Clifford Walter Emmens (known to us as Cliff, but only in later years when he had mellowed!) was born on 19 December 1913, in Peckham. London, UK, the youngest of three children. His father was Walter James Emmens, an Insurance Loss Assessor, and his mother was Narissa Louise (née Pugh). The family moved to Purley, Surrey when Emmens was 10 and he describes how he developed there the early interest in pond life that was to foreshadow his later academic pursuits in biology and his recreational activities as an aquarist. His early schooling was at the Purley County School for Boys, obviously a good one as in his final year it obtained the three top scholarships to the University of London’s Agricultural College at Wye in Kent. Emmens was awarded one of these. Evidently not liking Agriculture at that stage, he transferred in his second year to University College, London with an Honours major in zoology and a subsidiary in physiology. He was awarded a BSc(Hons) in 1935, followed by a MSc in 1936. He registered for a PhD under Sir Henry Dale in 1937 and completed the degree in 1939. He was awarded his DSc from the same institution on 9 May 1947.
After graduation, he joined the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Hampstead —described by Emmens as ‘the ‘ouse of ‘orror on the ‘ill’ — and soon earned an enviable reputation for his prodigious research effort and output. He married Muriel Edith Bristow, a ballet dancer and daughter of Henry Roderick Bristow and May Bristow (née Savell), in 1937. The marriage resulted in four children, Jane (b. 1941), Roger Leonard (b.d. 1942), Harriet (b. 1943) and Roger Lyle (b. 1951, d. 1993). During the Second World War, Emmens was seconded to join Zuckerman at Oxford to study the effects of bombing on morale, and was subsequently seconded to the RAF as an Honorary Wing Commander to join various bombing assessment units, where his biometrical skills proved invaluable.
After the war, Emmens returned to the NIMR, only to be enticed to the University of Sydney in 1948 to set up a Department of Veterinary Physiology. He was appointed to the Chair in 1950. In a very few years, his extraordinary administrative and scientific skills resulted in the establishment of a formidable department with a staff of more than fifty, largely funded by external sources. A unique aspect of the department was that the research interests of all members involved reproduction. Throughout his career he encouraged both staff and students to follow emerging areas in reproductive biology. Examples of these were developmental biology, hypothalamo/hypophyseal control of gonadal activity and the biochemistry of steroid hormone action. No sooner did he have the department up and producing than he was invited in 1952 to set up the Sheep Biology Laboratory at Prospect, later to become the CSIRO Division of Animal Production. For some time, he ran both the department and the Prospect Laboratory simultaneously.
Although his early research interests in Sydney showed a concentration on the freezing of semen, particularly of the ram and bull, and on artificial insemination (AI), he soon turned his attention once more to various aspects of oestrogens and antioestrogens. The aim was to discover a compound that possessed antifertility activity without significant side effects. This work was substantially supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, as well as by several drug companies. The problems experienced with thalidomide and other compounds meant support for such work declined and he turned in his later years to more basic investigations on the nature of the oestrous cycle, with a comparative emphasis.
Emmens contributed very significantly to Australian and international science. He was elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1956 and served on its Council between 1965 and 1968. His roles as President of the Endocrine Society of Australia (twice), Chairman of the Australian Society for Reproductive Biology, Section President of ANZAAS, President of the 2nd Asia & Oceania Congress of Endocrinology, a member of the Biological Sciences Sub-committee of the Australian Research Grants Commission and Chairman of the Board of Standards of the CSIRO Australian Science Journals are just some examples of his contributions. He retired in 1978 and spent many of the next twenty years on his life-long interest as an aquarist. During this time he wrote ten books on the subject and also had many articles published in aquarists’ magazines. Cliff Emmens died in Sydney on 18 June 1999 and is survived by two daughters. An obituary in Tropical Fish Hobbyist reads in part ‘scientist, teacher, author, aquarist, judo black belt, ballroom dancer’, an apt summary of this complex and remarkable man. What could have been added is that he was a much respected and admired colleague.
