Dr Max Day, ecologist

Dr Max Day

Dr Max Day studied botany and zoology at the University of Sydney, receiving a BSc in 1937. He left Australia for Harvard University in 1938 where he worked as a biological assistant and a Lehman Fellow. He was awarded a PhD in 1941 for his work on termites of the genus Stolotermes. After completing his PhD, Dr Day lectured in cytology and parasitology at Washington University, Missouri. After World War II, he worked as the scientific liaison officer at the Australian Scientific Research Liaison Office in Washington, DC; a position he was twice seconded to (1944–47 and 1955–57). In 1947 Dr Day returned to Australia and to the Division of Entomology in the CSIRO where he stayed for many years, holding a variety of positions. He was employed first as a research officer and then through various steps to chief research officer and finally served as assistant chief from 1963 to 1966. He was a member of the CSIRO Executive from 1966 to 1976. He served as the first chief of the CSIRO Division of Forest Research from 1976 to 1980. He was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1956.

Teachers' notes to accompany this transcript.
You can order the DVD from the Academy for $15 (including GST and postage)

Interviewed by Dr Max Blythe in 1993.


Family survival through 'interesting' times

Max, you were born in Sydney towards the end of 1915, an interesting time. Tell us about your parents.

I really didn't know my father very well: at the age of nine I was sent to boarding school, and while I was there he was killed in a car accident. He was an architect, like his father, who was himself the son of a builder in the UK.

My grandfather came to Australia in the late 1800s. A couple of the buildings he designed are on the Australian Heritage List, including the King's School buildings in Parramatta, originally built for Sir James Burns, of Burns Philp – a very wealthy and influential person in New South Wales. We have discovered that another Heritage List building my grandfather designed is a bank in Townsville, at the other end of the Burns Philp shipping line. He was obviously a successful architect, but by the time I knew him he was old, cantankerous and not doing well at all.

My mother was an absolutely charming lady who had been born in Noumea, New Caledonia, and spoke French before she spoke English. Her father was the British Consul in Noumea and was somehow involved in the nickel mines, a very big operation. She lived into her 90s, a very ripe age.

You were close to your mother as a child?

Very, because when she was widowed – having been so looked after that she had never even signed a cheque – I was 11. My father's insurance and our house, which had to be sold right after his death, were all she had to provide for my two younger sisters and me.

My father had built a beautiful home in Vaucluse, one of the nice suburbs of Sydney. There was a marvellous view to Manly from the front of the house, and up the Harbour from the west side – no Bridge and no Opera House, of course, but magnificent clouds to the west of Sydney. A well-known photographer named Harold Cazneaux took a magnificent photograph from my sleep-out, or verandah, of the 18-footers on Sydney Harbour on a Sunday afternoon. All the local ferries used to load up passengers to watch the 18-footers race, with their balloon sails. Cazneaux maintained that that photograph could take a prize in any salon in Europe.

One of my mother's brothers, in particular, helped her a great deal. Then, however, the Depression hit. My mother had put most of her available funds into housing, but the Moratorium Act allowed people who had no jobs to pay no rent and so for all that period she got nothing for the houses she owned. We were really very, very poor. Indeed, for everybody in Australia that was a grim time.

Weren't you sent to boarding school because you were said to be a 'difficult child'?

Well, that was the myth, shall we say. Hayfield – which has now disappeared – was a very good boarding school, a sort of prep school for King's, mainly for young kids from the age of about nine to 12.

When you became bereft of your father you were supported for a short time by a man called Lewis, I believe, who was quite important in your life.

He was. It happened that while I was at the prep school, the American fleet came in to Sydney Harbour, and because our home looked out over the Harbour I invited a fellow student, David Lewis, to see the fleet come in. Almost immediately after this, my father was killed and David invited me to Bowral, a delightful Southern Tablelands town where the Lewises had a beautiful home and horses. I went up there for a number of vacations. My schoolboy friend's father, Arthur Lewis, was a very interesting Indian civil servant who had decided that his children should be brought up in Australia. He was a Greek scholar, a scholar in the true sense of the word, very religious, and he rather took over as a surrogate father in some respects. He encouraged me to do Greek at school – which was a disaster but I still don't regret my one year of doing that. He had a great impact on me as a small boy.

That family all went back to England after Arthur Lewis had retired from the Indian Civil Service. The eldest son – a marvellous young man – was killed in the war but I believe the daughter still lives in Scotland and David, my friend, became a GP in England. To my regret, though, I have lost touch with them.

