Wilfred John Simmonds 1918-1990

Written by T.G. Redgrave.


The death after a brief illness of Wilfred John Simmonds on 29 March 1990 marked the end of an important contributor to Australian medical science. As the foundation professor of physiology in the newly established medical school at the University of Western Australia, Simmonds played key roles in the development of the school. He will be remembered for his unbending commitment to scientific enquiry by experiment. Simmonds placed great value on the experimental approach and had no patience with armchair theorists or for unwarranted extrapolations.

Simmonds was born in Queensland on 29 November 1918 to Dorothy Graham née Dawson and John Lloyd Simmonds, who was a graduate in medicine from the University of Melbourne and who practised in Crow's Nest, Queensland, and in Brisbane. There was a younger brother, Graham Lloyd, who became a dental practitioner. Simmonds' education began in Victoria and continued in Queensland where his family shifted when he was aged nine. His secondary education was at Ipswich Grammar School and he matriculated with scholarships to the University of Queensland. Too young at first to proceed in Medicine because dissection was not permitted until aged eighteen, Simmonds' first two years were in the Faculty of Science from which he graduated with honours in physiology in 1940. He then continued in Medicine, graduating MB, BS in 1942.

'Wilf entered the Physiology I class (Med II) in 1937, the first full year of its existence', writes Professor Douglas H.K. Lee.

It was clear from the start that he was a very bright student, a judgement that future events fully justified. He quickly took a lead in discussion, both academic and clinical. As a brand new and young professor I was delighted to have students show initiative; I 'took a shine' to Wilf that he continued to justify! Wilf participated in the departmental research activities that naturally centred on war work. I remember his developing an attack of bronchitis after being cooled off in a ventilated protective suit. Wilf's brilliance enabled me to conclude an arrangement with the Faculty of Science for selected medical students to take a year off after their third year, to pursue a science program and be awarded a Bachelor of Science degree.

With some changes this ad hoc arrangement ushered in the present provision for such students to receive a Bachelor of Medical Science.

During his undergraduate years, Simmonds was also working as a demonstrator in physiology in Professor Lee's department. In 1942 he graduated in Medicine with a brilliant record. He was a part-time lecturer in physiology while studying Medicine. Professor Malcolm Whyte, whom Simmonds preceded by a couple of years, first at Ipswich Grammar School, then through studies in medicine at the University of Queensland then on to Oxford and finally back to the Kanematsu Institute, recalls of Simmonds: 'An ardent hard worker, of course; a cricketer; a member of the 'knitters and sitters' group who lived upstairs in the old King's College building at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane', and also that he would be most depressed after his examinations, aware of what he had omitted, but then coming up with his usual string of excellent passes.

From 1942-1946 Simmonds served as Flight Lieutenant in the RAAF Medical Services, including a spell as squadron medical officer in Dutch New Guinea. He was a member of the RAAF No. 1 Flying Personnel Research Unit. During this period he was involved in studies of the physiological responses to centrifugal forces and to high altitude. His wartime experiences brought him into contact with soldiers and civilians who had suffered hardship and brutality. He developed a lasting admiration for the people of Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, and in later life he did what he could to support their educational and scientific programmes.

In December 1946 Simmonds married Natalie Baker, the daughter of a medical practitioner who worked in general practice in the Berri-Renmark districts in South Australia and later in Townsville and Maryborough in Queensland. For a brief time Simmonds returned to the University of Queensland as lecturer in pathology, but then he was awarded a Nuffield Dominions Fellowship to undertake medical research in England. This gave him the opportunity to embark on an academic career in the basic medical sciences, an opportunity he welcomed for he had a creative and enquiring mind and was soon to enjoy the world of experimental physiology.

Experimental science

Oxford, 1947-1950

Simmonds' Nuffield Fellowship took him to England early in 1947. 'I well remember his arrival in Oxford', writes Professor F.C. Courtice.

