[Go to the Recovering Science proceedings Title Page]

[Go to the Contents page]
[Go to details of the contributors]

[Go to the previous article]
[Go to the next article]

Biographical Memoirs Published in Historical Records of Australian Science

Rosanne Clayton
Ever since the death of the first Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, it has been Academy policy to publish a brief obituary notice in our Year Book, in the next issue if possible. With the establishment of Records of the Australian Academy of Science (later renamed Historical Records of Australian Science), the Council decided that in addition to the brief obituary notice, an extended biographical memoir would be published 'in due course'. The biographer is chosen because he has worked closely with the deceased Fellow. I say 'he' advisedly, because of the 96 writers of the 70 biographies so far published in Historical Records, only 2 have been female. More often than not a Fellow of the Academy is either the sole author or one of the co-authors, but this is not a hard and fast rule. In fact, several memoirs currently in preparation are by non-Fellows.


There are several problems associated with writing these memoirs. We have a well established procedure for organising biographers, but we can't set this in motion until we find out that someone has died. In the middle of one of our Annual General Meeting dinners, someone on my table remarked in passing how much Wilf would have enjoyed the evening and we thus found out that Wilf Simmonds had died about a month earlier. I was also startled earlier this year to be asked for information for a non-Academy obituary for Herbert Andrewartha who, it transpired, had died more than ten weeks earlier. These days the first thing I read in the newspaper is the death notices!

As far as I know, finding someone prepared to undertake the work is not a problem, but sometimes their good intentions are not always followed through. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. If people are still working they are too busy; if they have retired they might not have any secretarial assistance. Having a memoir published may be of lower priority than having a scientific paper published. If the deceased Fellow was of very advanced age (we currently have four Fellows over 90 and our oldest Fellow died at 96), then someone who worked closely with him is also likely to be getting on in years, with a resultant increased risk of failing physical or mental health. These memoirs often constitute the definitive biography and involve a great deal of research; they are expected to be 5000 to 12000 words long and to contain personal information as well as details of the subject's scientific work. Assistance from the widow is often required, which inevitably means waiting until she is emotionally ready to provide such help.

Another problem, in my opinion, is that the original letter from the Council to the biographer does not give a date by which the memoir should be submitted. Since I have been responsible for organising the short obituary notices for the Year Book, a time limit has always been imposed, and our success rate has been very high - though I must admit that the nagging skills I have developed as a mother of three school aged children have proved very useful here!

There are currently several outstanding memoirs including those of three people who died in 1983, one who died in 1982 and one who died in 1980. In one case the biographer himself has since died (luckily a more successful choice of biographer was made in his case). Three of the subjects were also Fellows of the Royal Society of London and had memoirs published in Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society, which made it very difficult for their respective biographers - what could they say that hadn't already been said? For some years now there has been an arrangement between the Academy and the Royal Society whereby a single joint memoir of a deceased Fellow who was also an FRS is published in Historical Records and Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. A compromise solution to the long outstanding memoirs is outlined in the footnote to the Historical Records memoir of Pehr Edman, which appeared in 1990, some 13 years after his death:

Before this arrangement, a few memoirs appeared in the Royal Society publication, the authors of which lacked access to some relevant Australian documents and information. It is the editor's intention, in selected cases, to publish here an additional and shorter memoir providing more details of the Fellow's Australian work.1

Although the agreement to publish joint memoirs with the Royal Society has solved many problems, these memoirs still cause headaches. For a start, the biographer chosen has to be acceptable to both the Royal Society and the Academy. In cases where a Fellow has spent most of his working life in Australia and particularly the latter part, an Australian takes major responsibility for the memoir. Similarly, where most of the working life has been spent in the UK, the British take major responsibility. It is often necessary to have two biographers, one in Australia and one in the UK, with resultant communication problems. In response to the inevitable rejoinder that e-mail has made such communication problems obsolete, it is important to bear in mind that many people in the work force do not yet have access to e-mail facilities and that retired people are even less likely to have such access.

Sources of Information for the Memoirs

As I said earlier the memoirs require a great deal of research. Because they are commissioned by the Council of the Academy, the Academy tries to provide as much help as possible. A personal file is kept on each Fellow and the relevant contents made available to the biographer. Nowadays, a certificate proposing a candidate for election must be accompanied by a curriculum vitae and publications list, but these do become out of date with time. Unfortunately, even this much information was not required in the early days of the Academy's existence and naturally the Fellows who were elected 30 or more years ago are more likely to be the ones for whom a memoir is now necessary. The person wanting information on Andrewartha wanted to know in which years he had won each of four medals. There was nothing on his file to indicate that he had even won those medals - in fact his biographical information consisted of his name, degrees and position at the time of his election! His biographer was horrified; he was even more horrified when I told him very tactfully that we had virtually the same amount of information on his personal file! We also copy material for these files from such sources as the ANU Reporter and Co-research (the CSIRO staff newspaper), but these newsletters don't always reach the library so a lot of such material is missed.