Back to top

Natural history to the rescue

You went on to Shore, not to King's after all.

Yes. When my father died, we moved in with my grandmother at Wahroonga. That was a terrible period, in a way, because all her sons, my uncles, had been damaged in various ways by the First World War and they had all come to live in this little house which my father had designed for an elderly lady and her maid. With my grandmother, the three brothers, my mother and her three kids living in this house, it got a bit overcrowded. And one of the brothers had terrible malaria and used to scream out with delirium in the middle of the night.

Living at Wahroonga meant that Shore was the obvious place to go. Also, as far as I know, my father and uncle had been to Shore too. I didn't enjoy it, for a whole variety of reasons. I guess a lot of boys don't like school much. In retrospect, it was the wrong school for me. I was not well taught and I didn't get on there at all well. Those were not the happiest years of my life.

You've described them in your writings as an unmitigated disaster.

True. But although the school didn't have much of a scientific focus, it did have one redeeming feature: a young teacher from the UK started a natural history club. Mind you, he didn't know a lot about the Australian scene, whereas by then we knew quite a lot, so I think we taught him rather than the other way round.

Would your interest in natural history stem, perhaps, from your happier early days in the bushland around your home in Vaucluse?

Yes. I think I was a naturalist from birth. In the family archives is a letter on the back of a laundry bill, asking Santa Claus for a butterfly net and a killing bottle, and a note in my father's handwriting, 'Max's first letter'. And the house had a shed at the back, where you could say I had a sort of natural history museum – the odd bluetongue lizard and a few Australian artefacts.

One of your fellow-members of the natural history club at Shore was Doug Waterhouse. Didn't you make friends with him on a train?

You're quite right. I was collecting butterflies, and the camphor laurels along behind Shore contained a lot of one of the Sydney swallowtails which feeds on those trees. As I was taking the caterpillars I had collected home in my straw boater, a student sitting opposite me – Doug Waterhouse – recognised them and said, 'Oh, if you're interested in butterflies, my uncle knows all about those.' His uncle was G A Waterhouse, a marvellous man who had an engineering degree and had been in the Mint in Sydney until he retired early to devote his life to the study of Australian butterflies. He was the honorary curator of Lepidoptera in the Australian Museum, where his own collection, at that stage by far the best collection of Australian butterflies, eventually went. And he lived in the same Sydney suburb as I did.

G A Waterhouse was extraordinarily good to me as a young child. Regularly on Saturdays he used to take Doug and me (and, frequently, his own son) around the Sydney area collecting. They had a house at Woodford, just on the lower side of the Blue Mountains, where we stayed occasionally, and we would go north as far as the Hawkesbury River and south as far as Bulli. At the end of the day he would take anything from our collections that was really any good, but in exchange he gave us material from around Australia, so that as kids of 16 or 17 we not only knew the Sydney sandstone insect fauna very well but had some knowledge of biogeography, the distribution of insects.

So G A Waterhouse gave us this early introduction to entomology. And I really owe my start to him – he was the one who told my mother that there was a job in science, that we should go to the university and do entomology.

Back to top

A first successful encounter with termites

With that encouragement you went to Sydney University. What was it like?

My pass in the Leaving was just enough to get me to university. It was wonderful there. I did botany and zoology, mainly. We had a biological society which I was secretary of for a while, and that was a great show. We went on field trips; we had an excellent grounding in biology – as I found out later when I moved on. And I did a fourth year Honours course in entomology, under Tony Woodhill as lecturer.

I was keen to do things outside the ordinary science course, for example a course in bacteriology at the School of Tropical Medicine because I wanted to learn about the way termites digested cellulose and how they lived in a termite mound. I guessed that the composition of the gas inside the mound must be rather different, so I analysed it for what turned out to be my first scientific paper. It's now known that they produce a lot of methane, but I simply wanted to analyse for carbon dioxide and oxygen.

I met Frankie Cotton, a Professor of Physiology who was a medical doctor, a good sportsman and an excellent physiologist who did a tremendous lot for sports physiology. (He was one of the first sports physiologists, getting people on treadmills and that sort of thing.) He gave me the run of his gas analysis equipment in the medical school, and that was a great experience. In retrospect, I probably did a very good Honours thesis.

Having scraped into university, you got a Medal – and so did Doug Waterhouse.

As far as I know, that was the first time that two people had shared a Medal. But obviously we were seen as both doing well.

And your terrific friendship has never stopped.

Well, we were at school together, we went to the university – and graduated – together, we took our first job together, and although our paths have since diverged a bit, the friendship continues.

