Jock Marshall - One Armed Warrior A Bright Sparcs Exhibitions

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An Australian Journey

He felt he could not pass by Athens. He had taken the trouble to teach himself rudimentary ancient Greek and was curious about the city of Plato and Aristotle. He stayed a day and a night. He knew it was absurd to stay such a short time but, as usual, was in a hurry - in fact, he had taken two unfinished papers with him to work on and send back urgently. Typically he packed the time to bursting: discussed the burning political issue of Cyprus with the Athenians, bought an icon, went to a tavern to try Retsina, then, becoming extremely hungry, he got someone to translate 'that I was so hungry I could eat a dead baby.' This produced rapid results, as it had on several occasions over the years. Then there was the Acropolis, and at night a performance of Oedipus Rex. He nearly missed the 'plane next morning photographing eucalyptus trees among antique columns at the edge of the city.

After nine years he arrived back in Sydney and began a complicated journey tracking about the continent. The expedition would take off in early September, from Perth where Dr Serventy worked. Before this he needed to visit Canberra and gain more information on the Zoology Professorship. He wrote from Sydney: 'The University of N.S.W. is going to take several years (?) to get going; but at the University of Sydney today it was made clear (a) that Pat M. [Murray] will retire in 3 years time, or perhaps before, & that Charlie Birch, whom I met again, & like, has a great deal of opposition. Tomorrow I fly to Canberra to see the people there. It's difficult to know what to do!!'

This unusual state of indecision was engendered by the old pull of Sydney University which had been a goal in the back of his mind for so many years. Such goals are difficult to achieve; the higher you climb the ladder the less options are available. If he got Canberra, and Murray went in three years, he would have to forget Sydney. He decided in the end to write to the Canberra College Principal, Professor Herbert Burton, whom he had met and talked with, 'telling him that I would be very happy to come by invitation if they have not already got a suitable chap among the applicants.' Jock didn't believe they had, in view of 'the great deal of trouble they took' to show him around after the closing date. Because of his ambivalence he had not applied before that date. If one badly needed the job it would be a risky business to rely on invitation, especially in Australia where any suspicion that a tall poppy was being thrust forward could cause defeat. But it seemed well worth a try. He wrote from Melbourne: 'My own view is that it would be hard for us to fail, but you never know! Luckily it doesn't matter much, though the more I see of Australia & Australians the more I am convinced that our place, as well as our childrens' is here.' Both Julian Huxley and Alister Hardy had written saying the College had taken up their references, and Hardy had reaffirmed his view that he (Jock) was 'just the bloke for pioneering a new department ... ', though Jock reminded me more than once to remember Pantin.

It was good advice. Two months later, while camped near Kalgoorlie, he received a telegram telling him that the Committee had chosen Professor Smyth from Dublin University for the Canberra Chair. Smyth, a parasitologist, came from Professor Gatenby's Department. It transpired that Gatenby, the good hater, had been in Australia at this time. It was tempting to conjecture whether his threat of six years before to prevent Jock from ever getting 'a better job' than the one he then occupied had come home to roost; especially when reading part of a letter he sent to another zoologist in England (the first page is missing): 'Marshall threw his weight about so much, they were determined not to have him.' However, this time Jock was not really concerned about any possible stabs from behind. Although he had decided he liked Canberra and more importantly the people with whom he would have worked, he felt there would be further opportunities to return to Australia, and for the time being London was very much to his advantage. An item of news which appeared almost exactly a year later bears on the academic atmosphere in Australia then. On July 8th, 1959: 'Lord Lindsay of Birker announced his resignation from the Australian National University in Canberra accusing it of compelling him to waste his time "playing academic politics" ... In a statement he declared that the Australian National University gave only grudging recognition to his international academic standing, and failed to provide conditions in which he could carry on his work.'


More than two months before receiving news of the Chair Jock set off across Australia to meet Dom Serventy in Perth. These two had known each other for years, collaborating on various research projects. Dom visited us in London whenever he was in England. Tall, black-haired and black-eyed, he had a slight stutter and wonderfully precise speech and habit, but overlaid with a delightful sense of humour. He and Jock shared a passion for early editions of the accounts of the first discoverers, colonisers and explorers of Australia. They had never been in the bush together but had some common experience of it and plenty to talk about. When Jock arrived there were two well-equipped vehicles ready to take them two thousand miles up the West Australian coast for their rendezvous with the ship carrying them to the Monte Bello and Barrow Islands; the islands targeted for the atomic blast of 1952. Also with them was Ken Buller, taxidermist at the Western Australian Museum, who would stay until they had finished collecting on the islands and then return with the specimens to the Museum, and Ivan Carnaby who joined them with his Dodge utility at Yalgoo. They left Perth at daybreak on September 11th.

