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Australian Academy of Science
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

Edward Holbrook Derrick 1898-1976

By I. M. Mackerras

Family and Formative Years 1898-1923

Edward Holbrook Derrick was born at Blackwood, Victoria, on 18 September 1898. He was a fourth-generation Australian, with a solidly Methodist lineage. Two paternal great-grandparents, Jehu Derrick and his wife, and their four children (Enoch, Elijah, Joseph, Mary) migrated to Victoria on three different ships between 1852 and 1855, and a maternal great-grandfather, Reverend Edward Sweetman, had settled in Melbourne as a Wesleyan minister in 1840. In addition to Methodism, or perhaps as an extension of it, was a strong family bent for teaching. Derrick's paternal grandfather (Joseph Holbrook Derrick), father (Clement Herbert Derrick, 186v1945), mother (nee Elizabeth Mary Sweetman, 1871-1946), two uncles (one on each side), and a maternal aunt were all school teachers, and one of the uncles (Edward Sweetman, DLitt) became a lecturer in the University of Melbourne and wrote books on Australian history. Medicine was represented too, but more peripherally, by a great-great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle, all on his mother's side. Derrick wrote of his lineage, but referring particularly to religion, 'Fortunate is the child with a goodly heritage'.(1)

In 1895 Clement Derrick brought his bride to Blackwood, a dying gold-mining town 65km from Melbourne, where he had been appointed head teacher. Their four children (Herbert, Edward, Edith, Kate) were born there and spent their early years surrounded by wild bush-clad hills, and in a more immediate environment of old mullock heaps, rusty machinery, poor sanitation, and general decay, and among people who suffered, directly and indirectly, from the effects of miners' phthisis. The school had about 100 pupils in 1895, but the numbers had declined considerably by the time the Derrick children finished their primary education. The young Edward's most vivid memories of Blackwood (and of Campbell's Creek, where he spent his holidays after his father was transferred there in 1911) were of the grandeur of the bush scenery; the brilliant stars at night; learning the constellations from his father; Halley's comet in 1910; an early fondness for poetry; fossicking for a few specks of gold; the Cornish miners ('How they could sing! How triumphantly they prayed!'); and an uncle convalescing from tuberculosis in their home. His own interest in medicine was excited at the age of ten or eleven, when he read The Family Physician (2 vols) from cover to cover while convalescing from typhoid fever, and his parents concurred in his choice of profession.

He gained an Education Department scholarship and entered Wesley College, Melbourne, as a day-boy, living with his grandparents. He was a reserved, rather shy lad who found the headmaster remote and unapproachable, but he did well at school, gaining four Distinctions in the Junior Public Examination in 1912 and a Government Exhibition in the Senior Public in the following year. He loved poetry, but his best subject was chemistry which he attacked with the same concentrated energy that he had given to The FamilyPhysician at Blackwood.

His senior honours year in 1914 was sad and disturbing, for his brother, who had been a brilliant student two years senior tohim at Wesley, died of tuberculosis in May and the Great War began in August. The school, in common with others of its kind, was caught up in a fervour of patriotism, and Derrick recorded later that, of 14 boys in Honour Sixth, 10 enlisted and 3 of them died in France. In spite of these distractions, he did very well in the Senior Public Honours Examination, sharing Honours and Exhibitions with two later fellows of the Academy, T. M. Cherry and E. J. G. Pitman. On the advice of the head-master, he repeated the Honours year as a boarder in 1915, but did not enjoy it, although he added to his honours list in the Senior.

He matriculated in April 1916 and entered the University of Melbourne as a resident student in Queen's College, a life he found much more to his taste than boarding at school. He availed himself of the wartime provision that those who had obtained Senior Public Honours in physics and chemistry could commence Medicine in second year by taking biology as an extra subject. He worked hard, gaining class honours in each year, and graduated MB, BS in 1920 with second class honours, fourth in the year to James Brown, Keith Fairley, and Ernest Chenoweth. He had been a member of the University Regiment.

Neither at the university, nor in his subsequent year at the Melbourne Hospital, then in Lonsdale Street, did he feel any attraction to pathology or microbiology. His basic concern was, and remained for the rest of his life, with sick people, and he vastly preferred out-patient clinics and ward rounds to any formal lectures and demonstrations. He was fortunate in his clinical teachers (especially Richard Stawell whom he revered), in having two periods of student residence in the hospital (another wartime emergency), and in helping to cope with the 1919 pandemic of influenza in an Army camp hospital with R. H. Fetherstone who was then Medical Officer of Health in Prahran. In spite of all this vicarious extra experience, he felt woefully inadequate and was horrified to discover how many diseases were incurable and how few of the drugs that doctors prescribed were of any real benefit to their patients. The inevitable course of lobar pneumonia to crisis or death particularly shocked him.

