Michael George Pitman 1933-2000

Written by Keith Boardman, Barry Osmond and Ulrich Lüttge.

Family history and formative years

The Pitmans were a prolific West England family with Sir Isaac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand the most famous member. During the 1800s four members of different branches of the family emigrated to Australia, but Michael’s branch remained in Bristol. His great-grandfather Samuel William Pitman owned and operated a pork butcher’s shop in Bedminster, Bristol. The eldest of his 12 children was George Pitman, Michael’s grandfather. George worked first as a draper but later established his own pork butcher’s shop at the other end of Bedminster. The elder of his two sons, Percy George, was Michael’s father. Both sons were involved in running the shop. In 1930 Percy George married Norma Ethel Payne, who was trained and worked as a milliner. Her father (Gubby to Michael) was a skilled wood-worker who was employed as a pattern maker. Michael spent much time with Gubby and learnt from him woodworking and handyman skills.

Michael, the eldest of three boys, was born on 7 February 1933 at the family home in Clift Street, Ashton. The family’s financial situation became difficult and by the time the second son was born, the family had moved to cramped quarters over the shop in Bedminster. In those days a pork butcher made and cooked his own smallgoods, boiling up the pigs’ cheeks and trotters and making the brawn. Each year at Christmas, Michael’s mother would use the big boilers to cook batches of 20 Christmas puddings as gifts for favoured customers and business associates. Michael brought her 1932 recipe for 20 puddings to Australia, and when he was Professor of Biology at Sydney University he made small puddings for his staff in the Pitman family tradition.

When Michael was five, the Pitman family business became bankrupt and the family lived for a while with Mrs Pitman’s family at Ashton. Michael’s father became a buyer at the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Michael started his education at Southville Primary School in a suburb adjacent to Bedminster. When World War II started, the inner city area of Bristol was heavily bombed and Bedminster, Southville and Ashton were pummelled. It was decided that Mrs Pitman and the two boys should go to the relative safety of the Somerset village of East Harptree, situated on the northern slopes of the Mendip hills, south of Bristol. Michael attended the village school for about a year. When the family returned to Bristol they settled on the southern outskirts in the suburb of Bishopsworth and the two boys commuted daily to the Southville School. Michael, at nine years of age, was in sole charge of his brother on this journey, as his mother was fully occupied with the new baby who suffered from the disability of Downes Syndrome. Michael’s memories of these times were those of a loving family and the freedom to roam the fields and explore, both in East Harptree and Bishopsworth.

Michael’s grandfather and father both attended the Colston’s School at Stapleton, Bristol. This was a boys’ boarding school founded by the Merchant Venturer, Sir Edward Colston in 1708. Financial circumstances were such that Michael’s only hope of keeping up the family tradition was through scholarships. Michael was successful in winning one of the school’s foundation scholarships which covered some of the fees and also a County scholarship which made up the remainder. He started as a boarder in September 1944.

Life at Colston’s school was rather spartan. There were four very large unheated dormitories, one for each house, with only cold water in the adjacent washrooms. It was a time of food and fuel rationing. There was no half-term break, but parents could choose to visit their sons on a designated half day each month. Despite these restrictions Michael seemed to get the most out of the school. He took part in the school plays and became a Sergeant Major in the combined Cadet Force. He was interested in cooking at the school camps and got hints from the school cook. Later, at St John’s College Cambridge, Michael made friends with the chef and gathered tips on Haute Cuisine. Throughout his life he took a keen interest in entertaining staff, students and friends and was an excellent and innovative cook. Michael learnt to be self-reliant at an early age. In Michael’s report at the age of 14, the House Master wrote; ‘a little too independent for his age but it is a good fault and I confidently expect him to become a most useful member of the House and School next year’.

At school, Michael worked hard and was above average in most subjects. He did very well in physics, chemistry and mathematics. Science became a strong point in his life when he realised that science was easier to demystify than was history, and science was a better basis for scholarships to Cambridge. He felt he was fortunate in having a chemistry master who was intrigued by the creative aspects of the electronic theory of valency. Botany teaching only came to Colston’s school in his final year. Michael thought that his botany teacher was quite exceptional and he enjoyed his year’s study to such an extent that he made it his main focus at university. In his last two years at school he won the science prize, the mathematics problem prize and the English essay prize, the latter being a remarkable achievement because his school reports indicated that he had quite a struggle with English. Michael won a State Scholarship and a Cambridge Open Scholarship to Sidney Sussex College. These made it possible for him to go to Cambridge University in 1952.

In 1951, while still at school, he was sent to attend a two-day Student Christian Movement conference at Bristol University. There he met Maureen Room, his future wife, but not before fate gave the couple a few more nudges. Maureen had lived in Southville and attended Southville primary school for two years before the family home was bomb-damaged and the Rooms moved to Chew Stoke, a village about three miles from East Harptree. Over the two days, Maureen and Michael discovered that they had been in the same kindergarten class together, and that her mother had regularly shopped at his father’s shop. They were attracted to each other but were too shy to admit it or let the situation develop any further. They met again, by accident, at the theatre and again at a party when they discovered they were both due to attend ‘Science for Schools’ lectures in the school holidays. They tentatively arranged to go to see the Australian film, The Overlanders, afterwards. The friendship developed, with much correspondence between Cambridge and Southmead Hospital, Bristol where Maureen trained as a nurse. They married at the end of their respective studies in 1955.