While at university you had the chance to do a project which led to a publication, and also to work for CSIR for your first time. Tell me about those opportunities.

The project was instigated by a Senior Fellow. He was an extraordinarily interesting man – one of the casualties of the Second World War – who stimulated us to participate with him in a very risky venture: going out in a rotten boat to the Five Islands off the coast near Port Kembla, where we set out to do ecology. The islands were and still are very interesting. Part 1 of an analysis of their flora and fauna was published but parts 2, 3 and 4 never saw the daylight. In fact, we published an early aerial photograph of the islands, which has since been sought after.

And you went to CSIR to study a pest.

Again from the influence of G A Waterhouse, I guess, Doug Waterhouse and I were given a summer job at the little town of Maroopna. Some parasites were being brought in to control the oriental fruit moth, which was attacking peaches in the Goulburn Valley, Victoria. We and a number of other young people who had been brought there were given the job of attempting to culture these parasites and then to release them. The moth never did become a terribly serious pest, but I don't think our work was very influential in controlling it.

The work did, however, give us an indication of CSIR, and of course I think we were being tested for jobs. As soon as we graduated we were both employed in the Division of Economic Entomology, as it then was, and so in 1938 I came to Canberra. We were to work on two of the major projects going on at the time: Doug Waterhouse was put into the blowfly section and I was put into the termite section – as was natural, since I had done a thesis on termites.

Back to top

Following termites through South Africa to America

You were only at CSIR for a few months, because something incredible happened.

I got out a little paper on the environment in the termite mound, and then an unexpected development: Lemuel Roscoe Cleveland, a professor from Harvard University, came to look at Australian termites. Being a recently appointed young chap in this field, I was given to him as a personal assistant. And after three or four months of that, he said that just before he left Harvard University to come out to Australia his personal assistant there had resigned. Would I like to come back and work for him, with half time to do courses at the university!

In Australia we were looking at termite protozoa, the cellulose-digesting organisms in the gut of the termite. Cleveland had made a huge reputation by being the first person to learn how to get rid of the protozoa, thereby showing that they were essential for the digestion of cellulose. That is a difficult thing to digest and these fascinating organisms do it for most of the groups of termites. We made slides of these things, and later – back in Cambridge, Massachusetts – we studied them in great detail.

Cleveland asked me to go to South Africa on my way to Massachusetts. He had come to Australia via New Zealand, and had collected a particular group of termites which has an interesting distribution: New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and South Africa. This is a Gondwanaland distribution, from when the ancient continents were joined through the Antarctic, South Africa and so on. He wanted to collect the ones in South Africa but he didn't want to travel there because he had his wife and family with him. Instead I collected these things, in a small South African town called George. And I remember very well that the director of the little forestry school there was very kind and gave me not only accommodation but also, after dinner, a tumbler full of sherry. He said it was good for me, and I'm sure it was, but until then I certainly hadn't had sherry by the tumblerful.

Your boat trip via South Africa to America must have seemed the journey of a lifetime.

Going from Australia to South Africa wasn't all that pleasant. In fact, it was really ghastly: the little Themistocles did eight knots going downhill. Going from South Africa to London, with a lot of young students who were returning to their colleges in England, turned out to be delightful.

The trip from Liverpool to Boston, on the other hand, was unbelievable. The Jews were fleeing Europe in great numbers, and the ship was absolutely crammed. We ran into huge storms in the North Atlantic – it couldn't have been a worse four days.

I arrived only a few days after the 1938 hurricane, a truly devastating one, had gone up the coast of New England, flattening Boston. Cleve had a delightful little house in the suburb of Jamaica Plain, where I think he said 35 trees were blown down in the yard. He met me at the ship and I stayed the first night in his house. This was the city where Edison first used electricity, yet as Cleve said, he had to show me to my room with a candle. It was not a good introduction to Boston. But he then arranged for my accommodation, and I worked very closely with him for the following three years.

What were you working on with Cleveland in America?

For the first year I was his personal assistant and spent a huge amount of time staining the slides which we had made in Australia. I tried a technique which hadn't ever been tried before – one of the silver stains which are used for Bodian's technique – and it worked remarkably, showing up a lot of structures which we hadn't seen very clearly before. But although he was very generous, financially it was a fairly difficult time.

The second year I was there, he arranged for me to get a Lehman Fellowship. That paid $700, of which $400 went in tuition before I saw it and so I was living on about $300 a year plus what I could make during the summers with kindly professors who gave me work.