Jock luxuriated in a nostalgic glow, re-discovering the feel of land beyond cities, red dust on the fringe of desert and cold beer after long, hot hours on roads that were themselves the only sign of man's existence. They travelled inland as far as Carnarvon then hugged the coast, collected and observed animals, and met characters such as Brandy John and Billy the Lurk who later appeared in a book about the expedition.

At Onslow, 'a dreary little town' on the north-west coast, they met up with the whale-marking vessel Lancelin. Her primary business was to tag whales and mark them with an eleven inch dart which was fired into their protective blubber bearing information destined for the British Museum. The crew had finished their work for the season but prolonged their time at sea to carry the small party of scientists to Barrow Island and the Monte Bellos. The islands were uninhabited except for animals which could survive with a minimum of water. Since the days of H.M.S. Beagle's visit in 1840 they had rarely been visited, even by scientists. They appeared desolate, though some, like Lowendall, named by Baudin in 1803, were less so. But the sea and reefs surrounding them were full of fish, turtles, crayfish, stingrays, and the rocks of the shores were encrusted with oysters.

Jock had a geiger counter and on Trimouille Island went ahead 'a little wary of the bay in which the guineapig ship was blown up in the first explosion.' They found the whole cliff-face scorched by that 'incredible blow-lamp of the atom bomb', then came to the slightly radio-active huts in the probable fall-out area as mapped for them by the people at Aldermaston in England, who were extremely interested in the investigation. There was not much more radiation than given off by Jock's watch until they came to what was probably wreckage from the ship. This was very active. 'We collected 42 terrestrial vertebrates on the islands, retaining the skins for the W.A. Museum & preserving the bodies for analysis at Bart's.'

They watched one whale-marking exercise with great interest, then left the islands to be put ashore at Onslow, and set out for Broome and the Kimberleys, where they were to meet Russell Drysdale, his son Tim, and an American zoologist, Professor Donald Farner. On the way they were collecting vertebrates in an arc around the Monte Bello area for shipment to London. They called in at Mardie Station. The owner informed them casually that there were phenomenal numbers of bronzewing pigeons gathering at a water-hole near his homestead, of a type unfamiliar even to the old Aborigines on the property. Instantly alert, Jock and Dom thought this must be the harlequin bronzewing or flock pigeon, which was thought to be on the verge of extinction. By the pool at sunset they were ecstatic to see wave upon wave of this lovely, plump bird - 'a harmony of blue-grey, cinnamon, black, white and metallic purple' - which had so enchanted the eyes and palates of the early travellers to Australia's west coast. They took just one specimen for a skin for exact identification. This was an unexpected ornithological find.

Jock was delighted to be in the north west; new and yet familiar. The bush characters and 'architecture' amused him again. Collecting and noting animals, they travelled towards Fitzroy Crossing and the weather-carved limestone ramparts of the Leopold Range rising from a baobab dotted plain. Within it was the deep water of Geikie Gorge. This gorge is a mysterious place. It is locked between immensely high walls of fretted limestone, often seeming to be carved in the image of a person looking down at the still deep water. Bats hang in dark caves high in the walls which run with a rich iron-staining of amber and red above flood-washed pure white rock. When Jock took a party of scientists there six years later, in 1965, they were warned it was possible to meet a huge estuarine crocodile trapped in the deep water by its very size. Nobody seemed to know how it got there; perhaps as a much younger animal at a time of flood, which had adapted well to a lack of salt water. It was alledgedly sighted many times by pilots. The Gorge was part of the property "Fossil Downs", belonging to a pioneering family, the MacDonalds, who gave the party hospitality and permission to roam as they pleased.

At Fitzroy Crossing, before going into the ranges they met Professor Don Farner who flew in to join them from Seattle, Washington. And the Drysdales appeared at the camp-site one evening, exultant that they could have met within a day and a few miles of the agreed date and place, after their respective journeys of two and three thousand miles across the continent. 'Dom had let the moths out of his pocket in Broome, and was flourishing a bottle of Scotch.'