Michael’s schooling and undergraduate days took place in post-war Britain, which he found to be a very exciting time because people were rediscovering or reaffirming visions about society, welfare, equity and humanity. In the area of science, science of great benefit, for example radar and penicillin, were fresh in people’s minds. At university Michael was an excellent student and he prepared well throughout the year, which was just as well because ten days before his Part 1 Tripos examinations he had a bicycle accident, colliding with a car and landing on his head on the bonnet. He was concussed, split his scalp and had a hairline fracture on his skull. He had a week in hospital. He later attributed his first class result to the enforced rest and relaxation prior to the examination. Michael was a keen bridge player and was secretary of the college swimming club.

Michael’s father died from a heart attack during Michael’s first year at Cambridge. This tragedy added increased financial pressure on the family and during the long vacations that were not taken up by field trips, Michael worked in a diversity of jobs including in a bakery and as a technician in the pathology department of a local hospital.

With a First Class degree Michael gained an Agricultural Research Council Research Scholarship which enabled him to do a PhD in the Botany Department at Cambridge under the supervision of the eminent plant physiologist, Professor G. E. Briggs. He completed an excellent PhD in 1959. Michael then did post-doctoral research and teaching in the Botany Department and was appointed a junior Fellow at St John’s College. Maureen and Michael became proud parents of Brigit in 1959 and Adrian in 1961. Michael became involved in different aspects of Cambridge life. He was one of the organisers of the Long Vacation Balls and later, as a junior Fellow of St John’s, was treasurer of the St John’s May Ball Committee. One fellow, the college Steward, formed a wine-tasting group within the college and arranged some tasting trips to France. It was his influence and tuition that led to Michael’s appreciation of wine.

In 1962 Michael was very excited to be appointed to a position of Lecturer at Adelaide University and with it came the opportunity to interact with Professor ‘Bob’ Robertson. Michael was eager to see the rich diversity of Australian plants and particularly to visit the arid areas where water control was so important for plants. South Australia, under the Playford Government, was very conservative at that time but there were signs of the political upheaval to come and Michael enjoyed the thrill of being close to political change. Two of his friends, university colleagues, went on to become senior members of government, one State, one Federal.

Michael had intended the Adelaide position to be an interesting experience in a predominantly English career. Instead, it was the start of the process of Australianisation for the family. Michael saw that the family culture was more open than in Cambridge, children were welcome at social events and there was easy mixing with people from faculties other than science. Australia was a vigorous and exciting place to be. Bob Robertson encouraged Michael to ‘throw his hat in the ring’ for the Biology Chair at Sydney University and when he took up that position in 1966, at the age of thirty-three, it was only a matter of time before the family took up Australian citizenship.

Scientific contributions

The integrator

Michael Pitman always was a great integrator. In his personal life, his scientific research and teaching, and in his struggle for effective administration and science policy he strived for integration. His research focused on plant nutrition and he aimed to improve understanding of the functions of parts in the whole. Thus, as outlined in Figure 1 (below), Michael sought to integrate the ionic relations of cell compartments, determined by the interactions of fluxes of sodium and potassium at membranes, into those of the root and whole plant. Through his success, Michael contributed massively to establishing the international reputation of this sector of research in Australian plant science in the 1970s. It soon made him one of the foremost exponents of modern whole-plant-physiology (28). The strength of the Darmstadt connection, and the networks Michael established there, were seminal in building this reputation.

Figure 1: Illustration of Michael Pitman’s scientific contributions keyed to sections of the text. The young barley seedling (left) illustrates 5. (Whole plant physiology) and 1. (The integrator). Cellular compartmentation within roots (lower right) relates to 2. (Radioactive isotopes and compartmentation analysis) and 3. (Potassium/Sodium selectivity). Tissue compartmentation across roots (centre right) illustrates 4. (Transport across the root: the two-pump hypothesis) and relationship to the environment.

Radioactive isotopes and compartmentation analysis

The background for Michael’s analysis of the compartmentation of ions in cells of higher plants stemmed from the influence of his PhD supervisor G. E. Briggs in Cambridge and depended on the emerging applications of radioisotopes to detect ionic fluxes into and out of tissues (1). It was strongly influenced by contemporary studies of Enid MacRobbie and Jack Dainty in Edinburgh using giant algal cells in which the cell wall, cytoplasmic and vacuolar compartments were directly accessible for analysis (see also Diamond and Solomon) [4]. It was supported by electrophysiological analysis of ionic relations and over the years Michael co-authored electrophysiological papers with Alex Hope and Alan Walker in Australia, with Noe Higinbotham in Pullman WA, and Ulrich Lüttge in Darmstadt.

Although cytologically and formally analogous to giant algal cells, analysis of compartmentation in the much smaller higher plant cells needed new experimental and theoretical approaches. These were described in the paper arising from Michael’s PhD thesis (2) that later became a citation classic (46). The experimental approach involved loading the tissue (slices of red beet-root) in a radioactively-labelled salt solution long enough to equilibrate the different compartments and then measuring the kinetics of tracer exchange with an equivalent unlabelled solution (2). Thus, compartments with three distinct exchange kinetics, corresponding to the cell wall, cytoplasm and vacuole, were identified. Michael provided a general mathematical framework to formulate the relationships between pool sizes (ion contents in the compartments) ion fluxes and their rate constants.