Wilf had written to me earlier, seemingly somewhat concerned that I would not be able to recognize him on the Oxford railway station. When the train from London pulled in on that freezing January day, vast numbers of pale-faced commuters, wearing their pork-pie or bowler hats and carrying their briefcases, poured on to the platform. For a while I could not see anyone who remotely resembled a Queenslander – but then at the far end of the platform there emerged from a carriage door an attractive young lady. She was followed by a sunburnt young man struggling with several large suitcases and wearing an enormous hat that only Queenslanders wear and the likes of which I am sure had never before that day been seen in Oxford. I made a beeline for that part of the platform, for it did not need a Sherlock Holmes to tell me that this was my man. 'Pardon me', I said 'but might you be Dr and Mrs Simmonds?' With a chuckle, Wilf replied 'Yes, and you must be Dr Courtice, but how on earth did you pick us out in this crowd?' I was at that time too polite to ask him whether he wore that hat because he was afraid that I would not recognize him or because he was afraid of the January sun in Oxford! But that encounter was the beginning of a very close friendship that lasted until his death forty-three years later.

Simmonds began his research career in the old Physiology Laboratory at Oxford, steeped in tradition. Actually he worked in the very same laboratories in which J.S. Haldane and J.G. Priestley had carried out their classical experiments in respiration at the turn of the century. He was granted what in Oxford is called 'advanced student status' enabling him to enrol for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy with F.C. Courtice as his supervisor. The Second World War had only recently ended, a war in which medical research had played a very important role. One of the major medical advances was the development of blood transfusion services and the use of blood products, especially serum and plasma, in the treatment of injury and traumatic shock, so prevalent in both civilian and military spheres during the war. Much attention had been focused on the plasma proteins or macromolecules that escaped from the blood vessels and accumulated in the injured tissues. The evidence at that time suggested that these proteins could be returned to the circulation only by the lymphatic vessels. It was therefore important to study the capacity of the lymphatics to remove the proteins in oedema fluid and so to restore the tissue to its normal state.

Simmonds investigated the removal of protein-rich fluid from the lungs and from the pleural cavities. The technique of labelling protein with a radioactive marker had not yet become standard procedure, so Simmonds used a blue dye that formed a very tight bond with plasma albumin. His experiments showed that whereas labelled protein is absorbed from the alveolar sacs of the lungs fairly slowly in anaesthetised animals it is removed much more quickly when the animal is allowed to recover from initial anaesthesia and move about normally. Lung movement, therefore, seemed to have a profound effect on the lymphatic absorption of protein-rich oedema fluid from the lungs.

His experiments concerning absorption from the pleural cavities showed that dye-labelled protein was removed entirely, or almost so, by way of the lymphatic vessels, that this removal was very much more rapid than previously thought, and that respiratory movement had a considerable effect on the rate of removal. In Simmonds' words, writing of his time in Oxford:

It goes without saying that the intellectual climate was bracing. If any one event were to be selected for its formative effect it would be the experience of defending one's thesis orally before two scientists of the calibre of Howard Florey and G.R. Cameron. One learnt a life-long lesson about the quality of ideas from such a session.

In addition to his research work, Simmonds was appointed a departmental demonstrator by Professor E.G.T. Liddell, enabling him to play an active role in teaching in the practical classes of the Human Physiology Section of the Final Honours School of Physiology. He was a good teacher and enjoyed the contact with students, many of whom had served, like himself, in the military during the war and were now beginning the study of medicine at a more mature age. Not only were they mature in years but also in experience in life. There were about seventy students in the Final Honours School, and they were taken in small groups in the practical classes so that there was a close rapport between teacher and student. This was teaching at its best, an experience that Simmonds found of immense value when at a later stage in his life he was responsible for the teaching of physiology at the University of Western Australia. Both Simmonds and his wife Natalie became close friends of Professor and Mrs Liddell whom they had the pleasure of entertaining in Perth when the Liddells visited Australia in the 1960s.

Kanematsu Memorial Institute, 1950-1957

After three years in the Physiology Laboratory at Oxford, Simmonds returned to Australia to take up the position of Senior Research Assistant in the Kanematsu Institute. Here at first he continued his investigations into the role of the lymphatic vessels in removing protein-rich fluids from various tissues. Of these years Dr Bob Finlay-Jones recalls:

I met Wilf forty years ago when I was a pathology registrar at Sydney Hospital and he joined the research team at the Kanematsu Institute. The Institute is not a big building and in addition to the research laboratories and the four clinical pathology laboratories it housed the mortuary, animal house and hospital library. Space was at a premium. Wilf was accommodated by closing off one of the corridors linking the Institute with the main hospital. His desk and filing cabinets were deposited in this draughty, and in winter, bleak spot. We called it 'Siberia'. When asked how he was faring Wilf, in his usual imperturbable fashion, replied: 'The best work is carried out in freezing garrets. Another winter like this and the Nobel prize is a certainty'.

