Jock Marshall - One Armed Warrior A Bright Sparcs Exhibitions

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The Devil's Island

On July 7th he was in Oslo on the way to Jan Mayen. Incorrigible - he sat in the beer-garden conjecturing about another Arctic expedition that year: leading an Australian wintering party as a forerunner to a British, Norwegian, Swedish expedition to Queen Maude Land, which had been discussed at Australia House in London. He radioed from Oslo that he would not be available, as it would interfere with his D. Phil. - but it was obvious he could not be pinned to any domestic hearth.

They boarded the Polarbjorn and sailed on July 15th. There were twelve of them: two ornithologists, a marine biologist, an entomologist, a botanist, two petrologists and a geology student, Ian Hume as medical officer and three Gaumont British film people who were making a documentary of the men at work as part of a contract to support the expedition. Jock was astounded that absolutely nothing had gone wrong - 'unheard of at the beginning of any show. That the organisation has been so good is largely attributable to Avrion Mitchison, over months, & the last minute drive & initiative of Spanky [Ian Hume].'

Two days later they were able to see the great, snowy peak of the Beerenberg looming out of the sea mist. At 9 p.m. Jock was scribbling: 'I lie in my warm bag planning, reading verse & Janey's letters, & try to read C.S. Lewis. God, what a bore. Yet he lectures well, & Geoffrey Dutton says his tutorials are first-rate.' At midnight they were three miles out but the austere island seemed only six or seven hundred yards away. They sailed around Southeast Cape to run due north 'with the midnatsol spilling red across the flattest sea I ever saw in the Arctic. Birds feeding to the right of us, to the left of us, ahead, & astern; flying in the air above us, & wheeling white dots against the honey-combed cliffs away through the glasses.' There was no possible doubt - the birds were there.

They were put ashore with all their stores and equipment, which then had to be dragged, pushed and ferried across a lagoon to the huts which would be their camp. The weather was good. It did not rain, though Jock thought the environment looked as though it had earned the Norwegian seamens' name "The Devil's Island". He immediately went off on a preliminary exploration over ridges, across a river, into mist shrouded valleys filled with dandelions: 'I never liked dandelions before - & I didn't know they had a delicate perfume, quite apart from their characteristic stink.' He enjoyed himself, indulged in 'my old vice (a childish one) of rock rolling', and saw clearly the way they could take to climb the Beerenberg. But twenty four hours later he realised he had made a mistake in going off on his own without informing anyone: 'The expedition seems to be capable of more or less running itself - but I've issued two instructions (a) that the launch shall always have one week's iron rations & water; & (b) that each man should leave written notification of his destination when going out; & that he shall build a cairn & place in it a note if he is alone & wants to radically change direction. If I had fallen yesterday I may not have been found for days - or weeks, for nobody had a clue where I was. Such an accident would seriously disrupt the work of the expedition.'

On an absolutely clear crisp day, July 21st, work began seriously. Francis Huxley, Ian Hume and Jock travelled twenty five difficult miles in search of birds, climbing riskily up cliffs covered in moss and loose rubble. Jock even stripped and waded into the icy sea after a prized specimen - 'I have never been colder or more uncomfortable' - and then back to the work of dissection. At midnight Jock was in his sleeping bag making notes and writing up his dairy in a pleasant haze of satisfaction with his own and his trusty gun's condition: 'at 36 I am almost as good as ever' and his rifle had been good enough to collect a fulmar 70 yards up a cliff face. The rifle had been carried through rivers and jungle, carried south under odd conditions, packed by odd people, brought to England in hessian 'by an old woman I've never met (bless her) & then hastily repacked for the Arctic, unlimbered here - & she's as good as ever.'

The next day he and Francis Huxley looked for a lake that had been reported but was not on the map. Climbing a high pillar of rock they saw it and named it "Oxford Lake". But the day's work was disappointing, unable to get any of the birds they needed. In late afternoon, however, the film people wanted more shots and Jock attempted what had seemed almost impossible - the collection of the snowy glaucus gulls which might be non-breeders sunning themselves, perched right on top of the high Pillar. He got 'a huge white stinking beast' and Huxley got one later. They took them back in triumph - badly needed prizes. The dissection of these birds was an experience Jock remembered for years. 'Stomachs stinking fish (Oh, how stinking!! - almost vomited as the cameras turned recording the dissection).' But the gonads were telling a story: 'So far we seem to be getting places, but slowly. We see two common birds - Little Auk & Glaucus Gull - non-breeding & breeding within a few miles of each other ... Perhaps there are NOT so many suitable sites on a given cliff ... perhaps everything must be just right - end - desiderata such as nesting sites, etc., before they copulate with the general overall influences of light, climate food ... I am working with Van Oordt's technique on the mechanics of the thing - intensive observation & specimens may give us the clue.' The last statement summed up his approach to the work. 'The fusion of data derived from field-work and laboratory investigations was the hallmark of his research' wrote Professor Brian Lofts - 'He was one of the first people to use frozen sectioning and sudanophilic dyeing to study the seasonal secretory activity of the avian testes, and to postulate an endocrinological role for lipids in the post-nuptial semeniferous tubules.' In those Arctic birds Jock eventually found that 'Both male & female non-breeders arrive at a histochemical condition indistinguishable from the breeding birds of the same species except that, in the female, oocytes do not develop beyond a certain optimum. The males undergo spermatogenesis, but because various exteroceptive stimuli are lacking in the environment the females do not ovulate.'

