Prof Derrick Rowley

Derrick Rowley
Derrick Rowley in his office at Adelaide University Medical school at the time of his retirement from the university at age 65, 1987. 
Photo credit: Rowley family.

A distinguished academic and researcher, Derrick Rowley was Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Adelaide. For more than 28 years, Derrick was one of the most active, outspoken and productive members of the Australian community of immunologists. In 1970 Professor Derrick Rowley was instrumental in founding the Australian (now Australian and New Zealand) Society for Immunology to provide a network for discussion, information exchange and collaboration in clinical, experimental, cellular and molecular immunology in humans and animals and was elected its first President. He remained actively involved after his term as President and the Society recognized the value of his contributions by making him an Honorary Life Member. He also had a long association with the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science (renamed Immunology and Cell Biology in 1988), acting as Editor-in-Chief from 1963 till the end of 1987, when he accepted the less demanding position of Deputy Editor for some years. He served on the National Health and Medical Research Council for six years.

Together with his colleagues, he consistently pursued his interests in immunity to enteric infections and in the properties of bacteria that enable them to colonize and grow in animals, including humans. This work earned a fine reputation throughout the world. He was appointed to a number of World Health Organization (WHO) advisory positions, including that of Chairman of the WHO Committee of Diarrhoeal Disease Research. In 1965 he was appointed as the Australian representative on the Advisory Board of the Cholera Research Laboratory in Bangladesh and subsequently served as Chairman of the Scientific Program Committee of the International Centre of Diarrhoeal Diseases Research, based in Bangladesh.

Derrick was born into a working class family in Bradford, Yorkshire on 1st January 1922. His parents were committed to give him a good education and the opportunities this provided. Derrick completed a BSc Honours in Chemistry in June 1941 at the Imperial College in London and took up a research position with Petrochemicals, initially in Manchester, and then for about a year in London and Orpington. During this time Derrick completed his PhD (1945) as an external student of London University.

While in London he had the opportunity to work at the Glaxo Laboratories, where he met Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. This changed the course of Derrick's scientific life to a lifelong commitment and interest in research in biomedical science. In mid 1945 he took up a part-time research position in Fleming's laboratory in the Wright Fleming Institute at St Mary's Hospital, London, and also began studies in medicine that he completed in 1950. After a year of research in America, supported by a Harkness Fellowship, Derrick returned to the Wright Fleming Institute in London and was soon appointed head of the Department of Bacterial Chemistry. He established a strong, active group of 10 people, including support staff, working on the pathogenesis of enteric infections and the recently described phenomenon of nonspecific immunity.

Derrick and family arrived in Adelaide at the beginning of 1960 to take up the newly established Chair of Microbiology at the University of Adelaide, a position he held until retirement at the beginning of 1988. Many postgraduate research students and post-doctoral researchers came to the department, attracted by the expanding range of research interests and quality of the staff Derrick appointed soon after he arrived. Under his enthusiastic leadership the department increased in size more than 8-fold and changed its name to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, to reflect its broader range of interests.

Derrick was known for his quiet, authoritative style, which was somewhat daunting to undergraduate students and those who did not know him well. Those who knew him respected and admired him and appreciated his integrity, decisiveness and generous response to requests for help and advice, particularly from postgraduate students seeking to develop careers in research. Colleagues and former students remember him as approachable and fair, with a broad range of interests and a great enthusiasm for research and life in general. To be successful, he believed, one had to enjoy both work and play and he practiced what he preached, setting a great example for others. Derrick's greatest supporter in all his professional work and extracurricular interests throughout his adult life was his wife Betty.

An extremely hard worker, he was quick decisive and authoritative and had an innate ability to identify the central issues in complex scientific discussions. He was a leader and a mentor who insisted on compassion and respect for individuals and always dealt with life's challenges in an open, honest and evenhanded way. Derrick believed that science, which he loved, had given him career and travel opportunities he might otherwise have not had. He had a large circle of friends who valued his dry humour and well reasoned views on a wide range of issues. Derrick continued to use his expertise in various ways after he retired. He served as the Chairman of Council of the Child Health Research Institute (1988-1992), worked as a half-time Research Director of Enterovax Research Pty Ltd (1988-1989) and as Research Director and Research Adviser at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for a further five years. He also worked as a consultant and joined a small group responsible for recommending how the primary health care services for Tibetans living in India might be improved and as an advisor to a project funded by AUSAID to establish a data collection system for medical problems of Tibetans in India. In 1993 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia, in recognition of his contributions to immunology.

Derrick also continued to enjoy spending time with his friends and ex-colleagues and to travel, with itineraries planned to provide plenty of opportunities for walking, a hobby he enjoyed greatly for most of his life.

In early 2003 he learnt that he had mesothelioma and faced that challenge with the courage he had shown throughout his life. He died on 6 September 2004 and is survived by his wife, two daughters, a son and their families. Another legacy he was proud of is the large number of staff and students whom he encouraged, advised and mentored and who have made a success of their careers in biomedical and health science. He will be missed by all of them.

Author Acknowledgement: With much gratitude to Professor Ieva Kotlarski from the School of Molecular and Biomedical Science at the University of Adelaide, who was Derrick Rowley's first PhD student in Adelaide and work colleague for nearly 25 years.

The ASI Rowley Medal

The ASI Rowley Medal awards individuals for outstanding service to ASI and the discipline of immunology.
Click here to view our former ASI Derrick Rowley Medal recipients. 

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