Simmonds turned his attention to the subarachnoid space of the brain, a tissue in which there are no lymphatics. He again used a blue dye to label the protein and showed that considerable amounts of protein were absorbed directly into the bloodstream, presumably through the arachnoidal granulations, compared with the relatively small amounts that entered the cervical lymphatics by way of the cribriform plate and the nasal mucous membrane. Blood cells were also cleared from the subarachnoid space by the same routes but at a slower rate. By labelling the red cells with radioactive phosphate, it was confirmed that the cervical lymphatics were but a minor route of absorption, the major route presumably being by way of the subarachnoid granulations directly into the venous sinuses. In addition to this work Simmonds joined other members of the Institute in tackling broadly related problems.

Professor Paul Korner recalls:

As the senior scientist next to Colin Courtice, Wilf was called upon to maintain good order and discipline in the laboratory, which included a rather wild group of very junior research fellows: myself, Ian Darian-Smith, Bede Morris and Bernard Lake. With the retrospectroscope, Wilf had quite a few crosses to bear at that time and managed to do it with a lot of grace. Space at the Kanematsu was measured, not in rooms, but in feet of bench space and the new arrivals greatly encroached on Wilf's space, but he treated them most generously.

By now Simmonds had made significant contributions to knowledge of the absorption of protein-rich fluids and blood from the lungs, serous cavities and subarachnoid space and to understanding of the resolution of oedema or haemorrhage in these regions of the body. He wrote widely acclaimed reviews of his work in relation to existing knowledge, namely, (i) ' The subarachnoid space: Some experimental approaches to its pathology' and (ii) 'The physiological significance of the lymph drainage of the serous cavities and lungs'.

There was a practical side to the research. Writes Dr Bob Finlay-Jones:

The trainee pathologists dubbed their research colleagues, because of their consuming interest, the 'lymphomaniacs'. As a result of an explosion and fire on a naval vessel in Sydney Harbour (HMAS Tarakan), many shockingly burnt sailors were admitted to Sydney Hospital. Some died quickly. With the survivors it was a problem to obtain blood by venepuncture to get haematocrit readings to assess the level of haemoconcentration. Most of them had severe burns to the upper limbs. Colin Courtice and his colleagues prepared glass capillary tubes lined by anticoagulant, and vigorous needle pricks in an area of unburnt skin yielded enough blood for a satisfactory column of blood which was then aligned vertically on a dob of plasticine. It did the trick.

In the early 1950s there was considerable activity in the Kanematsu Institute relating to the function of the lymphatic system. Some were turning their attention to studies of the lipoproteins and their possible implication in the aetiology of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. Internationally, the concept of lipoproteins had emerged and methods for their separation by electrophoresis and by ultracentrifugation had been devised. Soon the whole question of lipid metabolism became a very active topic of investigation. Of considerable importance in this field of endeavour was the lymphatic flow from the intestines for it was via the lymph that fat was absorbed from the gut, mainly in the form of chylomicrons. Some of Simmonds' colleagues were studying the interrelationships between the lipoproteins in the plasma and in lymph, while he turned his attention to studies of the lymphatic absorption from the intestines in conscious rats with thoracic ducts drained by delicate plastic tubes. The advent of plastic tubes to replace glass cannulas for the collection of lymph made possible the production of a lymph fistula from which lymph would drain for long periods of time – days or even weeks – in conscious animals. Simmonds perfected this technique which revolutionized the study of fat absorption from the intestines. He made several detailed studies of the thoracic duct lymph flow after the introduction of fluid, electrolyte and various foodstuffs into the stomach. Fluid was absorbed rapidly causing a shortlived increase in lymph flow, whereas the prolonged increase associated with the absorption of fats was of vascular origin, probably humorally mediated. The results of other experiments on lymph transport of fat following the ingestion of olive oil (a triacylglycerol) or oleic acid (a fatty acid) refuted the 'Partition Hypothesis' of fat absorption which was then in vogue. Simmonds then made a detailed analysis of the various factors, such as anaesthesia and gut motility, that might affect lymph flow after a fat meal.