But he had arranged some studies for you to broaden your biological education.

Well, I did courses at Harvard – and I was immediately enrolled as a postgraduate student, which I hadn't originally thought of but which they said was essential. That meant I could take courses 'for credit' and also participate in their excellent system of 'auditing' courses. That is to say, if there was a perceived gap in your knowledge, you were told to sit in on a course in invertebrate palaeontology or invertebrate anatomy or whatever it was, without having to take the exams, to fill the gap. That was a very good way of learning. I didn't have the pressure of the examination to worry about, yet I learned from marvellous people like Alfred Sherwood Romer, on invertebrate structures, and others in so many fields – things I'd never dreamed about from Sydney which were then appearing as major topics. In endocrinology, progesterone had just been purified, one of the few hormones understood at that stage. That was a hugely developing field. Cytology was tremendously exciting. The plant cytologists, in particular, had just learned how to break chromosomes with X-rays, neutrons, gamma rays, and so I was with the little group of students who were into that area during such extraordinary opportunities as when Sturtevant came into the group for a year as a visiting professor.

Harvard was abuzz.

Oh yes. And I had come from Australia, where facilities were poor, into a lab where everything was provided, the fitting-out was luxurious. There was a lot more money around than we would ever have conceived of. When I was at the University of Sydney, the budget for zoology was about £25 a year – all of which went on the Thistle, a vessel which the professor, who was interested in plankton and marine biology, used to run. We had virtually no money to run the department.

Tell me a bit more about Cleveland, a remarkable man.

After his work on termite protozoa he got into cytology in a big way, and did a great deal on the structure of chromosome. He had the best conceivable Zeiss microscopes. In fact, if Zeiss came out with something new, the agent would come and ask Cleveland to test it, and provide him with all the best equipment – polarising equipment, for example. So we were able to do as well as anybody.

What kind of a person was he?

Tall, gangling in stature, a hardworking, delightful, generous person. The family was extremely good to me in many ways – taking me with them one year on a vacation up to Canada. There was his wife Dorothy, who came to Australia and is now 88, their son, and Cleve's daughter Elaine, from a previous marriage, whom he worshipped. I remember her as a gorgeous little girl with beautiful golden curls. She was obviously highly intelligent and married a doctor in Boston, but her death in her 20s had a devastating effect on both Dorothy and Cleve.

I couldn't have asked for a better mentor. I had started work on insect endocrinology, which was then an important topic, but when I was about halfway into a thesis, a Swede named Hanstrom brought out a whole book doing nearly everything I had done and planned to do. I was pretty devastated – a limited time ahead and now, in 1939, the European war had started and I had no way of getting back to Australia. (The Pacific war was not on at this stage, but nevertheless travel was restricted for civilians.) Thinking I couldn't go any further, I did a Masters degree and then with this fellowship was able to stay on and complete a doctorate.

But because Hanstrom had published his book I just didn't know what I was going to do until Cleveland said, 'Well, you've done all the Stolotermes material' – that was the stuff that he, and then we, had collected in the east coast and that I had collected in South Africa – 'Write it up.' So I did my thesis, with him as my senior supervisor. And it was a complete change.

That was a marvellous three years. I was in an extraordinary group of students. You might say that we all worked like slaves: 8 o'clock in the morning till midnight was a regular day. I think we learned as much from each other in this very active group as we did from our professors, because we were all at the cutting edge and could benefit by our interactions.

On getting your doctorate and finishing the work that Cleveland had so generously set up for you, you were invited to go down to St Louis. Why was that?

At a growth symposium – these were high-powered small groups of people who got together – I had met F O Schmidt, the professor in charge of the Department of Zoology at Washington University in St Louis, and told him that in studying the marvellous termite protozoa we had seen that the mytotic spindle was birefringent. Schmidt had been struggling with the material at his disposal to try and find some birefringents in this mytotic spindle; now we had shown it clearly. So immediately after the meeting he came down to our lab and saw these things. The upshot was that because he was going to head up a department at MIT and his position in cytology at Washington University would be vacant, I was appointed as a junior lecturer there.

I was at Washington University for one year, during which I was in the lab one Sunday afternoon, listening to a symphony concert on the radio, when President Roosevelt interrupted to say that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. This was at the time it was actually happening! It was unbelievable. And so the sky fell in for everybody.

It was a 7th of December you were never going to forget.