In 1935, Emmens graduated with a science degree in Zoology with Physiology as a subsidiary. During his undergraduate days, he met J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fisher. These between them converted Emmens to an interest in biometry, an interest that probably got him his first job at the National Institute of Medical Research that he took up in 1937. This position was to join the team headed by A.S. Parkes. To accept the position, Emmens had to break off his then PhD studies being supervised by M.J. D. White and accept a MSc. However, given the country’s economy in the ’30s and the lack of jobs in biology, Emmens counted himself lucky. His job in collaboration with the chemist R.K. Callow was to investigate the excretion of sex hormones in humans and to establish reliable bioassays for them. Initial work with faeces was rapidly abandoned and after prodigious efforts Emmens was able to show that even male and female urine could not be distinguished! Luckily, the development of bioassays geared in with the setting-up of various International Standards for steroids and gonadotrophins. For a time he was kept busy collating and analysing co-operative assays. He recorded a triumph for statistical analysis when he was able to show that in one case the contributions to the standard had not been adequately mixed. Subsequently he was able to re-enrol as a PhD candidate under Sir Henry Dale’s supervision. He completed the degree in 1939 with a thesis entitled ‘Studies on the biological activity of gonadal hormones’.
The late 1930s and early 1940s were periods of great developments in endocrinology. Emmens’ own contributions at first stemmed from bioassays but later developed into looking at the nature of oestrogenic activity. The animals used in bioassay — mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, chicks and capons — were explored in various ways to determine the effects of the route of administration, solvents and so on, and, in the case of mice, the use of inbred stocks. Oddly, as it then seemed, inbred mice proved to be more variable than randomly bred ones. This was the time of the discovery of diethylstilboestrol (DES) by E.C. Dodds and his colleagues, and they provided Emmens with many synthetic compounds for testing. Perhaps his most exciting discovery during this period was of synthetic precursors of oestrogens that were not themselves active but after metabolism in the body became so. He called these compounds pro-oestrogens.
Emmens stayed on in the Institute’s laboratories for a couple of years after the outbreak of war, having been promised work of national importance, but none ever came. When zoologists in the Institute were called up but he was not, Emmens asked the Director, Sir Henry Dale, for an explanation. Dale had none and sent Emmens off in the Institute’s official vehicle to visit the local labour exchange to find out. There, the queue of gentlemen on various errands was astonished to see a young man arrive in a government car with chauffeur to demand why he had not been conscripted. Reason: Emmens was classified as a chemist and was still exempt. However, in 1941, enquiries for Emmens’ transfer from the National Institute of Medical Research to the Ministry of Home Security’s Department of Research and Experiments, to work with Solly Zuckerman in his Oxford Extra-Mural Unit studying the effects of bombing, commenced. At this time, Zuckerman approached Sir Henry Dale about Emmens’ availability and Dale was sympathetic, admitting that Emmens was restive without something more definite in the way of war work. However, Sir Edward Mellanby, Secretary of the MRC, was reluctant to release Emmens as Emmens’ primary duties were in experimental endocrinology, not statistics (for which subject, however, he did admit Emmens had a definite flair). In a letter to Dale, Mellanby described Emmens as a very promising physiologist and suggested that Emmens’ move into definite war work should be in the area where he could use his physiological ability to the utmost, so he made no move on the request for statistical help at the Ministry. Little then happened until May 1942, when the case for Emmens’ assistance to Zuckerman was resurrected in a letter from Dale to Mellanby. In this letter, Dale stated that Emmens felt that work for Zuckerman was of more national importance than his present work and recommended that he be released to take up a temporary appointment with Zuckerman. The Ministry of Home Security reconfirmed its desire to have Emmens’ services. Dale then contacted Zuckerman with a proposal for the transfer, on the proviso that if the work was completed or the Institute needed Emmens’ services, the Institute had the right to ask for his release and return to the Institute. Zuckerman agreed to these conditions in a letter to Dale dated 26 June 1942.
