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Thorburn Brailsford Robertson (1884–1930)

from Register

Thorburn Brailsford Robertson, one of the most famous physiologists, in the world, died on Saturday after a short illness, aged 45. He was professor of biochemistry and physiology at the University of Adelaide.

He was taken ill with influenza about a week ago, but insisted (in the middle of a heatwave) on going to work. This brought on pneumonia, which caused his death.

He died at Warringa private hospital, Glenelg, after having been taken from his home at Mount Lofty.

Professor Robertson was regarded highly as a scientist, and his work in cancer research in recent years has been recognised throughout the world.

He had a world reputation through his success in research with insulin. In 1924, when supplies were not obtainable in Adelaide, he had manufactured 40,000 doses from pancreas provided by the Metropolitan Abattoirs' Board.

His work in animal nutrition research has been of immense value to the Commonwealth. He has been recognised as one of the foremost authorities in the world on animal nutrition. His experiments have attracted wide-spread attention wherever the scientific feeding of flocks and herds has been studied in conjunction with soil values.

Pastoralists all over the world have benefited by his work.

Professor Robertson was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Royal Society of South Australia. He was a member of the Biochemical Society, England, the American Physiological Society, the American Association for Cancer Research, the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, New York, the Australian National Research Council, and the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

In 1926 he was elected a foreign member of the Reale Aceademia Nazionale in Italy, the oldest academy of science in Europe. He was elected to the section of biological science, to which one foreign member is elected annually.

He was chief of the animal nutrition division of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research at the time of his death.

Professor Robertson, who was born at Edinburgh in 1884, came to Adelaide when he was 10 years old. He was educated at a private school at Glenelg and by a private tutor up till the time he got his B.Sc. at the Adelaide University. He was always recognised as an exceptionally brilliant student, with an original turn of mind.

He went to America, when he had graduated D.Sc., and joined the staff of the University of California, under Professor Jacques Loeb, famous as a bio-chemist through his investigations into the origin of life. The high regard in which Professor Robertson was held was shown when Professor Loeb retired from the California University, for he was appointed in the famous scientist's place.

He stayed in California until 1918, when he accepted the chair of physiology at Toronto University. He came to Adelaide in 1919.

Professor Robertson did much research work into the cause of life and growth, and he discovered and patented the substance tethelin, which stimulates growth, and is of great value in the healing of wounds.

A trust was formed at the University of California to manufacture tethelin, and the income from it was devoted to scientific research.

Tethelin has been found to be very effective in the treatment of ulcers of long standing, and slow, healing wounds.

Professor Robertson married Miss Jane Winifred Stirling, a daughter of the man he succeeded in the chair of physiology at Adelaide University, Sir Edward Stirling. He came back to Adelaide from California in 1910 to marry her.

Professor Robertson's first published book was the Universe and the Mayonnaise and Other Stories for Children, which appeared in 1914. Four years later he issued The Physical Chemistry of the Proteins, following this in 1920 with Principles of Bio-Chemistry, which ran into two editions, and in 1923, with The Chemical Basis of Growth and Senescence. Besides these works, he contributed many papers to the Journal of Physical Chemistry and to physiological, and bio-chemical journals.

He also delved into entomology and literature as recreations, and was an enthusiastic golfer. The remains of Professor Brailsford Robertson will be cremated at noon today. The funeral will leave the residence of Miss Stanton, Broadway; Glenelg, at 11.30 a.m., for the West Terrace Cemetery.

Members of the council and of the staff of the Adelaide University will meet at the Crematorium at 11.45 a.m.

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'Robertson, Thorburn Brailsford (1884–1930)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 June 2024.

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