'In those years, 1947-1957, during which we were closely associated in the laboratory', writes Professor F.C. Courtice,

Simmonds was a most dedicated and meticulous research worker, carefully checking every detail of an experiment. He was ever alert to the possibility that something might have gone wrong for which he had not accounted. With regards to his own experiments he was perhaps at times too ardent a proponent of Murphy's Law – 'If something can possibly go wrong it will' – which made him always doubly careful concerning the accuracy of his results and of the interpretation that he placed upon them. By the middle 1950s he had established his own area of investigation into absorption from the gastro-intestinal tract and it was this field of research that he pursued when he left the Kanematsu Institute to occupy the Foundation Chair of Physiology in the newly established medical school in the University of Western Australia.

The University of Western Australia, 1957-1990

(i) Steady state fat absorption

In 1957, when thirty-eight years old, Simmonds was appointed to the University of Western Australia as its inaugural professor of physiology. He was one of nine professors who planned and developed the new Medical School initiated by public subscription from the people of Western Australia. He was head of the Department of Physiology until his retirement in 1983.

Dr Bob Collin was a member of Simmonds' new department. He writes:

At the end of 1956 Wilf braved the unsealed road across the Nullarbor to bring his wife and two young and car-sick children to Perth. There were further tribulations. A university friend invited the family to Christmas dinner soon after their arrival but on Christmas eve the host family went down with the mumps. The final straw was that the welcoming turkey would not fit in the professorial oven in the university house in Arras Street. This was a testing preparation for setting up physiological laboratories in a hut previously used to house Air Force personnel for the flying-boat base in Matilda Bay. It was at about this time that Wilf plotted with his son Ralph to build a 'moon rocket' which disappeared into the night and reappeared on a following night back from the moon. The children of the street were enthralled.

Simmonds, Collin, and the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Stanley Prescott, had all served in the RAAF No.1 Flying Personnel Research Unit in Melbourne, along with physiologists Archie McIntyre and R.D. ('Pansy') Wright. The foundation professor of biochemistry, Joe Lugg, had been working in an adjacent department in Melbourne but knew Simmonds only by sight. The inaugural professor of anatomy, David Sinclair, as a British officer had been with a military research unit in Queensland testing the effects of mustard gas under various conditions and he also had visited the Melbourne research group during the war. Some of these threads would be useful as Simmonds strove to develop his new department. Prescott before the war was professor of physiology at the Cheeloo University Medical School. Prescott, Simmonds wrote, 'when later Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, provided the friendship, encouragement, support and freedom needed to build up Physiology as a research discipline in the new Faculty of Medicine'.

Simmonds continued his research on fat absorption and transport by lymphatics, now addressing the questions of the absorptive capacity of the rat intestine, absorption by different parts of the small intestine and absorption in rats with bile- and pancreatic-fistulae. A distinctive approach was evolved, using observations during steady state absorption in unanaesthetized rats. Instead of feeding fat as a bolus, fat was delivered into the intestine or into the stomach by a steady slow injection as an emulsion in water or as an oil. The concept of the steady state was of great assistance in the experimental resolution of questions relating to fat absorption. Combined with brilliant experimental surgery on the rat intestine, this new technique was applied to show that the intrinsic absorptive capacity was the same for lower small intestine as for upper small intestine, provided that sufficient time was allowed for adaptation after surgical resection. Related experiments explored the relationships between fat transport and intestinal motility.

Before establishment of the Department, when N.D. Crosby had the appointment of Reader in Physiology, postgraduate students had come from various other backgrounds, but now Simmonds was beginning to attract new students into the Physiology Department. Reg Morgan was a recent graduate in medicine who decided to undertake studies for the PhD under his supervision. Bile had an unquestioned role in fat absorption insofar as events in the gut lumen were concerned, but there was uncertainty about possible effects of bile on the resynthesis of fats in intestinal mucosal cells. Metabolic handling of absorbed fat by intestinal mucosa was shown to be normal in bile-fistula animals provided that sufficient time was allowed for postoperative recovery. Slower transit of contents through distal small intestine gave more time for fatty acid absorption which partly counterbalanced a slower rate of uptake.

