A tribute to Dave Kemp

1945 – 2013

Dave was an exceptional and highly respected scientist and a great friend to many of us here at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.Profile photo of David Kemp

He grew up in Adelaide and spent much of his undergraduate years at Adelaide University playing Double Bass at various jazz clubs. Fortunately, he spent enough time studying to scrape through his degree. He discovered his great love of scientific research whilst doing his PhD with Dr George Rogers at the University of Adelaide. Indeed, he published a manuscript in Nature on the organisation of feather keratin genes for which he was the only author, an amazing feat for a PhD student and an indication of his outstanding scientific talent.

Early years

The early years of Dave’s career coincided with the start of the recombinant DNA technology revolution and he spent a year at CSIRO as a research scientist with Jim Peacock (which he explained to his friends, was preparation for his time in Stanford – he didn’t want to appear a novice in that place of great science). This was followed by a two-year postdoctoral stint with renowned Drosophila geneticist David Hogness further honing these skills. He contributed to the development of northern blots to detect RNA, together with George Stark and Jim Alwine, a technique that is still used today, and their PNAS paper has had over 1800 citations.

Working at the Institute

In 1979, Dave returned to Australia and took up a position at the institute working with Jerry Adams and Suzanne Cory on the arrangement of immunoglobulin genes. A major contribution was the first cloning of linked variable region genes in the immunoglobulin heavy chain locus.

In 1980 he switched fields to parasitology and joined the Unit of Parasitology headed by Graham Mitchell. Together with Robin Anders, Dave developed a method for screening expression libraries with antibodies from the serum of infected individuals, and used this to isolate Plasmodium falciparum genes, hunting for those that might be candidates for vaccine development. In 1984, he initiated innovative studies separating malaria chromosomes using the new technology of pulse field gel electrophoresis and this provided the basis to understand the structure and arrangement of the genome and ultimately the sequencing of the genome for this human pathogen. This led to rapid development of the field and the institute quickly became a major centre, internationally renowned for its innovative research in malaria.

Dave was an outstanding molecular biologist and noted for his technological innovation with the development of a number of techniques. One example of this is inverse Polymerase Chain Reaction (iPCR), an idea that Dave conceived whilst having a shower, soon after the initial development of PCR by Kary Mullis in 1983, and he quickly developed this technique together with Tony Triglia. Dave’s technological brilliance forged a great creative relationship between his lab and the Engineering Department. Many lab gadgets were thus designed and manufactured, including the institute’s first robotic PCR machines, with dipping arms and water baths, and the huge cooling pumps and baths for the pulsed-field gels with which the malaria chromosomes were first revealed. Dave’s passion ensured that cutting-edge technologies developed in the world’s top research centres would be adopted instantly in the far outpost of Melbourne.

After the Institute

Dave was appointed Head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s Immunoparasitology Unit in 1990, a position he held until 1992 when he became Deputy Director of the Menzies School of Health in Darwin. During that year he was also appointed as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Research Scholar. He continued his world leading research in malaria genetics and also embarked on new studies attempting to alleviate the impact of diseases such as scabies on our indigenous population. Using molecular fingerprinting, he showed that the scabies mite from human and dog hosts in Ohio, Panama and Aboriginal communities in northern Australia were genetically distinct, and therefore that control programs for human scabies in endemic areas did not require resources directed against zoonotic infection from dogs. Dave played a very active role in encouraging indigenous trainees and was very proud that first indigenous graduate at the Menzies was from his lab. In 2000, he moved to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane where he headed the Malaria and Arbovirus Unit.


Dave Kemp received many distinguished awards, including the Boehringer-Mannheim Medal of the Australian Biochemical Society (1981), the Wellcome Prize for diagnostics (1992), a Centenary Medal (2003) and a Medal in the Order of Australia in the General Division (OAM) (2008) and was elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1996.

Work and play

Whilst Dave Kemp was an exceptional scientist and contributed enormously to research, his contributions are much broader. He was a wonderful mentor and central to the development of the malaria field in Australia. Many of us remember fondly Dave’s great love of science and joyful reactions when new results were revealed ‘hot off the developer’. Indeed Dave often made the comment that ‘we have a great life as we are paid to come to work and play’. That was the ethos that he brought to his research and it was infectious, making his laboratory and the Division a ‘fun’ place to work and do science. He didn’t operate a hierarchy, but lead with insight, informality, respect and humour.

Dave retained a great love of music all his life and in the different institutes he worked, including the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, he formed bands that played gigs at various work functions. At the institute he formed the ‘Tandem Repeats’ (a name that came out of the discovery at the institute that many malaria antigen genes consisted of tandem repeat sequences) and many of us remember the parties where his band had the foundations shaking with the music and dancing. He was also an avid ‘rock hound’ and loved heading out into the wilderness to camp under the stars and search for special rocks and minerals.

In 2006, Dave and his wife Katherine (now deceased), a highly committed nurse, moved to tranquil Tallangatta, Victoria, where they were very happy. They are survived by sons Andrew, Ben and Daniel and grandchildren Rachael, Jessica and Ryan.

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