It was on this journey that Jock and Tass discovered the depth of their friendship. It was in part due to the troubles of Tass's son Tim, whom Jock was employing for the rest of the trip as mechanic and general helper. He had deep compassion for the sense of helplessness and sadness Tass felt in not being able to reach his son emotionally or guide him out of his difficulties. When Tim died three years later Tass wrote at length to Jock: 'I write this to you because he had a great affection for you and you always treated him as a man.' For Tass and Jock the unburdening of feeling was a gift of friendship.

After more collecting and a turn to the south east towards Marble Bar and Maralinga, Tass, Tim and Jock peeled away from the others who had to return to Perth. Maralinga was Jock's most important goal. They arrived on October 28th and found 'a swimming pool, a change of picture show every night, tennis courts & superb cooking in the Commander's mess, where I am.' He found he had met the Commander and Chief Administration Officer during the war. This was another world from the one where they carried their water and selected their camps according to the firewood supply. Issued with protective clothing and placed in the charge of a security officer Jock went about collecting '313 terrestrial vertebrates in specifically "dirty" areas and in "clean" areas nearby. As before these included mammals reptiles and ground birds ... Of the Maralinga material some reptiles showed a count significantly higher than that of the background.' At home I was told there was no danger. Obviously there was but apart from any other considerations the instruments of testing then were possibly rather primitive.

They then made for almost their last camp - Nin and Geoffrey Dutton's house in the Adelaide hills. Jock's resolve to return to Australia was being strengthened. The whole journey had thrown up exciting possibilities for the future: research on animals unique among the world's fauna and the chance to press for their survival. He had returned to a landscape of his youth and in the cities connected with an old feeling of ease. He was recreating himself on an Australian canvas - not that he had ever felt other than Australian on the quite different English one, and relished showing it: 'He would enter the sedate precincts of a London club telling outrageous stories at the top of his voice and waving his one arm - and the great Australian adjective - about like a banner.' But when the occasion arose 'He had the faculty, without ever seeming hypocritical, of being at home in the most erudite or fashionable society, as he was in England or the Continent, or companionable in the roughest company outback.' He admired many of the English talents - a respect for scholarship, tolerance of difference and eccentricity, their amused self-criticism, their acceptance and nurturing of outstanding people; talents singularly lacking in Australians on the whole, especially in the forties and fifties. The reverse was snobbery, unfairness and often downright tramping on the underprivileged. In spite of set-backs, which he acknowledged were inherent in any hierarchy, he was glad of the rich experience of academic life there, the friends and colleagues. But he was now looking for change, although for the moment the opportunity had passed.


He arrived back in London in deep winter (February 2nd, 1959). He had spent an icy but entertaining month travelling and lecturing across the United States. It was so freezing around Ann Arbor that planes were grounded and he had to catch a train which also seized up. However, his lectures were warmly received; being congratulated after one of them for his relaxed way or talking he laughed and said 'I see no point in talking at all if I don't enjoy myself more than the audience does.'

In April he had a letter from Dom Serventy: 'Farner did tell me of some disquieting news he had picked up during his travels. It appears that some of the selectors for the Canberra chair had shown some apprehension of your robust behaviour when in Australia recently and had wondered whether such flamboyancy, as they termed it, would be befitting the holder of a University chair here! Farner, I gather, told them that the best answer was how you were filling the post at Bart's. Truly it seems that we have with us a generation that knows not Israel. Anyway, I thought that I would pass this on to you as indicative of a certain "atmosphere" in the eastern states, as an aftermath of your visit. You may be able to take corrective measures.' Jock's own disquiet at this news was not that he had upset the panel with his 'flamboyance', but that it counted with them more importantly than his reputation as a scientist and effective head of a department. What of Australia! Brian Lofts, then one of Jock's senior lecturers at Bart's and later Professor of Zoology at Hong Kong University remarked 'his articulate and forthright manner, and intolerance of pomposity, shocked some, but endeared him to the many who knew that this rumbustious nature hid a man of great kindness and humanity. This was never more evident than in his treatment of students and young research workers.' And they loved the stories that trailed after him. One year there was a very pompous ceremony at the University of London - the Queen Mother, as Chancellor, was holding a reception and the red carpet was stretched out for the hierarchical heads to follow Her Majesty into the building while we lesser members waited to follow on. Jock spotted Sir Gavan de Beer emerging from his limousine and setting sail up the red plush. As he came abreast of us he noticed Jock - 'Ah Marshall' he intoned - 'Ah Sir Gavan' replied Jock 'Sober I see'.