The breadth of Simmonds' interest allowed him to undertake the supervision of projects in other scientific areas, essential for the balanced academic development of his department. While this was never a major research interest of his, Simmonds supervised Malcolm Sparrow for his PhD in the area of smooth muscle physiology. Sparrow and Reginald Morgan both went on to develop their own research careers and to become in time most valued members of the Physiology Department.

It was now that my own scientific relationship with Simmonds began. I had recently graduated in medicine and decided to turn to Physiology to do some basic research in a field where my curiosity had been aroused during clinical training. My initial intention was to become a surgeon, but as I became embroiled in my project under Simmonds' supervision that ambition receded. We used a drug to inhibit mitosis of intestinal cells in the crypts of the mucosa. With the appropriate dose the rats survived this insult, and after a few days a new crop of cells migrated up from the crypts in a synchronized fashion. We used this technique to show that the epithelial cells in rat small intestine acquire the capability for fat absorption when they are about 24 hours old, at about the time they migrate from the crypts on to the sides of the villi, and that they retain their capacity until they are shed from the villus tip, when they are about 38 hours old. I shared a laboratory with another medical graduate under Simmonds' supervision, John Masarei, who investigated the effects of diversion of pancreatic secretions on the absorption of fat. Simmonds and his students had lymph dripping all around the department, and facilities were now greatly improved by a shift to a new building.

During my studies the laboratory was visited under the Colombo Plan scheme by Dr Binode Shrivastava. We collaborated to show that fatty acids absorbed from biliary phospholipids in the intestinal lumen were the major source of the endogenous fat found in the lymph of fasted rats. This 'enterohepatic' circulation of biliary lipids had not previously been known.

(ii) The physics of fat absorption

Simmonds took sabbatical leave in 1965. He travelled to the USA as the recipient of a Fulbright Senior Award. He worked as a Guest Investigator in Professor E.H. Ahrens' group at the Rockefeller University Hospital, along with John Davignon, Scott Grundy and especially Alan Hofmann. This was the first of many visits by Simmonds to the USA. Professor Douglas Lee writes:

My first meeting with Wilf after I went to the U.S. was when he arrived in Washington, late in the afternoon, as a Fulbright Scholar. In 1965 the Daughters of the American Revolution were still something of a social force, and their annual convention had left not a bed available in central Washington. But Wilf, Natalie and the two children were alright, weren't they? The Embassy had arranged accommodation! Unfortunately the hotel of their choice had changed hands and scrubbed its books. So...! My hotel room would not even hold four people standing up, let alone sleeping. After a lot of telephoning and hassling, against a background of polyglot outrage at similar abandonment, we managed to find a vacancy in a veritable fleabag. After sharp words with the Embassy the next morning better accommodation was found, but it had been a memorable welcome to the United States.

Professor Alan Hofmann recalls a particular incident from Simmonds' productive sabbatical: 'We worked together extremely closely. I remember vividly a night during the great blackout in New York City when we wrote a paper, or the early drafts of a paper, by candlelight on the stairs of the hospital of the Rockefeller University.' Simmonds and Hofmann became close friends and scientific collaborators. Simmonds spent two subsequent sabbaticals with Hofmann's group in 1972 at the Mayo Clinic and in 1979 at La Jolla in the University of California, San Diego. Simmonds was delighted when Hofmann reciprocated a visit to Perth for an extended period. Hofmann writes further:

Wilf was always a charming and disarming enigma to me. It was clear that he had extremely high scientific standards, and hated any kind of pomp or arrogance in science. At the same time, he hid his keen, critical judgement values in an almost pathological modesty, such that it was difficult to know whether he was being truthful or ironic. He liked to work directly at the bench even though in later years his hand began to tremble a bit and cigarette breaks became more frequent. He liked to speak with a very soft voice, yet at the same time he wanted everyone to listen. His lectures were planned in great detail and were masterful. He constantly sought the understatement. He got far too little credit for his work on fat absorption, which was really cleaner by far than anyone else's. He never tooted his horn; and because he was not visible in the scientific arena, he never was appreciated widely at an international level by either gastroenterologists or physiologists.