When the year ended, the Registrar appointments in the hospital fell to Brown and Fairley, so Derrick sought and obtained the Sir John Grice Scholarship in Cancer Research, tenable in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and carrying a stipend of £250 per annum, residence in the hospital, and a share in carrying out the hospital autopsies. His main programme was a histological study of the tumours of the kidneys and suprarenal glands, from which he concluded that the common malignant tumour of the kidneys ('hypernephroma' or 'Grawitz tumour') developed from renal rather than suprarenal cells. His first scientific paper was a report of these findings published in The Medical Journal of Australia on 10 June 1922 (and his last a clinical account of his own experience with non-exertional angina pectoris, published posthumously in the same journal on 6 November 1976). He also visited the Austin Hospital for Incurables and carried out an experiment on pyrogenic treatment of inoperaable skin cancer, with some apparent benefit in a few cases. There is no doubt that the advice and guidance of the director of the Institute, Sydney Patterson, and successive deputy directors, Neil Hamilton Fairley and Harold Dew, during his tenure of the scholarship were significant factors in turning his mind towards a career in medical research.

At that time, the Orient and P & O lines offered three free passages to England each year through the university, and Derrick secured one of these at the end of July 1922. Arriving in England in the summer vacation, he and a friend (a classical scholar on his way to Oxford) took the opportunity to make a tour of Germany and Switzerland, which left him with a lasting impression that 'the similarities between people of different countries were much greater than the differences. A narrow nationalism could never return. Back in London at the end of September, he found the employment he sought difficult to obtain. He made many contacts and Charles Kellaway, then at University College, was characteristically helpful, but nothing eventuated until Hugh Cairns, an Adelaide graduate, introduced him to Hubert Turnbull who was director of the Pathological Institute in the London Hospital. An appointment of pathological assistant in the Institute at a salary of £150 per annum followed. The duties included attending Turnbull's lectures, assisting in post-mortem examinations, which were carried out with a precision and attention to detail far surpassing anything he had seen in Melbourne, and preparing and studying histological sections, again using techniques of a standard he had not previously encountered. Turnbull became, with Stawell, one of the two great inspirations of his medical career.

Derrick became impressed with the frequency of deaths in children from miliary tuberculosis, due, it was believed, to rupture of tubercles in the intima of pulmonary veins flooding the body with tubercle bacilli. He resolved to test this hypothesis, so took every opportunity to dissect out the pulmonary veins of children who had died of the disease, search them for internal tubercles, and cut sections of any that he found. He successfully accomplished this task, but it was exacting work, and he failed to realize that snipping the small intimal tubercles off with scissors might charge the air before his face with live tubercle bacilli.

He had gone to England 'in search of knowledge' and it might be thought from the foregoing that he was preparing himself for a life in laboratory medicine. That was not so, for, on the one hand, he considered that morbid anatomy and experimental pathology lacked 'the close relation with patients...that gives medicine its satisfaction and its standing' and, on the other hand, he had a half-formed intention to become a medical missionary in China. This was his 'alternative career', and his inclination for it was no doubt strengthened by his association with Kingsley Hall, a Methodist mission in the East End to which he devoted much of his spare time. Proficiency in surgery was an obvious pre-requisite for a medical missionary, so he began to prepare himself by reducing his post-mortem work, and attending lectures and sitting for the primary FRCS examination which he passed in December 1923.

During the transition period, he visited Paris with Alan Lee (later a Brisbane surgeon) and one night, when alone in his hotel, he coughed up some blood, not much but of unequivocal diagnostic significance. He immediately returned to London, tubercle bacilli were found in his sputum, the physicians gave him a good prognosis, and an early passage to Australia was arranged. He arrived in Melbourne on 13 February 1924, and so, as he put it, 'all my plans came to a sudden and inglorious end.' He was later convinced that he had contracted the infection in the post-mortem room, but he had already had two intimate family contacts with tuberculosis in his youth, and the strenuous life he led could have activated a dormant infection.

In Search of a Curative Climate 1924-1934

Thus did Derrick entitle the next ten years of his life. Rest in bed, which might have shortened his convalescence, was not then favoured in Victoria and he was treated, with his own full approval, in the Trudeau tradition of fresh air, sleeping out of doors, living in the country, and a special reliance on mountain air. He went to Kyneton, north of the Dividing Range, where he lived quietly for a few weeks and then took a relieving resident position in the local hospital. This set the pattern of an odyssey that was to lead him by devious paths to the far west of New South Wales and, ultimately, to northern Queensland. It was effective in that he recovered; but it is an interesting reflection on clinical attitudes in the twenties that it apparently did not occur, either to himself or to his advisers, that an itinerant phthisical doctor might spread the infection wherever he went.