Recruited to Adelaide by Bob Robertson in 1962, Michael inspired a generation of research students through his simple, elegant experiments and clear formal analysis. Bob Robertson passed the baton in plant ion transport to a new generation and he was pleased to have passed it to Michael Pitman. Barry Osmond recalls how large refrigerated tubs, still decorated with the trade marks of the Coca Cola Company, were pressed into service as temperature control devices, and remembers Michael working frenetically with lead chambers and decade-counting tubes to extract data from fast decaying isotopes. In establishing the ‘three compartments in series’ model of ionic relations in higher plant cells, Michael brought contemporary rigour to a controversial field in which his personal friendships, as much as his science, were instrumental in overcoming controversy and in generating new concepts.

Controversy was alive and well in California where Emanuel Epstein (UC Davis) had proposed a parallel model of ion uptake in higher plant cells from ‘dual isotherms’ of uptake rate as a function of external concentrations. George G. Laties (UC Los Angeles) interpreted these data with a series model in which the high affinity system of the ‘dual isotherm’ operated at the outer cell membrane (the plasmalemma) and the low affinity system operated at the vacuolar membrane the (tonoplast). Three young post-docs in Laties’ laboratory (Lüttge, Osmond and Cram) combined studies of isotherms with Pitman’s isotope-flux analysis and also followed the vacuolar sequestration of organic acid anions as counter ions for potassium. Cram proved the ‘in series’ concept using carrot-root slices [2], while Pitman went on to use early computer simulations to predict the occurrence of active and passive ion transport processes at the plasmalemma and tonoplast, and coupling between the fluxes at the two membranes in the two-compartment model (8). Michael also teamed up with Noe Higinbotham’s group to test the electrophysiological implications of these hypotheses (9). The method was comprehensively reviewed by Walker and Pitman (24) and has been invaluable in studies of plant nutrition. This review is characterised by considerable modesty with respect to Michael’s own pioneering contributions, portraying the gentleman scientist Michael always was, in contrast to the current ‘first plus impact factor’ stereotype.

Alternative approaches to the radioactive tracer-flux analyses at the time sought to fix and localise ions with microscopic techniques, as applied by Ulrich Lüttge in Darmstadt using microautoradiography and André Läuchli who used X-ray microanalysis in Basel. André Läuchli had been busy in collaboration with Epstein in Davis, seeking to demonstrate an essentially one-compartment model, where both ‘isotherms’ operated in parallel at the plasmalemma. His appointment to a professorship in Darmstadt coincided to the day with Michael’s arrival as a professor on sabbatical. Friendships blossomed and the controversies of compartmentation receded. Michael later became deeply involved in compartmental localisation of ions using X-ray microanalysis (34, 36, 41, 42).

Subsequent research has revealed a wealth of pumps, carriers and channels at both membranes, but hindsight shows that it was Michael’s model with two-directional fluxes at the plasmalemma and at the tonoplast, that provided the foundation framework. A randomly chosen recent example of modern research, dealing with electrophysiology and molecular biology of ion channels involved in potassium/sodium selectivity gives several citations to Michael’s early work [1]. He never neglected the external apoplastic compartment of the plant cell wall, particularly ion exchange between the external medium and cell wall components in the Donnan-free-space (6, 16). The physiology of the apoplast has remained an important issue in plant physiology and is currently the topic of a Schwerpunktsprogramm of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Potassium/Sodium electivity

Michael found an immediate practical application of compartmental analysis soon after his arrival in Adelaide; the problem of plant growth under salinity (3). In a particularly fruitful partnership with Hank Greenway (4, 5) the fluxes, permeabilities (PNa+/PK+-ratios) and pools were analysed and the simple well-known selectivity factor ‘SK, Na emerged (where co designates external concentrations).

This led to another succinct review published in the Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology New Series (23) and it is evident from his publications that salinity as a paramount problem in plant physiology and agriculture was never far from the centre of Michael’s attention. Sydneysiders will not forget how Pitman’s group discovered that detergents in the sewage outfall conveyed killer salt spray through the stomates of otherwise wax-protected leaves of Norfolk Island pines, removing many of these landmarks from the northern beaches in the course of a few years (26, 29, 31). This work was a good example of Michael’s ability to fuse elegant experimental biology with issues of community concern. With both consoling and tragic nostalgia, we note that the last scientific contribution from his pen was the introductory chapter ‘Global impact of salinity and agricultural ecosystems’ for a book edited by his friends André Läuchli and Ulrich Lüttge (48). Consoling nostalgia because after very many years of dedication to administration and science policy Michael had kept alive his interest in research. Tragic nostalgia because this paper was meant to signal his comeback in practical science, which was not to be.

Transport across the root: the two-pump hypothesis

One consequence of Laties’ concept was a ‘one-pump-hypothesis’ of xylem-loading in roots governed by the high affinity uptake at the plasmalemma of peripheral cell layers and tissues including the cortex, symplastic transport into the stele and passive release into the xylem. Conversely, microautoradiography and electron probe microanalysis by Lüttge and Läuchli had suggested active xylem-loading against a concentration gradient by a pump in the parenchyma of the root stele. This controversy during scaling up from cells to tissues and the whole root was resolved by Michael’s model of compartmentation. His notion of both influx and efflux at the plasmalemma was central. He envisaged an interaction between influx across the plasmalemma of cells at the root periphery and efflux across the plasmalemma of cells in the central cylinder that resulted in transport across the root and into the conducting vessels of the xylem. The major instrument was a simple root chamber and it underscored a new theme in ion uptake by roots.