In this period of his research Simmonds made significant contributions towards clarifying basic problems of fat absorption such as the role of solubilization in uptake of lipid by the mucosa, the functions of biliary phospholipid, and the roles within the lumen and mucosal cells of bile salts in connection with cholesterol absorption. He showed the feasibility of the measurement of bile acids at their low concentrations in plasma by immunological techniques, providing an important bridge between basic and clinical studies of bile acid physiology. International recognition of his work is indicated by invitations to speak at overseas meetings and to publish reviews of the field. In 1968 he was a guest symposium speaker at the 25th International Congress of Physiological Science at Munich. In 1972 he was an invited speaker in the USA at the Gordon Research Conference on Lipids, and in 1975 in Germany at the International Conference on Lipids at Titisee.

Distinctive approaches characterized the most productive phases of Simmonds' research. In the first phase his use of a steady-state absorption model to characterize mucosal and lymphatic transport under a variety of conditions was of great value in interpreting clearly the effects of experimental variables. In later work Simmonds directed his attention to the physical aspects of fat digestion and absorption. With Neville Hoffman and Shirley Watt, lipid and detergent mixtures were used to study absorption in different types of experimental preparations. These studies both in vivo and in vitro were of great value in establishing the advantages and limitations of the preparations as models for absorptive mechanisms. Many of the results relating to the physical aspects of absorption are brought together in his review of this field. The concept developed that lipid uptake from the lumen is limited by diffusion across an unstirred aqueous layer and that this step is limited by micellar solubilization. Penetration of the absorptive cell membrane, on the other hand, involves lipid as single molecules. The natural detergents, bile acids, function only as micellar stabilizers so far as the products of triglyceride digestion are concerned, and other detergents can substitute. Previous workers had suggested a specific requirement for trihydroxy bile acids in cholesterol absorption. Simmonds' experiments separated this requirement into an effect on uptake from the lumen requiring a planar detergent but not necessarily trihydroxy bile acids and an effect on mucosal esterification of cholesterol which was mediated more efficiently, but not solely, by trihydroxy bile acids.

(iii) Phospholipids and fat absorption

Simmonds next focused on biliary phospholipids and chylomicron production during fat absorption. There were speculations that biliary phospholipid absorbed from the lumen supported enhanced phospholipid synthesis during chylomicron formation. His results with Patrick Tso suggested that absorbed lysolecithin was necessary during rapid production of chylomicrons but not for low rates of production. The palmitate-rich lecithin found in bile was not specifically required since dioleoyl lecithin was an effective substitute. Choline was only partially effective. These findings together with analyses of fatty acid composition of chylomicron lecithin indicated that much of the absorbed lysolecithin was directly acylated to lecithin and incorporated into chylomicrons, supplementing lecithin synthesis by the alpha-glycero-phosphate pathway.

'Wilf was the most meticulous scientist that I ever worked with', writes Professor Patrick Tso.

I will never forget one experience John Balint (Albany Medical College) and I had with Wilf. We had studied lipid absorption in rats using radiolabelled glycerol trioleate. We felt that we had the answer we were looking for and were quite happy to stop at that. This was not good enough for Wilf. He insisted that we also measure esterified fatty acid output to support our conclusion from the radioactivity data.

(iv) Post-retirement

After his retirement in 1983, Simmonds became an Honorary Research Fellow in his former Department. When I took up the Chair in 1985 he was eager to get back to the bench. The laboratory was well equipped for my type of research, but for the first six months I had no funds for research and no students so we could do little except write a few grant applications. We soon had lymph dripping again and Simmonds was delighted. My interests had shifted away from the intestine to problems of chylomicron clearance from the blood, but Wilf and I shared enough common interests to quickly generate a few research ideas.

When the grants came in, we could begin in earnest. Although Simmonds' expertise was in fat digestion and absorption of fat by the intestine, the physiology of lymph and the functions of bile salts, he now adapted to the new challenges of my own particular brand of research. Obliged to come to grips with new techniques and unfamiliar scientific instruments, he drew the line at computers. His scepticism was justified to an extent. He saw the power of computers as an impediment to the appreciation by students of the 'nuts and bolts' of science, and insisted on always checking with a pencil and paper the computer's proclamations. He took delight in discovering flaws in the output so readily accepted by most. His experimental skills were a great asset as we worked out the effects of specific fat structures on the clearance from plasma of emulsion models of chylomicrons.

