Oliver Mayo was born in Adelaide in 1942. Mayo was educated at St Peter’s College and then enrolled in a BSc degree at the University of Adelaide. He completed this degree, with Honours, in 1964. Mayo then began his PhD, again at the University of Adelaide, which he completed in 1968.
In 1968 Mayo travelled to the University of Edinburgh as a CSIRO senior overseas student at the Institute of Animal Genetics (1968-9) and then a Leckie-Mactier fellow at the Department of Genetics (1969-71). Mayo came back to Australia in 1971 and joined the Biometry Section at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute as a senior lecturer (1971-8) and then reader (1979-89). In 1987 he also accepted the position of dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Science at the University of Adelaide.
Mayo made the move to Sydney in 1989 to become chief of the CSIRO Division of Animal Production, a position that he held until his retirement in 2000. Upon his retirement, Mayo was made an honorary research fellow of CSIRO Livestock Industries. More recently, Mayo completed a BA from the University of Adelaide majoring in German and Italian (2008).
Selected audio from this interview is available from ABC Radio National's The Science Show website Australian scientific superstars No.3 - Oliver Mayo
Interviewed by Professor Robyn Williams in 2010.
Oliver, your childhood wasn’t exactly an impoverished one, was it?
Well, quite. As I think you know, I am a highly privileged member of Adelaide’s establishment, insofar as there is or was one. My great-great-grandmother was Colonel Light’s mistress and, when he died of consumption, she inherited the land he had obtained as surveyor of the colony. She married my great-great-grandfather and had issue, including my great-grandfather. My ancestors, who were all from the British Isles or Germany, were all here within 20 years of the colony being set up and most of them did quite well. I have had an incredibly fortunate, privileged life, really.
Were you aware as you were growing up that you had a gilded youth?
I grew up with my mother’s family because my father was in the Sydney and was killed before I was born. Which you could say was perhaps a setback; obviously, I never knew him. My mother came home to her family and that’s where I grew up. They were manufacturers; they made washing machines, stoves and things like that—the brand name was Simpson and, sadly, it has disappeared now. We were wealthy, but I didn’t know it. I grew up in this enormous house, quite different from most of my friends, but it didn’t register that that meant something. As a child, I always thought we were just the same as everybody else. I think that was quite successful on their part. But I can’t deny that we were well off and I was very privileged.
At what stage were you aware of the significance of your father’s death?
I was aware of it quite early because my mother was president of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia and, before that, of the South Australian branch. We used to go to Anzac Day and she would be up on the saluting base and laying wreaths at the dawn service. Not having a father was different from most of the other boys at school. There were other ‘war orphans’, as we were called, but not a huge number. Indeed, my mother told me years later that I came home one day and asked her what a bastard was, because somebody had called me that. She explained but said that I was not one; I did have a father but he was dead. I mean, I knew that, but it was just a fact of life when I was growing up.
My brother was much more affected. He is a couple of years older. As a baby, he saw our father once or twice; he doesn’t remember it, but much more pressure was put on him by my mother to be like him. Fortunately, he has poor eyesight, like me, so he was not accepted for the Navy. When I look back on it: my father joined the Navy on his 13th birthday; he was the most brilliant student they ever had at the Royal Australian Naval College. He had 16 years in the Navy and was killed when the great error of judgement by the captain, Burnett, led him into the claws of the Kormoran, which was commanded by a much better captain, Detmers, and that was the end of him and 645 people who were killed in that incident.
On the ship Sydney?
Yes. They were all killed—and 90 on the Kormoran.
Did you have the good luck to inherit most of the Mayo brain power?
‘Yes’ is the simple answer. I went through school in a dream. I was very badly behaved and at an early age was nearly thrown out for drinking. But, because I was expected to do well in the public exams and win prizes and things—and I did—I wasn’t thrown out.
St Peter’s is very good, isn’t it? It understands how to look after bright young fellows.
Well, I think so. We had wonderful teachers. The one who really interested me in science, Peter Day, was driven out by our bad behaviour; he had a nervous breakdown and went back to Yorkshire. He was a very fine man, and I feel bad about it now. Other boys who felt similarly went to see him in Yorkshire but did not find him. He also introduced us to Joseph Priestly and, as my mother’s family were Unitarians, that was a great thing in science.
What is a Unitarian?