Michael’s ‘two-pump-hypothesis’ (11, 12, 27) brought it all together, and was validated using a small plastic box with three compartments that made it possible to distinguish ion uptake and translocation. The basal part of the root with the root tip and the absorptive root zone was exposed to radioactively-labelled salt solution, a small intermediate compartment served to check for leaks, and labelled ions exuded from the cut end of the roots were collected in the third compartment. The departmental workshop in Darmstadt manufactured a large number of these root chambers and tests were run using varied ion concentrations, metabolic inhibitors, inhibitors of functional protein synthesis as well as the amino-acid analog p-fluorophenylalanine, and phytohormones such as abscisic acid and cytokinins.

Pitman, Läuchli and Lüttge generated a flow of publications over the subsequent 5 years that changed the way we think about ion uptake in roots (14, 15, 17, 20, 22, 25, 30). Lüttge and Higinbotham summarised this work in their textbook Transport in Plants as follows: [6]

The two-pump hypothesis combines many features of the hypotheses assuming active symplast loading in the epidermis and cortex and of the hypotheses postulating pumping by stelar parenchyma cells. It also needs symplastic transport allowing co-operation of the two membrane transport mechanisms having key functions of coupling, ie active foc and fcx (where foc is uptake from outside into the symplast and fcx is release from the symplast into the xylem). The rate constant for ion equilibration in the cytoplasmic phase and the rate constant for attainment of a constant rate of radial ion transport across the root are identical (11, 12). Thus, the two-pump hypothesis among all the possibilities discussed here explains the largest amount of experimental data and has the smallest number of shortcomings.

This widely accepted concept is challenged again every now and then [5], but remains the analog of the current ‘compound model’ of cell-wall apoplastic and cell-to-cell symplastic water movement developed by Ernst Steudle [8, 9]. Michael himself was also quite interested in water transport (10) and made several original contributions to hydraulic conductivity of roots (32, 33, 37).

Whole plant physiology

Michael participated in the Scripps Alpha Helix expedition of 1966 that identified two strategies for salinity tolerance in mangroves in the field. One species was identified as a salt includer at the root level with salt glands in its leaves, and another was identified as a salt excluder at the root and lacked leaf salt glands (7). This masterpiece of whole plant physiology was a prelude to his work in this field. It was further stimulated by root chamber research because the chamber experiments not only revealed what roots absorbed, but what the shoots received. Michael explored the implications of mineral nutrition for whole plant physiology in a review in which the effects of transpiration and whole plant potassium/sodium selectivity and especially root-shoot signalling were assessed (21). Signalling was attributed not only to phytohormones but also to substrates such as the carbohydrate products of photosynthesis. Michael followed up this interest on several research visits to One Tree Island in the Great Barrier Reef, where he and a diverse group of colleagues explored relationships between water potential and sap flow, and osmotic relationships, in plants growing in this strange environment (35, 43).

These insights stem from other creative experiments Michael designed in Darmstadt in which roots of barley seedlings were kept in a chamber at 100% relative humidity that prevented water stress but also prevented water uptake, while the shoots were subject to wilting in hot and dry air. Placing roots back into liquid water led to instant leaf recovery, but the after-effect of previous water stress on ion uptake was evident for several hours (18). A signal must have been transmitted from shoot to root, and based on concurrent work of Ted van Steveninck in Melbourne, abscisic acid was strongly suspected. Subsequently developed by others [3], the role of phytohormones in root-shoot-signalling is still a hot topic in plant physiology. Michael’s ideas on sugar signalling stem from simple experiments with different photoperiods (2 h L/22 h D and 16 h L/8 h D) to reveal the feedback of sugar supply on root activities in mineral nutrition of the plants (13, 19). This is most noteworthy now that ‘sugar signalling’ is much in vogue [7].

Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology, New Series

In this atmosphere of scientific excitement and the mood of collaborative achievements, attributed by Michael to the ‘group effect’, the prospect emerged to collect the entire current knowledge on transport in plants, at the levels of cells, tissues and organs, in a multi-author volume. This was realised in collaboration with Ulrich Lüttge as co-editor of volumes 2A and 2B in Springer’s Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology, New Series (49, 50). In addition to the synergies of the ‘group effect’ in Darmstadt, Michael’s networks proved to be invaluable in recruiting authors. As Bob Robertson recollected in his Foreword, the networks were now sustained by the freedom of researchers to travel and were no longer limited by wars or slow means of transport. Michael had epitomised the era in which researchers could meet, work together and become friends that promoted the ‘group effect’ through ‘global wanderings’. Yet 19 of the 25 contributors had been associated with Cambridge or with Australia. Strict editing and wonderful co-operation with the individual authors led to a uniform standard of the chapters. The volumes comprehensively covered the knowledge of transport in plants in cells, tissues and organs at the time when the work appeared in 1976. Ulrich Lüttge remembers it as a unique and unforgettable experience. The privilege of working together with Michael on this project, with both his wide vision and his love for the details was the crowning achievement of an exciting period in transport physiology of plants.

Michael was awarded a Doctor of Science by Cambridge University in 1979. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1981 and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology in 1997.

Contributions to education and the community

In the 1960s and 1970s Michael played a key role in the development and compilation of successive additions of the Web of Life, a school textbook sponsored by the Australian Academy of Science that elevated the teaching of biology throughout Australia. Michael regarded his involvement with the Web of Life as possibly his most important contribution to science in Australia.

Michael pioneered the use of the electronic media in teaching and the creativity of his television lectures set the standard for his colleagues to emulate. He inspired a generation of research students through his simple and elegant experiments and clear formal analyses. Several of his students and colleagues now occupy important positions in Australia. Michael negotiated successfully for the transfer to Sydney University of the marine field station on One Tree Island, which has proved a long-standing benefit to the University and continues to provide the facilities for the training of many postgraduate students and intellectual stimulation for staff as well as students. As Deputy Chair of the Academic Board, Michael was influential in the development of academic policy in the University. Among many other duties while in this role, Michael took part in resolving the confrontation between conventional and ‘political’ economics in the University, leading to the establishment of highly popular courses in political economy.

