[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]

Jock Marshall

Janie Marshall
I am writing a biography of Jock Marshall, who was Professor of Zoology at Monash University when he died in 1967. First, I should make it clear that I am not a scientist, not a biographer and, furthermore, I was married to the man. With three such disabilities you may wonder how I got past page one.

It was Gavan McCarthy's fault really. I can't blame him for the initial impulse ­ but the dusty boxes full of papers that I'd kept all those years seemed to be entertaining him so much, I decided to look at them again. There was certainly a wealth of material. Even though I'd known most of it I looked on it with new eyes twenty years later. And it was that gap of twenty years that really kicked me into action. There had been three writers who thought about a biography. None of them looked at the material. Two of them decided against it because they were not scientists and the other died before anything came of it. I suddenly thought all this might lie in boxes for years ­ and so jumped on the tiger's back.

I suppose you'd like to know first what it is about Jock's life that makes it biography­worthy. He's been dead for 25 years and most of you will never have heard of him ­ except perhaps for people from Monash. In fact he had quite an impact on the beginnings of Monash, and kept his finger on the pulse of everything that was happening ­ although the Vice­Chancellor and some professors might have described it more as a dagger than a finger. He even became something of a legend for a while. That characteristic ­ his unconventional behaviour and mode of thinking - made him newsworthy quite often in his life. But above all else, he was a very serious scientist. He did distinguished work in his field ­ the physiology of reproduction. But I suppose most people wouldn't get wildly excited about that. They're more interested in the external effects. What is more generally interesting is the excitement and energy he brought to it, the way he worked and the rather weird way he became involved in it. He was an almost total delinquent at school ­ the enfant terrible of every class from kindergarten to high school. The only thing he worked at was reading ­ everything he could lay his hands on except what was on the syllabus. He left school at the age of fourteen, before he'd even sat for the School Certificate. It's a common enough CV and, in 1925, not even an impediment to most careers ­ but hardly an expected or propitious grounding for a scientist.

Then, just before his sixteenth birthday, he shot off his left arm in a moment of extreme carelessness while collecting firewood. He was adamant later that it was the best thing that could have happened to him. He was right. Through a series of introductions, beginning with a letter which his mother wrote to Neville Cayley, the ornithologist, he was led into the field of science. But even then his passage was unconventional. With no science degree, and minimal training from Australian Museum men, he worked with an Oxford University scientific expedition in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). He was a very fast learner when his interest was engaged. Then he went to New Guinea, and later with Austrian scientists to the Arctic. He worked in the Department of Zoology at Oxford briefly with Dr John Baker, a reproductive physiologist, and finally in 1938, when he was 27, he began reading for a science degree at Sydney University.

He got the degree and spent four years in the army as well. As soon as the war was over he went to Oxford to study for a Doctorate of Philosophy. He got that in two years, and went on to do ten years of concentrated research in London, and field work in various countries. He wrote a couple of books, took an Oxford Doctorate of Science and then came to Monash. In all, it was an adventurous, widely diverse career in science. But the actual academic achievements were concertinaed into a very short time ­ for someone who gained quite a reputation internationally. Oh ­ and there were a number of extramural activities that were rather fascinating as well, so I thought it was all worth recording.

But I'm certainly aware that I've added a difficult aspect ­ that of being a wife ­ to an already difficult genre. It conjures emotional overtones that cause people to shy like nervy horses ­ although lately one or two women have bucked the prejudice with success. It is not even unknown for a widower to do the same. It is a risk, though ­ one has to watch oneself; hagiographies are boring. And it is easy, if you've loved the man, to slip into trying to protect his reputation. But in a sense, you had to love Jock whole ­ to use that cliche ­ warts and all. He was almost always wading in hot water ­ publicly. He was the antithesis of an ivory­tower dweller. And he couldn't resist pricking pompous ­ often important ­ egos. The most important difficulty for a wife in the writing of a biography is that she can't leave herself out ­ at least not in the conventional biographical sense of never being the 'I' or 'me'. Some biographers show their hand more than others but it is always an impersonal hand. A wife has to be a presence in the writing once she enters the scene. It makes it harder to weld the whole, and harder to deal with yourself; you can't be just a domestic background figure, as happens in some biographies of men. And how much of the personal element is it legitimate to add? I think, in the end, you cannot ask what is legitimate ­ only operate by instinct and hope for a modicum of judgement as you step through the mine­field.

There is another obvious disadvantage ­ people find it hard to be honest about their feelings or their knowledge in front of a widow (that word is loaded). But I've found the twenty-odd year gap has made it easier to persuade them to talk.

Being a scientist ­ does that really matter? I haven't been too concerned, because it seems the most engaging biographies are about the person, and why they do what they do, rather than too many details of the work ­ although that needs some explanation. It's been helpful to me to have been involved with Jock's work as an illustrator. It's true I may have been a lot more wary if he'd been a chemist or a physicist. But I think if it were necessary for the biographer to practise the same trade, so to speak, as the subject, biography would be the poorer ­ although no doubt in the field of the arts there's an easier way in than there is in science. There has grown up something of a barrier of 'them' and 'us' between the two disciplines. Actually, this was something Jock worked to dissipate. He was the prime mover at Monash in having a short arts course offered to science students and some very general science information offered to arts students. But those grafts didn't really take.

For a non­scientist, Jock himself gave some biographical aid, with his habit of simplifying his research for occasional broadcasts or articles for non­specialist journals ­ and he did it lucidly because he'd worked as a journalist while at Sydney University. In fact, writing was his second love - he'd written two books before he was 25.

That remarkable biographer, Richard Holmes, notes Robert Louis Stephenson's observation that those who marry have 'domesticated' the Recording Angel. On the other hand, he writes elsewhere that a biographer should be haunted by, or even in some way in love with the subject. I don't imagine he meant 'in love' in the way of a spouse. But both these aspects are pertinent, if a spouse is what you were.

(I would like to add a P.S: to the archivists, I make a solemn promise. I did not keep those boxes all those years in order to comb through them to search and destroy incriminating evidence. After the first attempt, I literally did not look at them for twenty years. Keeping them with me was pure instinct.)

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