One God and 20 shillings in the pound. A lot of them were successful merchants because they dealt fairly, like the Quakers. Priestley was a materialist and a lot of them were materialists. It had its flowering in the Enlightenment, when people who believed in God were trying to find a rational basis for their faith. They thought, ‘There must be something higher and greater than us, we’re not the summit of all creation, so there’s a God; but what about all this other stuff?’ For example, Joseph Priestly worked out for himself that ascension into heaven, virgin birth and various things like that did not fit with what was known about the world. He followed Locke and he knew Hume. So he came to the position that: ‘Yes, there’s a God; and Jesus Christ was a great prophet and teacher, but he wasn’t himself God.’ Those people were Unitarians and they were at a disadvantage in Protestant Britain compared even to Jews and Catholics. They weren’t allowed to hold government jobs or to go to the two universities in England until around 1813, compared with 40 or 50 years earlier for Catholics and, I think, Jews.
Quite a few significant people, many of them scientists, were Unitarians; could you name a few?
Well, Roger Bannister is a Unitarian. Most people would remember him as breaking the fourminute mile ahead of John Landy, but he was a significant chest physician and researcher. Isaac Newton would be the archetypal Unitarian. He, similarly to Priestley, worked out for himself that most of the Christian religion was a corruption of the teaching of Christ, that the Trinity didn’t make sense and things like that. Indeed, the reason he wasn’t required to take orders to stay at Cambridge was that he would not have been able to sign the 39 articles of the Anglican faith and, therefore, would have had to be thrown out. So he was allowed to stay there as a lay fellow of Trinity because he was probably the most remarkable intellect we have got in terms of sheer thinking power.
In the Enlightenment, as I said, a lot of notable people were Unitarians. Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, was like a Unitarian, but he called Unitarianism a ‘downy bed for falling Christians’ because he had gone further and become an atheist. But every now and then you get someone, like Priestley, who stops at God. Bela Bartok is an example of someone who started off as a Roman Catholic, became an atheist and then became a Unitarian—very rare, that one.
At the famous St Peter’s College you did pretty well in your formal subjects, but you were pretty lousy at sport, weren’t you?
I did very badly. I was a fat little boy—clumsy, awkward and short-sighted. I did very badly at games. There were two paths: there was work, and I was good at that; and there were games, and I was bad at those. Most of my friends were Rhodes scholar types: they were good at everything. So I envied them greatly.
Did they make you pay because you weren’t good at sport—all those other boys?
I don’t think so. I had a very sharp tongue and, while that occasionally led to me getting belted behind the shelter shed, it mostly kept people at arm’s length.
What about that amazing time when you went to the library, picked up Nature and read that astonishing article by Francis Crick?
That was when I was an undergraduate. I knew that I wanted to be a scientist, but that really meant physics at that time, and astronomy was a wonderful attraction. But I was in the library and I picked up the current issue of Nature. It was there for undergraduates to read and nobody had read it. In it, there was a paper by Crick, Watts-Tobin, Brenner and a whole lot of other people. It was about using genetic means to work out the genetic code: did it have three letters or four and things like that. Nirenberg and the other people who had the Nobel Prize for working out that it was a triplet code, did it by brute force— chemistry. Whereas Crick did these beautiful crosses of a whole range of bacterial mutants that they had worked out would give them yes-no answers about things like whether it was a triplet code, and I just thought that was magnificent.
To be able to do something as clever as that and to penetrate a question like that through crosses, was just magic. Of course, it is also a famous paper because, even though it has six authors, one of its paragraphs says: ‘When I came back from Russia, I realised’—or something like that. Obviously, it is Crick’s paper entirely, even though at least one of the other authors later got another Nobel Prize.
Of course, Crick is very famous for writing about the structure of DNA with Watson and publishing the paper in about 1963; but, in fact, the paper that you read in the library in some ways is even better. So it really was pivotal, wasn’t it?
I quite agree. I think it is a wonderful piece of work and, if they had not decided to give the prize for the code to other people, that team or some members of it could have got another one—not that prizes are everything, but it was a quite magnificent piece of science.
Okay. Back to that pair of lodgers, especially one: R A Fisher. I associate the name Fisher with JBS Haldane, both extraordinary people and giants in the field of putting maths and genetics together. How did that influence your thinking?
Fisher and Haldane do need in some ways to be looked at together. Haldane was Eton and Oxford and Fisher was Harrow and Cambridge, reflecting his slightly less upmarket ancestry. His father was an auctioneer who went broke. Fisher was one of twins; the other one died at birth and was buried at the end of the garden, which was legal in those days. So it is interesting to speculate what the twin would have been like if they had both survived. But, yes, they came at genetics through maths but in very different ways.
