Dr June Olley, fish technologist (1924–2019)

Dr June Olley. Interview sponsored by the Mazda Foundation.

June Olley received a PhD from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she studied lipid metabolism. She then worked at Torry Research Station, Aberdeen, on various aspects of fish technology. Olley joined CSIRO in 1968, working at the Tasmanian Food Research Unit, and remained with this organisation throughout her working life. She started as an experimental officer and retired as a senior principal research scientist and leader of the unit. She contributed to numerous publications in different areas of fish and shellfish technology. After retirement from CSIRO, Olley became an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania, where she continues to pursue her research into aspects of fish technology and microbiology. She has contributed to a number of scientific papers and a microbiology textbook.

Interviewed by Ms Nessy Allen in 2001.


Finding an interest in science

June, where and when were you born?

I was born in 1924, in a bungalow at the back of Croydon aerodrome – south of London – where my father was one of the early flyers. He and my mother were first cousins, and Mother fell in love with him when she was eight. She fitted her life to his, especially when in 1934 he started his own airline, which involved a lot of socialising with all sorts of people, and she was always there to support him.

Did your parents and your home life encourage you toward a science education?

Well, I think the only book my father ever read was Lawrence of Arabia. But my beloved Nanny was a Victorian in the true sense: she had all the classics and she taught me to spell and to write. She helped me tremendously in my childhood.

I was an only child, and my father didn't believe in education for girls. He would rather I'd been something like a film star. But Mother had been told by the Honourable Freddy Something-or-other that you should give your child the very best education you could, and then leave them completely alone to find their own way.

Neither of my parents was interested in science, and on the whole I wasn't either. But when I was about 10 I persuaded Mother to buy me the Zoo Magazine, volume 1, no. 1, and keep up the subscription. I solemnly listed every single animal mentioned in the magazine, putting them in alphabetical order. (I was interested in documentation, and was almost preparing for the computer.) But then when volume 2 came out, I didn't know how to handle that.

Did you take science at primary school?

Oh yes, I took chemistry and physics, with lots of practical experiments. I had a wonderful teacher. Actually, because I couldn't draw anything I had a lot of keep-ins, and so a bond developed and I got interested in science through a person who cared about me, in a way.

A secondary education complicated by war

You were then sent to a very good boarding school.

Yes. That was in keeping with what Mother had been told. I insisted on seeing the school laboratories to make sure they were up to standard. We visited Roedean and all these famous places, but as far as I was concerned they were hopeless. I chose Wycombe Abbey, one of the most expensive girls' boarding schools in Britain. My father was furious but Mother had a little weep and he eventually gave in.

School costs were an awful problem. My father was drafted into civil aviation – what little there was left during the war – which very much reduced his income. He used to put in my resignation every term, in case he couldn't pay. This was terribly disruptive, and the staff got very upset for me and assured my parents I'd get a scholarship. I never did, but we tottered on for the whole war.

What subjects did you take?

My science subjects were chemistry, physics, botany and zoology. I did English grammar, of course, but I failed. That put me back a bit, because you couldn't matriculate without it. My teachers were absolutely fantastic. They obviously saw I did have some potential, because they even blacked-out the science library during the Blitz so that I could go and work there at night.

From chemistry Honours to a custom-designed PhD

After you left school, what did you do?

I went to London University to do chemistry. I had really wanted to do biochemistry but the university had to be evacuated from London, the chemistry and physics going to Aberystwyth, the biochemistry to Cardiff and the zoology and botany to Bangor, in north Wales. So you just had to do whatever was where you were.

What did you do your Honours degree in?

During the war you were encouraged to do your actual Honours in a job. I went to the Human Nutrition Research Unit of the Medical Research Council, where I worked with Professor B S Platt. I developed a micro-method of estimating elemental sulfur in rats' skin. (I am talking about just the element, the flours of sulfur that Grandma would have had in bottles.) That enabled me to have an Honours degree in chemistry, in 1944.

