee secure communication with Port Moresby. Faced with competing career interests—namely medicine and electronics—he opted for medicine, presumably without foreseeing the extent to which seemingly diverse goals were soon to coalesce. Apart from his scientific commitment, he was an excellent pianist.

David enrolled in the University of Melbourne medical faculty in 1945 graduating MB BS in 1950, followed by two years as a resident medical officer and another as a registrar at the Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH). In the course of his time at RMH he and Lauri, a senior nurse at RMH, were married.

In order to pursue his interest in clinical aspects of diseases of the nervous system, he relocated to the Alfred Hospital. Shortly after this move, he attended a lecture by John Eccles, who had been appointed to establish a Physiology Department at the foreshadowed JCSMR, although still researching at the University of Dunedin. On enquiring of Eccles after the lecture whether it would be possible to undertake a PhD in his laboratory, Eccles replied: ‘How soon can you start?’

The background to this response was not that Eccles was desperate to recruit. Rather, it was likely to have been a response to the intervention of R.D. (Panzee) Wright, Professor of Physiology at Melbourne University, who was a vigorous supporter of ANU, a member of its interim council and, no doubt, an enthusiastic recruiter on behalf of the JCSMR. At this time Eccles had yet to establish a laboratory in Canberra, but he arranged for David and Lauri to spend a year in New York, during which time Curtis was to work with a colleague of Eccles. The arrangement included accommodation and a season ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. Six decades on, he retained fond memories of that experience.

Having joined the JCSMR, Curtis’ progress was exceptional. After completing his PhD in 1957, he was appointed to a professorial fellowship in 1962 and then as a Professor in the Physiology Department headed by Eccles in 1966. Eccles resigned in that year and David became Acting Departmental Head until the appointment of Peter Bishop in the following year. He was appointed to lead a newly created Department of Pharmacology in 1973. His research achievements were recognised by election to fellowships in the Australian Academy of Science (1966, and president 1986–90) and the Royal Society (1974).

Several years before Curtis joined his laboratory, Eccles had fundamentally revised his beliefs about the functioning of the synapse—that is the junction between neurones through which they communicate with each other. As synaptic communication was associated with an electrical impulse, it had been assumed that the basic process was electronic; however, it had recently been shown to be chemically mediated.

This change in understanding of synaptic function, shortly prior to the start of David’s research career, raised the possibility that pharmacological intervention might modify abnormalities underlying some diseases of the nervous system. For three decades, his goal was to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the nuances of the processes occurring at synapses. Whilst each year added to understanding of those processes, the overall goal remained consistent.

David Curtis categorised his research as long term and high risk. In this respect, it contrasted fundamentally with research now constrained by contemporary attitudes in relation to funding. With limited exceptions, such attitudes are likely to prefer projects that seek to validate, within short timelines, predicted outcomes. Expectations are that these be readily marketable and commercialised. This is fundamentally inconsistent with ‘long-term, high-risk’ research.

The specific aim of his research was to identify chemical transmitter substances responsible for excitation and inhibition at synapses. Such information could assist in identifying and synthesising pharmaceutical agents for treating medical conditions associated with manifestations such as spasticity and tremor.

Curtis’ experiments were conducted on the spinal cord and brain of anaesthetised cats and frequently entailed extended periods in the course of which minute quantities of putative neurotransmitters, most commonly amino acids, were introduced into single cells accompanied by observation of electrical correlates, either stimulation or inhibition. Successful experimentation of this type was dependent on two complementary categories of research expertise. These categories entailed chemical synthesis of molecules for testing and high-precision glassblowing to construct equipment to permit the introduction of those molecules into individual nerve cells.

One such notable achievement was a cluster of seven glass pipettes each of 1–2 micrometre in diameter, which permitted the introduction of test chemicals into, and sampling from, individual nerve cells. The location of the researcher among a plethora of electronic equipment inspired some to describe this as Curtis’ TARDIS.

Throughout his career, David Curtis regularly acknowledged dependence on his technical support for high-precision equipment not commercially available. Academic and technical staff had been, of necessity, closely integrated when the early school was compacted into temporary buildings. This was well illustrated in a 1953 group photo in which all members of the school were intermixed.

Nevertheless, those responsible for the internal design of the permanent building had other ideas, which were reflected in a splitting of the tearoom, by means of folding doors, into two separate spaces, ‘academic’ and ‘technical’, with discrete serving counters. A noteworthy intervention by an academic, Adrian Gibbs, brought an end to this separation.

In March 1989, following the resignation of Robert Porter as JCSMR Director, David Curtis was appointed as his successor, a role that, one suspects, he would not have coveted. Notwithstanding his priority of defending the school from external attack, an ANU history credited him with making considerable progress towards healing the school’s bruised morale.

This writer recalls meeting David, flourishing the director’s office keys, in a corridor on the day he assumed command of the school. One certainly gained the impression that he never considered himself to be an administrator. On the occasion, several years later, of the announcement of his award of an AC, he was quite bemused by a citation for services to scientific administration.

A prescient comment in his first director’s report, referring to the foreshadowed review of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), forecast that the school faced an uncertain future. His appointment as JCSMR Director was not going to be a pre-retirement ‘winding down’, rather it was characterised by a succession of challenges.