Yes, indeed. I think nobody will forget it. 'A date which will live in infamy' was Roosevelt's expression. I was teaching medical students – mainly pre-meds, as they were at that stage – and all these kids wanted to go immediately and join up: 'Our country has been devastated. We're going to do our bit.' I said to them, 'You're a privileged group of people. Don't go and join the army right now just because this has happened. The country's going to need doctors. That's where your job is. Complete your training.' I think a whole group of kids suddenly got a bit of a jolt.

Back to top

Procuring war supplies

Things then changed again for you.

Well, very soon a young man with whom I had been at prep school rang me. He had been doing business administration at Harvard but had immediately gone to Washington, and now told me I had to go there too. So within a fortnight I had packed up and left Washington University to go to Australian War Supplies Procurement, an organisation which was charged with doing with all the purchasing for Australia, for the defence forces, for health, everything.

Most of the purchases were under Lend Lease, and Australia benefited tremendously. I knew enough about the scientific area that it was not difficult for me to fit into the job of purchasing officer in scientific equipment. It was a very exciting and demanding period. Without any administrative experience I was thrown into a pressure situation. I was given a secretary and had to learn how to dictate; we were under great pressure all the time because as orders flowed in from Australia you had to get them filled.

I'll just tell you one story to illustrate the problems. Australia was instructed to produce penicillin, so a young veterinary officer named Bazeley was pulled out of a tank somewhere and told, 'You are to produce penicillin in Australia.' He immediately flew to the United States – where everything was extremely formal and you had to go through all the channels. Normally I would have to have a very official document as an order. But Bazeley wrote on the back of envelopes and sent these in.

To get out all the equipment required to set up the production of penicillin in Australia doesn't sound too difficult, but it turns out that one of the things you needed was centrifuges – which were produced by a company that was under presidential order to do nothing but produce bilge pumps for the projected Normandy landing. How to get centrifuges out of a company which was not allowed now to produce them, when Bazeley wanted them tomorrow?

It was a very good lesson, actually, because finally – after I had been struggling to get these things through and making no progress whatever – a young purchasing officer in the Marine Department said, 'Why don't you go to the top?' He gave me the name of some chap I didn't know, I telephoned the number, and the admiral in charge of the Marines answered the phone. When I told him the story he was very abrupt: 'Well, I don't know everything that's going on around here. Thank you,' and he put up the phone. Shortly after, the young purchasing officer I had been dealing with said to me, 'What happened? Things have really begun to buzz around here. You're going to get your centrifuges.' So, go direct to the top.

And that message was pretty valuable later on when you had a major executive role with CSIRO.

Yes indeed. I remember that when Frosty Hill, of the Ford Foundation, came out to Australia we asked him, 'How do you get things done in these Middle East countries, where things are pretty hard?' His comment was, 'Yeah, we've found a way of doing these things. We go direct to the King.'

Back to top

Married life and scientific liaison

We must bring in a very important step in your life – your marriage to Barbara. You were a married man during those last stages of your American story.

You're quite right. My wife was then secretary (and, if I may say so, a very efficient secretary) to Sir Charles Hambro, the head of the British Raw Materials Mission in Washington. They were doing things like buying uranium. She used to work late, and by the time our first child was on the way I used to get annoyed at how hard she had to work. But we never discussed our work between us. Then, the day the atomic bomb was dropped, the front page of the Washington Post had the news together with a large photograph of General Groves, who ran the Manhattan Project, as it was called. And Barbara said, 'Oh, he comes into the office every week.' She didn't know what uranium was used for, such was the compartmentalisation of what was being done. Secrecy was paramount in all these things.

Your work continued but it can't have been easy at times. For one thing, Lend Lease arrangements changed.

It was certainly a pressure time, but then an instruction came from higher up that nothing could be lend-leaseable that wouldn't be in the front line within 18 months. Of course scientific research couldn't get into the front line in 18 months, so immediately my job fell away. However, as part of being in touch with the Australian people through the war supplies operation I had been exchanging a great deal of information with the Australian Scientific Liaison Office. That was being operated under the aegis of CSIR, and entirely on radar, in which Australia was making big progress. But the time came when things other than radar needed to be discussed, and consequently I switched from war supplies procurement to the Australian Scientific Liaison Office. So, having had to resign from CSIR in about 1939 in order to stay in America, I was back in it again, this time as a locally employed officer.

Back to top

Back to Australia

Max, those remarkable years were followed by more in Australia – new jobs, new excitement. You've travelled under a very golden cloud.

Well, I've been lucky in all sorts of respects. But I am reminded of a comment by the famous golfer Gary Player, 'The more I practise, the luckier I get.'