Fisher went to Cambridge and did maths, which was the high-powered maths that you need for physics: statistical mechanics, linear algebra and analysis and so on. But I think some of what he learned was applied by him quite remarkably in mathematical biology. The theory of diffusion, the so-called Fokker–Planck equation: he saw that it applied to how genes spread in populations, which was completely novel. This is something that often happens when mathematicians or physicists go to work in a quite new field: they see a model that superficially looks quite different but which will require the same maths to describe what happens. In one case, molecules of a gas bouncing off each other randomly; in the other case, a population breeding, following Mendelian rules, and in that there is a fair element of randomness in gamete production.
Haldane was quite different, in a way. He was quite good at everything. He was a big, strong man with normal eyesight. Fisher was a small, modestly built man with very poor eyesight. Fisher could do geometry in many dimensions in his head; whereas Haldane’s maths was brute force, but he was good at everything. He was a leading biochemist. He explained a lot of early experiments. He was one of the first to analyse genetic linkage, which is where two or more genes are on the same chromosome, which affects how they are inherited, because they are not independent as they would be on different chromosomes.
Haldane was doing these analyses at the same time as he was, I think, in the Black Watch in France as a junior officer; whereas Fisher, with his poor eyesight, was working first for an insurance company, then as a schoolteacher and then trying to farm. So, before Fisher became an agricultural statistician, he had already done the intellectual work that revolutionised statistics and quantitative and population genetics. But, as he wrote to his old tutor at Harrow, whose name was Charles Mayo—a very distant relation of mine, I believe—‘Well, I failed at three careers before I got my first proper job’. This job was an agricultural statistician at a very famous agricultural experiment station near London, called Rothamsted.
And, of course, Haldane joined the Communist Party. So the contrast was amazing: this almost aristocratic fellow kept blowing himself up for an experiment, when he was working during the war and he was flamboyant beyond belief. Of course, I remember the astounding story of JBS Haldane when he was at University College, London, as a professor. A student was a bit late trying to get into the library and they wouldn’t let him go through the door. So Haldane took an axe and went to the door and broke it down. I don’t think Fisher was quite as vigorous a chap as that—but amazing people!
I can well believe that. It’s a very Haldanean thing to do.
So you got Fisher as a lodger; did you talk to him about some of these subjects?
Yes. I can remember him saying about the American blood group geneticist AS Wiener, ‘Well, I haven’t always been wrong and I wasn’t wrong in that controversy.’ I was 17, and I listened to this and thought: ‘I think he means that he was right most of the time’—and, sure enough, he did. He did not like criticism. He was a very cultivated man who had an astonishing knowledge of everything and he would take great trouble to add to his knowledge.
I had an old aunt, a medical practitioner, who had Parkinson’s disease and was quite frail. She would come to lunch on Sunday, and Fisher would spend an hour teasing out what she knew about Chinese art, just so that he could learn that. There was nothing that was not within his province. I remember a cat had kittens in the barn. He picked up one of the kittens, looked at it and said, ‘I think it has ectrosyndactyly; you should breed from it.’ Even with his very poor eyesight, which meant that he held a book this close (indicates) in order to read it, he had seen that the front paws were misshapen. Indeed, it did have ectrosyndactyly and we did try to breed from it, but the kittens were normal and I gave up at that point.
When I was 21, I worked in the Snowy Mountains, in a place called Talbingo, in a trench, as a pick-and-shovel labourer. As my only treat on my 21st birthday, I hitchhiked into Tumut, and I got the best thing on the menu, which was a hamburger steak, and I played myself a Beatles’ record, Eight days a week, and then I hitchhiked back. You, on the other hand, had a different kind of 21st birthday. What was your main present?
My main present was a 20horsepower Rolls Royce, which I still have. You might say that is an ultimate sign of privilege—‘It’s outrageous’. But it cost £275, which was a third of the price of the new Mini; they were £810. For £275, we got a car that my brother and I and a friend drove back from Melbourne overnight. It was in reasonable condition and yet that was what I got at 21.
What’s it worth now?
I don’t think it will have kept up with inflation—well, it may have kept up with inflation, but I’d be surprised if it’s worth much more than $50,000. You could get, if you like that sort of thing, a four-wheel drive, for the same price.
I wonder how many scientists, say, in Australia managed to get a Rolls Royce for their 21st birthday.
Well, if they had all wanted one and their parents had gone to look, that would have increased the market for very old and worn out Rolls Royces greatly and it would not have been only £275. The number of people who are stupid enough to want a very old car is small. I mean, that car is 17 years older than I am. It was built in 1925 and I got it quite a few years after that, when it was 38. It was a very old car; and most young men wanted a fast car, not an incredibly slow car. So, yes, it was a definite sign of privilege but an oddity, more than anything else.