Professor Platt was nutrition adviser to the Colonial Office and was very interested in trying to produce tropical diseases in animal models. He was trying to produce fatty livers, for example, such as babies in the West Indies got when they were living on too much sugar. This involved using radioactive compounds to look at the rate of turnover of these fats in the livers of rats. I wanted to go on with him to do a PhD – not in chemistry, however, but in biochemistry. I hadn't done that previously, though, because it was in Cardiff, so I didn't have the right qualifications.

I kept going to the London University Senate and complaining that it wasn't my fault I had been sent to a place where I couldn't do biochemistry. In the end they invented a new degree called the chemistry of nutrition, just at the time when Platt was appointed to the first Chair of Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. So in 1950, at last, I got my PhD in the new degree. In fact, there were only ever two in the world. My technician, who came out of the Navy, took it as well. And we both ultimately came to Australia.

Would you say that Professor Platt was a mentor to you?

Oh, very much so. I became a family friend and babysat his five children – aged from 13 to one – so that he and his wife got away occasionally for weekends. And he took me to all the early conferences after the war, where I could keep his wife company and also attend the social outings. In particular, I went to Geneva for the United Nations conference on starving Europe, at which all the world's notable people in nutrition were present. That was a tremendous start to give a young person.

A first fish project: why herring margarine was not such a good idea

What did you do after your PhD?

I wanted a change, so I went to the University Senate and said I'd like a job. The very next day I was on the train to Aberdeen, where the Torry Research Station wanted somebody to work on fish fats in non-fatty fish – very important these days, but a rare thing to study at that time. And because I'd done these fats in the livers of rats, I was qualified to do the job: I got it straight away.

Torry is the harbour of Aberdeen, and the research station had been set up in 1929 by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to work on the handling and preservation of fish as food. So I still had to go back and be accepted by the DSIR and interviewed by a government panel. I got C P Snow as my interviewer. After asking me what I had done already, he said, 'Ah, I see, a troubleshooter.' (He hit the nail on the head, actually.)

You were troubleshooting for the rest of your life, I think. At Torry, what did you begin by doing?

My first job was to try and turn surplus herring into margarine. Herring numbers had been able to build up because they were not fished during the war, and huge catch surpluses were stacked on airfields near Wick – just below John o'Groats, as in the old saying, 'Land's End to John o'Groats'. The factory was run by Scottish tinkers who lived in the caves, and the McPhee always stood at the cave entrance with arms akimbo so that his family was protected by a goatskin or something. And when they came to work, their wives all brought their meals in enormous old prams.

It was all very Mickey-Mouse; there weren't any thermometers or anything like that. We stewed up the fish with caustic soda and the oil floated to the top. But although it was thought that the real shortage in Europe after the war was in oils, on closer examination it turned out that an awful lot of people were short of protein, so the project didn't bring practical benefits. Anyway, by this time the trawlers had started and the herring began to disappear again.

Balancing theoretical with practical seafood research

Did Torry work on practical projects as a matter of policy?

It was an absolute policy. When you went to work there, it was made quite plain that you were to spend half of your time on practical projects and half on fundamental research.

The fundamental research was on the fats I mentioned. (We call them PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) now and you can buy capsules of tuna oil, full of omega-3, long-chain fatty acids et cetera.) When fish were frozen or were kept too long on ice, those fats would break down, and we wanted to know what that breakdown did to the proteins to make the fish tough, for example. It was very theoretical. I worked with Dr J A Lovern, a graduate of Liverpool, who was really one of the fathers of fish lipid chemistry.

The applied research was in fishmeal. If your fish isn't wanted for human food, you cook it, press the oil out of it and dry the presscake into a powder with about 10 per cent moisture, for feeding to pigs or poultry, or to mink – and now to fish in fish farms. At that time, 45 per cent of the world's fish catch was turned into fishmeal.

Other coastlines, other seafood considerations

And you visited the US during your time at Torry.

Yes. I went to the American Fisheries Laboratories at College Park, in Maryland, to see what was going on in a project which was being very much publicised. The idea was that the sea was just full of fish, and all you had to do was extract the fish with isopropanol to take out the water and the fats, and use the powder that remained to feed starving babies and so on.

I didn't have my trip arranged by any government agency but arranged it myself, and I thought I'd need a fortnight. But nobody else had stayed more than a couple of days. After almost two weeks they really had to show me the plant, and it certainly was magnificent. There were spark-proof telephones, beautiful tiled floors, solvent recovery plants – all gleaming, not a scratch on the paint anywhere. So I asked how often it had been used. 'Well, once,' they said. And of course it meant that they didn't know anything about solvent recoveries or how staff reacted to various hitches. It had been a political thing to get the unit in that State; it wasn't where the most suitable fish were. Then, when they'd got it, they didn't use it.

In any case, the process left you with a white, gritty, useless, tasteless, horrible powder which wouldn't mix with anything, and nobody wanted to eat it!

Did you go anywhere else?

I went to France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland – places with a coastline and a fishmeal industry. The reasons for the visits varied. I went to Brussels, for example, for regulations to do with Britain's entry into the Common Market. But that was still fishmeal.

Troubleshooting and a happy accident in phospholipid research

Did you work overseas for any extended periods during this time?

Yes. The first was in 1956, when I got a Fulbright travel grant to work on phospholipids – fats that have glycerol as their backbone, then a phosphorus molecule and then other various molecules attached. They are the basis of cell membranes.

The opportunity arose when Professor D J Hanahan came over from Washington, Seattle. Being fairly straightforward and never polite, I said when he was introduced to me, 'Oh, your PhD student's last paper is all wrong, actually.' He looked a bit surprised, and two weeks later I got a letter saying, 'I've been back home, and yes, it was wrong. Would you like a Fulbright?' So I spent a year in Seattle looking at phospholipids, not only in fish but in yeasts and all sorts of things.

That was interesting, but really I did only one important thing. When I got there, all his PhD students had phospholipids with no glycerol. As the glycerol was the backbone of the molecule, they were all very puzzled. Rotary evaporators were just beginning to be fashionable, and I pointed out to them that they were sucking all their glycerol down the vacuum pump. It's trivial, but everybody's work was held up. I guess you could say that was an example of my 'troubleshooting'.

What was your second such period of work?

In 1961 I went to Jerusalem for three months to synthesise these phospholipids, using fish tissues to make them synthesise the compounds. You see, Torry had applied for money to look at long-distance trawling at Bear Island, up near Iceland, but then the Iceland cod war started. We couldn't go and get involved in the cod war, so I said that rather than have all this allocated money handed back to the Treasury, I'd like to use it to go to Jerusalem.

There I worked in the Biochemistry Department of the Hebrew University, with Professor B Shapiro. But I was doing my work in an old Arab harem, very cold and dark. My eyesight wasn't very good, and I put in all my reagents in the wrong order. So, although PhD students in the Department had been trying for about two years to synthesise these fats, when by accident I put in first the reagent which I should have put in last, that protected all the enzymes which were necessary for the synthesis to succeed. At least I knew what I'd done!

And four years later you went to Rome.

That was at my own expense. I had missed my holidays that year, and rather than lose them I put them together with the next year's holiday for three months in Rome. I was interested to know whether I'd like to go and work there at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. So I helped edit the proceedings of the first FAO fish technology conference, which I'd been to in Germany the previous year, and of course I met all the fishery scientists who passed through. I decided I would not like to work for the UN, because people were continuously on the move and there wasn't really enough continuity, but that did help to begin my network of fishery scientists.

A pH meter and all: transitions during an eventful year

In a way, the arrival of two senior Australian fisheries scientists in Aberdeen in 1967 led to the end of your 18 years of working at Torry, didn't it?

Yes. They had come to see the fishmeal industry of the north-east of Scotland. My colleague who was supposed to meet them forgot to go to the airport, and so I was sent instead. I took them in my red Triumph Herald convertible to see the fish factories all round the north-east of Scotland, and at the end of the day they said that I was the person they wanted, not the one who had forgotten to pick them up. Would I like to come to Hobart and say whether Tasmania should have a fishmeal industry?

