A tribute to Professor Derek Ashworth Denton AC

It is with deep sadness that we share news of the passing of The Florey’s founding director, Professor Derek Denton AC, at the age of 98.

Professor Denton passed away peacefully at his home at 3.20 pm on Friday 18 November, surrounded by his family.

Professor Denton was one of the world’s greatest scientific minds, a revolutionary leader in medical research and a dedicated husband to his late wife Dame Margaret Scott and father to his two sons.

Derek Denton
Professor Derek Denton

Professor Denton, or ‘Dick’ as he was known, was born in Launceston, Tasmania on 27 May 1924 and embarked on a career as a research physiologist. He was internationally acclaimed for his research into the instinctive behaviour of the human body including the response to thirst and hunger, and how we control chemical balances through genetically programmed brain mechanisms.

Through his numerous ground-breaking discoveries, many of which have saved countless lives through enhanced knowledge of how our bodies work, Professor Denton established himself as one of the most eminent Australian scientists of his time.

Through his unique insights, he pioneered with his colleagues the real-time assessment of body chemistry balance post-operatively and in trauma cases. These techniques later evolved into the process now known as intensive care.

He was recognised as a global authority on the bodily regulation of salt and water at a time when there were fierce controversies on the role of excess salt intake as a cause of high blood pressure. His research had a major influence on the cessation of added salt to foods; for example, he persuaded Heinz in Australia to stop adding salt to baby food.

Professor Denton was elected a Foreign Medical Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1974, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences in 1979, an Honorary Foreign Member at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London in 1988, a Member of the National Academy of Science (USA) in 1995, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999 and of the French Academy of Sciences in 2003.

Professor Denton was made a Fellow of Trinity College, University of Melbourne, in 2004 – the highest honour the College can bestow – for his outstanding contribution to science.

In 1960, he brought together major philanthropists to set up the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine – what is now known as ‘The Florey’.

At the time, Mr Kenneth Myer AC and Sir Ian Potter committed to raising $150,000 to assist medical research. Professor Denton was a renowned fundraiser and, soon after, attracted philanthropy from across the world to fund the work of the research institute.

Professor Denton’s unparalleled vision for what medical research should look like in Australia took enormous courage, dedication and insight. We are enormously proud and honoured to continue his legacy through the impactful work of The Florey to this day.

Professor Derek Denton AC has left a legacy of discovery and leadership that will always be remembered.

The above statement is attributable to Professor Trevor Kilpatrick, The Florey’s Director.