I came back in '47 and immediately went into the insect physiology group of the CSIR Division of Entomology. The topic I selected was the way by which clothes moths could digest keratin. During the war years Australia built up a gigantic stockpile of wool which couldn't be exported and the worry was that clothes moths and domestic beetles would get to it in storage. So the control of those pests was seen as of pretty major importance. Very few organisms can digest wool. Keratin is a very indigestible material, with multiple disulphide links which are hard to break. So how did the insect do it? That was an interesting project for a few years, but I didn't solve the problem.

Before long, however, the head of the virus section left and the Division Chief, A J Nicholson, asked me if I would take on that section. I switched from the physiology section to viruses, and immediately began to ask: What is involved in specificity? How can one mosquito transmit yellow fever, if another species can't? And because yellow fever wasn't around to study, I did it with leafhoppers and aphids – plant viruses were easier to handle. So that was my topic for a few years.

Back to top

Working on myxomatosis

What caused you to change to the topic of myxomatosis?

Myxomatosis was brought into Australia in 1950. At a meeting here in Canberra, a man I had never met came up to me and said, 'I've just recently been appointed to the Chair of Microbiology at the National University. I am going to study myxomatosis. We believe it might be mosquito-borne. Would you be interested in taking on the mosquito side of it while I do the biology?' This was Frank Fenner, a very remarkable person, and that was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted ever since. Frank is a superb collaborator, and for the next five years we worked on the mechanisms of transmission of myxomatosis.

There was a long background to myxo being brought into Australia. Dame Jean McNamara, a polio expert, had kept pressing the government to do something about introducing this disease to control rabbits. Rabbits had always been a serious problem in Australia, but during the war years, when there was no manpower available, absolutely staggering numbers built up – an enormous plague of rabbits. It is really hard now to appreciate how many there were in Australia, but hundreds of millions of pairs of carcases per annum (they were sold in pairs, for some reason) were exported, mainly to the UK, without any effect on the population. And for every rabbit that was sent overseas, probably four or five more were fed to the dogs or eaten by the locals. Every large, and sometimes small, pastoral station had rabbit trappers, generally permanently on the property. It was a huge business. It is never possible to estimate properly how many were killed in the year that myxo was brought in, but if you went into the countryside there was a smell everywhere of dead flesh. It was unbelievable.

Rabbit trapping was one of the most exhausting jobs I could conceive of. One of my uncles had a property up at Quirindi, where I used to stay occasionally as a boy, and I went out with the rabbit trappers. They would go at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, each carrying 50 steel traps over his shoulder. It nearly killed you to carry these things, but there was a 15 year-old kid who could set one of these traps in his hand as he walked along, whereas I couldn't even set it by standing on it.

At 8 o'clock you would go out and collect the rabbits, and reset the traps. You would carry the rabbits over your shoulder – which is just about as difficult as carrying traps – and then park them. At 10 o'clock, or later, you would go out for the second catch. This time you were doing it in complete darkness, and if you trod on a trap it would cut your foot off. Yet these people could walk in the dark straight to the traps they had set, take the rabbits out and carry them and the traps as well. And then you had to take those rabbits in to the cooler during the day. Can you imagine a tougher job?

Myxo was brought in by the wildlife research section of CSIRO, as it became, under Francis Ratcliffe, and was liberated in about May at the little town of Gunbar. How it was transmitted was not yet known. August, through the winter, despondent, cold and wet – they came back to Canberra and issued a press statement: 'It hasn't worked. Nothing happened.' The myxo killed the rabbits in the warrens where it had been introduced, but it didn't spread.

Three weeks after they got back to Canberra it was reported at Corowa, miles from where they had released it. Then that summer it spread 1000 miles in one direction, 700 miles in another. Nobody knew how it was being spread. It was going so fast that although the Division was planning to go to Macquarie Marshes, in northern New South Wales, to get ahead of the disease and watch it come through, before they had left Canberra it was already 200 miles past Macquarie Marshes.

We still don't know quite how it spread so fast, but it was clearly mosquitoes which were moving. This was a bad year for mosquitoes – a lot of rain. Other species of mosquitoes were also transmitting Murray Valley encephalitis, and so overnight CSIRO went from being seen as the saviour of our country (everybody in Australia knew about myxomatosis; it was a huge thing) to a killer. People were dying. A few deaths from Murray Valley encephalitis. And when Lord Casey, the then Minister, said, 'Myxomatosis and encephalitis are different viruses,' the Parliament said to him, 'Prove it.' Macfarlane Burnet, Frank Fenner and Ian Clunies-Ross – who was then the Chairman, and took this matter extremely seriously and was very worried by it – were all inoculated by Burnet or Frank with myxoma, to demonstrate that it wasn't a killer. This was not known about for quite a long while, though.

Of course, we really didn't know an awful lot about myxoma, and I still recall being bitten by a mosquito which I knew was carrying the virus and feeling a little queasy the next morning, wondering whether there might have been a stage of development.

What were you able to find out about the spread of myxomatosis?

Whereas the Americans believed that the myxo virus – like yellow fever and some other viruses – multiplied in the vector, in the mosquito, we believed the transmission was purely mechanical. We turned out to be right, but we had a lot of work to do to demonstrate that myxo was being transmitted by a different mechanism. I had been sensitised to the idea of mechanical transmission because that is the way a lot of the aphids transmit their viruses. The aphid people talk about persistent viruses and non-persistent, the non-persistent ones being affected as though it is a mechanical operation. And that is the way myxo was being spread. We took a long time to demonstrate it unequivocally, but we did.

The work was intense but fascinating. All the ecology was being done by the Division of Wildlife Research, we were doing the lab stuff, and it meshed well together. Any mosquito species which feeds on a rabbit is capable of being a vector. Different strains of the virus which were showing up behaved differently, and we were able to demonstrate how it was that some of the less virulent strains were spreading by comparison with the very virulent ones, which were killing 99 per cent of the rabbits while the others were much less affected.

Myxo is still an important feature in the Australian landscape but it goes in a cyclical way. It will kill a group of rabbits, die out there, then spread and appear somewhere else. But it is hard now to realise just how many rabbits there used to be. You couldn't drive the hundred kilometres south to Cooma, as I did regularly, without seeing a dead rabbit – as soon as you had passed one, there was another one in view, squashed on the road. Now you can do that trip 20 times without seeing one. The impact of that unbelievable change goes even further: it has done more to arrest soil erosion, more for regeneration of various species of plants, for the wool clip, which alone increased tremendously, than any other single thing that has ever happened.

Back to top

The social and academic sides of scientific liaison

After all that effort you went back to the States, didn't you?

By the time the work on myxo came to an end, we had grandparents at both ends of the earth, and Barbara's parents in Montreal were elderly and longing to see their grandchildren. So when the opportunity to go back to the Liaison Office came up and I was fortunate to be appointed, I went back to Washington for two years, 1955–57.

That was a very different job from the wartime one – much more pleasant, because it was not under the same pressure, but without quite the same intensity. CSIRO was then running scientific liaison offices in London, Washington, Tokyo and Moscow, quite a big overseas operation. The main purpose, instead of the great exchange of secret documents there had been during the war years, was to look after Australian visitors and ensure that they made the best use of their time. We each in our liaison job had a good knowledge of the local community in our various countries and we could help a visitor, especially a young person.

I remember Gordon Ada making his first trip overseas and staying with us in Washington, for example, during that period. But nobody made as much impact as Macfarlane Burnet: when he came to Washington, I would get phone calls for two months in advance and for a fortnight after he had left, everybody wanting to see him. He was amazing, a world statesman. Nobody else has ever approached that.

The job gave you an opportunity to learn a lot about CSIRO, because the chiefs of most divisions would come through, you'd look after them, you would meet them at the aircraft; a lot of impecunious younger people would stay with us. It was an opportunity to learn a lot about their science and about ours, because our range of contacts was very large.

Immense intelligence gathering opportunities.

Yes, it was like the Delphic Oracle!

Back to top

Back again to CSIRO

What awaited you in CSIRO when you came back in 1957?

Unlike the period immediately after the war, for some reason I found it exceedingly difficult to get back to research – maybe I was getting old, or the science had moved on a bit and I wasn't up with it to the same extent. But I did find one very important feature, insect tissue culture, really fascinating.

When I got into the virus section I decided that we needed to get insect tissues in permanent, long-term culture, in the way that had proved so fruitful for animal viruses. But it turned out that insect tissue culture was extremely difficult. To do the job I employed Tom Grace, a young man who became a delightful assistant and later did a doctorate in Frank Fenner's department. To cut the story short, he succeeded in getting insect tissue culture – that is, permanent strains, long-term development – going for the first time. But it took 10 years.

He had decided that the only way to do it was to use a medium which approached insect haemolin, rather than going with the sort of media which had been used for vertebrates as nearly everybody thought should be done. We did a lot of work on the composition of the medium, and for years and years Tom just kept plugging away, slowly improving it. Eventually, on Tom's behalf I took some of these cell cultures to a marvellous old boy, Dr Charles Pomerat, who had taken movies of cancer cells in California. He took some superb time-lapse pictures of Tom's cultures and in about 1962 I was able to show the film at a congress on insect pathology in Paris. It demonstrated for the first time that this was really possible.

Insect tissue culture now is quite big business, and Grace's Medium is still in the literature all the time. Tom has recently been greatly honoured by an award for which the previous recipient was Louis Pasteur. (Tom quite modestly said, 'Pasteur last year, me this year.') He is now retired and lives on the South Coast.

How did you get into CSIRO administration?

Well, by that time Nicholson had retired as Chief of the Division of Entomology, Doug Waterhouse was Chief and I was Doug's Assistant Chief. At the end of 1965 Fred White, who was then the Chairman of CSIRO, asked me to join the Executive. Fred was a great man, a physicist who used to be Chief of the Division of Radiophysics, and very direct. So when I said to Fred, 'I really don't know a lot about administration of research. I think I should go down to Mount Eliza for a course in public administration,' he just looked at me and said, 'You don't know much about the job, do you? I want you to recognise good science, and when you see it support it.'

That's a pretty interesting instruction, when you realise that CSIRO at that stage had 40 divisions and sections spread over the whole country, with bits overseas, and had about 7000 staff, about 12,000 scientists in every field of science except a few things like human health, exploratory geology, atomic energy, for which there were other organisations. To recognise good science was easy in entomology; to do it in plant physiology, soil science, fisheries, all the other areas which became your concern, was an entirely different matter. CSIRO was not a pure research organisation; we were set up in order to assist Australian industry. In addition to knowing something about the science and recognising good science, you had to know something about all the industries that those divisions were serving – wheat, cotton, anything that was going.

So you had a human management problem. To us, there was no other issue as important as selecting and appointing the right person. At that stage, 70 per cent of our research staff came from overseas. The Chiefs would make a recommendation, but the Executive took the decision of whether that person was to be appointed and at what level. Every year we sat for three days looking at promotion of every scientist in the organisation, and so you had to know these people intimately. You had to be able to speak. There was a Chairman and four members of the full-time Executive, and we had the 40 divisions split up between us. So you had to know the industry, the science and a large slice of human management.

Before we finish, I believe you want to say something about a life in science.

I think scientists have been extremely lucky, in that they see themselves as doing something to make life better for people. And biologists have an opportunity to keep doing what they like doing most. One of my physics friends, when he was a scientist, operated a great telescope. He thinks that biologists are fortunate – he can't do his sort of research without expensive machinery but biologists can. A lot of people envy us the opportunity to continue working.

Even at this time you are working on something that I find quite phenomenal. You have given me a beautiful picture which I am taking back to put on my wall in the UK. I know you can't possibly do it justice in a few minutes, but perhaps you would tell me briefly what it is about, because it says something of the story.

Those remarkable little structures, which are called brochosomes – 'mesh of a net' bodies – were described years ago by Americans who were looking for viruses in insects and found these things without knowing what they were. Leafhoppers produce them in their excretory organs, excrete them, and then pick up each little drop of excreta on their hind legs and spread it over the body. These things are produced in billions and are extraordinarily abundant, found even at an altitude of 36 kilometres above the Earth on the impactors which atmospheric physicists use to sample the small particles in the atmosphere. People from Harwell who were using these impactors said that over the fields of Oxford there was one in every 5 litres of air.

My question is: Why does the bug go to all the trouble of producing such immense numbers of these things? They are remarkably stable, with about as strong and stable a structure as you can devise for a thing of this size – one-tenth the diameter of a human red blood cell, extremely minute. What is the bug doing it for?

My guess, about which I spoke in Greece a month ago, is that these are carriers, vectors, of insect pheromones. They are hollow, they've got minute holes in the bottom of these little cups and they might be seen as carrying a pheromone. It would be very interesting to see if we could verify that.

Max, as we draw to a close, I must refer to the number of friendships you have made, which is an important part of your career. And I look forward to talking to you in greater detail on another occasion about the CSIRO Executive years.

I hope so, because that very important period in what Fred White calls the Golden Age of CSIRO certainly needs to be talked about.

Thank you very much for talking to me today.

Back to top

Further information is available on the following Fellows of the Academy who were mentioned in this interview transcript:

Back to top

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science