Ilbery, Peter Leslie Thomas

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Peter Ilbery’s early research into the effects of atomic bomb radiation led to important changes in protective practices during radiology examinations and improved understanding of the mechanisms associated with recovery from the lethal effects of whole body radiation using haemopoietic transplants. In 1964, Peter was the first Honorary Chemotherapist at the Womens’ Hospital, Crown Street, Sydney.

Peter was born in Perth in 1923. After service as a pilot with 455 Squadron RAAF in the United Kingdom he studied Medicine at the University of Sydney and graduated in 1952, completing Residencies at the Royal North Shore Hospital and the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord.

In 1954, he became Radiology Registrar at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. Interested in the investigations conducted by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission into the genetic effects of radiation he observed that radiation doses, of the order of the acute doses received by the Japanese at 1500 metres from atom bombs, were being accumulated in the gonads of children undergoing repeated diagnostic X-ray examinations for management of hip disease. As a result, lead shielding of these organs was instituted whenever they were within the primary X-ray beam. This protective practice was extended to other examinations and soon followed at other hospitals.

From 1955 to 1956, Peter was a Fellow in Radiology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1956 funding was received from the NSW Cancer Council to study radiation protection at the Medical Research Council’s Radiobiological Research Unit within the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Peter was involved in joint studies undertaken into recovery from lethal doses of gamma rays in laboratory animals using preparations of liver, spleen or bone marrow. Until then it was generally thought that these haemopoietic tissues contained a factor promoting recovery but by using donor cells labelled with marker chromosomes it was shown conclusively that colonisation of the host’s radiation-destroyed bone marrow had taken place. Bone marrow transplantation was proven and because the survivors now contained tissues of another animal, they became known as radiation chimaeras, an allusion to the mythological chimaera composed of the body of a goat, the head of a lion and the tail of an adder. Creating chimeras with wider genetic disparity between host and donor strains led to the appearance of ‘secondary radiation disease’. It was postulated that the disease was due to an immunological reaction of the graft cells against host tissue, which was later shown to be the case when bone marrow grafting was undertaken in humans accidentally exposed to lethal doses of radiation.

From 1957 to 1966, Peter built a radiobiological laboratory in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine with additional funding from the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and the NSW Cancer Council. The laboratory’s expertise in chromosome marker techniques in mice for tracer studies in transplantation and identification of malignant changes by alterations in form and number of chromosomes carried over to early human studies in cytogenetics. He consulted for the teaching hospitals in identification of Down’s syndrome, other developmental anomalies and leukaemia until their pathology departments incuded a chromosome service. He established the NSW Radiation Biology Society and became its first Secretary. Joining its Victorian counterpart which was based at the Peter McCallum Institute, the society became known as the Australian Radiation Society. In 1962, Peter received a Rockefeller Grant to work as a Registrar at the Meyerstein Institute at Middlesex Hospital in London. On return to Australia he was appointed Honorary Radiotherapist at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and Honorary Chemotherapist (the first such appointment) at The Women’s Hospital. He was Chairman of the Management Committee for the Cancer Patients Assistance Society of New South Wales from 1966 to 1974, and was a Member of its Board of Directors from 1967.

In 1969, a Philips Fellowship enabled Peter to access the records of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (now the Radiation Effects Research Foundation) and to confer with its staff in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a result of this information, together with his background in radiobiology, Peter was called upon as an expert witness by numerous authorities to provide evidence in controversial cases in regard to claims (such as Maralinga) that radiation exposure was the cause of diseases. A large group of Australian prisoners of war was examined by chromosome analysis of lymphocytes to assess the amount of radiation exposure they had incurred through the Nagasaki atom bomb.

Peter was awarded a World Health Organization Fellowship to the Insitut de Cancérologie et d’Immunogénétique in Paris in 1971. There, he investigated the effects on immuno-suppression by various anti-cancer drugs in cancer regimens by comparing the effect on lymphocyte replicating ability of patients’ machine-separated lymphocytes with those previously stored.

In his lecturing roles at the University of Sydney, Peter taught students on the medical effects of radiation and allied chemicals with reference to biology, hazards, protection, and clinical application in therapy and diagnosis. He progressed through the academic ranks to an appointment as Associate Professor of Radiobiology in 1970, the only such academic post in Australia. He remained in this position until 1974.

In 1975, Peter moved his laboratory to the Victorian Cancer Institute, having been appointed Medical Director of the Peter McCallum Hospital and Clinics. As well as overseeing considerable expansion of the Hospital and its services and equipment, he initiated an immunogenetics and clinical immunology unit, introduced a cancer chemotherapy unit, and expanded the clinical trials program. The laboratory contributed the irradiated frozen leukaemic blast cells to the chemo-immunotherapy arm of the Australian Adult Leukaemia Trial.

In 1979, he was appointed Secretary to the Medicine Advisory Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), where an Ilbery report was presented on Donor Organ Acquisition and another on Mammography which was controversial at the time. Later he became Assistant Director-General of Health in the Commonwealth Department of Health, Canberra and Special Adviser to the NHMRC. Peter held many appointments in the field of public health, including chairing the Carcinogenic Substances (Standing) Committee and the Radiation Medicine Subcommittee and membership of the Radiation Health (Standing) Committee. He was a Member of the Safety Review Committee of the Australia Atomic Energy Commission for 10 years.

Following age retirement, Peter retrained in radiodiagnosis which had advanced considerably since his qualification in this specialty in 1958 and now included the subspecialties of mammography, ultrasound, computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. He remained in the workforce for another 15 years doing locums across New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. He had realised in the years leading up to retirement that the valued secretarial support enjoyed in publishing a string of research, clinical and administrative papers would no longer be there and set about learning word processing. Thus armed with new skills he has been able to continue contributing to journals and newspapers and most satisfyingly has published two books about his air force colleagues in the Empire Air Training Scheme. The skills also enabled him to organise memorials to those trained in the wartime Wagga flying schools who did not return from overseas and to the Australian Beaufighter strike wing in the United Kingdom.

Alumni Record

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Ilbery, Peter Leslie Thomas. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.