Initially Emmens was asked to tackle the problem of assessing morale in Germany. The Foreign Office was pressing for air raids in South Germany as they believed that it was a soft region capable of a breakdown in morale. Their assessments were based on intelligence reports, newspapers from the area and so on. It was easy to show, via the Ministry of Home Security, that similar data could be used to form the same picture in British cities, yet no breakdown in morale was happening. So the bombing was not diverted at that period.
Zuckerman’s many friends in the American and British forces led to his being invited to survey and advise on bombing in the Mediterranean. Emmens, along with others from the Oxford unit, joined him and were given honorary commissions in the RAF. This group was joined by others to form the Bombing Survey Unit, based in recently occupied Palermo. There were some twenty officers and fifty other ranks, with teams swarming over Sicily and later Italy, studying the effects of bombing on towns, airfields and communications. It became more and more apparent that bombing cities was much less effective than bombing communications, even with poor bombing accuracy. This conclusion was at odds with the directives from the British Air Ministry and the policies of the commander of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who was convinced that the strategy of ‘area bombing’ of entire German cities was the more appropriate tactic.
Emmens, with the help of Squadron Leader Ford who commanded the RAF regulars, was in charge of the Bombing Survey Unit for part of its existence. The work was aided by a galaxy of talent, including Frank Yates the statistician, Peter Krohn and Sandy Thomson, both to become Professors of Medicine, and many others. Their work enabled Zuckerman to convince Tedder and Eisenhower of the importance of communications bombing.
In May 1944, Emmens left the Unit and returned to Oxford, writing up reports and wondering about D-day. When it arrived, a new Bombing Analysis Unit was formed and he was back in uniform and off to the Normandy beaches with many of his former colleagues. At first they studied troop support bombing and eventually gravitated to Paris to repeat in even greater detail the earlier work. To quote the Air Ministry in March 1945: ‘The work of the Bombing Analysis Unit is absolutely vital for the development of future air weapons. On it would depend the formulation of future requirements and also of future Air Staff policy.’ This Unit collaborated with the Americans, as had the Bombing Strategy Unit, but this time there was fuller integration of activities, while still producing independent reports often from common data. About fifty reports, each like a scientific paper, were produced. Perhaps this level of scientific precision was a mistake, as many staff officers who could have benefited from them did not understand the reports.
At the end of hostilities, the British Bombing Survey Unit was formed and was able, from German records, to compare various estimates of the effects of the bombing made by RAF Bomber Command, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Foreign Office and the scientists using the facts as recorded by the Germans. According to Emmens, the scientists came out of it very well and were nearer to the truth than any others, whose estimates were in general excessive. He was in charge of the survey of town bombing, which made it clear that until the chaos in Germany right at the end of the war, the Allied offensive had had little effect on either morale or production. Concentration on communications or fuel at an earlier stage would have been much more useful. At the start of the war, towns were about all that could be hit but, according to Emmens, rigorous training for greater accuracy and a switch to other targets should have followed.
Some indication of the esteem in which Emmens was held by the senior scientific community around this time can be gauged by the following quotations from a letter written by Sir Henry Dale to Professor C.R. Harrington, then at the University College Hospital Medical School, London, but soon to follow Dale as Director of the National Institute of Medical Research: ‘I take the opportunity to put on record, what I may already have expressed to you verbally, my impression that Emmens ought to find a position of permanent usefulness and distinction in the Institute’s future. From quite early days, and especially in connection with Biological Standards and their application, I have been impressed with the value of the statistical guidance and criticism in the planning and interpreting of quantitative biological experiments…I recommend you, however, to keep an eye on him, as a man who would be likely to perform a function, in relation to the researches in the Institute, far beyond the range of the immediate problems of Parkes’ sub-department, in connection with which he was engaged.’ (Dale to Harrington, 4 September 1942). It is not surprising, therefore, that in the following year, as the new Director, Harrington encouraged Emmens to accept the invitation to write a monograph on the application of statistical methods to experimental biology in a series on laboratory techniques. This ultimately led to the publication by Chapman and Hall of his monograph, Principles of Biological Assay. It was written in the war years but not published until 1949. It sold well and was even translated into Japanese. Emmens’ personal typist for writing the book was a gifted young lady named Beryl Turner who, according to Emmens, could take down an analysis of variance by dictation and get it perfect.