His behaviour could certainly be called robust - decisive, impatient with ditherers, mocking of pomposity - often unusual. Gilbert Whitley described an incident - with obvious enjoyment - which occurred in the national capital a couple of years after this. 'One lunchtime, after the proceedings of the morning at the ANZAS congress in Canberra Jock took a large pewter mug in hand, and with enormous panache climbed onto a borrowed bike and went flying off to the pub where the other members were disgorging sedately from their cars - banged the mug down on the bar with a "fill her up".'

Although Jock appreciated Dom's concern, he was too busy even to think about 'corrective measures'. Anyway, when had he ever been prepared to qualify his behaviour for effect? - only to become more outrageous - never to mollify his detractors. He was now occupied with work on the animals from Australia and the islands; also seriously thinking about invitations from America to give the Trumbull lectures at Yale and the Lida Scott Brown lectures (covering six weeks) at U.C.L.A. Then, later in the year, two colleagues were trying to persuade him to allow them to put his name forward as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Strangely he was cautious about this as he had been about going in too soon for the professorship at Bart's. Cautious is doubtless the wrong word - it would be hard to find anyone less so - but he cared about necessary preparation when making important moves. In this case there were considerations that certainly made for hesitation. Dr Leo Harrison Mathews brought up the matter at a Zoological Club dinner, but - 'I have long ceased to have much respect for the thing (because of the methods adopted by so many to get in, & of the fact that so many second-class people are "in"). I had no difficulty in keeping my enthusiasm within bounds.' Later he re-iterated his thoughts that the arguments he gave Professor Amoroso were still valid - that he had greater status outside the Society if he refused to be put up - 'After all, Baker, jealous and emotional, might be hostile or at least luke-warm; & Smith, after my last encounter with him ... must be unequivocally hostile!! Much better to have refused nomination than to be just another failed F.R.S.! I'll have to make a decision pretty soon.' At this time both Baker and Smith were on the sub-committee which made selections. Other members of the sub-committee may well have outvoted those two - his reputation as a scientist was very strong among his peers within the Society. Professor Amoroso was extremely enthusiastic about putting him forward but the arguments Jock gave before prevailed. He decided against it. The risk seemed too great. He was beginning to feel he had had enough of such situations.

But the year had, from the moment he came back, shaped up as extraordinarily busy. Besides catching up on laboratory work after six months away, writing up results and attending to vast numbers of letters, there were the three articles for the Observer to be delivered. When the first of these appeared on May 1st a stream of letters and telegrams came in from publishers asking for a book to be expanded from them. There were eight from the big publishers such as Victor Gollancz, Viking Press, Michael Joseph, Heinemann, Hodder and Stoughton, etc.; Alec Hope wrote from Canberra saying the representative of McGibbon and Kee, who was in Australia searching out poets for an anthology was also interested in the idea. Jock was luke-warm about it - he knew too well the work involved in transforming the pithy, amusing sketches into an account long enough for a book. However, in the end, after consultation with Tass Drysdale, Hodder and Stoughton got the nod. He was also asked to give a talk on the journey to the Royal Society of Arts.

More importantly he had to make a decision - whether to apply for the Foundation Chair of Biology in the new, yet unbuilt, Monash University in Melbourne, which was advertised in March. Sydney still tugged at him but he soon decided to apply for Monash without reserve. It would be a challenge, not just to start a new department, but to be in on the making of a whole University. This was an understatement, but he sent off an application 'big enough to choke a bloody horse.'

The year rolled on. He read a paper at a symposium of the Zoological Society of London on the subject of hormones in fish and talked with Dr C.N. Armstrong of the University of Durham who was proposing joint editorship of a book on Intersexuality, fundamentally zoological but including man, to be published by Academic Press. Jock had been interested in the subject ever since the New Hebrides when he first encountered the cult of intersex pigs, so the idea of such a book interested him - and it was eventually published in 1964.

