Sir Rutherford Ness (Bob) Robertson was one of Australia's most distinguished, influential and respected scientists. He was eminent both for his contributions to scientific thought and knowledge and for the remarkable range of activities he undertook in the cause of science. His contributions to our understanding of the bioenergetics of inorganic ion transport in plant cells were widely recognised. In his other life he served in a number of key administrative-managerial positions, was the prime mover in a variety of major initiatives that had critical and lasting impacts on the development of Australian science and was a trusted friend and adviser to a generation of younger plant scientists. Known universally as Bob and almost universally addressed as such, it would seem odd and almost disrespectful not to refer to him in this way here.
In the following account we shall draw heavily on four sources of information about Bob's life and work. These are a Personal Record submitted to the Royal Society, the transcript of an interview conducted for the Australian Academy of Science, an autobiographical article written for the Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology[3 ]and a personal account of his involvement in the field of charge separation and energy transduction in biological membranes.
Bob's path and philosophy in adult life was more than ordinarily influenced by his parents and childhood experiences. Hence, some account of this period is particularly relevant. Bob was born in Melbourne on 29 September 1913 and could trace his ancestry to migrations from Scotland and England to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. He says his grandfather's generation failed as farmers in coastal Victoria and 'most became preachers instead', including his grandfather. Following in this tradition, his father (Joshua Robertson, E.D., M.A., Dip.Soc.Sci.) and two of his brothers chose to be preachers, his father being a Baptist. Bob said his father preached an unusual philosophy for those days 'that Christian people had to do something for the community as a whole and not just look after their own heavenly futures'. His father became an army chaplain during the 1914-18 World War so Bob did not see much of him until 1919.
In the interim his mother (Josephine Robertson, née Hogan) took Bob to stay with relatives in Brisbane, where he contracted poliomyelitis. This disease left him with a weak leg and a permanent limp. Bob recalled that the worst part was being dragged around from one person to another in a futile attempt to rectify the disability. After returning to Melbourne Bob spent the last three years of primary school at Carey Baptist Grammar School. He remembered this as an exciting and challenging place but also as a place where he began to learn 'what it was to have hard knocks with people with whom I didn't see eye-to-eye'.
The atmosphere in his home was 'strictly puritanical with church-going regular and constant'. However, his mother provided some counterbalance to this since he says 'her family were not strictly religious and broadened my horizons'. Clearly, his father's philosophies had a strong and lasting influence on the way that Bob saw things. He was appreciative of this influence which he said 'set standards of moral and ethical behaviour which I still respect' but added, 'I can no longer believe in the myths and allegories of Christianity'; on another occasion he wrote that 'I no longer believe that the behaviour of men and women is directed by any supernatural power'.
Apparently, his mother had the greater influence on Bob, especially with respect to intellectual matters and science in particular. She was well read and interested in a wide range of matters from art to science. She encouraged his interest in science and talked to him about the exciting developments of the time, including a public lecture she attended by the renowned Ernest Rutherford. When Bob showed a particular interest in chemistry, she helped him get together some chemicals and equipment 'to do some experiments at home'.
His father moved to a ministry in Christchurch, New Zealand, when Bob was twelve. Bob very much enjoyed the secondary school he attended there, St Andrews College. He particularly remembered the companionship, the strong ethical outlook and good teaching 'in traditional British subjects'. There was also a strong emphasis on sport that Bob enjoyed to the best of his ability. He also remembered a strict discipline regime and recalled resenting being caned for making spelling mistakes and not having his name in his sandshoes. There was little science taught there, however, and that by non- trained people. He recalled getting into some bother at one stage by pointing out that the atom was not the smallest indivisible particle of matter, and being told finally 'You are quite right but that is not in the syllabus'.
His father's calling took the family to Sydney in 1930. At that time Bob had just completed his matriculation examination at the relatively young age of 16 years. The possibility of his repeating a final school year in Sydney was considered but in the end he enrolled in a science course at the University of Sydney. In retrospect, Bob believed this was a mistake. Lacking the solid science foundation provided by the New South Wales school system, he found first and second year hard going but, as he said, he did 'scrape through'. He also ruefully pointed out that the resulting need to work so hard to keep up, combined with his immaturity, prevented him from benefiting from the social life of the University.
As he proceeded through the course there occurred a critical change in his prime scientific interest from chemistry to botany. But what a prophetic and serendipitous combination of interests to take advantage of the emerging field of plant physiology! It was no surprise that Bob chose to do an Honours year in botany. He was asked by Professor Osborn to come back in the New Year with a suggestion about what area of botany he wished to focus on.
There followed in the intervening time one of those events that changes the course of one's life. During a holiday in Adelaide Bob met by chance one of the few plant physiologists in Australia at that time, Dr A.H.K. Petrie, who worked at the Waite Institute. He suggested that, with Bob's strong chemistry background, a future in plant physiology would be ideal. So, consulting with Osborn, Bob decided to work on the mechanism controlling the opening and closing of stomata, the pores on the surface of leaves that regulate the exchange of gases such as carbon dioxide and oxygen into and from leaves. This project worked out well enough for Bob to graduate with first-class Honours in 1934.
The fact that Bob was required to serve as a demonstrator to the first-year Botany class during his Honours year proved of more than usual significance. Amongst the several young ladies in that class who were attracted to this handsome young demonstrator was Mary Helen Bruce Rogerson. Later, she was to become his wife, his life-long companion and, as Bob has said, his 'keenest critic and wisest advisor'.
With the aid of a University of Sydney research scholarship and then a Macleay Fellowship from the Linnaean Society of New South Wales, Bob continued working in Sydney on the stomatal opening problem for the next two years. He felt progress was constrained by the lack of equipment and know-how on physiological matters in the department. However, in 1936 he was awarded a prestigious Science Research Scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. This was awarded to promising students from the Dominions to study in Britain. At this point A.H.K. Petrie of Adelaide was to play a critical part again in the direction of Bob's career. He advised Bob that if he wanted to pursue a career as a physiologist then he should try to work with Professor G.E. Briggs in the Botany School at Cambridge.
