Skip to main content

Equation of a life - a portrait of Professor Derek Denton
, 2016

by Evert Ploeg

oil on linen (frame: 129.5 cm x 94.5 cm depth 5.0 cm, support: 125.2 cm x 90.0 cm)

Emeritus Professor Derek Denton AC (b. 1924), was cited by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1995 as ‘the world’s leading authority on the regulation of salt and water metabolism and relevant endocrine control mechanisms’. Four months after medical graduation in 1947, he made a basic discovery on kidney function at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It was published by Nature (London). In 1949, he and Dr Victor Wynn were supported by Professor R D Wright and Sir MacFarlane Burnet, members of the National Health & Medical Research Council, to set up the Ionic Research Unit of the NHMRC in the Physiology Department at the University of Melbourne. In 1971 he became Founding Director of the Howard Florey Institute, the ‘fons et origo’ in Wright’s terms. It became one of the world’s top medical research institutes. He elucidated how genetically determined behaviours like thirst or salt appetite, are regulated by chemical and hormonal changes in the brain. He proposed basic primordial emotions of instincts e.g. thirst, hunger or sexual desire, may reflect the earliest evolutionary emergence of consciousness. He was elected one of 20 Foreign Medical Members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1974), the Australian Academy of Sciences (1979), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1986), the Royal College of Physicians, London (1988), the National Academy of Science of the US (1995), as Fellow of the Royal Society, London (1999) and the French Academy of Sciences (2003). His book, The Hunger for Salt, was described by Dr John Pappenheimer of Harvard University as ‘the best example of integrative physiology to come out of the 2nd half of the 20th century.’

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Commissioned with the assistance of funds provided by Janet Whiting AM, Philip Lukies and Antonia Syme 2016
Accession number: 2016.43.1