Teaching and other activities


Setting up a new medical school in an isolated and essentially anti-intellectual community was a challenge. Paucity of imagination was not confined to the 'town', although perhaps it never will be. Simmonds and Sinclair, together with Ivan Oliver in Biochemistry, introduced new ideas for the undergraduate medical curriculum, all of which were subsequently abandoned. I was a member of the first intake of students. Simmonds' lectures stood out as models of simplicity and organization. Of these years Professor Sinclair writes of him:

In committees he did not say much, but when he said it the committee was always brought back to reality, sometimes with a bump. I think he had an unlimited supply of that rare human quality, common-sense, and this is something that is sadly lacking amongst academics. I wish I had been taught physiology by Wilf as a student, for indeed I was taught it by him long after I had passed that stage. During the planning stage of the medical school Wilf was by far the most 'sensible' of the protagonists, with a clear eye to what was practicable and what was not.

The students who benefited from Simmonds' nurturing and guidance include a generation of Perth's medical graduates and numerous scientists world-wide. Professor Patrick Tso was his last PhD student. He recalls: 'Training under him was comprised of two parts: first the knowledge and then independence. He supervised me closely during the first one and a half years. I was then challenged to design my own experiments and also to interpret the data from these experiments.'

In addition to his duties at the University of Western Australia, in 1957 Simmonds was an external examiner in Australian, New Zealand and Malaysian universities. In 1957 and 1961 he was a Colombo Plan Lecturer for the Australasian College of Surgeons Course in Singapore, and from 1961 to 1971 he was a member of the examiners' panel for basic sciences for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in Melbourne, Sydney, Dunedin, Singapore and Hong Kong. From 1966 to 1976 he was an examiner in basic sciences for the Australian College of Dental Surgeons. In 1970 he was appointed to the planning committee for the establishment of Murdoch University, the second university in Western Australia.

Other activities

Simmonds found time from his teaching and administrative duties to give service to numerous professional and community organizations. He was a foundation councillor and from 1983 to 1985 president of the Australian Physiological and Pharmacological Society. He served as dean of the Faculty of Medicine, 1974-1976, as chairman of the University of Western Australia's Academic (Professorial) Board, 1981-1982, and as chairman of the medical and scientific advisory committee of the TVW Telethon Foundation, 1983-1986. In 1984 he was made an Honorary Life Member of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia. He served in various ways the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the Tobacco Research Foundation Scientific Advisory Committee, the National Health and Medical Research Council Medical Advisory Committee (1960-67 and 1976-78), the National Heart Foundation Research Advisory Committee (1967-73) and the Australian Research Grants Committee (1976-78). He was a member of the council of the Australian Academy of Science 1986-1989, and vice-president in 1988-89. He was a member of the Physiological Society of Great Britain, the Australian Society for Medical Research, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and president of the Western Australian branch of the Oxford Society.

Honours and Awards

Simmonds was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1982. Further recognition of his contributions to original research in science and medicine included election as Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1969 and an honorary doctorate in Science from the University of Western Australia in 1986.


Simmonds was held in high esteem by his peers. At the symposium organized to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Medical School in Perth, Simmonds was chosen to open the proceedings. On numerous occasions when his former students were overseas, doors were opened when it was learned that they had trained with Wilf Simmonds. He always took a friendly and supportive interest in the lives of his former students. A comment by Professor Ian Darian-Smith is illustrative: 'As his first graduate student I was brash and arrogant. Yet he did a great deal to ensure that I had every opportunity to learn and work hard at the Kanematsu, even when it must have been both inconvenient and uncomfortable for him personally. I always viewed Wilf with affection and respect, as did all those who knew him well and worked with him.'

During his career Simmonds played an active role in many spheres for the advancement of the medical sciences in Australia, but his main love remained until the end his experiments at the bench. He ardently applied Socratic discipline to science, and many established researchers, including myself, benefited from and were sometimes discomfited by his penetrating questions. After retiring from his Chair, Simmonds continued within the Department of Physiology as Honorary Research Fellow, assisting me in setting up my laboratory, in supervising new students and training new staff.

'Soon after Wilf went to Western Australia, I moved to the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in Canberra', writes Professor F.C. Courtice.