Briggs agreed to accept this young colonial as a PhD student and so the course of Bob's scientific research career was set. He departed for Cambridge on a cargo ship in October 1936, but not before becoming engaged to be married to Mary Rogerson. They faced a separation of two or three years.
So Bob was thrust into the exciting biological environment of Cambridge in the 1930s. It was the heyday of the Cavendish Laboratory and of the great pioneering biochemists including Frederick Hopkins, Joseph and Dorothy Needham, Robin Hill, Gordon Pirie and Dick Synge. Another prominent plant physiologist in the Botany Department, besides Briggs, was E.J. Maskell. Bob said of Briggs that he was a most imaginative physiologist and 'one of the ablest thinkers, most acute minds, and most highly critical attitudes in the biology of the time'. Needless to say their collaboration prospered. Bob undertook the task of continuing the earlier study by Briggs of the mechanism of ion uptake by plant cells.
The primary aim of this research was to explain how the energy necessary to drive the active uptake of ions against a concentration gradient was made available from the process of respiration. The details of this project, and how it remained the primary focus of Bob's research for years to come, are outlined in a later section.
Bob's time at Cambridge was not totally dominated by his research. For instance, he served as the local secretary of the Association of Scientific Workers, a group aimed at advertising the contribution that science could make as well as acknowledging the social responsibility of scientists. Of course, these were difficult times politically with the Spanish civil war and the emerging threat of Hitler's Nazi Germany. In this environment he became associated with the Cambridge Scientists' Anti-War Group. It is not surprising that amongst those attracted to these groups were people from the left side of politics including communists of various levels of commitment. However, Bob admitted to having difficulty, then and later, in fathoming the political commitment of his communist friends. He was suspicious of the matters they took as articles of faith and had difficulty understanding why they remained faithful to that cause after Stalin made a pact with Hitler and after the various events that were to follow in the post-war years.
It is interesting that around this period of 1936 Bob was already thinking deeply about problems relating to religion and science and their impact on society and social relations. For instance, three talks he gave during that period were entitled 'Science and Religion', 'Immigration – the Australian Situation' and 'Dynamic Christianity'. Apparently, the influences of his parents, especially with respect to social and ethical matters, were the driving force in his involvement in these activities.
Towards the end of 1937, Bob's fiancée Mary Rogerson was able to make the trip to England and they were married in Cambridge in September of that year. They travelled extensively in Britain and also in Holland and Germany in the following year despite the looming war clouds.
In the latter part of 1938, the newly appointed Professor, Eric Ashby, offered Bob an Assistant Lecturer position in the Botany School at the University of Sydney. This set a deadline for completing his research at Cambridge and submitting a thesis. The mandatory oral examination was completed just before Bob and Mary sailed for Australia and news that his doctorate had been granted was received by radiogram as the boat approached Capetown.
Bob's intention was to continue his work on ion uptake in plant cells in Sydney but the Second World War intervened. The head of the Botany School, Professor Ashby, became involved in war-related matters that often took him away from the department. As a result, Bob took over some of Ashby's administrative duties, a great experience for what was to come. He also served as the liaison officer between the University of Sydney and the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction, and as secretary to the Vice-Chancellor's Research Committee. Academics generally switched their research to aspects related in some way to the war effort. In what free time he had left, Bob devoted himself to two problems related to the storage and shipping of food. One was to develop procedures to prolong the storage life of apples and other fruit. The other was related to the open-air storage of the huge reserves of wheat in Australia. The problem was to determine why the wheat, stored in such large quantities, was getting hot. As Bob suspected, the generation of heat was not due to the respiration of the grain itself, which was very low, but rather, to the respiration of the insects infesting the wheat.
This appointment in Sydney also provided Bob with the opportunity to apply some of his thoughts on how science should be taught. The key feature of his philosophy was to teach science as an exercise in investigation, problem solving and thinking for oneself. Fortunately, these views coincided with those of Professor Ashby, and Bob acknowledged Ashby's great influence on him not only for these views but also for his approach to students and his abilities as an administrator and innovator.
At war's end Bob made a very significant career change, accepting a position as head of a research group in a Division of the Commonwealth Government's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, later to become the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). The concerns of this Division of Food Preservation and Transport included basic and applied aspects of fruit and vegetable storage. This move undoubtedly changed the course of Bob's career and, as he said, 'was not taken lightly'. His new position allowed him to continue his interest in the basic aspects of ion transport and respiration as well as his newly acquired, more applied interests in food technology.
Significantly, this appointment also allowed him to continue teaching plant physiology in the Botany Department at Sydney, an arrangement that was to continue for more than ten years. Besides the direct links with the Botany Department, where some of his staff with more physiological interests were located, the new position also involved collaboration with sections of the New South Wales Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile his concern with broader issues of science and society continued with articles such as 'The Future of Scientific Research in Australia' (87), 'Biology and the World's Food Crisis' (88) and 'Science in the Community' (89) appearing in University publications.
Later, the link with the University of Sydney was consolidated when Bob was appointed head of a unit created within the Botany School, and run jointly with that School, to study the physiology of plants including, of course, fruit and vegetables. This Plant Physiology Unit was set up in 1950, not long after Bob returned from an extensive overseas trip that was especially important for developing or consolidating contacts relating to his interests in the ion transport-respiration field as well as fruit physiology and technology. He also took the opportunity to meet the leaders in other areas of the then rapidly expanding field of plant physiology. The list of people he met read like the Who's Who of plant physiology of the time. Bob returned home inspired to 'foster research in the fields of plant physiology and biochemistry in Australia'.