Michael’s contributions to the wider community included his involvements with the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Australian Museum. He was president of the Australian Museum Trust from 1975-78 and chairman of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust from 1982-84 during an important period when notable progress was made in advancing public interest in the Botanic Gardens. Perhaps one of Michael’s clearest legacies to Sydneysiders is the gradual re-establishment of Norfolk Island Pines on Bondi and other beachfronts, together with the clean water for swimming, which follow many years of upgrading of sewage treatment following his researches mentioned earlier on the cause of die-back of the Norfolk Island Pines. Michael was honoured with the award of an OBE in 1978.

In addition to these community activities and his busy teaching and creative research Michael served as a member of the Australian Research Grants Committee (1975-78) the Australian Science and Technology Council (1982-83) the Council of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (1978-84) and the Australian Biological Resources Advisory Committee (1983-86).

Shifts of interests and occupation

The Encyclopedia volumes were a crowning achievement and testimony to Michael’s work as an active, creative researcher, communicator and exponent of scientific ideas understanding. Although he continued to produce important reviews in fields that he had developed (38, 39, 40, 44, 45, 47) and followed up new ideas in the coming years, it was natural that the interests of the integrator should shift to other occupations. So, he left his Chair of Plant Physiology at the University of Sydney to accept a more global responsibility for the organisation and development of science in his country serving in several leading positions

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

In 1983, Michael was appointed Director of the CSIRO Institute of Biological Resources. The Institute with eight divisions was responsible for performing plant and environmental R&D with the objective of improving agricultural and forestry production and the management of the natural environment, including land and water resources. The Directorship of the Institute provided Michael with the opportunity to promote his research philosophy. His own experience and achievements made him well aware of the importance of creative individuals, but he was convinced that the research outcomes of the Institute could be enhanced by building more disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams. Michael firmly believed that discussion and persuasion rather than by directive was the way to achieve better integration of the research of the Institute. Michael’s personality, patience and ability to listen to the points of view of colleagues and others before making up his mind were well suited to this approach.

Michael managed his Institute in a collegiate manner and developed excellent rapport with the chiefs of the component divisions. He promoted a corporate spirit and the development of projects between divisions to more effectively harness the Institute’s multi-disciplinary skills for important national projects. Michael played a crucial role in the evolution of the Institute structure in CSIRO at a time when the divisions were still largely autonomous. He was a valuable and urbane contributor to the deliberations of the Executive Committee of CSIRO, logical in his arguments that were always presented in a courteous manner.

Michael was an Associate Member of the CSIRO Executive in 1985 and 1986 and became Deputy to the Chief Executive, Dr Keith Boardman in 1986. As Associate Member of the Executive, he assumed overall responsibility at the corporate level for interaction with CSIRO’s major customers in the rural and environment sectors. As Chairman of the CSIRO Advisory Committee on Ethics in Animal Research, Michael proved to be particularly effective in reducing the conflict between the representatives of animal welfare groups and those of animal researchers in CSIRO.

As Deputy to the Chief Executive, Michael had responsibility for a range of activities but with a particular role for human resources policies and interaction with the Staff Associations. He foresaw the need for a new approach to the management of human resources in CSIRO at a time of diminishing resources from Government. Many of the changes that were implemented owe their evolution to his initiatives.

Chief Scientific Advisor

In 1988, at the request of the Minister for Science, Hon. Barry Jones who thought highly of Michael’s qualities, CSIRO seconded Michael to the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce as Chief Scientific Advisor and as the Minister’s Personal Advisor. Michael played a crucial role in ensuring that research and development and science awareness were recognised as components in policy development in the Department. Working with the Minister, Michael made a significant contribution to the Prime Minister’s Science and Technology Statement of May 1989 that included the commitment to establish a Prime Minister’s Science Council and a Cooperative Research Centres Program and provide additional resources for research in Government agencies and the universities. The Minister expressed his debt to Michael in a personal letter of 10 May, 1989:

Your contribution to the S&T Statement was inestimable. You have done very well in helping to shift the thinking within DITAC, indeed your role has been central to affecting a cultural shift that will be of lasting importance.

The Prime Minister’s statement recognised the increasing importance of international collaboration in Science and Technology and the advantage to Australia for Australian researchers to participate as a full partner in international pre-competitive R&D programs. Michael chaired an International Science and Technology Advisory Committee to consider how best to promote international interactions and advise on the allocation of resources. Michael saw the need to take collaboration beyond the relatively small-scale interactions of the bilateral programs to support major collaborative programs with Australia paying its way.

Michael was disappointed that negotiations for Australia to be included in the pre-competitive research programs of the European Economic Community and the Japanese Human Frontiers Program were not successful, although they laid the foundation for Australia’s eventual participation in European programs. Michael was a key participant in negotiations to improve research collaboration with France following the visit to Australia of the French Prime Minister, M. Rocard in August 1989. Although priority was given to S&T collaboration with technologically-advanced countries, Michael saw the need to develop linkages with countries of South-East Asia. Michael served as a member of the Australian Research Council from 1988-90.