By 1946, the Institute was extremely anxious for Emmens’ return to Parkes’ laboratory. Emmens shared this desire and returned to the laboratory that year. Parkes had in the meantime developed an interest in spermatozoa that eventually lead to deep freezing and Emmens mainly joined in experiments on factors affecting the survival and activity of sperm, with excursions into other work where statistical techniques were needed. He introduced factorial design and analysis and various other designs into thyroid assays, assays of diets for mice, and so on. At this time, he was also allowed by the Director to accept an invitation to join the committee of the Pharmacopoeia Commission dealing with biological standardization.
In 1947, there were indications that Emmens was getting itchy feet and had approached Zuckerman about university posts in the UK. Then in October of that year, Professor H.R. Carne, Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, wrote to Harrington telling him of the establishment of a Department of Veterinary Physiology within the Faculty. The Faculty had decided to make an initial appointment for two years’ duration, with the likelihood that a Chair would be created at the end of that period. Professor Carne went on to say that from opinions of men in England and of visiting Australian colleagues, Emmens would fill the needs admirably and that his letter was to inform Harrington of the University’s decision to send an official invitation to Emmens to accept the position.
Emmens’ interest in Australia had been awakened by his association with C.R. Austin, a guest worker at the Institute from the then CSIR in Sydney. Thus, when he received the offer to set up the new department at the University of Sydney, it did not take him too long to accept.
In March 1948, Emmens, his wife Muriel and their two young daughters set sail for Australia in the Nestor, a journey that was to take nine weeks! One wonders what his thoughts were when he saw for the first time the rather depressing fibro-cement building (later to be known as the Ross Street Building) that was to be the home for his department for the next 25 years. Some staff were already in post: Ian White a biochemist, Alan Blackshaw and John Biggers (both vets) and Ron Penn, a technician from the physiology department in London. Their task had been to prepare for his arrival and particularly to prepare for the teaching of physiology to veterinary students. The old guard of the veterinary profession did not overly welcome his arrival. ‘Emmens was not a vet, was not a blood and guts physiologist, was not even a physiologist’ writes Ian White describing the attitude. This attitude of the old guard continued to plague Emmens and on at least two occasions they blocked his election to Dean of the Faculty. Perhaps if they had acted differently he would soon have been lost to the Faculty, moving on to higher administrative and/or scientific activities. However Carne, who was still Dean, and other senior colleagues in the University warmly welcomed him.
Initially teaching was restricted to third- year veterinary students, their early physiology being taught with medical students. Within a few years, however, there were courses given to veterinary students in their second and third years and to some animal- specialist Agriculture students in their third year. The broad aspects of these courses remained unchanged for many years until recent extensive curriculum reviews in both the veterinary and agricultural faculties, an indication that Emmens and colleagues ‘got it right’ from the start. Veterinary and Agriculture Faculties across the nation later adopted many aspects of these courses.
Emmens’ ability as a top class administrator was exemplified by his being seconded part-time between 1952 and 1954 as Officer-in-Charge of the CSIRO Sheep Biology Laboratory at Prospect (later to become the Division of Animal Physiology, then Production) until Ian McDonald became Chief of the new Division.
On retirement, Emmens was elected an honorary Fellow of the Australian College of Veterinary Science and awarded an honorary DVSc by the University of Sydney in recognition to his contributions to research and teaching in veterinary science. He was also awarded the Oliver Bird Medal (UK) and the Istituto Spallanzini Medal during his career.