The work went on - everyone busy with their own specialities. 'There is a good deal of sex talk & song on this expedition - exactly proportional to the unusual comfort that we're enjoying.' The weather was kind by Arctic standards, the island not yet living up to its evil reputation. It was often foggy, the hills black, filmed with yellow-green mosses, lichens and prone vascular plants eking a precarious existence from barren soil. 'Only under the bird-cliffs, soaked with phosphates & nitrates, do you find lush vegetation, & here the Whopper Swan feeds & the foxes make their earths & slink silently, hopefully around in search of fallen nestlings.' Jock mused on how the various personalities were developing under harsh conditions: 'They are a good bunch - & we are particularly lucky in the scratch team of "film folk". The show, after a week runs smoothly. The secret of successful leadership of a non-military enterprise is to arrange matters so that it appears to run smoothly without leadership.'

One thing was worrying him - why no radio about the Beit Fellowship? I was staying in London and he was expecting me to cable as soon as the result of his application was known. After a fortnight he had a cable of another sort from the Captain of the Polarbjorn saying the worst weather in many years further north may cause him to turn around early, and therefore pick up the Oxford team somewhat ahead of time. And the weather on Jan Mayen suddenly turned sour and slowed work. Icy wind and rain off the Beerenberg drove birds out of reach and men to shelter: Jock was nearly blown off a ridge though carrying nothing but a rifle, the film crew had bravely got some good footage of the hardy men freezing on the cliff-face. The waves were shooting up forty feet along the coast. 'I spend the afternoon listening to the French radio & reading Steinbeck's silliest novel - Cup of Gold ... Now one understands why the huts are all anchored down with cables.' In spite of the storm they later went out to try to get food to the geologists who were miserably short of it in their camp down the coast.

But on the afternoon of August 3rd Jock was in the hut relishing good news. The storm still raged outside, the white husky, Jan, lolled on the floor, 'grinning, actually grinning & closing his eyes in contentment (he looks like a great contented polar bear) when we rub his neck or tickle his ribs.' Jock echoed the contentment. The radio had come from London - 'Beit is yours. Wonderful. News went to Shack ... '. So he was a Beit Medical Research Fellow at 600 pounds a year '& Janey is OK & all is well. The Beit! - open to Great Britain & the Empire & (I think) Americans as well. It is ironic to think that in the "competitive" scramble for Australian Ex-servicemens' benefits overseas I was a failure.' The Beit fellowships, in fact, were not open to Americans - but to 'any man or woman of European descent, graduate of any approved University within the British Empire.' It was, however, a most important grant 'devoted entirely to the furthering of medical research work in all its branches' as its founder, the gold-rich and extraordinary philanthropist, Otto Beit wrote in London in 1909 at its foundation. Becoming a fellow was certainly an important endorsement of Jock's research on the physiology of reproduction.

After getting slightly drunk on celebratory rum punch that night he returned to his love-hate relationship with his country: 'There's little you can do with Australia - its a dry, dull, barren land, but no more dry, barren & dull than the people. The people choose the government. (And it's a labour Government, & god help me, I voted labour last time, & always I hope will!) And so to bed.' Then he scrawled a rider - 'It's pleasant also, to see the pleasure of the others.' Drunk as he may have been the views of these diary entries are unlikely to have been aired among the young Englishmen. Later - he confessed to feeling far less pleased by the prospect of the complete financial independence for three years than by the fact that he got the thing purely on merit in an open and distinguished field - 'It gives me a tremendous kick when I get time to think of it; & I can hardly wait to thank Hardy, Marshall & J.R.B. for the recommendations they gave me.'


Once the storm passed there was one other thing for them to do, if at all possible, before they were picked up. Some years before this, Scott Russell, a New Zealander with mountaineering experience, had climbed the Beerenberg and placed some cosmic ray plates on top. He had asked Jock if they could be retrieved on this trip. On a clear day several of them set out to climb the mountain but were thwarted by bad weather when they hit the snow-line. It was treacherous and Jock decided to go back. Five days later, when it was dry and the mountain clear, they climbed again but within striking distance of the top the inexperienced mountaineers, with the exception of Huxley, felt unable to face the difficulties of the high icy slopes. Because of their inexperience Jock knew he must have two men besides himself to go roped the final distance. They returned once more.

There were no more chances. Jock and Francis were disappointed for themselves and for Scott Russell, but got on with work. Jock nearly killed himself on a much less formidable slope - the cliffs where they sought specimens. A huge boulder rumbled away beneath him as he climbed around a loose face, leaving him hanging by his one hand and one foot. Francis, whom he'd warned to keep out of the way while he was climbing, remarked when he got down: 'I knew you were a maniac but not quite such a one!'