The committee appointed by the Minister for Higher Education to undertake the review met on campus in mid-1990 and its report was released in October 1990. Apart from recommendations curtailing other components of the institute, the review committee singled out the JCSMR for substantial downsizing to be followed by transfer of management of the rump to the National Health and Medical Research Council, hardly good news for a new director.

The review committee was notable (hardly the most appropriate word to describe it) for an embedded hostility towards the school. Neither the committee nor the Vice-Chancellor extended even the most basic courtesy to Curtis of consulting him about their plans for the school. The Vice-Chancellor confided to the committee that: ‘As a corporate entity the School does not have a sense of its own viability’ (whatever that meant).

Notwithstanding the crass performance of the review committee and of the ANU administration, Curtis invariably responded in an open and principled manner. That response was required both within the school and in the wider University.

Three separate influences, antagonistic to the school, can be identified when considering the review committee’s report. The first, applicable to the IAS as a whole, was the recent refusal of the University to comply with a ministerial request to amalgamate with the (then) Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE). On its third meeting day, the review committee chair reported on a meeting with the Minister for Higher Education, prompting discussion of merging parts of the ANU with the CCAE.

The second influence was the persistent media bad-mouthing of the school by members dissatisfied with their lot. The Senate inquiry commented that a disproportionate number of those known to be antagonistic to the school had been interviewed by the committee. There were 55 specific references to the school in the review committee minutes and a total of 10 for the remaining seven research schools.

A third long-standing influence was antagonism towards the school generated in a Melbourne research institution. Dr Coombs reported a conversation with its previous director acknowledging that ‘some of the lads’ had organised a campaign against the JCSMR. Following this, Coombs undertook to speak publicly in the school’s defence and subsequently did so to great effect.

As regards David Curtis’ responses to the review committee, within the school itself, the first concerned the identity of the individual nominated to oversee the implementation of the review committee’s recommendations. Curtis objected in the strongest possible terms to the appointment of the current director of the antagonistic Melbourne institution to formulate details of JCSMR deconstruction. This resulted in the nomination of a replacement.

The first visit of this replacement to the school in September 1991 elicited an immediate response from Curtis pointing out that he had operated beyond his remit as an external independent expert: ‘you have chosen to operate as a facilitator for the conversion of this school to a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)–funded institute, particularly by discussing with individual members of the academic staff their prospects of future employment’.

Apart from Curtis’ defence of the school as described above, he worked through the board of the IAS to influence the University Council to defend the school. Following release of the review committee report in October 1990, the University senior administration, through its council, steered perilously close to abandoning the school in order to rescue the remainder of the IAS. Both Curtis and the present writer, as elected members of council, were invariably in a minority when these issues went to a vote.

The ANU Council meeting of September 1991 considered a paper from the Vice-Chancellor, one paragraph of which could only be read as rejecting the government position on JCSMR, followed, in the succeeding paragraph, by an account of the process that was to be undertaken in the course of complying with that position. This statement could be used for teaching purposes to illustrate how a disastrous outcome can be presented in an optimistic light.

The following meeting, in November constituted the tipping point, with the acceptance, on the majority vote, of a claim that the school was to remain part of the ANU, under the control of the council, despite its future funding being controlled by a government entity. As a reaction to this pronouncement, Curtis presented a contrary argument to the board of the IAS.

Curtis wrote to the Chair of Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies (BIAS): ‘There is now a strong feeling in the JCSMR that these arrangements are inevitable given the ministerial determination to transfer the funds, that further negotiations with NHMRC are unlikely to achieve significant alterations in the proposed arrangements.’

Two days before the December council meeting, a very large meeting of University academic and general staff expressed complete opposition to the council’s compliance with government wishes. The position accepted by the November council majority emphatically differed from that of the University outside the Mills room.

At its December meeting, the council was presented with a report from BIAS, initiated by Curtis’ letter, highly critical of its November decision. The coordinated response from the top of the table that followed clearly reflected a dress rehearsal at the previous day’s council briefing meeting which would have done credit to NIDA.

Each of the ‘top of the table’ speakers explained that he had not comprehended the meaning implied by the adjective ‘academic’ as employed in University negotiations with the NHMRC. None of the ‘November minority’ had any wish to question the plausibility of the explanation provided for the reversal of positions. Reversal of the November decision was accomplished by lunchtime.

A subsequent Senate inquiry in 1992, in response to which Curtis organised an impressive array of testimonies, was highly critical of both processes followed by the review committee and of its conclusions.

Following his retirement as Director in March 1992, David was appointed as a University Fellow, a position that enabled him to return to his research for several years, an appropriate acknowledgement of his contribution to the school and, through it, to the University.

With the completion of his fellowship, David Curtis’ research career ceased. Whereas in some disciplines it is possible for a retired researcher to remain active long after formal retirement, the highly individual nature of David’s experimentation and especially its dependence on ongoing high-level technical support precluded this. As there was to be no successor pursuing comparable research within the JCSMR, his equipment was presented to researchers in another institution. All that remained was to maintain his career interests by recourse to the scientific literature.

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Citation details

Peter McCullagh, 'Curtis, David Roderick (1927–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 11 August 2022.

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