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
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
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
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
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
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.,