As my future husband, Frank, whom I had met in Aberdeen two years before, was a barrister in Hobart and had been writing to me for about 18 months, I said yes, I'd come – even though I had to pay my own fare. And he proposed the third night after I arrived.

I told the scientists they shouldn't have a fishmeal factory in Tasmania because they couldn't rely on fish being available. The fish move inshore and offshore, and it's a big capital investment to put up a building if they're not going to stay put. Ultimately Tasmania got the federal government to pay for the factory. Some people were sent bankrupt, some people made money – it had a very chequered history. Now it makes fishmeal for fish farms.

Once you became engaged, how did you move yourself out here?

Well, while I was in Tasmania I was asked to go and look at the abalone factory at Margate. Its canned abalone were extremely tough, just like shoe leather. I told the factory I thought its pH was wrong. These things were far too acid, and that was because they weren't being processed properly.

You can use a pH meter to measure acidity (such as to show whether the soil in your garden is acid or alkaline) but they'd never heard of such a meter so I thought I'd better borrow one. I went to the CSIRO Regional Laboratory, on Battery Point, rang the bell and said I was June Olley and I'd like to borrow a pH meter. At that, the director had me in and talked to me for about an hour, after which he said, 'I think we need you here.' He rang up the CSIRO headquarters in Sydney and got me an interview, and I went back to lunch and surprised my fiancé by saying, 'Well, I've got a pH meter and a job.' Next, of course, I had to go home and give my resignation. Then I came on out here.

And in the same year, 1968, you were awarded a Doctorate of Science by the University of London, and you got married. Quite an eventful year.

A fortunate appointment to CSIRO

So you joined CSIRO.

Yes. The job was with the Tasmanian regional laboratory. It 'specialised' in anything that Tasmania needed to be done, so there were lots of little units, such as the rainmakers. I joined the Food Technology Group to work in the fish part of the unit. My one colleague there was away in Japan at the time and I hadn't yet met him.

Your appointment as a biochemist was initially in a position of experimental officer. Why was that?

Fortunately, the typist at Torry, in Aberdeen, had lost half of my CV when she posted it out. Otherwise I wouldn't have had a job, because as a DSc I'd have had to be the director of the place! So it was very good that I got in by mistake. And within a year I was reclassified as a research scientist, anyway.

My first job at CSIRO was to try and get the abalone softer in the cans, but then we went on to all the alternative ways that abalone could be used, apart from just canning them. We dried them – in fact, an awful lot of abalone fishermen were already drying abalone in their garages – trying to get the best way to make them look. You can make them look almost transparent, with the blood vessels visible inside them, or you can make them almost pitch black by heating them too hard. And we tried shipping them live in boxes, just in air, to Japan. We also tried making silage by mixing the viscera, the waste, from the canning factory with sulfuric acid from the zinc works, to make a silage which could be then neutralised and fed to pigs and poultry.

Within a year, I think, you'd been put in charge of a group of people specialising in fish and shellfish.

Well, it started off as just the two of us. To expand into products other than abalone, therefore, we had to apply for grants from the Fishing Industry Research Trust Account and so I was put on the committee. It was a bit difficult to be applying for grants while also choosing the people who got them: you had to be very fair.

We got grants for working on comminuted fish. For that you put the fish through a sort of meat and bone separator. The bones all go down a chute and the fish comes out as a mince. The idea was that fish that wasn't particularly marketable could be made into fish fingers. That project never took off.

We looked at substitution of fish, in which restaurants and shops were trying to sell cheap species as more expensive ones, and we caught a Sydney restaurant. Each species of fish has its own fingerprint, a bit like the DNA genetic ones that we're all getting used to today. If you take a water extract of a fish, run it down a strip of paper and then stain it, you get a whole lot of bands, from which it was obvious that the restaurant was selling ling as barramundi – not deliberately, of course. They were terribly upset. But they still got ling when they tried again. They were being swindled by an importer from Singapore. We did a lot of other species of fish, too.

One project we were asked to do, rather than applying for it, was whether rock lobsters should be drowned in their ice water after you caught them, or properly guillotined. The West Australians thought that the South Australians were ruining the trade by drowning them, but we were able to prove it didn't make any difference. So everybody was happy.