And you didn’t get ribbed for it by any of your student colleagues, did you?
Oh, a certain amount, but I think they just thought it was odd. That is the sort of thing that Ob does.
So here you are, at the beginning of what is a revolution in genetics. You have the genetics and the structure of DNA and you have the maths and, possibly, the use of computers. The revolution is taking off; how did you make the most of it?
In my last undergraduate year I suddenly realised, ‘This is the life for me; it’s what I’m going to do till I’m dead,’ and I started working hard and got a first and a scholarship to do a PhD. But even though I’d realised all of that, I still drifted into things.
It was 1963 when I finished my undergraduate years and a sheep selection experiment had been running since 1955, so for nine years, at Roseworthy Agricultural College. Yet nobody had analysed any of the data, and the wool industry was funding this experiment. It was a very nice, simple experiment. It showed that measurement of a simple trait, like clean fleece weight, could allow you to increase that trait over generations without losing fleece quality, robustness of constitutional fertility or anything else. The stud master, John Hawker of Anama Merino Stud, who had supplied the sheep to Roseworthy, chose the best 30 rams in the selection flock, this is out of the roughly 100, that each year were dropped. The best seven of those 30 were then chosen by fleece weight. You really had a stud master to make sure that the sheep were sound, and then just a bit of fleece weighing on top of that would allow you to make significant progress.
There was I, in my honours year, analysing this experiment, working out how to code the data. This was the era of punch cards where people were paid to sit at a thing like a typewriter and produce punch cards. Every card was punched twice by two people and then put through a machine called a ‘verifier’. Every time the two women—they were always women in those days—got a different digit on their card, the ‘verifier’ rang a bell and at that point that card was marked and you would correct it. It was very laborious. You had to work out how to code everything sensibly so that it did not have to be done more than once. They coded the data while I thought about how to analyse them. I applied basic quantitative genetics techniques. That is some simple statistics that had come from Fisher; from his American colleague and rival, Sewall Wright; and Wright’s successors, like Jay Lush and Alan Robertson in Edinburgh. But I had to write the programs myself. For example, there is a simple thing that you do in linear algebra called ‘inverting a matrix’. I didn’t have to do it as I got a computer program to do that, what was called a subroutine, from somebody else. But I wrote a program to do multiple linear regression in my honours year, just as one of many things that I did that year.
Looking back on it, I did an incredible amount in one year, but I didn’t know I was doing a lot. It was just: ‘Here’s this problem; analyse these data; you’ve got nine months to do it in’. I spent three months on a CSIRO field station at Badgerys Creek on the western outskirts of Sydney. Many years later when I was running the division that that field station belonged to, I had the sad duty of closing the field station and selling the land off; but that’s a different part of the story. In that year I spent three months there with the officer in charge, a bloke called Bob Hayman. Bob Hayman was the older brother of David Hayman, one of the very fine teachers I had in the genetics department in Adelaide. He introduced me to self-incompatibility; but that’s again another topic. Anyway, there I was, analysing data on a cross-breeding and inbreeding experiments at Badgerys Creek. After I left, Bob Hayman went back to what he liked doing, which was running the station and making sure that the experiments went well but not writing them up. Like quite a few other things along the way where I’ve done sums for other people, nothing came of it, which is a pity. Research without publication has often been described as wanking, and I think that’s right.
Anyway, that was my honours year: three months in New South Wales learning about CSIRO and about working on a field station and living in a rundown old house, because part of it had been a dairy farm. Pete Shaughnessy, who later became a very expert bleeder of seals and penguins in the Antarctic, was there working on a dairy problem at the same time. We had a good time there. In those days, you thought going and working on a field station far from the bright lights was terrific; I really enjoyed it.
Here are people playing with cards, this tremendously laborious process. Had you any idea of how important the computer revolution was going to be in the work that you were doing?
I am not very good with a crystal ball. I knew that computers were going to be important to me for the foreseeable future. In my PhD years, I knew that they were going to be even more significant in my foreseeable future, which was a postdoc or perhaps even a real job. However, in many ways, I don’t think I have ever had a real job, because I have always liked what I was doing too much for it to be a real job, apart from making people redundant. Science is like that. You sometimes think, in the middle of a chemistry laboratory, fiddling around with fruit flies or just doing sums, ‘They’re paying me to do this; I can’t believe it!’
