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Frank William Gibson (1923–2008)

by Graeme Cox

Frank Gibson, by Stuart Butterworth, 1977

Frank Gibson, by Stuart Butterworth, 1977

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-449

Frank Gibson’s scientific career began when he left Collingwood Technical College at 14 and took up an appointment as junior laboratory technician at the University of Melbourne. In 1940 he was appointed to a technical officer position in the embryonic bacteriology department in the University of Queensland. The university was prepared to pay Gibson’s fees to take a part-time Bachelor of Science so he completed his matriculation requirements and started his part-time degree in 1942.

Gibson returned in 1947 to the Melbourne bacteriology department where he completed his degree, majoring in biochemistry and microbiology. Gibson’s subsequent appointment as a senior demonstrator enabled him to carry out, for the first time, independent research. His work, on the action of acridines on oxidase enzymes, resulted in the publication of a research paper. This paper led to an ANU postgraduate scholarship in 1950, which in those days were taken up in Britain. He married Margaret Burvill in 1949, and in 1950 they both went to Oxford to work towards Doctorate of Philosophy degrees. His supervisor was D. D. Woods who had discovered the mode of action of the antibacterial sulphonamides. Gibson’s research project involved the use of bacterial mutants to study the biosynthesis of the amino acid methionine. The use of bacterial mutants in understanding fundamental processes in biochemistry underpinned his research throughout his career.

Gibson completed his Doctorate of Philosophy at Oxford in 1953 and was appointed senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne where he gave courses in general bacteriology and microbial biochemistry. Gibson gained grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Robertson Committee (later ARC) and later the National Institute of Health (US). These grants were used to pursue his early interest in effects of antibacterials on aromatic amino acid biosynthesis. In 1959 Gibson spent one year as research associate at Stanford University (US) that marked the beginning of a life-long friendship with Professor Charlie Yanofsky who was a world leader in the study of aromatic amino acid biosynthesis. On return to Melbourne University, Gibson was appointed as reader in chemical microbiology.

The focus of the Gibson group at this time was identifying and determining the structure of ‘‘the branch point’’ compound in aromatic amino acid biosynthesis using an appropriate mutant strain which accumulated this unstable compound. The isolation of this compound from the culture medium, purification and structural determination in collaboration with Professor L. M. Jackman, a nuclear magnetic resonance specialist in the chemistry school at Melbourne University, established Gibson’s international reputation in this field. He was awarded the David Syme Research Prize in 1963 and a Doctor of Science in 1964 from the University of Melbourne. Margaret was an important member of the Gibson group but became ill and was unable to continue her research career.

The branch point compound was named chorismic acid and was found to be a precursor of seven essential cell components. In 1965 Gibson was appointed a professor in chemical microbiology at the University of Melbourne. Due to the influence of Jim Pittard, Gibson’s group changed the experimental animal used to Escherichia coli K12 in order to study the genetics as well as the biochemistry of the formation of the seven chorismate end products. It was a very active and successful period in the Gibson group’s research program.

He accepted an appointment to the chair in biochemistry in the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU in 1967, the school that had awarded him the PhD scholarship in 1950. Gibson presented the first of the annual Lemberg Lectures to the Australian Biochemical Society in 1968. A major new interest for Gibson in the JCSMR was the enzyme ATP – primarily responsible for the production of usable energy in most biological systems. The Gibson group characterised the gene-polypeptide relationships for seven out of eight genes encoding the proteins of the ATP synthase complex and the mutants were used to investigate the structure, assembly and mechanism of function. These studies continued over a 25-year period.

In 1971 Gibson was elected fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and in 1975 presented the S. D. Rubbo Memorial Oration to the Australian Society of Microbiology. Gibson was elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1976. He served a term as president of the Australian Biochemical Society (1978-79). He was appointed in 1977 to a three-year term as director and Howard Florey professor of medical Research in the John Curtin School. During this period he maintained contact and provided active support for the research continuing in his group and in 1980 returned to head the department of biochemistry.

Gibson married Robin Rollason in 1980 and in 1981 travelled to Britain where he presented the prestigious Leeuwenhoek Lecture to the Royal Society. Also in 1981, he was awarded the Hopkins Medal and Memorial Lectureship from the Biochemical Society London and in 1982 received the Newton-Abraham visiting professorship (Oxford) and fellowship of Lincoln College.

Gibson officially retired in 1988 but was appointed for three years as a university fellow at the ANU and then as a visiting fellow in the membrane biochemistry group at the JCSMR. During this period he made significant contributions to research through his expertise in computer- based molecular modelling of the structure of various membrane- bound and soluble proteins. Many colleagues spent useful hours looking at various aspects of their favourite proteins in three-dimensional colour.

Gibson was made an honorary life member of the Australian Society of Microbiology in 1989 and was vice- president of the Australian Academy of Science (1989-90). He presented the Burnet Lecture at the Australian Academy of Science in 1991 and in 1992 was made honorary life member of the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and honorary life member of University House at the ANU. He was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia in 2004.

Gibson’s personal skills and sound scientific judgment made him a sought-after member of many advisory committees. These qualities also meant that the biochemistry department of the JCSMR, that Gibson headed for some 21 years (with a three-year break as JCSMR director), was a great place for academics, technical staff and graduate students to develop their full potential as research scientists. Many scientists from the US and Britain visited the Gibson laboratory and made major contributions to the research activities as well as providing inspiration to students and academics within the department. His life was balanced by his active involvement in various sports, particularly tennis, skiing, surfing and bushwalking.

He and Margaret had two daughters, Frances and Ruth, and Ruth had three children, Teresa, Luke and Simon. He had one son, Mark, with Robin.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graeme Cox, 'Gibson, Frank William (1923–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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