Chief Scientist

From 1992-1996, Michael was Chief Scientist of Australia. The responsibilities of the Chief Scientist included the provision of advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister assisting the Prime Minister on Science on the overall contribution of science, technology and engineering to the standard and quality of life in Australia and the ‘health’ of the science system. As Chief Scientist, Michael was Executive Officer of the Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering, Chair of the Co-ordination Committee on Science and Technology that consisted of the Deputy Secretaries of Departments with significant science components and Chair of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Committee. Michael was not a supporter of a centralist approach in Government to science and technology and he saw his role as largely one of coordination. He also saw a role for the Chief Scientist in improving science awareness in the community as well as in Government and industry.

As Chair of the CRC Committee Michael oversaw the expansion and development of the CRC Program to become a substantial and important component of R&D in Australia. There was increasing involvement of industry and other users as partners in CRCs. Michael was a keen supporter of schemes which promoted linkages between scientists and he promoted the advantages of dialogue between fundamental science and mission-oriented granting schemes.

Michael supported the need for improvements in priority setting and resource allocation in research but he strongly held the view that priorities should only be set at the broad level. He was convinced from his own research career that priorities at the program and project levels are best determined by individuals and assessed by peer evaluation.

Michael chaired a key committee that formulated the criteria for selecting reserves of old growth forests for preservation. These criteria were central to the negotiations for Forest Research Agreements between the Commonwealth and each of the States. Michael’s negotiating skills were crucial to reaching agreement between environmentalists and interests of production forestry.

As Chief Scientist, Michael continued to promote the advantages to Australia of international collaboration. He saw scope for collaboration in environmental research including climate variability, climate change and biodiversity.

In 1994, Michael chaired the committee that was established by the government to report on the controversial development of the Hinchinbrook Channel in Queensland and in 1995 he chaired the government committee to review the impact of the French nuclear tests at Mururoa and Fangataufa.

Michael retained his strong interest in international collaboration. He became a foundation director of the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Management (CTPM) that was established in 1995 to promote the application of technology in Commonwealth countries for business development. His broad experience with science policy and research administration including the CRC program made him a valuable Director of CPTM. Michael continued to push for Australian involvement with the research programs of the European Community.

Following his retirement as Chief Scientist Michael continued to contribute to the CRC Program as Visitor to the CRC for Ecologically Sustainable Development of the Great Barrier Reef and the CRC for Sustainable Tourism.

Australian Academy of Science

In 1997, Michael was elected Foreign Secretary of the Australian Academy of Science. He was thrilled and the position enabled him to continue to make an important contribution to the advancement of Australian international relationships in science and increased coordination of international S&T activities. The Academy’s role in Australia’s international collaborations in science was expanded when the Academy took over the administration of elements of the International S&T Program of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. Michael was an excellent Foreign Secretary. He improved rapport with several countries of South-East Asia as well as promoting closer collaboration with Europe, particularly France. The French Government recognised Michael’s very significant contributions over several years to improving French-Australian relationships in science with the award of the Chevalier de L’ordre National du Merite.

Michael resigned as Foreign Secretary in 1999 due to illness. Early in 1999 Michael suffered from mesenteric vein thrombosis resulting in prolonged hospitalisation. Investigations eventually revealed that he was suffering from the degenerative condition of amyloidosis and he died in Canberra on 30 March 2000. He is survived by his wife, daughter and son.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.14, no.2, 2002. It was written by:

  • Keith Boardman, Former Chairman and Chief Executive, CSIRO
  • Barry Osmond, Biosphere 2 Center, Columbia University, USA
  • Ulrich Lüttge, Institut für Botanik Technische Universitat Darmstadt, Germany


We are greatly indebted to Maureen Pitman for providing the details on Michael’s family history and formative years and material from his personal files. We are grateful to Associate-Professor Bill Allaway and Dr Richard Storey for reading a draft manuscript and making valuable suggestions.


  1. P.H. Buschman, R. Vaidyanathan, W. Gassmann and J.I. Schroeder, ‘Enhancement of Na+ uptake currents, time-dependent inward-rectifying K+ channel currents, and K+ channel transcripts by K+ starvation in wheat root cells’, Plant Physiology, 122 (2000), 1387-1397.
  2. W. J. Cram, ‘Compartmentation and exchange of chloride in carrot root tissue’, Biochemica et Biophysica Acta, 163 (1968), 339-353.
  3. W.J. Davies and J. Zhang, ‘Root signals and the regulation of growth and development of plants in drying soil’, Annual Reviews in Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology, 42 (1991), 5-76.
  4. J.M. Diamond and A.K. Solomon, ‘Intracellular compartments in Nitella axillaris’, Journal of General Physiology, 42 (1959), 105-1121.
  5. B. Köhler and K. Raschke, ‘The delivery of salts to the xylem. Three types of anion conductance in the plasmalemma of the xylem parenchyma of roots of barley’, Plant Physiology, 122 (2000), 243-254.
  6. U. Lüttge and N. Higinbotham (eds), Transport in Plants, (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1979)
  7. S. Smeekens, ‘Sugar-induced signal transduction in plants’, Annual Reviews in Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology, 51 (2000), 49-81.
  8. E. Steudle and C.A. Peterson, ‘How does water get through roots?’, Journal of Experimental Botany, 49 (1998), 775-788.
  9. E. Steudle, ‘Water uptake by roots: Effects of water deficit’, Journal of Experimental Botany, 51 (2000), 1531-1542.