There followed, through the decade of the 1950s, a remarkably productive period of research activity in the Plant Physiology Unit. Many of the students passing through during this time were to go on to significant independent careers. Bob's own work on ion transport, and especially the link with mitochondrial respiration, progressed substantially. He was also remembered for the pace at which he strode about the corridors of the Unit constrained only by his polio-induced limp, for his amazing Ford Prefect car which just managed to reach the city speed limit in top gear, and for his availability as adviser and counsellor.
As we shall see later, Bob was primarily responsible for setting up a number of structures and institutions critical to the future of Australian science. An early involvement was as secretary of the Australian National Research Council (ANRC) in 1952, when steps were taken to review the problems of Australian universities that in due course led to the formation of the Murray Committee and the subsequent transformation of the Australian university scene. He also played an important role in negotiations that led the ANRC, an organization with a somewhat chequered history, to make way for the foundation of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in 1954. It was said of Bob that 'during meetings of the ANRC, only he was really familiar with all the business and he contributed greatly to the discussions'.
Another initiative with which Bob was associated was the founding of the Australian Society of Plant Physiologists in 1958. After informal discussions with key colleagues, Bob wrote to a number of the leading physiologists of that time proposing that such a society be formed. A draft constitution for the Society was drawn up by a group in the Plant Physiology Unit in Sydney headed by J.F. Turner and about 110 potential members were invited to the inaugural meeting of the Society held in August 1958 in Adelaide.
In late 1958 Bob accepted a visiting professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles. By this time he was numbered amongst the leaders in both research and speculation relating to the energetics of ion transport and accumulation in plant cells. His views were outlined in two important review articles (28, 32) and in book co-authored with G.E. Briggs and A.B. Hope (34) that appeared between 1957 and 1960.
While in the United States, Bob was asked if he would join the four-man Executive of CSIRO then headed by Sir Ian Clunies Ross. Bob reluctantly accepted this challenge, realising that it would seriously affect his research interests. He said 'I felt I owed it to the organization to help where required, particularly since I had enjoyed such a satisfying research position'. This was the first of a number of instances where Bob undertook such responsibilities in the cause of science or public interest and at the expense of his research. In subsequently discussing such conflicts of interest he noted that 'research certainly flourishes best when the mind becomes filled, even obsessed, with the investigation'.
After stopping in Cambridge on the way home from the United States to complete the book Electrolytes in Plants with Briggs and Hope, Bob joined the Executive of CSIRO in October 1959. At that time this organization had a staff of more than 4,000. Research interests ranged from the most applied aspects of agriculture and secondary industry to the most esoteric basic research including astronomy. Bob saw the role of the Executive as being to serve the interests of the scientists at the coalface. But of course the Executive still had to deal with the Chiefs of Divisions, with politicians and with various outside bodies, and had the final say in the general direction of research and the allocation of funds.
The contacts Bob developed at that time, including the political ones, were very likely of great value in some of the activities and functions in which he was subsequently involved. Although Bob enjoyed serving science in this way it was not something he wished to make his life's work. So, after three years, he accepted the position of Professor and head of the Botany Department at the University of Adelaide.
By this time Bob's contributions to understanding the mechanism and energetics of active ion uptake were being widely recognised. Following his earlier election to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science in 1954, he was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1961 and as a Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences in the following year. Typically, he took a very active interest in the affairs of the Australian Academy of Science in those early years, serving as Secretary, Biological Sciences (1957-58) and as a member of Council (1961-62). Later, as detailed below, he was to serve as President.
Early in 1960, the University of Adelaide advertised the Chair of Botany rendered vacant by the death of Professor J.G. Wood. The Department was founded in 1912 and had had only two previous Professors, T.G.B. Osborn and J.G. Wood. Bob was invited to fill the chair with the understanding that, to complete his obligation to CSIRO as an Executive member, he would not take up the position until February 1962.
As soon as he took up the Adelaide position, Bob became actively engaged in first-year teaching and promoted the development of a Department that was active in research. Osborn had started ecological research and that tradition was still strong. Plant physiology, which had developed under Wood's influence, and phycology were also strong disciplines. Bob wanted to continue his research on ion transport but also to develop other areas. He expanded the Department's reputation in the physiology of ion transport by the appointment of Michael Pitman, intro duced metabolic biochemistry with the appointment of Joe Wiskich, and established ecophysiology with the appointment of Russell Sinclair. He also took a keen interest in an arid zone vegetation reserve that was located on Koonamore station between Yunta and Lake Frome, established in 1925 by Osborn. An area of the sheep station had been fenced to exclude introduced animals such as sheep and rabbits, but not native animals. The intention was to study the regeneration of the vegetation inside the reserve and to compare it to the vegetation outside the protected area. Whilst much research and record keeping had been performed at Koonamore, it had become somewhat neglected in the few years before Bob's appointment. He resolved to restore it as a key research area. Annual photographic and data records were re-instituted and they persist to this day. It is the world's oldest arid zone research station with continuous records. Since it is located in a low-rainfall area, Bob was very interested in the water economy and efficiency of the plants native to the area. He instituted regular field trips to undertake ecophysiological experiments and a course in arid zone physiology for senior undergraduate students, which included a six-day practical session at Koonamore.
He enjoyed these excursions, finding time to lead his laboratory-bound colleagues, and visitors, to the Koonamore vegetation reserve. They recall guiding Bob's quite buoyant Mercedes across flooded creeks and that not all Bob's field projects achieved the expected outcomes. For instance, he had learned of possum problems in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and was advised that possums were partial to mistletoes. He also knew mistletoes were adversely affecting trees at Koonamore. So began an experiment in biological control. The transported possums had absolutely no impact on the mistletoe at Koonamore. Moreover, there soon remained no trace of the possums, eagles and foxes having had a field day.
