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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Törk, Istvan (1939–1992)

by Charles Watson

This article was published online in 2016

Istvan Joseph Törk (1939–1992), professor of anatomy, was born on 14 February 1939 in Budapest, son of Zoltan Törk, financial director and planner of a large agricultural estate, and his wife Irene Teresia, née Jakabffy. Entering the Budapest (Semmelweis) University of Medicine in 1957, Istvan was awarded the degree of doctor of medicine ‘Summa cum Laude’ (Azmitia 1993, 149) in 1963. While an undergraduate he taught anatomy as a demonstrator and worked as a research student in the department of morphology within the institute of experimental medicine established by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. By the time he graduated, he had published nine research articles. From 1963 to 1969 he lectured in anatomy at the university. On 27 March 1957 in Budapest he had married Hungarian-born Emoke Zsuzsanna Koritsánszky, a dentist.

Hungary was then a satellite state of the Soviet Union and travel to non-communist countries was restricted. In 1969 Törk accepted the position of senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of Zambia, Lusaka, that country being an acceptable destination because the Soviet Union supported its socialist government. Appointed professor of anatomy in 1971, he focused his energies on administration and teaching, and thus had little opportunity to carry out research. His well-developed teaching skills and the commitment he shared with his preclinical and clinical colleagues ensured that their graduates were the equal of their contemporaries elsewhere in the world.

In 1976 Törk was appointed senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of New South Wales. He became an Australian citizen in 1979. Promoted to associate professor in 1984, he was appointed head of the department of anatomy in 1988, and became professor on 1 January 1991. From the outset he impressed his colleagues with his capacity, rare in Australia, to teach virtually everything in the curriculum. Thorough training in Hungary had made him expert in histology, embryology, gross anatomy, and neuroanatomy. His students appreciated his dedication and hard work. Among his doctoral students were Kathleen Mulligan and Glenda Halliday, both of whom went on to pursue notable careers.

Before he arrived in Australia, Törk had published on the blood supply of the thymus and on the comparative anatomy of the circumventricular organs in a range of different vertebrates. In Sydney he broadened his neuroanatomy interests in collaboration with a number of experienced researchers. He worked with Jonathon Stone on the visual system of the cat and with Richard Bandler on the anatomy of aggressive behaviour. By the early 1980s he was concentrating on the monoamine systems in the brainstem, because of their importance in motor control and in normal and abnormal behaviour. This work led to research on the serotonin raphe nuclei, and the subsequent publications are those for which Törk is best known. He was one of the first to map all of the serotonin nuclei properly, using histochemical methods.

Törk’s close friend and colleague George Paxinos, who had an international reputation as a maker of the most commonly used laboratory brain atlas, realised the potential value of a detailed atlas of the developing rat brain, but did not have expertise in embryology. It was therefore natural that the two would form a partnership for the project. The resulting Atlas of the Developing Rat Brain (1991) was a landmark publication in the field, and was still widely used two decades later.

In 1990 Törk had developed a brain tumour. He later recalled noticing the first signs of the illness. While working in his office early one morning, he thought he could smell coffee brewing, and looked around to see who was responsible. Finding that he was alone, he understood immediately that he was experiencing an olfactory hallucination, and that it was likely to have been caused by a temporal lobe tumour. He went to hospital the same day and the diagnosis was confirmed. Despite surgery, the very aggressive glioma could not be contained. He continued working and that year had fourteen scientific journal articles and three books either published or in press.

Törk was respected for the remarkable range of his skills in anatomy teaching, and for his significant research contributions, but most of all he was known for his kindness and generosity to his colleagues and students. He was in many ways an old-style academic in the European tradition, with a love of precision and a level of formality in his dealings with students, but his warmth and willingness to help always shone through. Having retired two months earlier, he died on 21 November 1992 in the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. His wife and their son and daughter survived him. The University of New South Wales and the Australasian Neuroscience Society established prizes for students in his name.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Azmitia, Efrain C. ‘Istvan Törk 1939–1992.’ Journal of Comparative Neurology, no. 333 (1993): 149-50
  • Paxinis, G., Istvan Törk, Laurence H. Teccot, and Karen Valentino. Atlas of the Developing Rat Brain. San Diego: Academic Press, 1991
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘World Expert on Brain Anatomy: Istvan Tork 1939-1992.’ 27 November 1992, 15
  • Törk, Istvan. Curriculum vitae. Unpublished manuscript, 1987. Copy held on ADB file.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Charles Watson, 'Törk, Istvan (1939–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/tork-istvan-16278/text28220, published online 2016, accessed online 11 August 2020.

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