When I took up duty in the University of Melbourne as professor of physiology in March 1904 I soon discovered that the students had little knowledge of the chemistry which is most serviceable in physiology, pathology and medicine—the chemistry of the carbon compounds or organic chemistry as it is called. This is no reflection on the abilities and energy of Professor Masson, for the field of chemistry is so enormous that no man could possibly be master in or keep in touch with research progress in all its branches. Masson, who had made important contributions to physical chemistry and was a brilliant expositor in this division of chemical science, naturally had placed most emphasis on his favourite subject. Consequently I found it necessary to give instruction, theoretical and practical, in elementary organic chemistry. Before long I discovered that it was impossible to keep up to date in the literature of physiology and supervise any chemical teaching, so I advocated as strongly as I could the appointment of a lecturer in biochemistry in my department. This proposal met with opposition from Professor Masson, who asserted that any chemical teaching and research should be under his direction. This was a perfectly natural attitude and I now realize that I made the mistake of calling the subject biochemistry, for what I wanted was nothing like the biochemistry as it is today; it would have been better had I followed the suggestion of E. H. Starling and labelled it chemical physiology. However, my suggestion was adopted, and Professor Frederick Gowland Hopkins (afterwards knighted and elected President of the Royal Society) was asked to choose a suitable candidate. He nominated one of his pupils, A. C. H. Rothera, who was medically qualified and had undergone some training in chemical technique in Hopkins’ laboratory. Rothera was appointed in 1906 and took charge of most of the teaching in biochemistry in my Department, and this duty he performed admirably. Finding that our students received no special instruction in pharmacology he instituted of his own accord a series of lectures illustrated with animal experiments, and wrote a small textbook on the subject which was well received. He did some useful research as well, and now Rothera’s test for aceto-acetic acid and acetone, about 60 times more sensitive than the test it displaced, will be found in medical textbooks the world over. He investigated the active principle in pituri and declared that it was a near derivative of nicotine if indeed not that alkaloid itself. His method for settling suspended clay particles in water-holes is still being put into use by Australian farmers.
Rothera was a simple-minded researcher and teacher, a good colleague and a thoroughly likeable fellow. He possessed more than a trace of naiveté which had often amusing or even startling results. For instance, he gave a popular lecture illustrated with lantern slides in which he likened the human body to a sausage machine the realism of the pictures of the end-product produced a chilly silence in the audience. Once when live and uninjured wild rabbits were bought by a University department for research purposes and boys with ferrets and nets reaped a bright harvest, Rothera conceived a plan for laying an appetising bait of jam containing enough chloral to send the rabbits to sleep but not to kill. He asked my permission to experiment in my country property at Warrandyte and this I readily gave. So the bait was laid one summer evening and next morning we set out to pick up the rabbits; but though the bait had gone not a rabbit was to be seen. That morning my neighbour, Mrs. Neilson, beheld a curious phenomenon; the sun was high in the sky but her poultry were all sound asleep on their perches. She threw grain and made a clucking noise but to no purpose. The rooster opened one eye and then shut it, and being a greedy bird fell off the perch dead.
When war was declared in August 1914 Rothera felt he ought to offer his services. It will scarcely be believed that all the medical military authorities could think of in the way of utilizing his exceptional gifts was to give him the task of inspecting latrines. In the course of his new duties he contracted pneumonia and died on October 3, 1915.
In January and February 1918 I carried out some research work in the Tropical Institute in Townsville in collaboration with Drs. Anton Breinl and W. J. Young. It was realized that tropical Australia presented a unique opportunity for the study of the action of tropic climates on the white man, for such cities as Townsville possessed no coolie population (wherever this is found tropical diseases become endemic and defy eradication). That the white man in northern Australia can enjoy all the amenities of tropic life without dread of those terrible diseases which have taken such heavy toll in Africa, America and Asia is even today not appreciated by Australians. The two directors of the Townsville Institute were Dr. Anton Breinl, a gifted phaematologist with wide experience of tropic diseases in South America and elsewhere, and Dr. W. J. Young, a modern biochemist who had studied pure chemistry in Manchester, taken a doctorate in science and then studied the application of chemical principles and techniques to biology in the Lister Institute. Young’s place in biochemical history will chiefly be associated with the major discovery in collaboration with Harden that chemical substances resistant to change become labile when united to phosphoric acid. The far-reaching importance of this discovery cannot be entered upon here. Anyhow, these two distinguished investigators published paper after paper from Townsville and thereby excited the jealousy of a government department which not only had never conducted first-class research but did its best to snub and repress such work. I saw the storm coming and warned both Breinl and Young; Breinl would not believe me but Young did. So Breinl was dismissed from his post like an unskilled labourer. Fortunately he had a medical qualification which was accepted in Queensland, and so he was able to earn a living as a medical practitioner. Having obtained from Young an admission that a position in Melbourne would be acceptable, I moved to get him appointed lecturer in biochemistry. That his doctorate was in science and not in medicine was unknown to the Melbourne University authorities and I did nothing to disabuse them, knowing that a higher salary would be offered to a medical man. So W. J. Young was appointed lecturer (1920) afterwards associate professor (1924), and finally professor (1938) and thus biochemistry began. Young was a delightful colleague, an inspiring teacher and a good raconteur with a strong sense of humour. Only once did I see him really angry and that was when Egan, the laboratory man, dropped the carefully prepared model of cane-sugar and set the atom spheres rolling along the floor. Egan picked them up surreptitiously and stuck them on again as best he could; and so the bewildered students saw univalent oxygen and quadrivalent hydrogen linked with tervalent carbon in unions unknown to chemical science.
Young died in the prime of life through a perforated ulcer of the stomach on May 14, 1942.
Emeritus Professor W.A. Osborne, who was born in Northern Ireland in 1873, was one-time Professor of Physiology and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Melbourne. He has been Chief Commonwealth Censor of Films, chairman of the Commonwealth Literary Fund Advisory Board, and president of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society. In addition to technical writings embodying research in physiology and biochemistry, he has published two volumes of literary essays, a biography and a volume of verse.
Image credit: Bin im Garten