  1. G.E. Briggs, A.B. Hope and M.G. Pitman, ‘Measurement of ionic fluxes in red beet tissue using radioisotopes’, Radioisotopes in Scientific Research vol. IV. Proceedings of the 1st UNESCO International Conference, Paris, 1957.
  2. M.G. Pitman, ‘The determination of the salt relations of the cytoplasmic phase in cells of beetroot tissue’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 16 (1963), 647-668.
  3. M.G. Pitman, ‘Sodium and potassium uptake by seedlings of Hordeum vulgare’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 18 (1965), 10-24.
  4. H. Greenway and M.G. Pitman, ‘Potassium retranslocation in seedlings of Hordeum vulgare’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 18 (1965), 235-247.
  5. H. Greenway, A. Gunn, D.A. Thomas and M.G. Pitman, ‘Plant response to saline substrates. VI. Chlorides, sodium and potassium uptake and distribution within the plant during ontogenesis of Hordeum vulgare’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 18 (1965), 525-540.
  6. M.G. Pitman, ‘The location of the Donnan Free space in disks of beetroot tissue’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 18 (1965), 547-553.
  7. M.R. Atkinson, G.P. Findlay, A.B. Hope, M.G. Pitman, H.D.W. Saddler and K.R. West, ‘Salt regulation in the mangroves Rhizophora mucronata Lam. and Aegialitis annulata R. Br.’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 20 (1969), 589-599.
  8. M.G. Pitman, ‘Simulation of Cl- uptake by low-salt barley roots as a test of models of salt uptake’, Plant Physiology, 44 (1969), 1417-1427.
  9. M.G. Pitman, S.M. Mertz Jr., J.S. Graves, W.S. Pierce and N. Higinbotham, ‘Electrical potential differences in cells of barley roots and their relation to ion uptake’, Plant Physiology, 47 (1970), 76-80.
  10. H.D.W. Saddler and M.G. Pitman, ‘An apparatus for the measurement of sap flow in unexcised leafy shoots’, Journal of Experimental Botany, 21 (1970), 1048-1059.
  11. M.G. Pitman, ‘Uptake and transport of ions in barley seedlings I. Estimation of chloride fluxes in cells of excised roots’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 24 (1971), 407-421.
  12. M.G. Pitman, ‘Uptake and transport of ions in barley seedlings. II. Evidence for two active stages in transport to the shoot’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 25 (1972), 243-257.
  13. M.G. Pitman, ‘Uptake and transport of ions in barley seedlings. III. Correlation of potassium transport to the shoot with plant growth’, Australian Journal of Biological Science, 25 (1972), 995-919.
  14. A.Läuchli, U. Lüttge and M.G. Pitman, ‘Ion uptake and transport through barley seedlings: Differential effect of cycloheximide’, Zeitschrift für Naturforschung, 28C (1973), 431-434.
  15. U. Lüttge, A. Läuchli, E. Ball and M.G. Pitman, ‘Cycloheximide: A specific inhibitor of protein synthesis and intercellular ion transport in plant roots’, Experientia, 30 (1974), 470-472.
  16. M.G. Pitman, U. Lüttge, D. Kramer and E. Ball, ‘Free space characteristics of barley leaf slices’, Australian Journal of Plant Physiology, 1 (1975), 65-75.
  17. M.G. Pitman, U. Lüttge, A. Läuchli and E. Ball, ‘Action of abscisic acid on ion transport as affected by root temperature and nutrient status’, Journal of Experimental Botany, 25 (1974), 147-155.
  18. M.G. Pitman, U. Lüttge, A. Läuchli and E. Ball, ‘Effect of previous water stress on ion uptake and transport in barley seedlings’, Australian Journal of Plant Physiology, 1 (1974), 377-385.
  19. M.G. Pitman, U. Lüttge, A. Läuchli and E. Ball, ‘Ion uptake to slices of barley leaves, and regulation of K content in cells of the leaves’, Zeitschrift fuer Pflanzenphysiologie, 72 (1974), 75-88.
  20. N. Schaefer, R.A. Wildes and M.G. Pitman, ‘Inhibition by p-fluorophenylanine of protein synthesis and of ion transport across the roots in barley seedlings’, Australian Journal of Plant Physiology, 2 (1975), 61-73.
  21. M.G. Pitman, ‘Whole plants’, in Ion Transport in Plant Cells and Tissues, eds D. A. Baker and J. L. Hall (North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam and New York, 1975), pp. 267-308.
  22. R.A. Wildes, M.G. Pitman and N. Schaefer, ‘Comparison of isomers of fluorophenylalanine as inhibitors of ion transport across barley roots’, Australian Journal of Plant Physiology, 2 (1975), 659-661.
  23. M.G. Pitman, ‘Ion uptake by plant roots’, in Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology New Series vol. 2. Transport in Plants II Part B Tissues and Organs, eds U. Lüttge and M.G. Pitman (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1976), pp. 95-126.
  24. N.A. Walker and M.G. Pitman, ‘Measurement of fluxes across membranes’, in Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology New Series vol. 2, Transport in Plants II Part A Cells, eds U. Lüttge and M.G. Pitman (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1976), pp. 93-126.
  25. R.A. Wildes, M.G. Pitman and N. Schaefer, ‘Inhibition of ion uptake to barley roots by cycloheximide’, Planta (Berlin), 128 (1976), 35-40.
  26. A.M. Grieve and M.G. Pitman, ‘The condition of Norfolk Island Pines on the Adelaide beachfront’, Search, 1 (1976), 275-276.