Each new Fellow is asked to provide a 'Personal Record' of detailed biographical information. The brochure requesting this information states that 'Fellows can fairly be expected to regard co-operation in the scheme as a definite obligation.' It also asks that the record be kept up to date. Our Fellows are a fairly conscientious lot and approximately one-third of them have provided this information. However, even a very detailed personal record is only a starting point for a memoir. To begin with, they are often compiled after retirement. No matter how good people's memories are, they couldn't possibly recall events from several decades earlier with 100% accuracy. They are also writing with the benefit of hindsight; problems may be glossed over and mistakes or unfruitful lines of inquiry not recorded. This is probably not deliberate, but no matter how good the intention, it is only human nature to present oneself in the best possible light.

Where, then, do people go for information? Speaking to the family would be an obvious line of approach and, indeed, many memoirs acknowledge the help received from this source. Again, however, this may be of only limited value. In some cases the spouse never existed, is no longer alive or has become vague and forgetful. In other cases, and I suspect this is more the case with earlier generations, work and home were kept separate, and while the wife can be very helpful with personal information she knows very little of her husband's work. The deceased person's own records, where they are available and in reasonable order, are probably more useful.

Most biographers rely heavily on information from colleagues or students. Gathering this can involve hundreds of letters and from the archivist's point of view this correspondence, which is often deposited in the Basser Library, is as valuable as the published memoir.

Value of the Memoirs

How useful are these memoirs? There will always be a demand for biographical material on such giants of Australian science as Macfarlane Burnet. However, for people as eminent as he, there is already likely to be a wealth of information - certainly, in the case of Burnet, a full length biography has already been published. In some ways, the memoirs of the less well known Fellows, who are probably in Who's Who in Australia but are less likely to make it into publications such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography make a greater contribution to the total picture of Australian science.

Do the memoirs, like the personal records, gloss over problems, particularly with colleagues? There is the natural desire not to speak ill of the dead and as one recent biographer said, the memoir is of that person and his achievements, not those of his colleagues. However, these memoirs are not bland whitewashes. In the memoir for Lionel Bull, for example, we learn of the uneasiness between him and Arthur Turner over the administration of the Parkville Laboratory, which Bull had made the headquarters for his Division. Turner was Officer-in-Charge of this laboratory. The problem between Bull and Turner is also spelt out explicitly in Turner's memoir - Bull 'frequently issued instructions to various members of the staff without any prior consultation with the Officer-in-Charge.'2

In Bull's memoir we are also told of similar problems between Bull and Hedley Marston, who was also Officer-in-Charge of a CSIRO laboratory. In Marston's memoir we read that the years when he was closely associated with Bull 'were extremely productive but in several respects it was an unhappy period.'3 Perhaps these problems were so large and well-known that the memoirs would have been incomplete without mentioning them, but I think that on the whole people try to portray their subjects 'warts and all'. To quote again from Marston's memoir, for example,

It is more difficult to write of Marston's complex character and colourful personality. With some people he developed deep and lasting friendships and loyalties and a real sense of humility which engendered respect, affection, even devotion. With others he maintained bitter animosities and assumed irritating airs of superiority and omniscience, which naturally provoked impatience, dislike and even open hostility.4

Finally, an unexpected benefit is that often the writers of the memoirs find the historical research unexpectedly enjoyable. Many of them are retired and so have more spare time than they had in the past, and in some cases they develop a real and continuing interest in the history of science. Huxley's biographer, for example, has recently presented an invited paper at an international physics conference. He chose to talk on 'The foundations of the physics of atomic collisions in Australia' and before writing the paper he spent a considerable amount of time in the Basser Library using historical source material. This type of activity can only benefit the future of history of science in Australia.


1 F J Morgan, 'Pehr Victor Edman 1916-1977', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 8, no. 2, 1990, p. 85.

2 E L French and A K Sutherland, 'Arthur William Turner 1900-1989', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 1, 1992, p. 58.

3 E J Underwood, 'Hedley Ralph Marston', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 1, no.2, 1967, p.76.

4 E J Underwood op. cit., p.84.

Top of page | Title Page | Contents | Contributors | Previous article | Next article
Published by ASAP on ASAPWeb, 2 August 1997.
Another quality product from disCONTENTS Designed by Tim Sherratt

Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 25 February 1998