Thorburn Brailsford Robertson

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Thorburn Brailsford Robertson (4 March 1884 – 18 January 1930) was an Australian physiologist and biochemist.

Australia Country in Oceania

Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a sovereign country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania and numerous smaller islands. It is the largest country in Oceania and the world's sixth-largest country by total area. The neighbouring countries are Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and East Timor to the north; the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east. The population of 25 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated on the eastern seaboard. Australia's capital is Canberra, and its largest city is Sydney. The country's other major metropolitan areas are Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.

Physiology science of the function of living systems

Physiology is the scientific study of the functions and mechanisms which work within a living system.

Biochemist Scientist specialized in biochemistry

Biochemists are scientists that are trained in biochemistry.


Early life

Robertson was born in Edinburgh, the son of Thorburn Robertson and Sheila, daughter of William Brailsford. At eight years of age he was brought to South Australia, where his father had been appointed a mining engineer. He was educated at Miss Stanton's school at Glenelg, and later was privately tutored for the university. He entered on the science course at the University of Adelaide in 1902, and was at once recognized as a brilliant student. In April 1905 he graduated B.Sc. with first-class honours in physiology. As a student he had given some evidence of his quality in a paper on the "Sham-death reflex in spiders", published in the Journal of Physiology for August 1904, and in a remarkable paper, "An Outline of a Theory of the Genesis of Protoplasmic Motion and Excitation", read at a meeting of the Royal Society of South Australia on 4 April 1905 and published in its Transactions and Proceedings, vol. XXIX, pages 1–56.

Edinburgh City and council area in Scotland

Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland and one of its 32 council areas. Historically part of the county of Midlothian, it is located in Lothian on the Firth of Forth's southern shore.

South Australia State of Australia

South Australia is a state in the southern central part of Australia. It covers some of the most arid parts of the country. With a total land area of 983,482 square kilometres (379,725 sq mi), it is the fourth-largest of Australia's states and territories by area, and fifth largest by population. It has a total of 1.7 million people, and its population is the second most highly centralised in Australia, after Western Australia, with more than 77 percent of South Australians living in the capital, Adelaide, or its environs. Other population centres in the state are relatively small; Mount Gambier, the second largest centre, has a population of 28,684.

University of Adelaide public university in Adelaide, South Australia

The University of Adelaide is a public university located in Adelaide, South Australia. Established in 1874, it is the third-oldest university in Australia. The university's main campus is located on North Terrace in the Adelaide city centre, adjacent to the Art Gallery of South Australia, the South Australian Museum and the State Library of South Australia.


Robertson had been very interested in the work of Professor Jacques Loeb of the University of California, one of the ablest biochemists of his time, and immediately after graduation obtained a position in his laboratory. There he worked for five years, contributing during this period around 40 papers to leading scientific journals, and establishing a reputation as an authority on proteins. He never lacked courage, and thus early in his career attacked and subsequently refuted many of the doctrines then generally accepted. In 1910 when Loeb went to the Rockefeller Institute, New York, Robertson became assistant professor of bio-chemistry and pharmacology. In 1912 he published Die Physikalische Chemie der Proteine, which was translated into Russian, and, extended and revised, was published in English in 1918. Between 1910 and 1918 he regularly sent papers to the scientific journals, many of them concerned with the factors that govern the growth and longevity of animals. He became professor of bio-chemistry and pharmacology at the University of California in 1916 and two years later was given the chair of bio-chemistry at University of Toronto.

Jacques Loeb German-born American physiologist and biologist

Jacques Loeb was a German-born American physiologist and biologist.

University of California public university system in California

The University of California (UC) is a public university system in the U.S. state of California. Under the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the University of California is a part of the state's three-system public higher education plan, which also includes the California State University system and the California Community Colleges System.

Rockefeller University Research institute in New York City

The Rockefeller University is a center for scientific research, primarily in the biological and medical sciences, that provides doctoral and postdoctoral education. Rockefeller is the oldest biomedical research institute in the United States. The 82-person faculty has 37 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, seven Lasker Award recipients, and five Nobel laureates. As of 2017, a total of 36 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with Rockefeller University.