  27. M.G. Pitman, ‘Ion transport into the xylem’, Annual Reviews in Plant Physiology, 28 (1977), 71-88.
  28. M.G. Pitman and W.J. Cram, ‘Regulation of ion content in whole plants’, in S.E.B. Symposium no. 31. Integration of Activity in the Higher Plant, ed. D. H. Jennings (C.U.P. Cambridge, 1977), pp. 391-424.
  29. M.G. Pitman, H.G.M. Dowden, F.R. Humphreys, M. Lambert, A.M. Grieve and J.H. Scheltema, ‘The outfall connection: the plight of our coastal trees’, Australian Natural History, 19 (1977), 74-81.
  30. M.G. Pitman, R.A. Wildes, N. Schaefer and D. Wellfare, ‘Effect of azetidine 2-carboxylic acid on ion uptake and ion release to the xylem of excised barley roots’, Plant Physiology, 60 (1977), 240-246.
  31. A.M. Grieve and M.G. Pitman, ‘Salinity damage to Norfolk Island Pines caused by surfactants. III. Evidence for stomatal penetration as the pathway of salt entry to leaves’, Australian Journal of Plant Physiology, 10 (1978), 397-413.
  32. M.G. Pitman, ‘Measurement of hydraulic conductivity of barley roots during inhibition of ion transport by azetidine 2-carboxylic acid’, Plant, Cell and Environment, 3 (1980), 59-61.
  33. M.G. Pitman, ‘Effect of inhibitors on hydraulic conductivity of roots’, in Plant Membrane Transport: Current Conceptual Issues, eds R.M. Spanswick, W.J. Lucas and J. Dainty (Elsevier/North-Holland Biomedical Press, Amsterdam, 1980), pp. 463-464.
  34. M.G. Pitman, A. Läuchli and R. Stelzer, ‘Use of electron probe x-ray microanalysis to compare distribution of ions in roots of barley seedlings’, in Plant Membrane Transport: Current Conceptual Issues, eds R.M. Spanswick, W.J. Lucas and J. Dainty (Elsevier/North-Holland Biomedical Press, Amsterdam, 1980), pp. 397-398.
  35. J.P. Rona, M.G. Pitman, U. Lüttge and E. Ball, ‘Electro-chemical data on compartmentation into cell wall, cytoplasm, and vacuole of leaf cells in the CAM genus Kalanchoë’, Journal of Membrane Biology, 56 (1980), 1-11.
  36. W.G. Allaway, M.G. Pitman, R. Storey, and S. Tyerman, ‘Relationships between sap flow and water potential in woody or perennial plants on islands of the Great Barrier Reef’, Plant Cell Environment, 4 (1981), 329-337.
  37. M.G. Pitman, A. Läuchli and R. Stelzer, ‘Ion distribution in roots of barley seedlings measured by electron probe x-ray microanalysis’, Plant Physiology, 68 (1981), 673-679.
  38. M.G. Pitman, D. Wellfare and C. Carter, ‘Reduction of hydraulic conductivity during inhibition of exudation from excised maize and barley roots’, Plant Physiology, 7 (1981), 802-808.
  39. M.G. Pitman, ‘Transport across plant roots’, Quarterly Reviews in Biophysics, 15(3) (1982), 481-554.
  40. M.G. Pitman and U. Lüttge, ‘The ionic environment and plant ionic relations’, in Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology New Series vol. 12C: Physiological Plant Ecology III, eds O.L. Lange, P.S. Nobel, C.B. Osmond and H. Ziegler (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1983), pp. 5-28.
  41. A.D. Robson and M.G. Pitman, ‘Interactions between nutrients in higher plants’, in Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology New Series vol. 15A: Inorganic Plant Nutrition, eds A. Läuchli and R.L. Bieleski (Springer-Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1983), pp. 147-173.
  42. R. Storey, M.G. Pitman and R. Stelzer, ‘X-Ray micro-analysis of cells and cell compartments of Atriplex spongiosa II. Roots’, Journal of Experimental Botany, 34 (1983), 1196-1206.
  43. R. Storey, M.G. Pitman, R. Stelzer and C. Carter, ‘X-Ray micro-analysis of cells and cell compartments of Atriplex spongiosa I. Leaves’, Journal of Experimental Botany, 34 (1983), 778-794.
  44. W.G. Allaway, M.G. Pitman, R. Storey, S. Tyerman and A.E. Ashford, ‘Water relations of coral cay vegetation on the Great Barrier Reef: water potentials and osmotic content’, Australian Journal of Botany, 32 (1984), pp. 49-464.
  45. M.G. Pitman, ‘Transport across the root and shoot/root interactions’, in Salinity Tolerance in Plants: Strategies for Crop Improvement, eds R.C. Staples and G.H. Toenniessen (John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1984), pp. 93-123.
  46. M.G. Pitman, ‘Citation Classic: The determination of the salt relations of the cytoplasmic phase in cells of beetroot tissue’, Current Contents, 20 (1986), 10, 17.
  47. M.G. Pitman, ‘Whole plants’, in Solute Transport in Plant Cells and Tissues, eds D.A. Baker and J.L. Hall (Longman, Harlow, Essex, 1988), pp. 346-391.
  48. M.G. Pitman, ‘Global impact of salinity and agricultural ecosystems’, in Salinity: Environment Ǿ Plants – Molecules, eds A. Läuchli and U. Lüttge (Kluwer Academic Publisher, Dordrecht, 2001).
  49. U. Lüttge and M.G. Pitman (eds), Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology, New Series, vol. 2. Transport in Plants II: Part A Cells, (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1976)
  50. U. Lüttge and M.G. Pitman (eds), Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology, New Series, vol. 2. Transport in Plants II: Part B Tissues and Organs, (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1976)

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