While Professor of Botany in the University of Adelaide, Bob came to play a key role in the development of the research capacity in Australia's university sector at a time when it was expanding most rapidly. Perhaps his most enduring role was in the creation of the Australian Research Grants Committee (ARGC) that survives today as the Australian Research Council. In April 1965, at the invitation of Senator (later Prime Minister) John Gorton, Minister in Charge of Commonwealth Activities in Education and Research, Bob accepted appointment as Chairman of a committee of ten academics, representing the natural sciences, engineering and the applied sciences, the humanities and the social sciences. Bob recalled Gorton, who knew his man, saying 'it will be a bloody awful job and I wouldn't advise you to take it, but I would be tremendously grateful if you would'. He served as Chairman until 1969. Until that time, Federal support for research had been largely channelled through CSIRO and the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University. The formation of the ARGC marked the turning point in research funding in Australian universities, from a system in which inadequate and largely State-derived resources were disbursed by Vice-Chancellors, to one based on competitive allocation of more generous Federal resources to individual researchers.
The creation of the ARGC was instrumental in releasing the intellectual potential of the nation's university sector at an early stage in its expansion. On the eve of the announcement of his appointment, Bob advised Senator Gorton that 'the panic among Vice-Chancellors was continuing' and reported 'I'll get cracking right away'. In the first year the Committee allocated resources to some 36% of 1001 applicants, using peer review principles tried and tested by the United States National Science Foundation, among others. The Committee 'concerned itself only with the quality of the project and of the investigator', and 'entirely disregarded the University status of the applicant, as distinct from his achievement and promise and significance of the specific project he had submitted'. Bob moved early to include CSIRO and industry representation on the Committee, and to establish triennial funding.
These principles of resource distribution were soon under assault. By the Committee's third anniversary, Malcolm Fraser, Australia's first Minister for Education and Science (and later Prime Minister), was asking 'would it be possible for your Committee to indicate areas in which it thought research would be of importance to Australia, thus giving a clear indication of the projects that, in your view, would be likely to receive support?' This request is annotated in Bob's hand as follows: 'This letter was not answered because the Minister agreed that our subsequent conversations on the subject were adequate'. Clearly, Bob was able to convince Fraser that the scientific merit of proposals should remain the first priority. This battle continues to the present day, many would say with diminishing success.
While in Adelaide Bob also became involved in discussions with the Victorian and South Australian Departments of Education about updating the school biology syllabus and textbooks. Following an approach to the AAS on this matter, he co-chaired an Academy committee with J.S. Turner of Melbourne, set up to supervise the creation of a new textbook and a new approach to teaching biology in Australian high schools. The resulting book, The Web of Life, went through three editions between 1967 and 1981 and sold over a million copies. This set the precedent for AAS-sponsored textbooks in chemistry, mathematics, geology and environmental science. At about the same time Bob also headed an ad hoc committee set up by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to look into educational television.
Some of his other projects took years of dedicated committee work. Bob was an early member (1962) of an AAS committee that conferred with CSIRO on the formation of a Museum of Australian Biology. This ultimately emerged in 1978 as the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) in the Department of Science, with Bob as chairman of the Advisory Committee. Bob had also supported the Academy of Science in its project on the Australian flora in its early years, and had the satisfaction of handing over this project as a going concern in 1980 to ABRS. He was also the first chairman (1962) of the Australian Academy of Science Standing Committee on International Relations, formed to advise on the difficult issues of the rationalization of structures in the International Council of Scientific Unions and UNESCO. In this role he advocated, against opposition, that Australia must participate in the International Biological Program (IBP). Later, he achieved a coup in setting up an IBP committee convened by Sir Otto Frankel, initially a most strident critic of the program.
In the latter part of his period in Adelaide, Bob wrote an important review (39) and his widely acclaimed book, Protons, Electrons, Phosphorylation and Active Transport (40). In his notes and records Bob draws attention to the distraction from research occasioned by the various committee activities that took him to Canberra so frequently. His students and colleagues, however, remember the extent to which he was able to keep his hand in research at the same time as he was building opportunities for others. Yet, these burgeoning responsibilities made it sensible to consider a permanent move to Canberra. He resigned from the Chair of Botany at Adelaide on 9 August 1969.
Bob and Mary moved to Canberra in late 1969, after Bob accepted an invitation to become Master of University House, the original Faculty and graduate student 'college' at the Australian National University (ANU). This position went along with provision of laboratory space at the Research School of Biological Sciences (RSBS) and some research support. Bob was especially attracted by the opportunity for some uninterrupted research. University House had by then served its function in support of the nation's embryonic premier research university. As the second Master, he had to guide the transformation of the House into a financially self-sustaining entity and hospitality centre on campus, while retaining its collegial character. While moving the House in this direction, Bob became even more heavily involved in national scientific affairs, first as President of the AAS (1970-74) and later as second Director of the RSBS. He remained in Canberra until retirement in 1978.
As the President of AAS Bob found satisfaction in the completion of some long-standing goals and the initiation of some promising new endeavours. He saw the peak years of the Web of Life school biology project, the curriculum development that revolutionized the teaching of biology in Australia. He revived a Standing Committee on National Parks and Conservation, and nurtured relationships with the other Australian Academies to develop major interdisciplinary environmental conservation projects involving the Murray River basin and, later, the Botany Bay Project. During this period he was also joint leader of the delegation that initiated scientific exchanges with the People's Republic of China after the Cultural Revolution, a member of the Science Advisory Committee for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1972-74) and a member of the first interim Advisory Committee for Science and Technology, set up in 1972 by the then Liberal Government. Changes of government saw such interim committees come and go and it was several years before its descendant, the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) was formally incorporated. As AAS President, Bob also solicited government support for a comprehensive survey of Australia's biological resources. Various interim bodies directed to this cause finally led to the official establishment of the government-funded Australian Biological Resources Study in 1978 (see below).
Still as President of the Academy in 1973, Bob presided over a very controversial period of assessment and recommendation with respect to continued French atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific. Frank Fenner recalls that, during a crucial meeting of French and Australian scientists, a member of the Attorney General's Department passed a message to the chairman that if the scientists submitted a joint report it would be unacceptable to the Government. Fenner recorded that in response, 'The President asserted the Academy's independence by replying (rather sharply!) that the Academy was conducting this investigation and would do what it thought best'. In the event, separate reports were submitted, with the Academy report being positive in its condemnation of continued testing, on the ground that incompletely known effects of low radiation doses 'made it prudent to keep atmospheric radiation as low as possible'. The last atmospheric tests in the Pacific took place in July-August 1973.
Bob's career probably reached its greatest heights as second Director of the RSBS at the ANU. He took up the appointment in January 1973, a few months after the School moved into its new building, and retired in 1978. By then RSBS was an impressive institution moving from its foundation in 1967 under David Catcheside with 46 staff to an establishment with 290 staff on its tenth anniversary in 1977. Bob was again able to some extent to manage the distractions from research and lead by example, noting in the 1976 Annual Report that 'Directors of Research Schools do not get much time for research, so it is pleasing to note that the Bioenergetics Unit with which I am personally concerned has made considerable progress during the year'. His unit listed twelve projects in 1977, many involving collaborations with other groups, and he co-authored an important paper with N.K. Boardman on the link between charge separation, proton movement and ATPase reactions (44); a considerable achievement in austerity years when funding cuts consigned his carefully prepared plans for a Department of Membrane Biology, foreshadowed in his first Annual Report (1973), to the scrap heap.
Another important activity was Bob's 'bible class', the Membrane Discussion Group, which engaged researchers from all over the campus and from nearby CSIRO laboratories. It was a magnet that drew leading researchers to Canberra. Later, he produced an animated movie, A Vision of Membranes, which was shown at the 1976 International Congress of Biochemistry in Hamburg.
Bob's links to the ANU continued throughout his retirement. He served as Pro-Chancellor (1984-86) and made a point of commuting from his retirement home in Binalong to participate in the ANU-sponsored Robertson Symposia, named in his honour and held in RSBS. These were often timed to coincide with Bob's birthday and with the Australian Rules football Grand Final, the latter usually calling for an extended tea break on the Saturday afternoon of the meeting.
On reaching the mandatory retiring age of 65, Bob left his position as Director of the RSBS in 1978 and embarked on a very busy retirement. The Robertsons moved to Sydney where Bob was able to continue with his research interests as an honorary fellow in Michael Pitman's laboratory at the University of Sydney, especially looking at proton translocation by bacteriorhodopsin. During this time he was also writing his very popular book, The Lively Membranes, published in 1983 (52). Later, he pursued his ideas on the role of ubiquinone in proton transport in collaborative studies with B.A. Cornell and colleagues at the CSIRO Food Research Laboratories in Sydney (55, 56). Bob's interest in his field continued into the 1990s with a series of invited chapters and reviews focusing on reminiscences and historical aspects (57, 58, 104).
As a gesture to the fact that Bob was retired, he and Mary divided their time between Sydney and Mary's family farm at Binalong, south-west of Sydney. For Bob this meant a great deal of commuting to both Sydney and Canberra because, in addition to his scientific interests, he carried over into retirement several of his wide range of committee and related activities. Indeed, he also acquired some new ones, having never mastered the art of refusing. Bob recounts an occasion when a call was made to his secretary enquiring whether he could undertake a particular task and she immediately responded that he would. When the caller asked how she was so sure she replied, 'Because I have never known him to refuse'.
Amongst the more seriously demanding commitments that he carried over into retirement were his involvement as a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, as the President and head of the organizing committee for the upcoming 13th International Botanical Congress, and as Chairman of both the ABRS Advisory Committee and the Editorial Board of Flora of Australia. His role in these activities is detailed below.
ASTEC was finally launched in 1977. This was after several earlier attempts to set up such an advisory body, in part thwarted by changes of government. Bob was a member of a precursor group set up by the Liberal government in 1972. Later, he was a member of the Syme Committee appointed by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to advise on the formation of a permanent science advisory body. Bob declined the invitation to chair the newly formed ASTEC when it was set up in 1977, but agreed to be deputy chairman. Bob commented that the work for this council turned out to be very demanding, taking up a large part of his retirement time over the following four years. Amongst his particular responsibilities was the chairmanship of a working party enquiring into marine science in Australia.
An overlapping responsibility was that of President and chairman of the organising committee of the 13th International Botanical Congress to be held in Sydney in 1981. Typically, Bob took this responsibility very seriously, as shown by the thick file amongst the documents in the Academy library. The very broad field covered by this particular Congress added to the difficulties. The Congress attracted more than 3,000 participants from 64 countries. In his remarks at the closing ceremony, Bob strongly endorsed his belief in the value of such large and broadly based congresses.
Bob was appointed chairman of the advisory committee for ABRS soon after he retired, serving from 1978 to 1981. This project evolved from earlier initiatives of the Australian Academy of Science, including its Fauna and Flora Committee set up as early as 1960. Bob was a member of that committee which was initially headed by M.J.D. White. Later, during Bob's tenure as President, the Academy proposed to Government that a comprehensive survey should be made of Australia's biological resources. After further meetings in 1973 with W.L. Morrison, the Minister for Science, the Government established ABRS. This body operated on an ad hoc basis until 1977 when ASTEC recommended it be set up on a permanent basis and suggested guidelines for its operation. ABRS was confirmed as a permanent body within the Department of Science in 1978.
Amongst the wide range of activities ABRS undertook was to assume responsibility for the preparation of a Flora of Australia. This particular project had its origins in an Academy of Science standing committee set up in 1972, during the time that Bob was President. He was also involved at that time in raising money from private sources to support the Flora project. Much later, in 1981, when ABRS assumed responsibility for the Flora project, Bob was appointed the first chairman of the editorial committee. It was during that time that the decisions and plans were made for the final implementation of this project.
