Obituaries: David Kemp

(b 23 July 1945, d 22 November 2013)

David James Kemp AM FAA FRS got off to a relatively inauspicious start in his science career. As a student at The University of Adelaide, he spent more time playing his beloved double bass at jazz clubs than attending to his grades. Inspiration struck during his PhD studies on keratin genes, and Kemp committed to a research career upon graduation in 1973. 

After a period as a Research Scientist at CSIRO in the Department of Plant Industry, Kemp went to Stanford University on an Eleanor Roosevelt fellowship for a two-year postdoctoral stint with renowned Drosophila geneticist Dr Dave Hogness. During this period he acquired experience in then-new recombinant DNA technology and contributed to the development of northern blots to detect RNA.

Returning to Australia in 1978, he joined the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne and carried out pioneering studies on the genetic basis of immunity with Professors Jerry Adams FAA FRS and Suzanne Cory. A year later, he switched fields to parasitology, focusing on malaria. He and Dr Robin Anders jointly developed a method for screening expression libraries with antibodies, used to isolate Plasmodium falciparum genes that were potential candidates for vaccine development. This was a major breakthrough and led to the rapid development of the field. In 1984, Kemp led ground-breaking studies separating malaria chromosomes using pulse field gel electrophoresis, providing the basis to understand the structure and arrangement of the pathogen’s genome.

Kemp was appointed Head of WEHI’s Immunoparasitology Unit in 1990, then Deputy Director of the Menzies School of Health in Darwin two years later, where he continued his world leading research in malaria genetics and embarked on new studies to alleviate the impact of diseases such as scabies. That year he was also appointed as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Research Scholar and a professor at The University of Sydney. In 2000, he moved to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane where he headed the Malaria and Arbovirus Unit.

Kemp was elected to the Academy in 1996, serving as a member of the Sectional Committee for molecular and cell biology in 1992 and from 1998–2002, and was a member of Council from 2002–2006. He received many distinguished awards in his lifetime, including the Boehringer-Mannheim Medal of the Australian Biochemical Society (1981), the Wellcome Prize (1992), a Centenary Medal (2003) and a Medal in the Order of Australia in the General Division (2008).

Kemp passed away on 22 November, 2013. He is survived by sons Andrew, Ben and Daniel and grandchildren Rachael, Jessica and Ryan.

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