In 1919 the death of his old teacher, Sir Edward Stirling, led to his return to Adelaide, where he became professor of bio-chemistry and general physiology in 1920. There his energetic personality soon became apparent in the medical school. His influence was felt in a remodelling of the early years of the medical course, and he persuaded the council that the teaching would have to be divided. In 1922 the new chair of zoology was established. He published in 1920 at New York his Principles of Biochemistry (2nd ed. 1923), and The Chemical Basis of Growth and Senescence in 1923. He had been experimenting on these problems since 1914, and though he was devoting much time to other work, they remained a constant hobby with him for the rest of his life. He was one of the earliest in Australia to investigate the use of insulin for diabetes, and in 1923 he discovered tethelin, a growth controlling substance which has been found of great value in the treatment of slow-healing wounds and ulcers of long standing.

Edward Charles Stirling Australian scientist and politician

Sir Edward Charles Stirling was an Australian anthropologist and the first professor of physiology at the University of Adelaide.

Insulin Hormone in vertebrates

Insulin is a peptide hormone produced by beta cells of the pancreatic islets; it is considered to be the main anabolic hormone of the body. It regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and protein by promoting the absorption of carbohydrates, especially glucose from the blood into liver, fat and skeletal muscle cells. In these tissues the absorbed glucose is converted into either glycogen via glycogenesis or fats (triglycerides) via lipogenesis, or, in the case of the liver, into both. Glucose production and secretion by the liver is strongly inhibited by high concentrations of insulin in the blood. Circulating insulin also affects the synthesis of proteins in a wide variety of tissues. It is therefore an anabolic hormone, promoting the conversion of small molecules in the blood into large molecules inside the cells. Low insulin levels in the blood have the opposite effect by promoting widespread catabolism, especially of reserve body fat.

In 1927 Robertson was asked by the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to take charge of investigations into the nutrition of animals. An animal nutrition laboratory was built at Adelaide, and field stations were established in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Some especially valuable research work was done in connexion with the growth of wool on sheep, and the value of cystine and phosphates as supplementary feeding.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research South Africas central and premier scientific research and development organisation

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Queensland North-east state of Australia

Queensland is the second-largest and third-most populous state in the Commonwealth of Australia. Situated in the north-east of the country, it is bordered by the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales to the west, south-west and south respectively. To the east, Queensland is bordered by the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean. To its north is the Torres Strait, with Papua New Guinea located less than 200 km across it from the mainland. The state is the world's sixth-largest sub-national entity, with an area of 1,852,642 square kilometres (715,309 sq mi).

New South Wales State of Australia

New South Wales is a state on the east coast of Australia. It borders Queensland to the north, Victoria to the south, and South Australia to the west. Its coast borders the Tasman Sea to the east. The Australian Capital Territory is an enclave within the state. New South Wales' state capital is Sydney, which is also Australia's most populous city. In March 2018, the population of New South Wales was over 7.9 million, making it Australia's most populous state. Just under two-thirds of the state's population, 5.1 million, live in the Greater Sydney area. Inhabitants of New South Wales are referred to as New South Welshmen.

Late life

He was working with great energy, with much mapped out for the coming years, when he contracted pneumonia and died after a short illness on 18 January 1930. He married in 1910 Jane Winifred, third daughter of Sir Edward Stirling, who survived him with two sons and a daughter. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and of many other important societies. He was elected a foreign member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome, in 1926. In addition to the books already mentioned he published in 1914 The Universe and the Mayonnaise and other Stories for Children, and in 1931 a collection of excellent articles of more general appeal than his scientific papers was published under the title The Spirit of Research. He was the virtual founder and was managing editor of the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science from its beginning until his death. Its ninth volume published in 1932, "The Robertson Memorial Volume", is made up of scientific papers contributed by former colleagues and pupils, with a short memoir by Hedley R. Marston, and a bibliography of his work which lists 174 of his articles, and 26 others of which he was part author.

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Serle, Percival (1949). "Robertson, Thorburn Brailsford". Dictionary of Australian Biography . Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 

Additional resources listed by the Australian Dictionary of Biography: