150 Years of Physiology at the University of Melbourne

The following has been adapted (with permission) from Life's Logic – 150 years of Physiology at The University of Melbourne – by Dr. Juliet Flesch; Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2012, 281 pages

George Britton Halford
The first professor, George Britton Halford, Professor of General Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology.

The arrival in Melbourne of George Britton Halford on 23 December 1862 signalled the establishment of medical education and research in Physiology in Australia. For more than a century and a half the Department of Physiology at The University of Melbourne has been at the forefront of research and teaching in this essential discipline.

In 1949, after a decade at the head of Australia's first Department of Physiology, Professor Roy Douglas 'Pansy' Wright delivered a lecture on ABC Radio on 'The Last Few Years in Physiology'. In it, he defined the discipline in the vocabulary of the technology of the day: "Each nerve cell has a body and contact with other nerve cells. Some have contact with the outside world and some with muscles, heart, blood vessels, and so on. It is a gigantic telephone exchange with batteries and wires linked in amazingly complex circuits."

 Roy Douglas Wright
Professor Roy Douglas Wright, c.1930s.

In the course of its first 150 years, the Department of Physiology at The University of Melbourne saw an astonishing variety of men and women pass through its doors, not to mention hundreds of rats, mice and guinea-pigs, cats and dogs, monkeys and sheep.

Over the years, Physiology has offered classes to students in Medicine, Biomedical Sciences, Science, Dental Science, Agricultural Science, Veterinary Science, Optometry and Physiotherapy.

At various points in time, the Department encompassed the disciplines of anatomy, pathology, histology, biochemistry and pharmacology. From 1963 to 1971, it encompassed the Howard Florey Institute for Experimental Physiology and Medicine.

Notable Alumni

Alumni of the Department have pursued illustrious careers in physiology research and teaching in institutions elsewhere, both in Australia and overseas.

The work of the Department of Physiology has frequently been at the very cutting edge of research in the discipline, while its graduates have attained eminence in other fields and other organisations.

Many Melbourne Physiology graduates have made their names nationally and internationally in such related fields as pathology, immunology and genetics. The Department of Physiology has engendered other notable institutions, such as the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine. People have crossed back and forth, in Melbourne alone, between the Department, the Florey, the Baker-IDI, the Peter MacCallum, the Burnet and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institutes. Internationally, there have been strong links with other institutions, especially after the much-regretted return to England of Charles J. Martin, who was intended to become the Department's second Professor.

Roy Douglas ('Pansy') Wright, for example, was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian National University, notably the John Curtin School of Medical Research, and Director from 1971 to 1975 of the Peter MacCallum Institute. This reflects the extent to which the discipline of physiology once accommodated areas that became disciplines in their own right – biophysics, biochemistry, biotechnology and pharmacology. R.D. Wright's early career also exemplifies the way in which people moved between the Department of Physiology and the Department of Anatomy and Pathology. He initially worked with Thomas Cherry, at the time John Grice Cancer Research Fellow. His first lectureship was in the Department of Pathology, working under Peter MacCallum while lecturing in Physiology to postgraduate MS and MD students.

Impact of the World War 1

For its first forty years, the Department was headed by Halford and his successor, C.J. Martin, from 1862 to 1903. Sadly, the carnage of the First World War claimed some of its brightest graduates. The tenure of W.A. Osborne, who succeeded Martin – who had been Acting Professor – in 1904, was, despite these difficulties, a time of development and hope and Osborne himself enriched the cultural life of his new country in extraordinary ways. Osborne had long championed the establishment of a separate Department of Biochemistry and this led to the appointment of W.J. Young as its first Professor.

Post-Second World War

The appointment in 1938 of R.D. Wright, the first Australian-born and locally trained Professor, took the Department through the Second World War years and was associated with a large increase in the number of women employed in teaching and research positions, rather than only as office staff and cleaners. It ended with the establishment of Pharmacology in a separate Department in 1954. The period between 1954 and 1971 saw such extraordinary development in Australian tertiary education in general – and the Melbourne Physiology Department in particular – with the establishment of Pharmacology and the separation of the Howard Florey Institute from the Department.

The 1980s and 1990s saw an increasing influence and complexity of computer-based research and teaching. This development continued throughout the early period of the 21st century to the present day where physiology has evolved into a multidisciplinary field nourished by contributions from cellular and molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, biophysics, mathematics and computational biology.

Present Day

At The University of Melbourne, with the establishment of entities like Bio21 and the Melbourne Brain Centre (incorporating the Florey Institute), as well as continuing relationships with older bodies such as the Burnet, Peter MacCallum and Walter and Eliza Hall Institutes, and long-standing and evolving collaborations with other universities in Australia and overseas, the Department is intricately involved at the frontline of physiology research worldwide.