On the advice of Ernest Chenoweth, by now practising in Queensland, Derrick's first venture further afield was to Brisbane, where he was well received, saw leprosy for the first time at the Peel Island lazarette, obtained registration from the Queensland Medical Board on 10 July 1924, and spent several enjoyable weeks at Bilinga on the south coast. He was greatly attracted by the northern State, but his health did not improve and he returned sadly to Melbourne in October.

He remained quietly in southern Victoria for several months, and then began again to seek relieving (locum tenens) appointments, moving progressively into drier and hotter country from Yea in Victoria (August-September 1925) to Curramukke in South Australia (September-October), Broken Hill in New South Wales (October-November), and finally Tibooburra in the northwestern corner of the State (November 1925 to March 1926). He adapted quickly to the arid environment, and his health remained good under the stresses of a busy lodge practice at Broken Hill, a long, tiring, two-day journey by mail-car to Tibooburra over a rough bush road with many gates to open on the way (a normal duty for a passenger), and life in an isolated village about 200m above sea level with an annual rainfall of about 200mm, annual evaporation of nearly 3m, and December temperatures up to 46 5°C. Medical work was light at Tibooburra, but he had cases of typhoid fever to worry him, a woman who died of puerperal septicaemia, and a patient with delirium tremens to control; he also made two long trips into South Australia, one to examine an old swagman who had died in the desert and the other to collect a surgical patient from an isolated station. One of his patients had a camel team and enlivened his convalescence by teaching Derrick to ride and manage the beasts.

When the time came to leave Tibooburra, he did not return south, but travelled north and east with the overseer of the rabbit-proof border fence on his tour of inspection and maintenance, crossed the Paroo River, and entered Queensland at Hungerford, where he saw his first cases of dengue fever, the 1926 epidemic being then in full spate. Another fortuitous car trip took him to Cunnamulla and so by train to Brisbane, where he arrived on 12 March.

A week as locus at Killarney in the border ranges brought him more experience of dengue fever (including a personal attack which provided useful serum antibodies for study 30 years later), but the turning point in his life came in April when he was called to a relieving appointment at Irvinebank in north Queensland. It was there that he finally regained his health, married, developed his great interest in the fevers of the north, and so was led, almost automatically, into the path that was later to prove so profitable. But it was still by no means all smooth going.

Irvinebank was a small tin-mining town about 760m above sea level on the main range 80km west of Innisfail, with an admirably dry mild winter climate and a monsoonal (summer) rainfall of about 850mm. The duties of the medical officer included regular visits to Stannary Hills 24km away, but were generally light and Derrick was able to enjoy the quiet life that he still needed. His health continued to improve rapidly, so that, when his appointment ended in June, he decided to spend the next few months visiting other places, including Ravenshoe, Innot Hot Springs, and Mount Garnet, in the same general area. Then followed another relieving appointment at Irvinebank from December 1926 to June 1927, followed by similar appointments at Mareeba on the tableland and Innisfail on the coast.

Believing that he was cured, he returned to Melbourne in January 1928 and was appointed resident pathologist at the Austin Hospital, but he soon relapsed with tubercle bacilli again in his sputum, a bitter disappointment. Further rest and a trial of private practice in the Riverina brought little improvement, and he returned to Melbourne a very worried man.

Relief from this distressing situation came in July 1929, in the form of a telegram inviting him to take over the position of medical officer at the Irvinebank Hospital on a permanent basis. He accepted gratefully and returned at once to the town which held all his hopes of survival and a productive life. By 1930 he 'pronounced himself perfectly fit', married Miss Margaret Gina Quadrio, matron of the hospital, on 11 March, and settled down to what appeared to promise a quiet life in general practice. But his troubles had not ended. Mining in the district declined, the Hospital Board found itself unable to pay his salary, and his appointment was terminated in May 1931. However, he was able to obtain a similar appointment at Mount Mulligan and remained there until early in 1934.

Throughout his wanderings, Derrick had been impressed, more than most, by the weight of responsibility that rests on a doctor who has to practise all branches of medicine in a remote place where he cannot discuss his problems with a colleague or call in the aid of a specialist. This feeling of inadequacy was sharply increased when he attended a postgraduate course in Brisbane before taking up the Mount Mulligan appointment, and an attempt to keep up-to-date thereafter by more intensive reading of the journals he received did not satisfy him. He believed his cure was complete, so resigned from Mount Mulligan to begin private practice in Brisbane.

That, indeed, was the end of his wanderings, for he and his wife remained in or near Brisbane for nearly 42 years, and their two sons grew up there. The way had been long, arduous, and often frustrating, but it had brought, too, a wide knowledge of the harsh interior and the tough north and of the people who lived in those remote places. Derrick quoted Trudeau's comment as applying very much to himself:

The struggle with tuberculosis has brought me experiences and left me recollections which I could not have known otherwise, and which I would not exchange for the wealth of the Indies.

The rest of this story belongs to his scientific work.

The Microbiological Laboratory 1935-1947

The practice at Kelvin Grove was short-lived, for Derrick was appointed director of the Laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology in the Queensland Health Department on 1 June 1935, a notable event in Australian medical history (as was J. B. Cleland's appointment to the equivalent laboratory in Sydney some 20 years earlier).

The laboratory had had a chequered career (Tonge, 1960). In 1893 a Stock Institute was established in Brisbane with C. J. Pound in charge for diagnosis and investigation of diseases in the livestock on which the colony was so dependent for survival and prosperity. It did good work, especially on the tick fevers of cattle. In 1899 its name was changed to the Bacteriological Institute, Pound became Government Bacteriologist, and the scope of the Institute was expanded to include human diseases; it became, in fact; the first public health laboratory in the colony. Its value in that capacity was soon demonstrated, notably in the plague epidemic of 1901-7, its tasks multiplied, and in 1910 it was split into the Laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology under Dr John Harris, attached to the Department of Health, and the Stock Institute under Pound, attached to the Department of Agriculture and Stock (now Primary Industries). The latter became the flourishing Animal Research Institute at Yeerongpilly, so the old Institute left two lusty descendents.

The Microbiological Laboratory had four changes in directorship (Harris, Burton-Bradley, Arnold Dean, and Harris again) between 1910 and 1923, but then remained without a medical officer for 12 years, during which it was managed, with remarkable efficiency, by Mr H. E. Brown and a small staff working in cramped, inadequate quarters. R. W. Cilento, a noted authority on tropical medicine, became Director-General of Health and Medical Services in 1934. He immediately perceived the inadequacy of the laboratory services, secured larger quarters for them in the new departmental building in William Street, and pressed strongly for the appointment of a medical director of the highest quality. This was finally approved by Cabinet on condition that the laboratory would take over all coronial autopsies from the private practitioners, thereby saving more in fees than they intended to pay the director in salary. Cilento's choice of Derrick proved a remarkably wise one.

It follows that his first task was to establish an efficient autopsy service, and this he did with his customary thoroughness and meticulous attention to detail. He based his procedures on the experience he had gained at the Pathological Institute in London 12 years earlier and recorded all his findings with such care and completeness that they now form a unique series for reference and research. He also published a guide to technique for medico-legal autopsies and a no. of papers on suicide, alcoholism, lead poisoning, unusual pathological findings, and other subjects in general pathology. He was one of the first in the world to use blood alcohol estimations in court evidence.

In the meantime, in August 1935, Cilento was informed of the problem presented by the occurrence of 'abattoir fever' in the Brisbane Abattoir, and invited Derrick to investigate it. This was to him 'the opportunity of a lifetime' and he seized it with both hands, ably assisted by Hubert Brown and D. J. W. Smith whose appointment in 1937 was the first for full-time medical research in Queensland since the Commonwealth Institute for Tropical Medicine at Townsville closed in 1930. The resulting spate of publications has been reviewed several times, most vividly by Burnet (1967) and Derrick.

Derrick proceeded logically. His first step was to make a careful clinical study of all the cases available to him, but this revealed little more than that the disease had some typhoid-like or typhus-like features. He then used his laboratory resources to discover whether it was an aberrant form of some febrile disease already known in Queensland, again with negative results. A search of the veterinary literature failed to reveal any potential zoonosis derivable from cattle that would fit the picture. He then turned to the guinea-pig, the standard experimental animal in his laboratory, as in most others in Australia at the time. Guinea-pigs inoculated with blood from febrile patients developed a mild disease, characterized by fever and enlargement of the spleen, and ending in recovery. The disease could be passed serially from guinea-pig to guinea-pig by inoculation of spleen or liver errulsions, but guinea-pigs which had recovered from a previous attack were refractory to re-inoculation. Here then was a specific infectious disease caused by an organism which he could neither detect by microscopic examination of infected tissues nor grow in any of the culture media available to him. He thought it was probably a virus and sent infected spleens to F. M. Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, Melbourne, for further study.