I think your privileged background is coming to the fore once more.
‘Self-incompatibility’: essentially that means you don’t breed with yourself; is that right?
Exactly. As Darwin spent chapters and chapters showing in the Origin of Species and then wrote large books about, plants and animals tend to perform better when they outcross or outbreed. Mechanisms to ensure outbreeding rather than breeding with oneself have evolved. That is telling it as a ‘just-so story’. But you can show that this is the case: sex is the most obvious and most important single way of ensuring that you don’t breed with yourself. By and large, it’s impossible for animals to do that. There are small exceptions here and there, even in lizards, and they are not that unusual in invertebrates, aphids and things like that, for example. But most animals need to mate with another animal to produce the next generation. That is to unite male gametes or sperm with eggs or ova.
Now, plants have two obvious characteristics to somebody who comes mainly with a statistical background: they don’t get around much any more and they’re green—and these two things are interconnected. But plants have to be able to disperse their pollen, which is the equivalent of semen. And that’s one mechanism: just the dispersal of pollen. But if they dispersed the pollen and yet it would work on the same plant, then you would have self-pollination. This is what you have with peas, and that’s why Mendel was so wise to choose them: they were true breeding because they always pollinated themselves. But self-incompatibility is one of a number of mechanisms that have evolved which ensure outcrossing. The essence of it is that the plant cannot pollinate itself. It also cannot pollinate certain close relations that happen to have the same gene combinations. Many different mechanisms have evolved that are more or less efficient. Some of them will allow more pollination of quite close relations and with others virtually no close relation can be pollinated.
Early on in my PhD, I looked at the dynamics of one of the simplest systems: it’s called ‘gametophytically determined’. This is just a pompous way of saying that a gene that is in a pollen grain is expressed carrying just one copy. Thus the pollen grain a gamete and it has only half the chromosomes. In addition, in the female plant both genes that she’s carrying are expressed in the stigma, which is where the pollen lands to pollinate and fertilise the plant. I worked on the dynamics of this system.
This system had been controversial for many years because Fisher and Wright had disagreed about it—as they had on so much else—but only about the details. When you are as distinguished and crotchety as Fisher was you get these controversies which are blown up out of all proportion. In the case of Wright, I think, he was a nicer man but a little sly. Many other notable population geneticists had worked on it. Warren Ewens had worked on it, he was also from South Australia, a notable Australian geneticist now in human genetics. Also Motoo Kimura, the most notable Japanese population geneticist, had worked on it.
A fellow PhD student, John Sved, perhaps my closest scientific friend, said to me, ‘This looks like a problem you could solve with computer simulation; why don’t you give it a go?’ I said, ‘What’s computer simulation?’ He gave me three papers to read; and my supervisor, Henry Bennett, a very fine population geneticist, gave me another half a dozen. That is all there were in the world at that time using this technique. In this technique, you make a model population in the computer with numbers, randomly breed from this population and follow what it does over many generations. With this, I was able to show that Wright and Fisher were both right—the true answers were in between what they had said, and they were actually pretty close together. And I showed that what some of the other people had said — Warren Ewens and an English geneticist—was not right.
Warren did not bear any malice; he was instrumental in getting me into the Australian Academy of Science many years later. So I’m very grateful to Warren, who has gone on to many greater things than his three or four papers in this field. But that was my introduction to computer simulation and its use as a tool in population genetics. When the algebra gets really difficult and you’re not a brilliant mathematician—and, for me, both of those things are true in this case—then you resort to simulation. I found that it solved probably a dozen worthwhile problems for me over the years.
I went on with the sheep work and did some simulation there. I even got my hands dirty bleeding sheep, to see how the Roseworthy flocks that I mentioned earlier had diverged and to compare them with their parent flock at Anamar. But I didn’t do a lot of lab work; I did a lot of statistics. In those days, a computer was as big as a grand piano and you booked time on it. I used to book 3am on a Sunday because I could go there after a party and put my program into the machine and correct it—there was a lot of that—and then I could go to sleep while it ran. Something that your pocket phone would do in a thousandth of a second at that time might take four hours by a machine, as I say, bigger than a grand piano.
The Waite Institute has been highly significant in your career. Could you tell us what it was like in those days?
The Waite was set up by a far-sighted man who ran Elder Smith, the big pastoral house, in its glory days. He saw the need, as did most leaders in agriculture in Australia, for more agricultural research. So he left his house and about 70 hectares of good, arable land to the University of Adelaide to set up a research institute. The house was an absolute showpiece, with William Morris wallpaper and that kind of thing. The Waite was very fortunate in their first two directors: AEV Richardson, who was one of the people who established what turned into CSIRO. Followed by James Prescott—‘Jimmy the One’, as he was called because he was professor of agronomy, the first chief of the CSIRO Division of Soils and director of the Waite. He was very active and a very fine scientist.