Lest he be labelled as idle in his retirement, Bob also involved himself in several other activities. These included the Directorship of Earthwatch Australia (1980-85) and membership of the Science Advisory Board of the mining company CRA (1981-86). He was not only concerned with the big picture since he also served as treasurer of the Landcare group in the small rural community of Binalong.
By the early 1990s, Bob had shed many of these responsibilities and began to channel his energy in other directions. As already mentioned, there were invitations to write historical memoirs on his life and work. He was delighted when the Australian Society of Plant Physiologists honoured him with a named lecture, commencing in 1996. He also remained deeply concerned about prevailing social problems and injustices. Amongst the folders left at his Binalong home was one labelled 'A Fair Australia'. In it were notes, newspaper cuttings and drafts of dissertations relating to poverty, income inequi ties, youth unemployment, lawlessness, economic rationalism and the social consequences of these matters. It is clear that Bob struggled through several drafts, trying to define the problems and find solutions to them. He must have had in mind publishing these thoughts although apparently none of this reached the light of day.
Bob spent a good deal of time raising money to support what he regarded as important research areas, initially for projects at the University of Sydney. Later, he took a particular interest in the research of Professors Graham Cox and Frank Gibson and their group at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU, on the mechanism of action of ATP synthase, the complex involved in biological energy production. Thanks to contributions from several influential friends, he was able to provide significant independent support for this project in its most creative years. One can trace the seminal molecular genetic contributions of this antipodean group to the recent direct evidence for rotary catalysis, so elegantly revealed by Japanese researchers. Bob is said to have all but danced in the street outside Binalong Post Office after opening the issue of Nature containing the crystallographic evidence from Cambridge that sealed a Nobel Prize in 1996.
During the last years of his life, Bob became preoccupied with the notion of modifying our use of sunlight by replacing plants with artificial photosynthetic systems. This involvement is worth recording here in some detail because it encapsulated the way he approached his life's endeavours. Here in his mid-eighties and with a diagnosed terminal illness, it was clear that he had lost none of the focus, zeal, imagination, lateral thinking and intellectual boldness that were evident throughout his career.
Bob's interest in this area was stirred initially by a report in 1998 of light-driven synthesis of ATP, the universal prime source of biochemical energy, in an artificial membrane system. He recognised the essential inefficiency of using plants as a source of food and other raw materials. With that in mind, he began to think about artificial systems that might be designed to generate some of these products. The aim was to free arable land for other purposes and to conserve water, so much of which is lost during plant growth.
There followed a concentrated effort to collect relevant information, to discuss these issues with colleagues and to formulate his ideas in a series of draft documents. These documents, together with other notes, records of meetings, workshops, correspondence and related activities were collected in a file in his Binalong office. Professors John Andrews, Jan Anderson and Barry Osmond were amongst the Canberra colleagues with whom he discussed these matters.
About this time a group at CSIRO's Division of Telecommunications and Industrial Physics in Sydney had quite independently begun serious considerations about the options for artificial photosynthesis. After some informal contacts between the physicists and the biologists, a meeting of interested parties was convened in Canberra in August 1999 to pursue these issues further. Bob was invited to open the meeting (in a wheelchair – he had just broken his hip in a fall!)
Bob continued to think about how to proceed with the project, especially in collaboration with John Andrews at ANU and Vijoleta Brach-Maksvytis from the CSIRO laboratory. Soon after, the project was supported by postdoctoral appointments in both the CSIRO laboratory and at ANU. Further workshops were organized and the Australian Artificial Photosynthesis Network was officially formed.
Amongst other things, Bob assumed responsibility for raising financial support for the developing research effort. In a final move in that direction, a meeting was arranged with the Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, at Bob's home in Yass. This was held on the morning of the day he entered hospital, virtually for the last time. Some measure of Bob's commitment to this cause can be gauged from a comment he made in a prior letter to the Chief Scientist. He wrote, 'I am not afraid of losing whatever reputation I may have. I hope that someone may be stimulated by my thoughts – right or wrong – and some revolutionary changes might follow'.
The Artificial Photosynthesis Group has now expanded, incorporating inputs from other Australian laboratories. Recently, the United States Ambassador to Australia convened a meeting to explore possible collaborations with interested groups in the United States and there are moves afoot to apply for a Centre of Excellence grant focused on this topic. Bob would have been delighted by these events.
The foregoing includes some account of the remarkable range of activities Bob undertook in the cause of science as well as some details of his research interests and contributions. These research interests were broad and varied but included one particular topic that remained his lifelong concern. It is on this topic, the energetics of inorganic ion uptake by plant cells, that we shall focus here. For more details, we refer the reader to two of Bob's own accounts of his involvement in this field (57, 58).
As already related, Bob's interest in ion uptake had its origins in his PhD studies with G.E. Briggs at Cambridge. There he set about looking at the link between the uptake of inorganic ions (KCl) by root tissue and the associated respiration of that tissue. His studies clearly confirmed a close link between ion uptake and release of respiratory CO2. At that time it had been suggested by others that this link between respiration and ion uptake was due to the respiratory carbon dioxide forming bicarbonate ions (HCO3-) and protons (H[+]) which could then support uptake by exchanging for the salt ions. Bob disproved this hypothesis by showing that the rate of carbon dioxide output could be greatly enhanced at the same time as salt accumulation was inhibited. He did this by adding methylene blue to the tissue (see Ref. 58). As we now know, the pyridine nucleotides reduced in respiratory metabolism would chemically reduce the methylene blue, which is then spontaneously oxidized by molecular oxygen.
Bob's thinking about the link between salt uptake and respiration was greatly influenced by an idea published by Henrick Lundegardh in Nature in 1938. This paper suggested that the accumulation of ions may be related to the movement of electrons along the cytochrome chain. Bob appeared to accept this redox hypothesis and even wrote a letter to Nature in support of this view and defending Lundegardh's ideas against some published criticisms (2). He also believed that if one properly understood a process, one should be able to make predictions – especially quantitative ones. He predicted that, since four electrons were required to reduce a molecule of oxygen, four anions should be moved at the same time. That is, the ratio of g.equivalents of salt uptake /g.mole of oxygen absorbed should be equal to four. Later he and Marjorie Wilkins provided evidence demonstrating a ratio close to four (10). Other studies using the inhibitor carbon monoxide (15) clearly established the role of cytochrome oxidase in both salt uptake and salt-induced respiration. At that time cytochromes were known only in mitochondria and chloroplasts, and cytochrome oxidase only in mitochondria, so they reasonably focused on mitochondria.
In the early 1950s, Bob proposed that 'the mitochondria in the intact cell, capable of accumulating anions themselves, could act as vehicles for the passage of ions from cell-surface to vacuole' (17). However, when he subsequently showed that uncouplers (such as 2, 4 dinitrophenol) could increase the rate of oxygen uptake and hence electron flow, but completely inhibit the rate of ion uptake, he realised that his simple hypothesis for linking the two processes had to be modified (16). Through much of the 1950s the research of Bob's group remained largely directed to the respiratory features, morphology and basic ionic relations of mitochondria isolated from plant tissue, including their favoured laboratory material, red beetroot. In studies more directly linked to active ion uptake, they examined the kinetics of ion equilibration with mitochondria and provided evidence for a link between increased chloride ion content and the rate of oxygen uptake (22, 23).
In 1960 Bob published a review in which he tried to summarize the conflicting views on respiratory electron transport and phosphorylation (32). By then there was general agreement about the effects of uncouplers but not about the mechanism of these effects. At this stage he might have linked salt uptake directly to the turnover of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) but instead he suggested other possibilities. Critical to these was the proposal that the separation of positive and negative charge might be a fundamental process of the respiratory electron transport chain that resides in the inner membrane of mitochondria. Bob suggested that this charge separation might then lead to either active uptake of ions or the phosphorylation of ADP to ATP, these processes being alternatives. This was a very novel idea. It was in line with, but preceded, Peter Mitchell's hypothesis of a chemiosmosis process involved in mitochondrial energy transduction, leading to the formation of ATP. However, in developing this theory Bob remained focused on the anion, because it was the accumulation of this species that was thought to be energy-dependent in plant tissues. By contrast, Mitchell's hypothesis focused on protons. Bob later admitted, 'I did not have enough insight to suggest that the breakdown of ATP might bring about charge separation and hence ion movement – but Mitchell did' (57).
Bob's charge separation ideas (32) may have had some influence on Mitchell's formulation of the chemiosmotic hypothesis. Bob's account of his correspondence with Mitchell (58) is a masterpiece of generosity. Certainly, the insights of the 'man from Australia' were highlighted by André Jagendorf at the 1964 International Congress of Biochemistry in New York, when he revealed the first and neatest demonstration of chemiosmosis in action (see Ref. 58). Jagendorf's team used light energy to pump protons across chloroplast thylakoid membranes, and demonstrated that this proton gradient could phosphorylate ADP in the dark. Jagendorf's Congress presentations attributed concepts to Lundegardh and Robertson which, at that time, were not appreciated outside plant biochemical circles.
It was not surprising that Bob readily accepted Mitchell's ideas, but he was surprised that others did not (58). His related studies both before (22, 23, 25) and after (36, 37) this time showed that isolated plant mitochondria could accumulate ions and that this process was an alternative to ATP synthesis, but with ATP synthesis being favoured over ion uptake. He extended these studies with carrot root tissues provided with oligomycin to inhibit the mitochondrial enzyme that produces ATP, and measured ATP levels and rates of salt uptake into the tissue (38). He concluded that 'the best hypothesis to explain the observations is that the ion transport mechanism in this tissue is directly coupled to the electron transport system. It does not require the intervention of ATP and may be an alternative to ATP formation'. Later, the situation was confused for some time by reports of a cytochrome system in the plasma membrane (see Ref. 57).
In 1968 Bob published a book (40) in which he outlined his thoughts on oxidative phosphorylation and active ion transport and tried to demystify the essentials of Mitchell's hypothesis and expose its elegant simplicity. This book was well received generally and by Mitchell in particular (see Ref. 58). By the mid-1970s Bob was becoming much more interested in the nature of the membranes themselves. At that time he was invited to give the Burnet Lecture to the Australian Academy of Science, which he entitled 'Molecules, Membranes and Imagination'. In this lecture he attempted to give some idea of the nature, complexity and functions of living membranes; in particular, he wanted to portray the notion of molecular movements within membranes. He extended this idea by producing a short film (A Vision of Membranes) to demonstrate this motion (110) and later wrote a book on the subject entitled The Lively Membranes (52). He largely concentrated on the phospholipids in these works. Only later was the importance of hydrophobic a-helices of membrane proteins and their role in energy transduction fully recognised.
While he was still focusing on the membrane phospholipids in the mid- 1970s, one of Bob's ideas was that the zwitterionic phosphatidylcholine could bind with H[+] and Cl- ions at the membrane-water interface. Once neutral in overall charge, this complex could become buried deeper in the lipophilic layer where the H[+] and Cl- may combine to form free HCl in this anhydrous environment. Then, on diffusing to the other side of the membrane, the HCl could dissolve to form H[+] and Cl- again. He discussed this and related ideas based on the 'flip- flop' ion carrier hypothesis in several forums. Notably, when these ideas were put to Peter Mitchell he was less than enthusiastic. Bob also recounted details of correspondence and discussions he had with Mitchell about this and other matters over more than a decade (58). These ideas, centring on a critical role for HCl in proton transport, appeared in papers published with N.K. Boardman in 1975 (44) and T.E. Thompson in 1977 (48).