Burnet's principal tools were not guinea-pigs but the chorioallantois of the developing chick and adult mice (the use of infant mice in rickettsial research came much later). The chorioallantois proved to be only marginally useful, but the inoculated mice developed enlarged spleens, sometimes with exudate on the surface. Searching a section of an infected spleen one day, Burnet came on what appeared to be a micro-colony of tiny, weakly stained rods, and study of Castenada-stained smears promptly confirmed their identity as rickettsiae; the mouse had proved a better animal than the guinea-pig for this investigation. The immediate problem was solved and Derrick named the disease Q (for Query) fever, later (January 1939) naming the organism Rickettsia burneti in honour of Burnet; still later it was removed from Rickettsia to a new genus Coxiella by C. B. Philip on account of its distinctive characteristics within the rickettsial family.

Derrick's guinea-pigs had given him a valuable tool for further research. Two guinea-pigs, one 'clean', the other recovered from previous infection, could be inoculated with any suspected material, and if the first guinea-pig reacted but the other not he was provided with both a diagnosis and a fresh strain of C. burneti to study. This method was used extensively, and the laboratory, a large gloomy room subdivided by island-benches, became congested with large glass battery jars, each occupied by two guinea-pigs. It was an awesome sight to the unprepared visitor! At the height of the work, rectal temperatures of more than 100 guinea-pigs were being taken daily, and more than 1000 were used in the whole investigation.

Meanwhile, Burnet and Mavis Freeman went on to provide another valuable diagnostic tool. 'By a little simple juggling with pH' (Burnet, 1967) Miss Freeman was able to prepare a stable rickettsial suspension from infected mouse spleens, which they used to develop a neat though somewhat tricky micro-agglutination test for specific antibodies in human and lower animal sera. For much of the work Derrick simply sent his sera to Melbourne and Burnet and Miss Freeman returned him prompt and reliable answers. The task was later transferred to Brisbane, using Freeman mouse spleen antigen, until Wilbur Smith discovered in 1940 that the abundant multiplication of rickettsiae in infected female Rhipicephalus sanguineus (dog ticks) made it possible for him to prepare much larger volumes of excellent suspensions. The tick antigen was employed until the complement-fixation test was introduced in 1950.

To return to the main story, recognition of a rickettsia pointed directly to an arthropod-mammal primary cycle of infection. Local bandicoots (Isoodon macrourus) were known to harbour a rich variety of blood-sucking ectoparasites, and here luck favoured the research, for it led the collectors to Moreton Island where there were no large mammals, other than a few goats, and abundant bandicoots carrying only one species of tick, Haemaphysalis humerosa. Using the guinea-pig technique described above, Smith soon isolated C. burneti from six batches of ticks and two bandicoots and a serological survey revealed a high incidence of infection in the bandicoot population. Bandicoots and their ticks are widely distributed in eastern Queensland, so an efficient reservoircycle had clearly been revealed.

The question remained: how did the infection get from bandicoots into cattle, and from cattle into workers in widely scattered departments of the Abattoir, but not at all into the workers in Swift's and Borthwick's Meatworks which killed only for export ? And, as the work went on, how to account for the laboratory infections that occurred in both Brisbane and Melbourne? Most of this looked easy, but it proved most difficult.

Including experimental transmission, the four potential vectors of C. burneti then known (Haemaphysalis humerosa, H. bispinosa, Rhipicephalus sangineus, and Ixodes holocyclus) were also known to attack cattle, at least occasionally, so it was safe to assume that some transmission from bandicoots to cattle would occur in nature (another significant cycle involving sheep is noted later). It was known, too, that infected ticks had enormous concentrations of rickettsiae in their guts and that many of the cattle entering the Abattoir were infested with cattle ticks, Boophilus microplus. But this promising line drew a complete blank: not a single infection was found in the thousands of Boophilus and substantial numbers of cattle spleens from the Abattoir that were tested in guinea-pigs. There had to be some mechanism other than contamination from the bodies of infected ticks crushed in the slaughtering operation.

The answer came from the United States. In essence, 'nine-mile fever' of Montana proved to be a tick-transmitted rickettsiosis, a chance laboratory infection demonstrated its identity with Q fever, infection was found to be widespread in California, and detailed studies showed that rickettsiae were present in large numbers in the milk of infected dairy cows and in enormous numbers in the placentas of infected cows and sheep. Analysis of laboratory infections also supported the conclusion that infection could be acquired by inhalation of contaminated dust or droplets. C. burneti, in fact, had the remarkable ability to behave as a perfectly normal Rickettsia in its reservoir cycle and as a Brucella in infections of cattle, sheep, and man. These findings resolved all Derrick's difficulties, including the absence of Q fever from the export Meatworks which did not kill pregnant cows. By 1955 the disease had been recognized in 51 different countries.

