A few years ago one of our most senior scientists, who had been
at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for 25 years, and who as
Unit Head had headed a team which comprised 25% of the entire
Institute staff, announced his resignation to become a Director
of a similar organisation. During his time at the Institute he
had, amongst other things, been intimately involved in the establishment
of the AMRAD Corporation, and been enormously active in the World
Health Organisation and the Rockefeller Foundation for Great Neglected
Diseases of Mankind.
I will always remember one Monday morning when he breezed into
my office, obviously pleased with himself. 'Marg', he said, 'I've
done it. I came in all weekend and I've cleaned out my whole office'.
And he had. Empty filing cabinets, empty shelves all the
lifetime of paperwork thrown out. But being a very good scientist,
he had done what he knew should be done he had written
a paper, which was duly published, about his 25 years in Immunology.
The raw 'data' then had been destroyed.
This true story illustrates the central problem of science archivists
- namely, how to ensure that material which might not be raw scientific
data, but which might nevertheless be of value, is retained. I
would like to outline a few moments of the Institute's history,
to see if there are other questions for archivists to consider.
But first I want to clarify one point. This conference is called
'Recovering Science'. I do not think that is quite what
you mean. For the 'science' of the Institute has been consistently
documented over the years. Experiments, research programs, and
those who conducted them, are meticulously recorded in the thousands
of academic publications, conference proceedings, PhD theses,
books and Annual Reports. These papers are the most important
components of a scientist's curriculum vitae, and are the
basis for international recognition of a leader in a particular
field of science. The National Health and Medical Research Council
requires us to keep all raw data for five years after publication.
Likewise, all Financial Reports and Accounts are well recorded,
and must be retained for seven years.
So it is not the 'facts' of science or its finances that need
to be recovered. What is certainly missing from our records is
the story behind the experiments - the rich tapestry of discussion,
debate, correspondence and so on, which turns science into a human
activity. This of course contradicts the traditional dogma that
science is an objective, depersonalised search for 'truth'.
We see the Institute's history primarily as a story of people
doing science, who share the goal of trying to understand and
ultimately alleviate human suffering from disease. The Institute's
goal in accepting Gavan McCarthy's invitation to become part of
the Australian Science Archives Project was to ensure that all
the pieces of the jigsaw of our history were collected and retained
in an accessible way. And much is lost.
Brief moments in history
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research was founded
in 1915, following the establishment of a trust set out in the
will of Eliza, widow of Walter Hall, who among other things founded
the Mount Morgan goldmine in Queensland. It was probably the first
set of laboratories in Australia dedicated to systematic research
into pathology and diseases, and was located in what was then
Melbourne Hospital in Lonsdale Street. These early days are fairly
well recorded in the University's archives and in the Formal Agreements,
and are outlined in a history of the first fifty years of the
Institute written by Sir Macfarlane Burnet in 19711.
It was of course a much smaller place then than it is now, but
perhaps paper was more precious then and the written record was
recognised as being of value. The earliest minutes are superbly
and succinctly handwritten in copperplate. The Institute is also
fortunate in that, towards the end of his life, Burnet agreed
to having his biography written, which provides an important perspective
on the history of the Institute.2
The 'Royal' Melbourne Hospital (as it had then become) moved to
its new premises in Grattan Street in 1944, and the Institute
moved to its new, expanded home in the East Wing. Every time one
moves house, there is the opportunity for a major 'cleanout',
and moving an Institute is no exception! Similarly, every time
a scientist leaves, there is a very large garbage bin of paper
outside the office door. The Institute expanded in the 1960s and
then moved to its current magnificent building in 1986, each time
losing large quantities of paper records forever.
There have only been four Directors of the Institute over its
77 years. Sydney Patterson (19201923), Charles Kellaway
(19231944), Frank Macfarlane Burnet (19441965) and
Gustav Nossal (1965-present). That is, fifty years have been governed
by just two outstanding Australian scientists. It is absolutely
crucial to us that our archives capture the spirit, as well as
the achievements of the second half of this century, especially
Nossal's inspirational leadership.