We also looked at vacuum packaging, or modified atmosphere packaging, of fish – so that you could sell it after a longer period than if you had just kept it on ice – and at how long any individual species would keep on ice. For this shelf-life work we had to develop sensory panels to smell the fish, assess their texture and odour, and so on.

An unexpected environmental project

Did that huge range of projects include any unexpected ones?

Yes. One unexpected project which ended up taking an enormous amount of time concerned the pollution of the Derwent. People started to grow oysters in Ralphs Bay, which is a sort of bag in the Derwent estuary – once the water gets in there, it has nowhere to come out again. And the zinc works had always just let their effluent go out into the river.

When people eating these oysters started being sick, it was pointed out to us that zinc is an emetic, and maybe the zinc in the oysters was coming from the zinc works. Some of the oysters had 10 per cent zinc on a dry weight basis. (They were quite happy, though.) We saw no point in doing an enormous amount of work to gather information on this, because surely the zinc works would already have it. So without asking anybody's permission I went up and saw the manager of the zinc works, who agreed to release a lot of information: they'd had a diver going round the whole of the estuary looking for zinc, cadmium and copper but they didn't know what to do with their data, how to assess its significance. We took that information on board, and when the powers-that-be thought that maybe we shouldn't be working with a polluting industry, I pointed out that we weren't – we were just trying to get the solution to the problems.

The deposits from the zinc works included not only zinc, cadmium, copper and lead, but also mercury. And we all know about what the famous Minamata Disease did to the Japanese. The mercury was turning up in the sharks here, so shark fishing in the actual estuary had to be stopped and the shark fishermen were put onto doing a survey of all the fish in the estuary.

That would have been an environmental project that CSIRO took on.

Yes, but sort of sideways on, unexpectedly. We appeared in the new magazine Ecos, volume 1 no. 1, which was rather nice. And then when it got to volume 50 they did a reprise to see how we'd got on with it all.

The realistic application of models

Weren't you involved in some mathematical modelling of spoilage?

Yes. This came about almost by accident, because in an obscure Japanese journal, the Memoirs of the Faculty of the Fisheries, Kagoshima University, I found an equation which seemed to have universal application to the breakdown of flavour compounds in fish. (Finding obscure references is still an enjoyable hobby for me.) I asked our statistician, 'Could you apply this equation to bacterial growth?' His response was, 'What for?' so I said, 'Oh, I don't know, David. Just apply it.' And the equation turned out to fit bacteria in the Antarctic, bacteria in hot geysers – we began to realise that with this equation you could predict the number of bacteria at a given temperature.

At that point I started to work with Professor T A McMeekin, the microbiology professor at the University of Tasmania, and 20 years later the work is almost into legislation. Professor McMeekin and I, with our statistician David Ratkowsky, wrote a textbook on it. But you could say that Tom Ross, a PhD student who was young and modern enough to do all the word processing, in fact 'wrote' the whole book.

Just to bring the story up to date: you and David Ratkowsky are still together in the Agricultural Science Department at the university, aren't you?

Yes. We have worked together since 1971, and since our retirement we've been sharing a room in the university.

It's obvious that you are still committed to the Torry approach of doing theoretical work but also solving real problems. Professor Allan Bremner, who was one of your junior colleagues and is now in the Department of Seafood Research at the Technical University of Denmark, said to me, 'While June has a theoretical, first-principles, fundamental approach, she also preferred working on real problems, not model systems. Real-life situations dealing with whole fish are far more difficult, and she loved that challenge.'

That's so. I try to persuade the PhD students in our department to do their model experiments within the limits that the fish or meat or piece of cheese they're looking at might have. It is no good wasting chemicals and time on parts of the model which just would never occur.

Contributing to international outcomes

You contributed to three international fisheries projects involving Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

Yes. We had a conference in Jakarta of the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council (part of FAO) and another one in Melbourne. And I said that anything we found out was totally lost if none of these institutes had libraries. Also, you needed a librarian or some central, focal person to send all the material to. If you sent it to an individual scientist, they would just put it in their briefcase and take it away after the job.