Emmens wasted no time in organizing an extensive research programme and was aided by the quality of the people he attracted. He was partly employed to raise the poor research profile of the Faculty and that he did with vigour. In no time the research output from the fledgling department exceeded that of the rest of the Faculty. This gave him great pride. He was aided by an enlightened attitude by grant- giving bodies such as the Wool and Meat Boards, the Hunter District Dairy Co-operative and the State Cancer Council among others, who all recognised that progress with applied research required significant support of the relevant basic science. Would that such an attitude prevailed today!
Early research on semen freezing and AI essentially took off from where Emmens had left it with Alan Parkes at the NIMR. With Allan Blackshaw and later Ian Martin, this work concentrated on obtaining both suitable freeze/thaw conditions for ram and bull semen and also AI techniques, with the ultimate goal of live births as desired. This approach did not initially appear to worry Parkes but the publication of the successful freezing of ram semen by Emmens’ group changed Parkes’ attitude dramatically (Emmens describes receipt of a ‘vituperative’ letter). If Emmens had wished to return to the UK at that stage, he no doubt would have had great difficulty in obtaining suitable employment! With the semen side in the capable hands of Blackshaw, White, Ian Martin and later Ray Wales, Emmens gradually withdrew to concentrate on other areas of reproduction.
In his years at the NIMR he had done extensive work on bioassay, biometrical analysis and aspects of oestrogenic and anti-oestrogenic activity. With the initial assistance of Biggers, then Peter Claringbold and Len Martin, new assays for oestrogens and anti-oestrogens were developed and existing assays were improved. The work moved on to examine a variety of synthetic compounds, initially those of the stilbene series like stilboestrol, hexoestrol and dimethylstilboestrol. Then with the appointment of a steroid biochemist, Ron Cox, and later two chemists, David Collins and John Hobbs, a plethora of compounds were synthesised. There was particular interest in finding compounds that had anti- fertility activity without oestrogenic or other side effects. It was also hoped that some might have anti-tumour activity. This work was well supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, WHO and drug companies such as Syntex, Mead Johnson and Aspro-Nicholas. Many compounds with interesting biological properties were synthesised and tested but the ultimate compound(s) proved elusive. Support for such work came to an abrupt halt with the thalidomide disaster. In the last few years before retirement, Cliff went back to more basic research with Gidley-Baird on aspects of the oestrus cycle. He became convinced that a 4–5-day cycle was archetypical and was modified minimally in rodents and to a greater extent in other eutherian mammals. Unfortunately he did not manage to convince many others of this.
Emmens and Claringbold developed some new approaches to bioassay, especially those involving quantal responses, and Claringbold moved into writing quite sophisticated computer programmes for biometrical analysis. He eventually headed the CSIRO Division of Computer Research. While obviously encouraging Claringbold in his foray into the use of computers, Emmens himself showed no interest in computing, nor did he take to the new in vitro assays, such as radioimmunassays. Surprisingly, he was rather disparaging of them. One might have expected a second Edition of Principles of Biological Assay that would have dealt with these new developments, but unfortunately it did not eventuate.
The conditions in the Sydney department were very conducive to high-quality research. The department was well staffed, with the result that teaching was not a great burden. All investigators, including PhD students, had access to a full-time or half- time laboratory technician, and there was a well-equipped and well-staffed workshop that could make essentially any mechanical or electronic items that were needed. Part of the basement was converted to housing for small laboratory mammals that produced an apparently endless supply of animals, on demand. No Animal Ethics Committees at that time! There were also adequate facilities for housing species such as cattle and sheep. Emmens himself had surprisingly little interest in equipment but was very happy to support requests for equipment from staff or postgraduate students, either within the institution or without. Ian Martin reports that when he provided a binocular microscope for Emmens’ use, it was rejected because Emmens wanted to look with one eye down the microscope and see what he was writing with the other. The suggestion that he just needed a class microscope was not well received!