From its origins in the systematic study of pathology and disease,
the Institute's first central theme became Virology. Ross River
Fever virus, Murray Valley encephalitis, poliomyelitis, and particularly
the influenza virus were studied during the Burnet reign, with
the development of the chicken embryo as an excellent method for
growing viruses. Sir Mac progressively changed his interests from
the organisms which cause disease to the system of the body which
fights the disease, and he became one of the pioneers in the field
of Immunology, sharing the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his theories
in 1960. Immunology has remained the central theme of the Institute
to this day, with all the tools of modern biotechnology available
in the laboratories to provide data about the immune system and
its regulation in normal health and in disease. Does equipment
form part of our history, and therefore of the archives?
The reputation for excellence which the Institute has built up
has resulted in visits by many eminent people. Are these significant,
in an archival sense?
Impact of National Initiatives
The Institute receives only 50% of its operating income from Government
sources - the rest (some $10 million) we have to raise ourselves.
Due to the precarious nature of our funding, new funding initiatives
are constantly being sought and evaluated. An initiative such
as the Cooperative Research Centres scheme is one such example,
and the Institute is part of one of the 50 centres. I hesitate
to call this a National Science Policy the conception and
implementation of this scheme was too unexpected and hasty to
be sensibly developed. The Institute's archives will cover our
participation in one centre, should anyone ever wish to see what
it was like on the receiving end. I doubt that our records will
overlap much with those of our partners, as everyone's perspective
is a little different. But in the last six years we have been
asked no questions about early science policy, while we have been
asked countless times for particular information about individuals
who once worked at the Institute. I receive requests for photographs
of Burnet about three or four times every year.
I do not think it is a 'national policy'; but the archival community
should be aware that in the last six years there has been an absolute
explosion of national bureaucracy and reporting requirements.
For example, we use animals, mainly mice, as part of our research.
All our scientists have to be registered to be approved animal
experimenters, and all are required to fill in an extremely detailed
form annually. Are these of archival value? The Department of
Agriculture holds the forms, which have been requested under Freedom
of Information by the Animal Liberation Movement. Certainly this
movement is one of the antiscience movements in contemporary
society. How is that to be recorded in the National Science Archives?
This is only one example of the growing bureaucracy, which will
cause an exponential growth of our archives.
Lessons to be Learnt
How then can this Association improve this rather patchy picture
(which I suspect is not unique to our Institute)? I think there
are three groups of people who should be targeted:
- Undergraduate science students
As part of a compulsory course on the History and Philosophy of
Science there should be included the idea that science is a human
activity, and that this is integral rather than peripheral to
the development of scientific thought. The results of this sugestion,
however, will not be evident for many years.
- Leaders of Scientific Organisations
In the shortterm, it would be useful to consult current
leaders in science, particularly about how they 'pick winners',
for from the haystack of young scientists will come tomorrow's
leaders of science, and their contribution should be being documented
now. The 'secondsin-command', at the rung below leadership,
should also be consulted, so that their contributions and toil
are recognised and retained.
This is potentially the group which can gain most from the advice
of the archival community. Administrators need to know what, of
the daily pile, is valuable, and what is unimportant in archival
terms. For example, does it matter that we completed a 'Nil' return
on Scientific Fraud to the National Institutes of Health, USA,
last year? Should we routinely photocopy all incoming faxes, as
their shelflife is very short - or are the originals important?
What is an original computer printout, and how can we condense
the output of these incredibly 'productive' machines!?
I do not yet have a feel for the structure of our archive. I am
concerned that it includes 'closed series' of a topic, ending
at 1986. (This may have been due to the move!). I also find the
distinction between the Institute's archives and Nossal's personal
archives to be a grey one. As Director, he has shaped the Institute
over these past 25 years.
Is an archive just a passive collection of what's left after the
party's over, or is it a more dynamic, evolving and growing entity?
Is chronology the primary structure? If so, should administrators
be canvassing every year for material? But they need to know what
kind of material - a box on a counter is inadequate for scientists.
All the above groups would benefit from the archival community's
I hope I can offer you, the archivists, one small piece of advice.
It is quite simple - treasure the old photographs. They are an
integral part of our archives. Anonymous, untitled, undated, and
faded, nevertheless each tells a thousand words, and is retained
long after those written words have been thrown away. They are
also usually pictures of people, the human faces of science. How
priceless to us is a rare photo of the Master with his young disciple;
Sir Mac with the young Gus Nossal. Is it of value to you?
1 F.M. Burnet,
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute 19151965, Melb University
2 C.Sexton, The Seeds of
Time: The Life of Sir Macfarlane Burnet Oxford University