At my suggestion, Frances Barnes – our librarian at the CSIRO Tasmanian Regional Laboratory – went to Rome for some briefing and then went round to do something about all these non-existent libraries: books in beautiful bookcases, locked with keys that you had to go and get and so on. And quite a lot of the books were very, very old. The first country to pay attention to her was Singapore, which sent somebody to the library school in Aberystwyth, and things have come a long way from then.

So that was the first project. What were the others?

The second was a project on fish drying and smoking that IUNS/IUFoST – the International Union of Nutritional Science/International Union of Food Science and Technology – wanted to set up. The conference was in Dublin. For family reasons I couldn't go, but I sent a tape saying that the most important thing with drying was the relative humidity, the water activity of the products. If fish is on ice, or meat is refrigerated, the temperature is the important thing. But once you start to dry something, the relative humidity can become even more important than the temperature. This tape formed the first chapter of the book which subsequently came out, and at the end of the project I persuaded people to send in the water activity of all their various products, from 12 different countries, for a table in the book. So that was my contribution to that.

The third project was funded by ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, for fish drying in Indonesia. My main contribution to that was to point out that you must have an overall picture and not focus on one particular thing. It's no good drying fish if they are then eaten by insects, you see. I said the project had got to have an entomologist, a microbiologist, an engineer, a biochemist and specialists in fungi. These people were drawn from the University of Tasmania – the Agricultural Science Department had the entomologist and the microbiologist, and that's why I am so welcome up there, because I brought quite a lot of money; the Engineering Department had the engineer, Peter Doe; and I'm an honorary research associate of engineering and of microbiology – and also from CSIRO Food Research, North Ryde, which provided the fungi experts. Peter Doe had worked with me at Torry Research Station (he did his PhD on the Torry fish-smoking kiln) and we ended up contributing a great deal to this book on fish drying and smoking which was published a couple of years ago.

And at the completion of the project the director wrote to you, 'I am quite sure the project wouldn't have happened without you. Let me thank you again for your very effective contribution and guidance throughout the period of the project.'

Around the world on sabbatical leave

In 1973–74 you took sabbatical leave, again at your own expense. What did you do?

My husband had just retired and wanted to go round the world. The first place he wanted to go to was South Africa. I got permission to work for three months at the Fishing Industry Research Institute in Cape Town, which is funded by trade, not government, and had never had an outsider in. But I had known the director, Dr S Dreosti, from the fishmeal days at Torry and also in Europe, and he said I'd be 'safe' to have there. Even so, I wasn't allowed to publish anything I found for two years. I worked on getting live rock lobster to France for the Christmas season.

From Cape Town we went on to England, and I worked at the Tropical Products Institute on making fish silage by mixing the fish with a cereal product such as cassava. That helped to bring down the relative humidity so that you could keep the mixture longer in tropical countries than you could have done otherwise.

Then we went to Sweden, where I discussed making fish silage; to Spain, for fishmeal conferences where I tied up again with all my old fishmeal colleagues; and to Poland, where I gave a couple of lectures for Professor Z E Sikorski, of the University of Gdansk (formerly Danzig).

Professor Sikorski is a master of fish technology, but until the Cold War ended he was not known in Western Europe. Actually, I managed to get him out on sabbatical for a year, to work here on denaturation of fish proteins in cold storage. Denaturation means they lose their ability to hold moisture – as we all know, an old piece of fish that's been in a cold store for years tastes like cardboard. He sent me a book last week, saying I'd completely altered his life.

Research development at home and abroad

Did you invite other research workers to come and work in Tasmania with you?

Yes. The first one we had was Professor Harold Olcott, who is really the father of food biochemistry. I met him when, during my Fulbright in Seattle, I went on a bus trip down to Berkeley, California. He spent one sabbatical with me at Torry; on the next one he came here and worked on the blueing of abalone; and his next was at the Fishing Industry Research Institute in Cape Town, because I persuaded them he was 'safe' for them to have. He is dead now, but we were very close.

