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
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.)