Thorburn, Geoffrey Donald

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BSc Med (Hons) 1954 MB BS (Hons) 1956 MD 1972 FAA FRACP FRACOG (Hon Post)

Geoffrey Donald Thorburn was a physiologist and pioneer in the endocrinology of foetal metabolism, foetal growth and parturition. Much of our current understanding of the maturation of the foetus and the events initiating labour is derived from his pioneer studies and experiments with chronic foetal catheterisation (firstly in sheep). He was the Inaugural President of the Federation of Perinatal Societies of Asia and Oceania in 1979 and the Inaugural President of the Australian Perinatal Society in 1986.

Geoff’s contributions to our understanding of the processes of pregnancy maintenance and the onset of parturition were seminal, both conceptual and technical masterpieces. In 1969 he published a paper with John Bassett reporting the rise in concentrations of foetal plasma cortisol at term, and rising-ACTH-induced preterm labour in sheep. This was a landmark contribution that provided direct experimental evidence for activation of the foetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis at the time of parturition, as previously suggested by the pioneering studies of Mont Liggins.

Geoff continued his interest in foetal HPA function for the next 25 years, becoming particularly interested in the role that prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) of placental original could have in promoting activity of the axis. With the assistance of the surgical expertise of Ross Young, Geoff conducted the study of which he had spoken for years, but which was performed only two years before his death. He showed that, after foetal hypophysectomy and with maintenance infusion of ACTH to the foetus, birth occurred at the expected time. The ‘clock’ for birth seemed to reside in the adrenal, or more likely, in the placenta. This experiment was based on studies that Geoff had carried out during his sabbatical leave at the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research at Oxford University in the early 1970s.

He was persuaded to remain at Oxford as a member of the External Scientific Staff of the British MRC from 1973 to 1977 – a period when the Institute is fondly remembered as the ‘Camelot’ of foetal physiology research.

His laboratory was the first to report changes in plasma prostaglandin concentrations in foetal sheep in late gestation, the first to show that exogenous PGE2 increased foetal cortisol levels at a time when the adrenal responded only poorly to ACTH, the first to report steroid and PG changes in amniotic fluid of the rhesus monkey in late gestation, and the first to develop the paracrine/autocrine concept of intrauterine control of gestation length. During his time in Oxford, Geoff also became fascinated with the mechanism by which surfactant could bring about a lowering of surface tension in the lungs of the neonate – which eventually resulted in the technique of instilling ‘dry’ surfactant into the airway of premature babies to relieve respiratory distress.

Geoff returned to Australia in 1977 to take up a Chair in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Queensland, before moving to Melbourne in 1981 on his appointment as Head of Department of Physiology at Monash. Although he spent only a short time in Queensland, his laboratory became the ‘Mecca’ of foetal physiology as, subsequently, did the Department of Physiology at Monash.

Geoff held numerous NHMRC and ARC project grants and, in conjunction with the team of foetal physiologists that he had nurtured, was one of the first recipients of the then newly established NHMRC Program Grants.

During his career, Geoff trained, influenced and inspired many foetal physiologists who are now world leaders in their respective fields of research and all of whom he considered as part of his family. Many of his ideas are embodied in a definitive text on the subject, Textbook of Foetal Physiology, which he co-edited with Richard Harding.

Geoff received many honours and awards, including a Commonwealth Senior Medical Research Fellowship at Cambridge University, the Christenson Fellowship at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and the Marshall Medal of the United Kingdom’s Society for the Study of Fertility. He was a formative influence in the establishment of the Australian Perinatal Society and was appointed its inaugural President. He was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1991, and his services to perinatal physiology were recently recognised by his being named as an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to medicine and to research in the field of foetal physiology in 1995. In 1997 he was posthumously appointed to an Honorary Fellowship ad eundem of the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the first such award and one of which Geoff would have been immensely proud.

“In recognition of his long and illustrious career as a research scientist working mainly in the area of foetal physiology”, the Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand have established the annual Professor Geoffrey Thorburn Visiting Professorship. The purpose of this award “is to stimulate the development of Perinatology within Australia and New Zealand by facilitating the visit of internationally recognised experts in the respective disciplines of the Society”. Similarly the University of Queensland’s Department of Physiology has designated the G D Thorburn Prize to be awarded annually “to the best student in fourth year level Physiology”.

His legacy is not just his scientific bibliography and his many learned writings, he leaves behind his way of doing science–critical, provocative and intellectually demanding.[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Thorburn, Geoffrey Donald. 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.