De Burgh, Patrick Macartney

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BS 1939 MB 1939

Patrick (Pat) De Burgh introduced modern immunology and virology into the Faculty. His wide understanding of science and his particular flair for improvisation, certainly developed during his jungle war service in Northern Australia and New Guinea, showed in the laboratories and classroom. He designed many pieces of medical and scientific equipment, often using materials at hand – his fluorescence microscope and spectrophotometer served his Department for many years.[1]

Pat completed his residency at Sydney Hospital, but joined the army at the outbreak of World War II, He was already incurably academic in outlook as befitted a grandson of J T Wilson, the first Challis Professor of Anatomy, but he also possessed a practical talent for the invention and improvisation of apparatus. The army put these qualities to the test. In a curious parallel with Hedley Wright’s career, Pat’s first research concerned the rickettsial fevers he encountered as an Army Medical Officer, which also brought him into contact with the virologists from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. It is therefore not surprising that after demobilisation, his scientific interests revolved around problems of viral infections and the host response. Two years spent at Harvard gave Pat the opportunity to develop these interests after which he returned to Sydney as Senior Lecturer in Bacteriology. In 1952, he became the third Bosch Professor, succeeding to H K Ward.

In most respects, the Department retained its character. This was a conscious decision born of Pat’s esteem for both the personal and intellectual qualities of his predecessor. However, the pressure of student numbers and divergent Faculty requirements did bring about one major change at this time: medical and agricultural microbiology were formally separated. This allowed work in the Medical Department to concentrate on the pathogenesis of infectious disease rather than on the properties of the organisms themselves, and Ectromelia (‘mouse pox’) became the experimental model.

By his example, Pat placed teaching and personal contact with students in practical classes in the forefront of the Department’s responsibility, and for many years he personally gave all but a handful of lectures in medical microbiology and immunology. His formal manner and soft voice, coupled with an imposing physical presence and a positive dislike of visual aids, gave his lectures a unique style. They were also characterised by his remaining interest and insight into the basic problems of infectious diseases at a time when there was an eclipse of interest in the subject following the introduction of antibiotics.

The introduction of the BSc(Med) scheme was an innovation ideally suited to Pat’s temperament. He used the opportunity to influence students at a formative age so that they felt inspired to work on cutting edge research. Although the technical resources of the Department remained extremely limited, he encouraged his students to attempt ambitious experiments and joined in with a will whenever apparatus had to be improvised.

The intellectual atmosphere of the BSc(Med) laboratory was informal and exciting. Pat’s contributions to the discussions were calculated to keep them on the boil, and work often continued far into the night, the experimenters sustained by the products of Bunsen burner cookery. Pat takes justifiable pride in the subsequent success of so many of his students. Many of the BSc(Med) students from Bacteriology have remained active in research in Australia; these include Donald Metcalf, Gus Nossal and Jacques Miller at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute; Kay Ellem at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research; D S Nelson at the Kolling Institute of Royal North Shore Hospital; Christopher Burrell at the Institute for Medical and Veterinary Research in Adelaide; and Yvonne Cossart, who returned to the Department.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) De Burgh, Patrick Macartney. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.