We had a very small student body and they were mostly there because they wanted to do ag science. Unlike many of my fellow students and students of the generations that I taught and the students I was with as an undergraduate in my sixties, they knew why they were there: they were there to do agricultural science. We had a fouryear degree which allowed you to do an agriculture stream for a year and to work every long vacation on farms and also do a solid science degree. It was a luxurious degree. Today it is a fouryear degree, including the honours component; in those days, the honours year was a fifth year.
I taught compulsory statistics to these students and they hated it. Every year I got the same complaints about my teaching methods and they were all true, and every year I tried to improve and failed. Just this year the students from 30 to 35 years ago had a reunion and they asked me along to give a biometry lecture. I was absolutely chuffed by that. Given that they used to say, ‘There’s nothing as boring as biometry,’ I gave them a lecture on the statistical methods that you need to analyse bat defecation. —because there is another boring saying these days—and they were very happy with this.
‘Boring as bat shit.’
Exactly, yes. There is a lot of good work on bat defecation. I gave them an exam paper at the end and they all got one question right. The question was: bats defecate in flight; why do they not defecate when they are resting?
There you were in a place which was intellectually stimulating and wonderfully convivial and it went on for years, year after year. There was no reason for it to stop, was there? What happened?
I was there for a very long time—17½ years. I would probably be there still, had not my wife got sick of living next to her mother-in-law, which was quite understandable. She said, ‘Spruce yourself up and go and get a job somewhere else—anywhere else.’ By coincidence, a couple of friends in CSIRO had said, ‘Our chief is retiring and you’d be ideal to replace him; we’d really like you to apply.’ What they didn’t tell me was that this was a can of worms, a nest of vipers, a den of thieves or some similar metaphor. There I was, an innocent venturing into this thing.
Anyway, my brother-in-law had bought a suit from the Salvation Army for two quid—four dollars—and it didn’t fit him and I was shorter and thicker and he said, ‘You can have it for nothing.’ I put this suit on, cut off my side whiskers, went off to Sydney and got this job. We moved to Sydney and had 13 remarkable years there. We moved from South Australia, where I was part of the furniture and probably growing leaves out of the top of my head, instead of hair, by turning into a tree at the Waite, to Sydney, where we had to live life in the faster lane. Indeed, I had a 30kilometre commute from where we lived in the inner west near Sydney University, to my main lab and headquarters, which were at Blacktown on the road to the Blue Mountains.
Tell me: how many and what sort of creatures?
340 live humans—a very fine set of dedicated scientists and support people; about 15,000 sheep, mainly Superfine Merinos at Armidale; and something like 40,000 chooks in an enormous sound-proofed windowless shed at North Ryde. Windowless as those chooks had a day length that wasn’t 24 hours. If you give them a shorter day, they will naturally lay an egg a day. This allowed you to select birds that were even more prolific than the ordinary layers, and that is why they were a success in industry. That was some wonderful work initiated by a chap called Jim Rendel following Waddington’s theory of canalisation.
There I was with all these resources, human and livestock, and no money. That was because, while I had had a haircut and put on a suit, the division had also had a haircut. Around that time, that was in 1989, the wool industry decided to stop supporting CSIRO so lavishly. Then the wool industry itself collapsed: the floor price scheme—which was an attempt to repeal the law of supply and demand, collapsed and brought down with it a whole lot of things. I had a budget in 1990 of about $15 million, of which about half came from the wool industry; and, when I stepped down as chief in 2000, I had a budget of about $21 million, of which under half a million came from the wool industry.
We had also gone from 340 staff, taking on another 60 from another division which would have made 400, including all the parasite research people from animal health. But in fact, when I stepped down, it was just over 200. So I had personally had to look those people in the face and say, ‘You’re redundant’—most of them. Obviously, there was some turnover in that time and some people were on fixed appointments. But I still had to tell a whole lot of fine, dedicated career scientists that their services were no longer wanted. And I can tell you that the training you get as an academic is not suitable training for that. I don’t know if there is suitable training for sacking people, but I didn’t get it.
Now, the extraordinary thing is, that you have said that that period was, for you, a disaster. Do you think in some ways you were set up? Neville Wran, who was chairman of CSIRO, said, ‘There will be no redundancies and everything will be fairly smooth,’ and there you were, almost right at the beginning, beset by the most horrendous cuts.
