Discipline of Physiology

A Brief History of the Department of Physiology

The principal aim of the department is to discover the origins of human diseases by furthering knowledge in the fields of biology and medicine, especially as they relate to the nervous system, cardiovascular system and muscular systems. Basic research into the mechanisms by which these systems function is paramount. Such research will allow for improved methods of preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases. The great researchers profiled below laid the foundations for the present efforts of our current academic staff.

The Department of Physiology, as a member of the Institute for Biomedical Research, was strongly influenced by the intellectual environment provided by Sir John Eccles, Sir Bernard Katz and Stephen Knuffle. They gave research lectures in the Anderson Stuart Building while working at Sydney Hospital, prior to their winning Nobel Prizes for research into the nervous system.

The Department of Physiology was established when Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart took up the Chair of Anatomy and Physiology from 1883 to 1920. He was integral in attracting respected researchers to the department, however most of his energy was spent on establishing the Medical School.

Charles J Martin initially appointed as a physiology demonstrator in 1891 and later acting Professor in 1900 began his classic studies on the properties and physiological actions of snake venomís, particularly the tiger and black snakes. He discovered the poison of the black snake contained: a neurotoxin causing paralysis, a cytolytic substance causing destruction of blood cells, and a blood coagulating enzyme which caused intravascular clotting. Charles Martinís enduring contribution to Australian science was recognised in 1951 by the establishment of the prestigious C.J. Martin Fellowships under the auspices of the National Health and Medical Research Council. He left Australia to become Director of the Lister Institute in London.

Henry G Chapman (Professor of Physiology 1921-1928) collaborated with  Professor DA Welsh (Chair of Pathology) on papers concerned with precipitin antisera, which were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. In 1919-1920 Professor Chapman gained notoriety as Chairman of a Commission to investigate miners' phthisis and pneumoconiosis in the Broken Hill mines. He reported that lung disease in miners had resulted from the inhalation of dust and he was largely responsible for payment of compensation to those who had been affected.

Harold Davies (Professor of Physiology 1930-1946) upon arriving in the Department of Physiology  realised the department needed an international outlook. He was instrumental in Physiology academics gaining research experience in internationally renowned research laboratories such as the Carnegie Institution.

Frank Cotton (Professor of Physiology 1942-1955) was a member of the Department from 1923. In 1931 he described a novel method for determining the centre of gravity of the body. This method made possible graphic recordings of the displacement of mass within the resting body under varying conditions of rest, respiration, posture and exercise. His research led to the development of the anti G aerodynamic suit designed to protect fighter pilots against black out and loss of consciousness that may occur in high speed aircraft turns as a result of the centrifugal force pooling of blood in the lower limbs and abdomen. Professor Cotton was also involved in exercise physiology and problems relating to athletic training and performance. He invented ergometers to test specific kinds of athletic activity. He was Scientific Adviser to the Australian team at the Helsinki Olympics.

Frank Cotton began a continuing tradition of research in cardiovascular physiology in the department.  In 1956, Paul Korner was appointed as a Senior Lecturer in the department, and in 1960 became the Foundation Professor of Physiology at the University of New South Wales, and subsequently Professor of Cardiology at the University of Sydney and then later Director of the Baker Research Institute.  Paul Korner was largely responsible for establishing Australia as a leading country in cardiovascular research. He conducted pioneering research into the regulation of blood pressure, including the mechanisms that cause high blood pressure. He is now a Visiting Professor in the Department.

Michael Taylor joined the Department in 1961 as a Senior Lecturer, and was appointed in the same year to a Chair in Physiology. His research was primarily concerned with mathematical modeling of the cardiovascular system, a field in which he became a pre-eminent authority.  Several of his PhD students later went on to become Professors of Physiology, including the present head of Department, Roger Dampney.

Peter Bishop (Professor of Physiology 1955-1967) established the Brain Research Unit and along with William Burke studied the central visual pathways. Peter Bishopís studies on how the brain sees objects led to the award of the Australia Prize, the highest distinction the Nation can offer a scientist.  Later he was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

William (Liam) Burke  completed his PhD studies in 1956 working under the Nobel Laureate Sir Bernard Katz.  Following Peter Bishop's move to the Australian National University in 1967, Liam Burke became Professor of Physiology, and has pursued ever since an active program of research into the organisation and function of visual pathways in the brain. Liam Burke is now an Emeritus Professor in the department.

John Atherton Young (Professor of Physiology 1976 ? ) joined the department as a Senior Lecturer in 1966 and established a biophysical and biochemical research group studying exocrine secretion and epithelial transport.  He became head of department and then Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and is currently the Pro-Vice Chancellor (College of Health Sciences). He has received numerous accolades including an Order of Australia in 1994 and the prestigious Research Prize of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1998.

Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine
The Institute for Biomedical Research Information Book

Last updated 06 June 2001