Later, in retirement, Bob became interested in ubiquinone and its movement within the membrane, especially with respect to its possible role in translocating protons out of the mitochondrial matrix. In particular, if ubiquinone was sufficiently mobile in the membrane lipid, it could eliminate the need for a smaller proton carrier such as HCl. NMR spectral studies and neutron diffraction studies, conducted in the laboratory of B.A. Cornell, indicated that the bulk of the membrane plastoquinone was aggregated in a separate phase not intercalated with or constrained by the membrane bilayer lipid chains (55, 56). This left the question of the need for a smaller proton carrier unresolved.
Shortly after this, Bob suffered a heart attack and decreased his involvement in active research. However, as already mentioned, he remained an enthusiastic promoter and supporter of the research being undertaken by others, especially younger scientists.
As Barry Osmond so aptly said in an obituary, 'Descending from a long line of ministers of religion, Bob's tolerance, unselfishness and unswerving sense of duty is legendary'. In attempting to expand on these sentiments there is a risk of appearing trite. In fact, much of the picture will have emerged from the foregoing. Perhaps a few random comments and anecdotes will suffice to fill the gaps and round out the picture.
As already mentioned, there was a strong thread throughout Bob's life of social awareness and activism. Quite early in life he was convinced that he wanted to have a hand, in his own words, 'in the development of science as a social force'. Many of his lectures and articles on these matters have already been mentioned as well as his involvement in organizations such as the Association of Scientific Workers, first in Britain and then in Australia. Referring to Bob's election as Chairman of the Australian body in 1942, a major newspaper of that time, Smith's Weekly, welcomed this move under the headline 'Youth at the Helm' and described Bob as 'essentially human, a breezy Australian personality with a ready instinct for a smile rather than a frown. He is no sombre ponderer. Rather, he is an alert thinker, quick, logical and an eager advocate of the doctrine that science should not start and end in the laboratory but should be applied to all social questions and to every day living'. These views extended to Bob's teaching. For instance, graduate students at Adelaide during Bob's time there found themselves reading C.P. Snow as a background to discussions on The Two Cultures. Other authors such as J. Bronowski (Science and Human Values) also found their way on to graduate student bookshelves.
It is relevant here to recall an incident that occurred during the early days of the Second World War. Dr Victor Trikojus, a colleague of Bob's at the University of Sydney, was interned in Long Bay Gaol on charges of being a Nazi sympathiser. This was apparently the result of a malicious testimony relating to some prior association with German scientists. In a move showing considerable moral fortitude considering the times, Bob, with a small group of colleagues, testified in court on Trikojus' behalf and finally secured his release. Later, Trikojus was to make important contributions to the war effort and became head of the Biochemistry Department at the University of Melbourne, for many years the pre-eminent Biochemistry Department in Australia.
Bob and Mary made a vast array of life- long friendships. For instance, Kathleen Wall, a friend of Mary's from the first-year Botany class of 1933, recalls meetings with Bob and Mary, and others from that class, during the Robertsons' regular visits to Sydney up until the late 1990s. In the later years of retirement there was a constant stream of visitors to the Robertsons' home in Yass, a reflection of how their friendship was valued. In one case, by arrangement with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, the visit was accompanied by a living specimen of the Wollemi pine. This was the famous 'living fossil' then only recently discovered in Australia and still held under very tight security. Such friendships were generated by a genuine warmth and consideration for people nicely illustrated by the first meeting of one of us (CBO) with Bob in 1962. This Honours student from a small regional university was encouraged to send a draft of his first research paper to Professor R.N. Robertson, recently moved to the University of Adelaide who, it was thought, might be willing to take him on for a PhD. A few weeks later, as that student was trying to find his way about the campus of the University of Sydney to register for his first-ever scientific meeting, a car slowed to a halt at the curb. The driver leaned across and extended his hand saying 'Bob Robertson. You must be Barry Osmond. I've looked over your paper and here are a few suggestions', all neatly penned in red ink.
In his spare time Bob was an avid reader and dabbled in watercolour painting. Despite his 'polio leg' he played hockey, captaining the Sydney University second grade team for many years. He is also remembered by colleagues and students from the Plant Physiology Unit days in the 1950s as a wily squash player. In later life, especially during his Adelaide and Canberra years, he returned to a boyhood love of horse riding. During these years Bob said his riding technique was transformed from that of an 'Australian bush rider' to that of 'the European schools of dressage'. He loved the challenge of training young horses to understand the subtle body language of the rider. This was at the expense of twice breaking his leg in riding accidents.
Throughout a remarkably busy and very influential life in science, Bob gained a reputation for his willingness to 'go the extra mile', for his fair-mindedness, his generosity, and his concern for friends and colleagues in all walks of life. He was equally at ease with Prime Ministers and just-hired laboratory assistants or cleaners. He had a personality and management style not common amongst those who took on the responsibilities and undertakings that he did. Interestingly, the only substantial criticism of Bob's personality that we are aware of is that he was not sufficiently tough or ruthless, especially with those of obvious ill will.
How would Bob like to be remembered? He put it simply and directly, as was his wont. 'Perhaps, if it's not too much', he wrote 'to be known as a generous man, who, despite human failings, talked sense and occasionally showed signs of wisdom'.
Bob died in Yass, New South Wales, on 5 March 2001. A sad and unexpected addendum to this story is that his wife, lifelong companion and confidante, Mary, died soon afterwards. They are survived by their son Robert, his wife Jan, and two grandchildren, Andrew and Claire.
This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.14, no.4, 2003. It was written by:
Numbers in brackets refer to the bibliography.
We are indebted to Rosanne Walker for her help including word processing and to Bob Robertson's son Robert for assistance in our research.
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