Whenever he came to the East for a meeting he would find an excuse to spend the night at my home mainly to enjoy dinner with my wife and myself. His favourite dinner was a medium to rare grilled steak and a bottle of the best claret that I could produce, followed by a glass or two of port. After dinner we would sit for hours, in the winter in front of a blazing log fire, discussing all manner of things but inevitably he would get around to the latest experiments that he was proposing to undertake. They were very happy hours for both of us. I last saw Wilf about a year before his death. On a visit to the East he came to see my wife and myself in our home in one of the northern suburbs of Sydney. We sat in the garden and had morning coffee together. Although he was now 70, he still had that young, boyish look with his attractive chuckle as he told me what he intended to do when he went to the United States later in the year to work in the laboratory of one of his old pupils.

He spent those three months working in the laboratory of Professor Patrick Tso, his former student who is now a professor of physiology at Louisiana State University who writes: 'I am so glad that he came and spent three months working in my laboratory shortly before his death. He enjoyed working with Reneau, an incredibly bright and able technician. They were working on a procedure to isolate fat-laden enterocytes from the small intestine. They worked extremely hard on the problem and seemed to have the procedure worked out.' Shortly after his return to Perth, Simmonds became ill, and he died on 29 March 1990.

Simmonds was kind, generous and good spirited. All who knew him will acknowledge him as mentor and friend. He was a keen athlete and a skilled tennis player. When I began my doctoral studies in 1963 Wilf had his arm in a plaster cast because of a fracture sustained in a cricket match against the students, and a few weeks later it was my nervous task to remove the cast without too much of the professorial skin. Evan Morgan, the holder of a personal chair in the Physiology Department, recalls that he was responsible for another assault on Simmonds' skeleton, when his forearm was fractured during a hotly contested game of squash.

Professor Ramsay Gunton was a contemporary of Simmonds at Oxford. Now Professor of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario, he recalls:

Both Wilf and I had occasion to use carbon monoxide in our early work. Indeed, his first publication with Courtice was on that subject. Those were the days when red cell mass was determined by carbon monoxide, and cardiac output by acetylene! Courtice was a protege of C.G. Douglas who, although then retired, used to come into the laboratory from time to time and see us using the Douglas bag, Douglas valves, and of course the Haldane apparatus for determination of oxygen content of blood. We felt some vicarious pride in this arm length relationship to Douglas and his mentor the great British respiratory physiologist J.S. Haldane.

Professor Gunton concludes: 'I found Wilf to be meticulous, honest, and generous. I can quite understand the comments relating to his bibliography in which it is pointed out that his name did not appear on quite a bit of the work which originated in his department or as a result of his initiatives as a visiting scientist. Those characteristics of deference, generosity, and meticulous scientific honesty were apparent in the young man I knew only briefly forty-two years ago.'

His family

Deepest sympathies are extended to Natalie, Ralph and Carolyn. Wilf never dwelt on his achievements nor on those of his family, but his pleasure was obvious when his daughter Carolyn began to write under her own by-line in The Australian newspaper, and when his son Ralph was appointed in 1989 to the foundation Chair of Law at Murdoch University.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.8, no.4, 1991. It was written by T.G. Redgrave, Professor of Physiology at the University of Western Australia.


The kind assistance of Professor F.C. Courtice in the preparation of this biography is particularly appreciated. I also acknowledge the thoughtful comments of Mrs Natalie Simmonds, Professor David Sinclair, Dr Robert Collin, Professor Ian Darian-Smith, Professor J.W.H. Lugg, Dr L.R. Finlay-Jones, Professor Paul Korner, Professor A.F. Hofmann, Professor Patrick Tso, Professor A.K. McIntyre, Professor Malcolm Whyte, Professor D.H.K. Lee, Professor E.H. Morgan and Professor R.W. Gunton. Some background material was obtained from the following publications:

  • Collin, R., 'Physiology in Western Australia', pp. 749-754 in Research in Physiology, ed. F.F. Kao, K. Koizumi and M. Vassalle (Bologna, 1971).
  • Courtice, F.C., 'The Kanematsu Memorial Institute of Pathology: The Inglis Era, 1933-1960', Historical Records of Australian Science, 6 (1985), 115-136.
  • Sinclair, D., Not a Proper Doctor (Cambridge, 1989).
  • Stanley, N.F., ed., The First Quarter Century (1957-1982) (Perth, 1982).

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