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A Case Study: The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Margaret N. Brumby
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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Administrators
    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 advice.

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 Press 1971.

2 C.Sexton, The Seeds of Time: The Life of Sir Macfarlane Burnet Oxford University Press, 1991.

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