The next person I had was the engineer from Torry, Jacky Graham. He came out and spent three months with Stephen Sykes, who had just graduated in engineering with Peter Doe and needed someone to teach him to be our engineer. He helped Stephen to start developing an air-blast freezer and assess the freezers in current use in Tasmania.

Somehow, you found time as well to help people in developing countries. You helped develop research centres in South-East Asia, didn't you?

Yes. I think the first one was a Danida – Danish aid – project tied in with the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome. We were teaching people from Malaysia, Burma and Thailand, and we went out for two successive years to Colombo, teaching them how to assess the quality of fish. I remember two little Burmese girls who were about the same size as the huge fish whose gills we were trying to teach them to smell, to assess how old they were. But that all folded because of the civil troubles in Sri Lanka, and that laboratory no longer exists.

The vital role of collaborative networks

It's quite clear from what you've been saying that you believe in collaborating with other scientists and other bodies.

That is absolutely vital.

So you believe in having a large network?

Oh, it's invaluable. My network started with Professor Platt and the United Nations, and it went on through David James, my first colleague at the Tasmanian Regional Laboratory. He had been in Japan, and in 1976 he became Australia's representative for the FAO Fisheries in Rome. And Peter Doe, also from my Torry days, became a lecturer here and was involved in these projects in South-East Asia, so that he now goes a lot to these countries to bring students to the university. All these people, along with those in South Africa and so on, are the beginnings of a very big network.

Someone I haven't mentioned is Professor Bonnie Sun Pan, from Taiwan. We met at the 50th Jubilee of Torry Research Station, in 1980, when I went back and gave a paper. When she became professor, she found she had money for a visiting scientist, but she didn't know many people in the West. Besides knowing me, she had been at university in the States with Norman Haard, and so at very short notice before the end of the financial year she asked the two of us to go to Taiwan and give a seminar.

I wasn't allowed to go officially to Taiwan because of the political situation in those days, but I went privately. Bonnie has also been here and she has the network through Norman Haard to America and Canada. We're all still collaborating.

But also you have to collaborate with your local industries and businesses. For example, George Mure had a little fish restaurant on Battery Point which became extremely famous, and then he launched out in a much bigger way and his huge fish complex now occupies an enormous area on the docks. George has his own trawler which catches blue-eye, and he came to us for advice on what smoking kilns to have and how long his fish would keep. He is at the moment writing a book on the history of the beginnings of the fishing industry here, and has asked me to make some contributions.

The information lamp shines on

Are you still involved in any work?

I'm still working on the predictive microbiology. And although I didn't go myself to the big conference we had last year in Leuven, in Belgium, I was one of the junior editors of the proceedings. They are out now.

Something I was especially interested in was the ASEAN Food Journal. That was started by the Association of South-East Asian Nations, and was coming along really well and providing an enormous amount of information for this area. I did a lot of refereeing for it and was getting very pleased with it. But then the main offices of ASEAN closed, and the journal was supposed to go to the University of Malaysia. Without the previous editor, however, they never really managed to get it off the ground and it has been in abeyance for the last few years.

You have referred in passing to being an honorary research associate of the Department of Agricultural Science and the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tasmania. I think you have also done some work with the Australian Maritime College.

Yes. I've just marked a Masters thesis there. I have a lot in common with Felicia Kow, who runs fish technology at the Maritime College at Beauty Point. Although she's from Taiwan, she did her PhD with colleagues from Professor Platt's unit, as I did. She asks me for advice all the time, and I mark theses and so on for the College.

Sharing the knowledge: training, teaching, publishing

Many of the staff you have trained are now making significant contributions to seafood technology, both in Australia and overseas.

Yes. When my unit closed in 1989, my staff were disbanded. Allan Bremner, my No. 2, went first of all to the Department of Primary Industries in Queensland and then became professor of fish technology in Lyngby, Copenhagen – one of the most prestigious fishery laboratories in the world. I was very proud of that. And Stephen Thrower, who had always wanted to be our information officer, also went to the DPI in Queensland. There he found all the computing facilities that I hadn't been able to provide, and a big library, and now he has done wonders with providing a booklet each year with information for people who want to buy fish or equipment, and who's doing what and so on. He's a real mine of information.