Derrick's guinea-pigs served him well in another important study. In 1937, he was asked to investigate cases of fever in dairy farmers, so he inoculated guinea-pigs in the standard way and isolated a Leptospira, which he named L. pomona. D.W. Johnson working in Derrick's laboratory, studied its distribution and epidemiology in Australia, and it was found later that it was also the cause of 'swineherd's disease' in Switzerland and mild leptospirosis in other parts of the world. It was of these two diseases, Q. fever and Pomona leptospirosis, that Burnet was thinking when he wrote in his citation for Derrick's election to fellowship in the Australian Postgraduate Federation in Medicine: 'To have defined and elucidated the aetiology of two world-wide infectious diseases is something no other living scientist can claim'.

Other investigations were going on at the same time, some new, others arising from the steadily increasing vol. and range of routine work that was being undertaken by the laboratory, wedged, as it were, among the hordes of guinea-pigs in their battery jars. These included (Doherty, 1967): discovery of a second new leptospira (L. hyos) by D. W. Johnson; description of generalized amoebiasis, found at autopsy of a patient from New Guinea and thought at the time to have been due to Iodamoeba, but now considered to have been caused by Naegleria; isolation of the Karp strain of the scrub-typhus rickettsia (also from New Guinea); recognition of a variety of infections not previously recorded from Queensland, including classical Weil's disease (L. icterohaemorrhagiae), rat-bite fever (Spirillum minus), torula meningitis, chromoblastomycosis, and histoplasmosis; and surveys of filariasis (including a persistent focus at the Goodna mental hospital), tick-typhus, and human brucellosis. Finally, Derrick crowned his labours by developing and carrying through his plan for the establishment of an institute for medical research in Brisbane, making this unquestionably the most productive period in his whole life.

The Queensland Institute of Medical Research 1947-1966

Derrick has recorded the origin and birth of the Institute. During the later years of the 1939-45 war, the burden of routine forensic and public health work grew steadily heavier, shortage of staff was aggravated by enlistments (most notably of Wilbur Smith into the RAAF), Derrick himself was involved in considerable part-time teaching in the Medical School (he was a special lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine from 1939 to 1965), and research in the Microbiological Laboratory had to be almost completely abandoned. He became seriously concerned for the future, and therefore included a plea in his 1943-44 annual report for a return to a policy of active research as soon as the war situation permitted. This was noted by R. H. Robinson, under-secretary of the department, Derrick's initially modest proposals were expanded in further discussions and, on 18 April 1945, Cabinet appointed a Medical Research Advisory Committee of nine members, with Derrick as chairman, to plan an institute of medical research and advise on how the plan could best be implemented.

As is usual with such committees, the brunt of the work fell on the chairman (who would not have wished it otherwise), but all contributed and especially D. H. K. Lee, then Professor of Physiology in the university and the only member with previous experience of organized medical research on the scale contemplated. Their report and a draft Bill for establishment of the Institute were presented on 13 July, accepted almost in toto, the Bill was introduced into Parliament on 6 September, and The Queensland Institute of Medical :Research Act was proclaimed on 19 January 1946. It provided for an institute to undertake 'research into any branch or branches of medical science . . . under the control and management' of a council of seven members with the director-general of Health and Medical Services as chairman.

The first meeting of the council, with Sir Raphael Cilento in the chair, was held on 8 February 1946, and Derrick was appointed acting deputy-director so that he could implement decisions about the Institute while continuing to control the Microbiological Laboratory. He became deputy-director on 27 March 1947, confirming his intention that someone else should be the first director. In the meantime, he and the council had done a great deal of work: gathering the nucleus of a library and essential basic equipment (including much that had been used by the LHQ Medical Research Unit at Cairns during the war); obtaining a temporary home for the Institute in a large, empty US Army hut in Victoria Park near the Medical School and Brisbane Hospital; providing enough sub-division and furnishing in the hut to accommodate initial research and ancillary staff; and securing the services of an experienced librarian (Mrs Margaret Macgregor, appointed 28 April 1947). When the building was occupied on 2 June 1947 by the director and the deputy-director, the librarian, and two ancillary staff (with three more to come in the following week), it was ready for at least the beginnings of some active work. It remained a centre of considerable activity for the next 30 years, for most of which Dr (later Sir) Abraham Fryberg was chairman of the council. Its successive directors have been Mackerras to 1961, Derrick to 1966, R. L. Doherty to 1977, and C. S. Kidson from 1978, with J. H. Pope as acting director in 1977-78.

Doherty (1967, 1978) has given well-balanced accounts of the next 14 years, the second paper bringing Derrick's activities into perspective with other work that was going on in the Institute in the same period.

