Jock Marshall - One Armed Warrior A Bright Sparcs Exhibitions

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Alan John "Jock" Marshall was a different, sometimes difficult, academic. He was unlikely to be found in any ivory tower; had he been trapped in one he would probably have been declaiming from the highest turret. His life was in some ways a metaphor for the great Australian egalitarian dream - the dream that anyone can do anything, be anything they like, if they tune their mind, canalise their interest and energy towards that ambition, no matter what odds are called in their life. Coming back from the Arctic in 1937 he wrote to an old friend "I've come to believe that you can do pretty near anything in this world with a moderate amount of brain, gut & personality - & Christ knows I've tried to develop all three." For Jock, succeeding was almost easier when the odds were against him.

He was possibly indulged as a little boy. He didn't really think he was, his mother admitted he might have been, and his sister was spittingly sure he was. He was the dreaded enfant terrible of every schoolmaster from primary school onward, delighting in upsetting the slow, boring process of force-feeding information. His nimble mind was somewhere else, busy with schemes, seeking challenges; always reading what was not on the syllabus. He became a Professor of Zoology, but he completely avoided the exams leading to matriculation. Added to his overwhelming academic laziness at school, he carelessly (and it was carelessly) shot off his left arm at the age of 15. This event, however, was the catalyst for changes of enormous significance for the rest of his life.

His nickname "Jock" was nothing to do with Scottish nostalgia. It was born out of his earliest ambition to become a jockey and ride race-horses, like the ones trained by some of his mother's family. He was hardly ever called anything else, although he soon became much too tall for racehorses.

Adventure was a central theme in his life. Everything he did was touched by it. And not just in a physical sense. Certainly his interest in physical exploration of the world never left him; if he had been born even a century earlier he would undoubtedly have been pushing into empty spaces on the map; but to him the intellectual challenges of science were also an adventure - 'Well-designed research is an art' - and there was also an element of adventure in stirring up trouble for laissez faire schemes - whether academic, political or social - though it would be quite untrue to suggest this was the primary motive.

He was quintessentially Australian. Yet nearly 20 of his 56 years were spent in other parts of the world. No chameleon, his national identity was obvious and uncompromising, but he valued high standards of scholarship and the best of traditions that he found elsewhere - notably in England. He had a classless attitude to the intricacies of such a class-dominated society. He cut through the layers and remained himself - outspoken, original, funny - with aristocrats, Nobel Prize winners or purveyors of jellied eels. For much of his life he had an ambivalent feeling towards his homeland. He inveighed against the stupid waste of brains and talent engendered by stifling political and bureaucratic decisions there. But he loved the spirit that often broke out of this with spontaneous and irreverent initiative; possibly seen at its best in the fighting forces during wars. He had an unequalled excuse for taking no part in World War 11 but spent an inordinate amount of time and persistence against the odds, and against his own professional ambition, eventually getting into the A.I.F. 'in order to be of some use to my country'.

He was passionate, self-confident and sometimes very aggressive; yet there was tenderness and compassion, even a relic of shyness; on another level discipline and no glimmer of compromise when a cause or a principle was involved. He had a vital social conscience, and it was no accident that the brilliant, restless genius of social commentary, Francisco Jose de Goya, was just about his favourite painter. Iconoclast, traditionalist, joker, very serious scientist: it would be difficult to write a full biography of this complex man without his detailed early diaries. Many of the key companions and mentors of his youth are now dead (although wishing for a record I did speak with several of them not long after he died). Early notes on the observation of birds in 1927 led on through tropical and Arctic scientific expeditions, Universities of Sydney, Oxford and London, journalism, four years of war, England pre-war and post-war, Australia and New Guinea in between, Africa and searching for Mau Mau as well as scientific specimens, affairs with women and two marriages. He didn't begin writing seriously until after his arm was shot off. He didn't write about that. But once he started he never stopped. Indeed it was his early ambition to be a writer which caused him to take ornithological field notes into much fuller diaries. They reveal his feelings, not constantly, often obliquely, but they map a full-on life that fascinated himself, intrigued and sometimes infuriated other people and was motivated to make marks; which he did in probably no other place more than Monash University in Victoria - during the exciting, fulfilling and frustrating birth of a university. They led me through the early landscape of familiar fascinating stories but where I would have been lost for detail; so they are well-used and unless otherwise marked quotations are from them.

Being a wife? - many people may feel this denies objectivity. But objectivity does not seem any more applicable to biography than to most other human activities. Every life is at the mercy of prejudice and choice once it leaves the cardboard boxes. Nevertheless Jock's seemed to be bursting out. On a practical level I learnt a lot about the academic jungle in nineteen years and did all Jock's illustrations for scientific papers. His work was dedicated to wedding the life of an animal in the environment with problem solving in the laboratory, and to saving species which have so far escaped the mindlessly destructive instincts of humans. It is easy to see him as the amusing, roaming man of science and action, filled with combative phrases for the preservation of standards or the environment, but more difficult to see the man of compassion, tenderness and acute aesthetic awareness. The two were often at odds in his life.

Like several other people, I thought at first that such a biography should be written by an academic - not necessarily a scientist, but someone with academic training. I approached two good friends - good writers - in this area. One was unhappy with his lack of scientific knowledge, the other died before anything came of it. I left the bulging boxes of papers for some more years. Then in 1987 Gavan McCarthy contacted me. He was working for the Australian Science Archives Project which was 'established to locate, sort, index and catalogue the archival papers of distinguished Australian scientists and scientific institutions'. Bringing order out of the chaos of papers - letters, diaries, manuscripts, scripts for broadcasts, etc. - Gavan was displaying so much enjoyment and amusement, it confirmed me in my belief that this life should not remain locked away in cardboard boxes. His work gave enormous impetus to my resolve, and he has been generously helpful ever since.

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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