The success of the research environment can be gauged by the awarding of 35 PhDs within the Department and three higher Doctorates over twenty years. For more than half that time, there were only three permanent academic staff and they numbered only five just before Emmens’ retirement. In many universities, such a small department would not be considered viable these days.
Any problems that arose in the Department, whatever the cause, were solved quickly at morning or afternoon tea or lunch. No interminable departmental meetings in those days! Emmens was always in a hurry, no doubt exacerbated by a developing hyperthyroidism, but things did get done without prevarication. There was also plenty of opportunity for lively discussions over wide-ranging topics at lunch, particularly in the early days when the crowded building also hosted the CSIRO Division of Animal Genetics and had frequent visits from the Prospect staff. Sometimes Cliff’s ‘incandescent temper’ would cause him to depart such discussions very hastily when he disagreed, but he never was one to bear a grudge.
No doubt one of the reasons for Emmens’ success was that he did not suffer fools gladly, be they Vice-Chancellors, Purchasing Officers, his own staff, or students. It was widely known that he had a black belt in judo, and that possibly contributed to a quick settling of disputes — putting the knowledge into practice helped him on one occasion to settle an altercation between some veterinary students.
Emmens served the scientific community and also government and semi-government bodies widely. These are detailed fully below but included serving on the Council of the Australian Academy of Science, as President/Chairman of national scientific societies and international congresses, as a member of the Standing Committee of the International Congress of Animal Reproduction, the National Planned Parenthood Association and the Therapeutic Goods Standards Committee, of WHO Committees and of the CSIRO Advisory Committee. He was also an active member of a wide range of scientific societies, also detailed below.
Any record of Cliff Emmens’ life would be incomplete without a consideration of his interest in freshwater and marine life. The interest was stimulated by investigations of pond life when he moved to the ‘country’ at age 10 and it developed as he grew to involve keeping freshwater species and attempts to keep marine species after vacation trips to the coast. His interest as an aquarist exploded, however, when he moved to Sydney in 1948 and purchased a large home on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour. The basement of this home eventually contained over seventy tanks, ranging in volume from 20 to 450 litres, and was a magnificent spectacle. His interest in tropical species grew despite the difficulties in acquiring them, keeping them alive and obtaining the necessary equipment for their survival and display. He soon began to write extensively on the subject. This writing included books, initially with his friend H.R. Axelrod in the USA, and also wide-ranging articles that were published in aquarist magazines. In total he wrote more than twenty books on the subject, including ten after his retirement. On reflection, this was probably Cliff’s greatest interest after his family, and some idea of his enthusiasm can be gained from the title of an article he wrote: ‘Oh to be an aquarist in the year 536 Ê 106 BC’! He was Patron of the British Marine Aquarists Association and the Marine Aquarium Research Institute of Australia.
Cliff Emmens came to Sydney with a well- deserved reputation as a scientist, biometrician and author. He quickly demonstrated also an amazing administrative ability in setting up a teaching and research facility that was envied in the rest of the Veterinary Faculty and also in the University of Sydney at large. Some said he was like a benevolent dictator, but it was a philosophy that worked, and was allowed to work, at that time. He fostered independent thought and effort in staff and students alike — it was swim or sink and most followed the former path. He also had diverse outside interests; in particular he had a beloved interest in tropical marine fishes and invertebrates. He was a devoted family man and was wretched at the early death of his son, Roger Lyle, in 1993. We are proud to have been part of the life of Cliff Emmens.
This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.15, no.1, 2004. It was written by:
We would like to thank Jane Scott (née Emmens) for access to some of her father’s personal writings, Alan Blackshaw, Ian White, Ron Penn, Ian Martin, and Dorothy Lascelles, early members of the Department of Veterinary Physiology, for their personal memories; and Frank Norman, Librarian at the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in London, for a wealth of correspondence relating to Emmens’ time at the NIMR, both before and after the war.
© 2019 Australian Academy of Science