Derrick was unquestionably glad to have a time of relative relaxation after his strenuous efforts in 1945-47, and he gave most of the next two years to the pleasant task of clearing up the backlog of uncompleted papers carried over from the Microbiological Laboratory. All 11 of his publications from 1948 to 1951 belong to this category. At the same time, he continued to help in the selection of staff, in planning the additional laboratories that would be needed within the building, and especially in establishing adequate stocks of laboratory animals, principally mice (derived originally from Hall Institute stock), but also rats, guinea-pigs, and rabbits. A large section of the area under the hut came to be occupied by the animal houses, which helped to sustain the rather flimsy structure of the laboratories above.

He also had two main research projects in mind, both fitting well into the broad research policy that had been accepted for the Institute. One was to continue the search for infectious agents in southern Queensland that had begun in the Microbiological Laboratory, but using mice rather than guinea-pigs as the primary tool; and the other was his old favourite, to investigate the many still undiagnosable fevers of north Queensland. He felt strongly that an efficient virological unit would be an indispensable component in the plans for both, so he spent several months in 1951 visiting relevant overseas laboratories to learn what he could of their organization and methods.

The first project began as soon as enough resources could be got together, and it proved (like the study of salmonellosis in infants that was going on in another section of the Institute at the same time) an admirable training ground for the young cadets who were later to become the backbone of the research staff. It went on, with intermissions, through the whole period, adding to general knowledge of infectious agents and their hosts, but leading to only two significant discoveries. One was that toxoplasmosis was common in Queensland rodents and small marsupials, and serological surveys showed that it was also common in man, usually in inapparent infections, but sometimes, as elsewhere, associated with a variety of syndromes, including congenital brain and eye damage. Its epidemiology remained obscure for we failed to recognize the domestic cat as the primary host in which the parasite behaves as an ordinary coccidian; that discovery came from studies overseas nearly 20 years later. The second discovery was the isolation of an obscure virus from a house mouse collected in Brisbane and its final identification by J. H. Pope as a mouse leukaemia virus, which led him directly into a productive career of research on the tumour viruses of man.

Derrick's second project began in 1951 after his return from abroad. A field station was set up in the Innisfail Hospital and manned successively by two medical research fellows (C. N. Sinnamon for a year, R. L. Doherty thereafter) and the most experienced of the available cadets. In essence, the plan was to made a careful clinical study of all febrile patients, to collect immediate and convalescent samples of sera for serological investigation, to make blood cultures for leptospirae, and to inoculate adult mice for isolation of rickettsiae and other agents. The mice were returned to the Institute, where they joined the search for infectious agents described above; sera and positive cultures were sent, by cooperative arrangement, to the Microbiological Laboratory, which was now directed by J. I. Tonge and had Hubert Brown and Wilbur Smith as experts in leptospiral identification. It was a return to valued old associations for Derrick.

The principal results of this study were the addition of eight 'new' serotypes of leptospirae to those already known in Australia and the demonstration that mouse-inoculation was much more reliable than the Weil-Felix serological reaction for the diagnosis of scrub-typhus. Serology and a broader approach to laboratory diagnosis in general also reduced the no. of more ubiquitous infections that passed unrecognized, so that by the middle of 1955 it could fairly be said that the diagnostic problems, and consequently treatment, of the fevers of north Queensland had been substantially solved. Work at the field station was turned to a detailed study of the reservoir hosts, still in collaboration with the Microbiological Laboratory which had by then became a WHO Reference Centre for leptospirosis, but that story does not belong here.

Freed from his preoccupation with Innisfail, Derrick was able to gather in the loose ends and turn his attention to other problems. He published epidemiological analyses of dengue fever, leptospirosis, and scrub-typhus, in which he foreshadowed the special concern with climatic factors that was to influence much of his later work on asthma; he and Domrow organized a survey of the foci of scrub-typhus in north Queensland, which provided a basis for later studies by Domrow, Cook, and Campbell of the host distribution of Rickettsia tsutsu-gamushi and its transmission by Leptotrombidium deliense; he joined with Cook in the survey of human toxoplasmosis, with Pope in an investigation of murine-typhus during a mouse plague on the Darling Downs; and also with Pope in a final rewarding study of Q fever arising from an outbreak of the disease among shearers working on sheep stations in western Queensland. The investigation revealed a high incidence of infection in local kangaroos and kangaroo ticks (Amblyomma triguttatum, a three-host tick with a wide host range), which provided a major maintenance cycle in the west comparable to that provided by the bandicoot and its tick in the east. Many of the sheep brought in for shearing were infested with A. triguttatum, so it seemed probable that the workers in the shed were infected from the ticks macerated during the shearing operation, a hypothesis which was supported by the occurrence of Q fever in fellmongers in Brisbane who handled fleeces from the infected stations.