They raced to finish work before the "Polarbjon" called in for them. On board as they approached the coast of Europe Jock summed up: 'And so - the show ends. It's been a good one, especially as far as work was concerned ... During the next few days in Norway & before we meet Jania, I'll finish these rough notes. This place with its abominable reeling & creaking, the stench of musk-ox & the hoarse roaring of bear, the whine of huskeys & the foul stink of piles of fox skins - is not conducive to thoughtful record; & anyway outside is the reddest moon I ever saw & the first stars I've seen in six weeks - & a lighthouse gleams in welcome over the Norwegian coast.'


It was September - the first month of autumn - and Scandinavia was still blue and gold with lingering warmth. I met Jock and Ian Hume in Oslo. They felt liberated; no responsibilities, no hard work, no diaries to keep daily. We had a loose plan to walk and camp across Norway and Sweden, take a boat for Finland, try hard to get to Leningrad (though all informants became pale and rigidly negative at this proposition) and then sail to Copenhagen where we would part - they to Germany and myself back to England. This vagabonding was one of only three interludes which could properly be called holidays in the twenty years Jock and I lived together. Like most people whose work totally involves them, he felt no need to get away from it; in fact he was uncomfortable and itchy-minded when it was not the reason for, or a considerable part of, any travels he was making. 'They lie like lizards in the sun frying their brains' he said of holiday crowds. He could enjoy total relaxation over food and drink and talk - especially talk. He loved it. He loved camping. He loved searching for antiques in any place we happened to find ourselves. Fortunately for me he loved art galleries. But he did not love the idea of a 'holiday'. However, roaming Scandinavia seemed, when we were sitting in the Shack, an interesting and even exciting thing to do. Following strenuous weeks in the Arctic, it was just that.

The weather was idyllic. We walked a great deal; at first I was dawdling like a reluctant toddler while these super-fit adults forged ahead. We picked up odd lifts in anything from car to fish truck, caught the occasional train, met farmers, talked to students and camped in pine or fir woods. On the outskirts of the charming city of Upsala, home of the Nobel Prize, we found ourselves in a psychiatric hospital owing to our addiction to camping in fir woods. We had a sound and comfortable night's sleep in a fine thick wood in what we thought, in the dusk of evening, was a park. The morning light, however, revealed barred buildings through the trees and an enormous barbed-wire topped iron fence, just behind our 'camp', through which a figure in grey uniform stared at the two bearded figures (no one wore beards in Sweden at this time) and lone female with terrified disbelief. He mounted his bicycle and pedalled off as though followed by demons; whether to have a stiff schnapps or report us to the authorities in the barred buildings we were not sure. We decided to exit as fast and as nonchalantly as possible, clutching our passports. We passed several figures standing about in catatonic poses who caused our air of nonchalance to waver, but no one took the slightest notice of us. The great gates were open as they had been the evening before. We moved fast into the city for more conventional exploration. 'Upsala was fun' said Jock.

In Helsinki we were again the centre of attention because of those beards. We were mistaken for two artist yachtsmen and a girl who had been held by the Russians for some time in the port of Porkkala, and recently released with much publicity. Finland was in a state of near chaos. Russia had annexed a huge area of the country and dispossessed Finnish citizens flooded into what remained of their homeland. There were shortages of almost everything (except meat and eggs strangely); all sorts of improbable things were made of paper, including bed sheets - it was like slipping into an oversized toilet roll. Helsinki was crowded beyond belief. We were extremely lucky to have the British Consul find us beds with the Salvation Army. Our plans to find a comfortable forest had been met with horrified rebuttal: 'you'll be murdered for your boots' cried concerned Finns.

Jock was mad keen to go to Leningrad - and so was I for the art collection. We spent an inordinate amount of time with the Russian Consul and an interpreter, being mutually charming to no avail. Jock contented himself with a visit to the zoologist Professor Palmgren of the University of Helsinki and his father who was Professor of Botany, which resulted in interesting talk and two valuable references on the subject of breeding.

The holiday, with its revealing glimpse of Northern Europe in the wake of war, then progressed across Finland to the northern shore and a ship through the lovely archipelago back to Sweden and across to Copenhagen. Jock and Ian then went through Germany learning a great deal about the devastation of cities and the human spirit, the humour and goodwill of some people and the arrogance and greed of others. They bought things with cigarettes; 'perhaps the people are not weak with hunger but they do have a drawn look.' At the railway station in Hanover they found people in rags sprawled in the subway on bags and blankets, waiting in the mild autumn night to travel somewhere. They caught the diesel for Berlin - 'sleepers, thank heaven, but one feels almost ashamed to use them, seeing these wretched people the way they are - the common people, who are the mugs, the sufferers, yet who would never start wars themselves.' In Berlin they discovered the existence of night clubs where they saw dazzlingly dressed women (they did not admit to entering these) and the grim performance of war crime trials. Jock saw Professor Stieve and they then made their way back to England through Belgium.

Jock Marshall: One Armed Warrior by Jane Marshall
Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 25 February 1998
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (
Prepared by: Elissa Tenkate

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