Neville Wran did say what you have just said—namely, ‘There will be no redundancies’—but I thought I had to level with the staff. I had said to them when I met them, ‘I don’t know a lot about most of what you do and I will admit that honestly and, if there is something I have to tell you, I will tell you; I won’t hide it.’ So, when we looked at the figures and realised that at that stage we would have to reduce the division from about 340 to probably about 220 or 230, I felt duty bound to tell them. I did tell them—and, yes, the roof fell in. I was summoned, I was dressed down and I was berated. Actually, on the way to my being berated, a recent immigrant drove his yellow Datsun 260Z, or whatever it was, up the back of my Z-car, so I was pretty much a quivering wreck when I got to the interview and, by the end of it, I was just a little heap of jelly on the floor. Anyway, I did think at the time that I had done the right thing and, in retrospect, I still think I did the right thing. The staff often thought I was a bit of a joke, but not about telling them the truth.
Just interrupting myself here: because I am bald, I used to wear a hat when visiting anywhere out of doors, such as Armidale. The hat that I took when I travelled was one of those washing hats made of towelling because I could just stick it in my pocket. I did not know that there had been a child molester in Armidale for many years whose trademark was his towelling hat. I never learnt that, when I took it out, the staff used to laugh and say, ‘Here’s the child molester about to inspect his domain.’ So I was a bit of a figure of fun, I think. But then I had got used to that at school and as a student, so it didn’t bother me.
So, for you, the part of your life with CSIRO began with a great crunch; how did it go on?
It got worse. We were getting, as I said, half our money from the wool industry, and that dwindled to nothing. Then, in the early 1990s, the cattle industry went sour. We had just geared up to do a lot of work for the feedlotters. In many ways, it was not work that one wanted to do. Cows are ruminants, they eat grass—and that is what they should eat, that is their place in the ecosystem, even an artificial ecosystem like a grazing or farming property. And there we were, helping people to feed the cows with grain and other things that might have been fed to people. Anyway, that went sour in the early nineties, so that money did not come through.
At the same time, the poultry industry condemned itself to be internationally uncompetitive by deciding not to do any advanced genetic work. We were doing transgenics for chooks and that was very hard to do, even though you have the egg to work on outside the chook. Whereas it is much harder in sheep, where we were also doing transgenics. But we had to stop all that work and close that group. The other day, I ran into someone who had been one of the bright young PhD students, Shannie Dyer, who has been out in the biotech industry and now works for CSIRO again in Sydney, and she said how much she had enjoyed that time at Prospect doing chook transgenics. So it wasn’t wasted time for her but, by golly, it was for us and the chook industry.
On the positive side with CSIRO, you met the chief executive, Malcolm McIntosh. He had arrived back from England—he’s an Australian physicist—where he had been running defence procurement with a far bigger budget than CSIRO. So he arrived with all that background and no kidneys, and you got on pretty well with him. What happened?
He was interested in everything. He was a risk taker. He wanted to find the things that were going to make the future because I think he knew he was not going to last long and he wanted to make things happen. He was on dialysis daily; he was a tall, thin man with no physical reserves but a lot of moral and mental reserves. He was a tremendous help because he saw that what we were trying to do with things like sheep transgenics, sheep genomics, satellite imaging for pasture prediction and better nutrition for sheep under poor conditions were really worth doing and we were worth saving.
He helped sustain us and he helped us in our interactions with the science minister, for example. This is for posterity, so I won’t say which particular minister it was whom he led up the garden path to the point where this chap said, ‘Well, I do think, Malcolm, you should have more people at Armidale.’ Malcolm said, ‘How many do you think we should have? We were going to have 40,’ and he—this idiot minister—said, ‘Well, I think you should have at least 80 Malcolm.’ Malcolm replied, ‘Well, Minister, just write it down and I’ll do it.’ For anyone who knows the ways of ministers, this was—as Kim Beazley once said—‘collapse of stout party’. Not many people would recognise that as the punch line of a joke from Punch in about 1890, but it certainly was true in the case of this minister (and it wasn’t Kim Beazley) it was ‘collapse of stout party’.
I got to know nine ministers in succession because we were trying to reduce the staff, which meant redundancies. These were politically sensitive as well as horrible, and we were trying to close Armidale, which was in a marginal electorate and, therefore, even more politically sensitive. So I got to know ministers; whereas somebody at the level of the chief would normally only meet a minister on a glad-handing occasion, like the opening of a new building or the launch of a world-beating product. It was a wonderful experience but not edifying.