When Derrick became director on 29 July 1961, the Institute had teams able to work independently in such fields as arboviruses (Doherty, with the largest group), tumour viruses (Pope), Acarina (Domrow), rickettsiae (Pope, Carley, Campbell), bacteriology (Singer), and a capable deputy-director in R. L. Doherty, and he was therefore able to concentrate on a study of the epidemiology of asthma in Queensland, a problem to which he was attracted by the frequency of the disease, especially in children in the Brisbane area.

He had begun the study in 1960 with a survey of admissions for asthma in the Brisbane hospitals, which showed that there were normally two well-defined seasonal peaks, one in autumn and one in spring. Then he found that similar peaks in admissions occurred in other hospitals in southeastern Queensland but not in north Queensland, and that they were much more evident in young people than in older age groups. These findings suggested seasonally produced airborne allergens as the probable cause of the epidemics, so he arranged for the establishment of air-sampling facilities and secured the appointment of a botanist (J. Moss) and mycologist (R. Rees) to analyse the samples for plant pollens and fungal spores respectively. A great mass of quantitative and qualitative information was collected in the ensuing years, but no correlations with the frequency of asthmatic attacks were established either by statistical analysis of the data or by clinical testing of the potential allergens that had been isolated. Correlations with growth of grasses and density of smoke were also attempted without success. In the meantime, he pursued his statistical studies of weather and climate, still searching for correlations that might point to the operative allergens. He was able to correlate the monthly incidence of asthma with mean monthly temperatures up to 21 degrees C, but no higher, and the annual incidence of asthma with annual rainfall, but there the work ended. He published 19 papers on asthma, 13 of them after his retirement.

Final Years, 1966-1976

When he retired on 28 July 1966, Derrick was appointed honorary research fellow in the Institute and, a little later, director of the Research Bureau of the Queensland Asthma Foundation, which post he held until 1973. He continued his studies much as he had before his retirement, published 21 papers on a variety of subjects, including those on asthma already referred to, and prepared a manuscript (published after his death) recording his own terminal illness with characteristic detachment and attention to detail. Though his physical capacity declined, his mental activity did not, and he was still making notes within a few hours of his death on 15 June 1976 (Tonge, 1976). It is sad that he did not survive long enough to enter the Institute's spacious new laboratories in the grounds of the Brisbane Hospital, which were opened in February 1977 and will remain his most enduring monument. His portrait by Graeme Inson hangs in the entrance hall.


This has been the story of an unusual man who came into research under two diverging influences. On the one side, his family background, early education, and temperament made him deeply religious, reserved, intolerant of levity on serious subjects, but still willing to suffer fools gladly if they were young and teachable. He came to medicine with the conviction that his task was to relieve human suffering-indeed, to seek it out for relief-and there is little doubt that he would have become a missionary among the heathen if tuberculosis had not intervened. On the other side, he was endowed with an analytical mind, a liberal share of scientific curiosity, an immense respect for the integrity of science, and an obsession (perhaps acquired in London) with detailed observation and precise recording. He had gone to England 'in search of knowledge' and the same tuberculosis that had deprived him of his missionary ambition led him in the end to the laboratory in Brisbane where he had ample opportunities to continue the search. This he did, with results that gave him great satisfaction and brought him world-wide recognition as a distinguished Australian scientist.

He received many honours. He was awarded a CBE in 1961, was elected to the Academy in 1955, received The Britannica Australia Award for Medicine in 1965, admitted DSc (honoris causa) by the University of Queensland in 1966, and awarded the ANZAAS Medal in 1969. He was elected a fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1940), fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1947), foundation member (later fellow) of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia (1956), member of the International Society of Biometeorology (1966), fellow of the Australian Society of Allergists (1967), fellow of the Australian Medical Association (1968), fellow of the Australian Postgraduate Federation in Medicine (1971), and honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (1975). He also shared the Cilento Medal with F. M. Burnet in 1939, was Bancroft Orator of the British Medical Association (Queensland branch) in 1948, and Elkington Orator of the Queensland Society of Health in 1962. The Medical Journal of Australia published a Festschrift no. in his honour on 9 December 1967.


I am grateful to Professor R. L. Doherty, University of Queensland, to Dr J. H. Pope and other members of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, and to Dr J. I. Tonge and Mr D. J. W. Smith of the Queensland Laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology for information and suggestions, and to Dr Elizabeth N. Marks and Mrs E. R. Bailey for help in the preparation of the manuscript.


(1) Quotations without citation of reference are from a manuscript autobiography which was completed only to the end of 1933, now in the Academy's Basser Library.

Ian Murray Mackerras, DSc, was formerly Director of The Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane (1947-1961). He was elected to the Academy in 1954 and served on Council 1955-7.

This memoir was originally published in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 4, no. 1, Canberra, Australia, 1978.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

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