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Patrick Macartney de Burgh (1916–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Patrick de Burgh might have followed the profession of his grandfather, Ernest de Burgh, chief bridge builder and then chief dam builder for NSW. His father, Tom, was also an engineer. But as a schoolboy during the Depression, his father took him to a sewerage main being bored through Sydney sandstone. '

'See those workmen?'' Tom said, pointing to two labourers with picks. ''They are engineering graduates, and glad to have the work. Don't do engineering.''

Patrick, who was dux of Scots College in 1932 and again in 1933 (too young the first time round to go to university), took his father's advice. Instead, he followed the course taken by his maternal grandfather, J. T. Wilson, professor of anatomy at the University of Sydney 1890-1920 and at Cambridge 1920-1934.

De Burgh went on to become one of the medical profession's leading teachers.

As professor of bacteriology at the University of Sydney for more than 20 years, he taught more than 7000 medical students, and some of Australia's leading lights in medical science came from those who took a year off the medical course to do research.

Patrick Macartney de Burgh was born May 16, 1916, at Bellevue Hill, son of Tom and Jeannie (nee Wilson).

He remembered his mother calling him outside in 1919 to see the Smith brothers fly overhead after their success in the first England-Australia flight.

His parents separated in 1921 and de Burgh lived with his mother in various boarding houses, principally in Edgecliff. She supported them by teaching psychology and he attended Edgecliff Preparatory School and Scots.

He started war service soon after his graduation in medicine in 1939 and served in New Guinea and Borneo. He married Elizabeth Rowland in 1941.

He had an understanding with his mentor, Hugh Ward, that when the war finished he would return to Australia and help to teach the surge of postwar undergraduates.

Postwar, de Burgh joined the University of Sydney department of bacteriology, but soon took a Rockefeller fellowship in 1946-47. He did viral research in the Harvard laboratory of John Enders, who was to win the Nobel Prize in 1954 for cultivation of the polio virus.

He was invited to stay on and it is likely he would have shared in the glittering prizes, being bright, resourceful, focused and at home at the leading edge of research. But he felt an obligation to Ward.

In 1952, at 35, de Burgh was appointed professor of bacteriology at the University of Sydney. Yvonne Cossart, former student and successor, remembered him commuting from his home in Pymble and walking to the university from Redfern station. He carried a Globite school case with space for his lunch and scientific papers but also for interesting objects salvaged en route.

''Many of these were later incorporated into his scientific instruments – which worked!''

De Burgh occupied the chair until 1978 and continued teaching in the school of public health until 1981. In the academic sphere, he became an institution. In his eulogy, his son, Simon de Burgh, said: ''Patrick had an interesting blend of correctness and eccentricity. Sometimes he would work late and camp overnight in his office. In warm weather he might neglect inessentials of dress, perhaps dispense with a shirt, settle for a surgical gown tied at the back. Socks were a lottery.

''Thus liveried he would command the lecture dais next morning for 50 minutes, unfurling his subject before us, soft voiced, measured, precise; propelling his thoughts with a piece of chalk rolling in one hand. To spell out a technical name or mark a new paragraph in his narrative he would turn to the blackboard and reveal a glimpse of hairy back to the delighted audience.''

On the other hand: ''Here was teacher handing on to student both the rendered scholarship of generations and the gathered work of the moment, all sifted, organised, sharpened and polished by an acute mind.

''Certainly all my microbiology came from his lectures, not from the textbook where, unguided, I easily lost my way in the forest of ink. Some other lecturers were entertaining and charismatic, but soon I realized I remembered the charisma without retaining the lecture. ''Patrick's teaching was no performance, it was a gift.''

Sir Gustav Nossal said: ''Patrick had exquisite scientific taste, a commanding knowledge of the scientific literature, a super-keen brain and a gift for motivating and inspiring younger colleagues.

''He provided a fantastic atmosphere for me to gain a 'blooding' in the esoteric world of basic laboratory research … The three senior professors at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute during my era as director, namely Donald Metcalfe, Jacques Miller and I, were Patrick de Burgh's students and all consider him our first and extremely influential mentor.''

In 2002, de Burgh was awarded the Order of Australia, ''for service to medical research in microbiology and immunology at the University of Sydney, particularly as a teacher and mentor''.

The honour was conferred on him by a former student, the Governor, Professor Marie Bashir.

Patrick de Burgh is survived by his children Elizabeth, Simon, Angela, Joanna, Julia and Margaret, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Elizabeth pre-deceased him.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'de Burgh, Patrick Macartney (1916–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 May, 1916
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 August, 2010 (aged 94)
New South Wales, Australia

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