Historical Records of Australian Science Historical Records of Australian Science Society
The history of science, pure and applied, in Australia, New Zealand and the southwest Pacific

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Thorburn Brailsford Robertson: Brilliant Scientist, Innovator and Australia's First Professor of Biochemistry

George Rogers


The development of biochemical science as an academic subject for teaching and research in Australia began at Melbourne University with the appointment of Arthur Cecil Hamel Rothera to a Lectureship in Biochemistry but the first person at Professorial level was Thorburn Brailsford Robertson almost twenty years before Melbourne and Sydney. He was born in Edinburgh in Edinburgh in 1884 but emigrated at the age of eight years with his parents in 1892 and settled in Adelaide. Educated at Adelaide University he graduated BSc in 1902. Robertson was initially trained in physiology and chemistry but his strength in mathematics nearly resulted in him making a career in physics. His greater interest in understanding life as physicochemical processes however, led him to becoming an outstanding biochemist, protein chemist and animal biologist in the development of biochemistry in Australia. His many contributions to the biological sciences have been obscured by the mist of time. Usually known by his forename “Brailsford”, he was recognised internationally early in his career from his research in Berkeley and Toronto on proteins and on factors influencing animal growth. After some fourteen years abroad he returned to Adelaide to take up the offer of appointment as Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Adelaide in 1919. The early death of this singularly gifted man at forty-five years of age was a great loss to Science. He had contracted influenza in December 1929 but continued to work in the laboratory resulting in pneumonia and his death on 18th January 1930. There can be no doubt from his achievements, that if he had lived his prominence in Australian science would have become even more evident especially biochemistry and cell biology. The endeavour of this biography is to review his academic and scientific contributions that justify that conclusion.

HR17002  Accepted 21 June 2017

© Australian Academy of Science 2017