Have you ever taught at the University of Tasmania, or supervised PhD students there?

Well, I lectured. While I was engaged to my husband, Professor G Wade asked me up to talk about what I was doing – they had to alter the temperature of their cold-stores as a result! – and so I had the entrée into the university before I even moved here. They asked me to give third-year lectures in microbiology while Professor K Marshall was away on a sabbatical. I didn't know any microbiology but I got them making silage by microbiological means, and all the kinds of things I've talked about. You can make tempeh by fermentation and things like that. I wonder we didn't poison people.

Since I've joined the university as an honorary I don't supervise as such, but when people get a bit debilitated in the last year of their thesis – you know, when the prof says do one thing and their supervisor says do another – I come in as an energiser to buck them up again and suggest a few things they might do to improve the thesis. I read most of the Honours, Masters and PhD theses of people doing microbiology.

And you have published very widely. I found references to 160-odd papers under 18 main headings to do with fish technology.

That's not an awful lot, really.

I'm not so sure! But why is it that although so many were published by your seafood technology section from '69 to '89, when you were its head, your name appears on only about 95 of them?

I don't approve of always putting the director's name on, especially when he or she has not done anything. My criterion is whether I have had an important idea, or changed the purpose of the paper or done something which has made it other than it would have been if I hadn't interfered. I only consider that I should have my name on if I have done something of significance.

Public acknowledgments, private satisfactions

In 1972 you were elected junior vice-president of the Tasmanian Royal Society, and in 1973 the senior vice-president.

Yes. You can't be elected the president, because that's the Governor of Tasmania.

And in 1976 you were elected one of the two women Foundation Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. In 1986 the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology gave you their Award of Merit. Then in 1988 you got the Order of Australia and also an honorary DSc from the University of Tasmania. It is a very impressive list. Are you happy with these public acknowledgments?

Well no! I found them an awful lot of extra work. Also, at the time I was getting all these things, the logistics of getting my family to ceremonies and things was mind-boggling – my husband was only seven years younger than my mother, and their ages averaged about 85. So I found it all rather a strain.

There have been some very pleasing things, though. Recently I was thrilled to receive a book in Japanese about microbiology, especially food spoilage. The book's Japanese author wrote that he would be awfully pleased if I would update it. I had the letter translated – actually, by a Japanese woman whom my husband had given away in marriage to a Hungarian colleague of mine – and then another letter, this time in English, came the next week. Apparently Dr Usio Simidu had met me in 1963 at Torry and I'd invited him home for dinner and mah-jongg. I was certainly able to help him: you could tell which things he'd left out by the references he hadn't quoted.

Also, I'm very proud that when I retired from the CSIRO in 1989 I received an 'On Your Retirement' card from the International Association of Fishmeal Manufacturers. I had been their Scientific Secretary before I came out here to get married, and here was this card 23 years after I'd left the Association. It is signed by people from all over the world, anywhere that has a fishmeal industry – Peru, Chile, South Africa.

It doesn't sound as if the fact that you are a woman has made any difference to your career in science.

Oh, it has – I've been thoroughly spoilt!

June, your achievements in fish science and technology have been enormous, especially in making Australia a centre for these studies. Thank you very much for participating in this interview.

Photo Gallery

  • Dr June Olley

  • June's mother and father, 1928.

  • June aged 4, 1928.

  • On her wedding day, 1968.

  • Dr June Olley
  • June's mother and father, 1928.
  • June aged 4, 1928.
  • On her wedding day, 1968.
  • Demonstrating comminuting fish to school children at the Tasmanian Regional Laboratory in Hobart, 1976.
  • The four authors of Predictive Microbiology – David Ratkowsky, June Olley, Tom Ross and Tom McMeekin, 1992.
  • At the Fishing Industry Research Institute, Cape Town, South Africa, 1973.
  • Horizontal plate freezer designed by MSc student Stephen Sykes, 1987.
  • With squid and squid-drying racks in Taiwan, 1983.
  • June and her husband, Frank, 1988.

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