Roland Thorp & foundation of the Department

Roland Thorp was selected from the applicants for the Chair, and offered the position. He arrived in Australia to take up his appointment and set up the new department in 1949. Thorp was well trained in Pharmacology. He had joined the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories in 1936 as an assistant to the Chief Pharmacologist. At that time, medicines such as digitalis leaf and insulin had to be standardised biologically so that their potencies could be worked out and accurate drug doses calculated. Thorp had worked with many distinguished pharmacologists on the development and testing of analgesic drugs, and in studies of their clinical pharmacology. He was also involved in the monitoring of pharmacological aspects of production control and biological standardisation of insulin, vitamin D and organic arsenicals. Between 1946 and 1949, Thorp had established Wellcome's biological assay laboratory at Dartford.

Thorp was a man of considerable intellectual calibre and was interested in a wide range of University issues beyond those to do with his academic discipline. His appointment was as 'Professor of Pharmacology and Director of Pharmacy'. The Pharmacy course was partly conducted by the University and partly as an apprenticeship programme. Registration as a pharmacist was contingent upon the successful completion of a University course as well as on passing examinations conducted by the Pharmacy Board. Thorp worked to upgrade the academic standing of Pharmacy and was, in large measure, responsible for the introduction of the Pharmacy degree course by the University. He also played an important role in the formation of a separate Department of Pharmacy, initially under the direction of the late Professor S.E. Wright.

At the time of Thorp's appointment, enrolment in Medicine was swelled by World War 2 ex-service personnel. There were over 450 students in fourth year, where Pharmacology lectures were given in a temporary 'fibro' theatre known as 'The Barn'. In addition, with the assistance of one Lecturer (Bruce Cobbin), Thorp had to organise the instruction of 180 Pharmacy students.

To aid the development of Pharmacology as a discipline in its own right, the subject was introduced into the Faculty of Science where it could be selected as a career subject. Since the early 1950s, a constant stream of scientists has continued to flow from the Department and some, such as Michael Rand, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Melbourne (1965-1992), have achieved international reputations. The early growth of the Department was assisted by the provision of research fellowships and scholarships by pharmaceutical companies, notably Burroughs Wellcome, Drug Houses of Australia, Nicholas Laboratories and Roche Products. The Australian Jockey Club also funded a research fellowship.

The teaching of Pharmacology as a service course was extended to the Faculties of Veterinary Science in 1953 and Dentistry in 1967. The earlier part-time teaching, part-time apprenticeship Diploma in Pharmacy was changed to a full-time degree course in 1960, since when the quality and quantity of pharmacological instruction to these students, as for students from the Faculty of Science, has exceeded that given to medical students. An important aspect of the medical course has been the opportunity for selected medical students to undertake a Bachelor of Science (Medical) degree in pre- and paraclinical subjects. The degree was introduced in 1949 and in the following year, two students enrolled in Pharmacology: Barry Firkin, who became Professor of Medicine at Monash University and William Barclay, who became NSW State Director of Psychiatric Services. They were followed by others who have also achieved professional and academic distinction, such as the late Victor Chang, who pioneered cardiac transplantation in Australia, and Stephen Leeder, who is Dean of Medicine at the University of Sydney.

The degree of Doctor of Philosophy was introduced by the University in the early 1950s. Within the Department of Pharmacology, it was awarded in 1956 to Sydney Wright and Tom Watson, (both later to become Professors in the Department of Pharmacy), to Michael Rand in 1957 (who became Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Melbourne), Anne Stafford in 1959 (who became Dean (Pharmacology) and Head of the School of Pharmaceutical Biology at the Victorian College of Pharmacy), Bruce Cobbin in 1960 and Jocelyn (Pennefather) O'Neil in 1961 and to many other distinguished scientists.

During the 1950s and 60s, many distinguished visitors from overseas were invited to contribute to the teaching in the Department, thanks to the generosity of the pharmaceutical industry. The first was Professor Frank Winton from University College, London, followed by Professors Gaddum, Robson, Keele, Vogt and Perry. These leaders in Pharmacology gave lectures to undergraduate students, seminars to teaching and research staff and postgraduate students, and advised on research projects. They also assisted our research graduates to obtain postgraduate posts to further their training in the United Kingdom.

The research activities of the Department in the 1950s and 60s included a large cardiovascular component. This commenced with studies on cardiac glycosides, defining optimum growing conditions for Digitalis species, methods of separation and analysis of component glycosides from this genus, their metabolism and diverse non-cardiac actions. A major parallel activity was the study of drug action on electrophysiological properties of cardiac muscle. Research activity received a boost in the decade from 1962 when Smith, Kline and French provided the funds to establish a Research Institute in the Department of Pharmacology. This generous support provided research positions, support staff and running costs. The major areas of activity were a study of endogenous cardiac stimulants and the pharmacology of substituted adenyl nucleosides and nucleotides on platelet aggregation and coronary haemodynamics. Changing fortunes led to the closure of the Institute in 1969. In the 1960s, the Australian Universities Commission provided funds to build the Bosch Building complex, which included extended accommodation for Pharmacology, particularly undergraduate laboratories. The Department now occupies much of the ground floor of the Blackburn Building, and part of the ground floor and all of level 2 of the Bosch IB building, but has far outgrown its office and research space as noted by a series of departmental reviews.

Owing to ill health, Thorp retired at the beginning of 1975. Associate Professor Diana Temple was appointed Head of the Department and continued in that position until a new appointment was made in 1979.