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Gage, Peter William (1937–2005)

by D. J. Adams and P. H. Barry

Peter Gage, by Marc Fenning, 1988

Peter Gage, by Marc Fenning, 1988

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-427

Peter William Gage (1937–2005) was recognised nationally and internationally as one of Australia’s leaders in membrane physiology, biophysics and neuroscience. His research on neurotransmission, muscle and the structure–function of ion channels was extraordinarily productive, with over 7,000 citations. A gifted speaker with a great enthusiasm for research and for the introduction of cutting-edge technology, Peter Gage influenced and encouraged a great many research students, postdoctoral fellows and senior colleagues in their scientific careers.

Peter William Gage was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on 21 October 1937 to John Gage, an accountant, and Kathleen Mary Gage (née Burke). He was the third child with two brothers (John and Michael) and one sister (Janice).

Peter was educated at the Sacred Heart College in Auckland, and then studied medicine at the University of Otago, being awarded his MB ChB from the University of New Zealand (the only degree-awarding university in New Zealand from 1870 to 1961) in 1960. In the same year, he married Jillian (Jill) Christine Shewan, the daughter of James and Carla Shewan, whom he had met while she was studying physiotherapy and he medicine in Dunedin. They had two daughters, Michelle and Jennifer, and two sons, Peter and David, and have 11 grandchildren. Peter did his internship as a house surgeon at Auckland Hospital in 1961 and was a Research Fellow at Green Lane Hospital, Auckland, in 1962.

In early 1963, he and Jill moved to Canberra with their two daughters, for him to undertake a PhD with Professor John Hubbard in Sir John Eccles’ department in the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the ANU in Canberra. This was an exciting time to be at the JCSMR, not only because Eccles was awarded the Nobel Prize that year, but also because it was a very dynamic department. Peter’s PhD research on post-tetanic potentiation, post-tetanic hyperpolarisation and neurotransmission was extraordinarily productive and was highly cited. From this period, he produced six papers in Nature (3–7, 9), one in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (8) and three in the Journal of Physiology (11–13), with the whole set of papers being cited more than 560 times in other publications. In addition, during this time he had input to two other papers (one in Nature and the other in Vision Research) with Ken Brown.

The Gages, now also with a young son Peter, went to the USA in 1965. Peter (senior) commenced work in Paul Horowicz’s department at Duke University on a prestigious National Institutes of Health International Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1965–67. This was followed by an appointment as Assistant Professor in the same department, 1967–68.

Then, in 1968, he returned to Australia to take up a Senior Lectureship in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology in the Faculty of Medicine at UNSW. He enthusiastically undertook the heavier teaching loads typical of Australian universities compared with those of major US universities.

In 1984, after his productive tenure at UNSW, Peter was appointed as Professor and Head of Physiology in the JCSMR at the ANU, with an arrangement worked out with the Director of the JCSMR, Professor Bob Porter. Under the arrangement, Peter brought with him a support staff member and a number of his students, and the ANU provided some postdoctoral fellowships and a senior academic position. Peter was also able to take a significant amount of his equipment, including the PDP 11/44 computer and many of the electrophysiological set-ups, to the ANU.

On the personal side, Peter and Jill separated in the early 1980s, some years before his move to the ANU (the marriage being officially dissolved in 1991), and from that time on until the end of his life, his partner was Angela Dulhunty, his research colleague.

Peter’s period at the ANU was marked by major academic achievements. He had been appointed to the John Eccles Chair of Physiology and Head of the Department of Physiology. The Physiology Department was dissolved in 1988 and was replaced by the Division of Neuroscience. Peter remained in that division for several years and then transferred to the Division of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1999 and was a part of the Membrane Biology Program at the ANU. Peter’s science continued to flourish at the ANU and he made a major contribution to Australian physiology and biophysics, holding two very successful Patch Clamp Workshops at the JCSMR between 1986 and 1989, and then a series of Curtin Conferences at Canberra Grammar School from 1995 to 2003. These conferences were re-established in 2009 by the Ion Channels and Transporters community in his honour.

Peter’s work between 1984 and 1990 was in part a continuation of a number of projects begun at UNSW, with PhD students and postdoctoral fellows who transferred to the ANU with him.

During the period 1998–2005, Peter was instrumental in developing the biotechnology company Biotron. He was passionate in his belief that research should be developed commercially. The company was originally developed in collaboration with a business partner, Peter Scott, and included JCSMR researchers Chris Parish, Phil Board, Angela Dulhunty and G.B. Cox. The company was eventually listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and Peter remained a board member until his death in 2005.

Peter Gage died peacefully of myeloid leukaemia in Canberra Hospital on 13 August 2005 with his partner, Angela Dulhunty, his sister, Janice Ryan, and his adult children around him. Australia lost one of its foremost investigators in membrane biophysics and neuroscience. As Bertil Hille commented from the USA: ‘For almost 40 years Peter was a leading practitioner and advocate of membrane biophysics in Australia. He had many students. He was imaginative and brave in his range of work.’

Peter was awarded a DSc from the University of New South Wales in 1976, elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1977, awarded an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in 1982, awarded the Bob Robertson Medal of the Australian Society for Biophysics in 2004, and elected an Honorary Member of the Australian Physiological Society in 2005. His research on neurotransmission, muscle and the structure– function of ion channels was extraordinarily productive, resulting in over 200 publications and more than 7,000 citations, with 19 of his papers receiving more than 100 citations each. He had a great enthusiasm for research and for the introduction of cutting-edge technology to Australia. He was a gifted and dynamic lecturer who received innumerable invitations to speak at national and international conferences. All this, together with the quality of his research, attracted many PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and other senior colleagues to his laboratory. He also contributed greatly to the Australian research community by organising International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS) satellite conferences, patch-clamp workshops, numerous Curtin Conferences over many years, and a GABA 2000 International Symposium in Cairns. In addition, he was a warm and engaging person with a keen sense of humour whose presence will be greatly missed by his many former students, postdoctoral researchers and colleagues, family members and friends in Australia and around the world. 

* This edited and abridged obituary has been drawn from the Australian Academy of Science Memoir, ‘Peter William Gage 1937–2005’: www.science.org.au/fellowship/fellows/biographical-memoirs/peter-william-gage- 1937%E2%80%932005. It was also published in Historical Records of Australian Science 20(2) (2009): 233–254.

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. J. Adams and P. H. Barry, 'Gage, Peter William (1937–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gage-peter-william-32612/text40474, accessed 11 August 2022.

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