At this time we were both feeling unaccustomed strain. I was pregnant - the baby expected in November. Jock had a massive correspondence with friends and colleagues such as Albert Wolfson, Don Farner and Dom Serventy on the bird migration work: some of it sounded rather testy - Wolfson and Farner were dragging their feet on papers of collaboration he thought. At Princeton University in January he had heard from Dr Colin Pittendrigh that it might be possible to get U.S. Navy funding for some of the research - the huge figure-of-eight migration across the Pacific, in which the Navy was taking an interest. After a considerable amount of work this did eventuate.

There were varied requests for help, such as (we laughed about this), from the University of California Medical centre to report on the suitability of his friend Malcolm Miller to have his doctorate translated to a professorship. He did this generously. He always did, if he did it at all. He was equally generous to one of Ernst Mayr's research people seeking a position. And he saw, at the request of one of his medical colleagues, a girl who was deeply depressed at the loss of an arm. He often took an interest in people he felt were neglecting some serious medical problem. He was very worried one day about an unknown girl we saw behind a stall as we wandered in an antique jewellery market in the old city - flushed and coughing. He persuaded her to contact him at the Medical College and took her to a specialist. She had tuberculosis.

Beneath all this activity he was simmering at the lack of news on Monash. A Vice-Chancellor had been appointed at the end of May - Professor Louis Matheson, an engineer from the University of Manchester. Ernst Mayr wrote on August 2nd 'Monash has finally come through and I told them the worst about you! Hope you'll make it. Of course, why you would want to get there ......? I am going to try and find out next winter.'

Sometime in June Jock was invited to dine with the Vice-Chancellor elect, the visiting chairman of the Monash Interim Council and their chosen external expert, Graham Cannon. 'Before the dinner I learned from my agents that I was considered the most suitable of the applicants, but that I had trodden on some tiny toes while I was in Australia and that some of the Melbournians wondered whether I was "temperamentally suited" to be in charge of an Australian department. This caused a good deal of merriment at Bart's.' A few days later his same agents reported that he was 'handsomely the best' but that the Monash people were still nervous about his temperament and had written to John Blacklock, the head of the Pathology school at Bart's - ' ... if they write to enough people they will fairly soon find somebody who will agree that I am not! I understand that Gatenby, for instance, is virulently anti-me.'

'You brood like the hero of a Shakespearean tragedy' said Dom Serventy when Jock complained to him in September about being 'buggered about'.

Australians can be at odds with themselves - loving the independant, eccentric characters of bush fable, but holding themselves to a comfortable, conventional base - prepared to put up with mediocrity rather than disturb the status quo. Jock, flourishing his snuff-box and Jockian adjectives, fighting for change and principles was obviously a disturbing black cloud on their horizon. But not all the selectors for Monash University were so cautious or confronted. While others complained of Jock being 'wild', Dr E.V. (Bill) Keo was more interested in his work - 'He's a bloody good scientist - let's have him.' And later there was appreciation of this from other scientists. The physiologist, Prof A.K. McIntyre, wrote: 'It must be exceptional for a new University to have amongst its first small group of senior appointments a man not only of high scholastic attainment and outstanding personality, but also distinguished for leadership and achievement in fields beyond the usual confines of an academic discipline. Jock Marshall ... [had] international renown in the field of biology, especially for his extensive original work on the physiology and ecology of birds.'

On November 15th Jock joyfully took up his journal again after a gap of three years, to record the birth of our daughter, Wilga, the day before - 'a most enchanting little Puss' - and that he had two weeks before been appointed to the Chair of Biology at Monash University. He gave very little space to this latter, but in fact he was enormously relieved. He had been emotionally stretched - even to the point of being uncharacteristically impatient and nervy at home. He really wanted an Australian appointment.

He immediately contacted his backers. Julian Huxley was in Chicago, and wrote - 'Thanks for your letter with the welcome news - welcome, that is for you, though rather sad for us fellow-Hampsteadians.' He had heard the news the day before from Ernst Mayr at Harvard where he was giving an address, and boasted to Jock: 'I got in my crack about the oceanographer, disgruntled at the poor support his subject got compared with Space research - "I think the sea's bottom is just as interesting as the moon's behind".'

We would miss Julian and Juliette. It was the end of an era - more surely than we realised.

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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