There you are, being offered an increase in staff in Armidale, which was not something that you had actually planned, but the part that you wanted to keep, at Prospect in Sydney, went. How did you feel about that?
We had rebuilt the labs, we had restaffed them with bright young postdocs in the new molecular disciplines and we were just about at breakeven point when another funding crisis occurred. All of these were from outside, but they were exacerbated by the fact that you could not do anything quickly. If you wanted to reduce staff, there was a provision, for example, that someone made redundant was paid about a year’s pay as a departure package. Somebody like that could opt to stay on, in case a position arose. This was terrible for morale; either way you were paying out a year’s salary in that financial year, but it was the effect on morale that was the problem. Keeping things going under those conditions was something I felt very proud of.
Isn’t it weird that here we are in Australia, where you depend so very much on geology, on mining and obviously on farming but half of the departments of geology at universities have been closed and similarly agricultural research, given the demands from our industries, has been cut back. What do you make of that?
It is odd. You will remember Barry Jones, who was the first minister whom I met. He was talking particularly about agriculture and, to a lesser extent, mining when he said, ‘They are sunset industries; in the one case, they can’t expand beyond the amount of photosynthesis we have and, in the other case, you dig a hole in the ground and then it’s empty and there’s nothing left. So we should be looking for new industries, which mean they need more money.’ The CSIRO in real terms has not grown in all the years that I worked for it. It is bigger than it was when I was an overseas student and an honours student, but it has not grown in 20 years. If it was going to go into other areas, like light metals or public health, it has to be at the expense of what it was already doing. That particularly meant agriculture, especially as some industries stopped supporting it very much at all.
The wool industry is the notable one: not only is it much smaller and relatively impoverished, but the levies are not spent on farm research at all, although, a little bit is. There is a Cooperative Research Centre devoted to the sheep industry and CSIRO at Armidale does get some of that money; and the Livestock Division, which is now headquartered in Brisbane, gets a bit of the money and we get a bit of the money in Perth. But, relatively, it is tiny. They do not spend a lot on post-farmgate research any longer either. Wool research in Australia is a shadow of its former self. Whereas grains research, where grain production has expanded hugely over the last 30 to 40 years, is well supported by that industry and wine and grape research was also well supported by that industry. One that has grown a lot is aquaculture—from a relatively small base,—and that is quite well supported in terms of research now. Although the industry does not contribute very much of the funding. But it is a sunrise industry, you might say.
While we are talking about sheep, could you talk about the rise and fall of the self-shearing sheep, if fall they did?
That is a wonderful story. Fifty years ago, there was a wool boom and shearers were getting very expensive and then there was a wool slump and shearers stayed very expensive. They stayed expensive because there is a ratchet on pay but not on commodity prices. The leaders of the industry in their wisdom said, ‘Let us develop a process that doesn’t need people. In the same way as, for example, manufacturing has been deskilled and made much more productive by getting machines to do things that humans used to do; surely we can get something better than mechanical severance with a pair of shears, however mechanised. Can’t we make the wool fall out and then regrow? After all,’ they would have said, looking to the then chief of the division, who was as bald as I am ‘surely your hair falls out naturally; can’t you make it do that?’ The chief of the division would have said, ‘Yes, but it does not regrow; it does it just once!’
They started with the sorts of ghastly chemicals that are used for cancer treatment. The reason they started with them is that these stop cell division and that is why your hair falls out. The follicle shrivels up and stops dividing and producing a new fibre. They tried a whole range of compounds over the years, but they mostly had unpleasant side effects on the sheep and, in some cases, on the operator. Neither of which were acceptable for reasons of obvious human and animal welfare. Then they found that a protein in mice called ‘epidermal growth factor’ had the bizarre and contradictory effect, if given in a pharmacological rather than a physiological dose, of stopping wool growth and having it fall out with almost no side effects. The sheep got a bit red faced and they went off their oats for a day or so, they do that because the cells in the gut lining are also dividing very rapidly, as are the skin cells where the wool is produced. So then they had a molecule that they extracted from the salivary glands of mice, but you needed 10,000 mice to de-fleece one sheep—which is not satisfactory as an industrial process, but the method worked.
Then one day a vet-turned-physiologist called Bill Panaretto was reading the patent literature and he noticed that a Japanese soy sauce company had a patent on making EGF (epidermal growth factor). Human EGF and not mouse EGF, and they could make it in kilogram quantities a day from a normal industrial fermenter. This kind of production would bring the price down to the realms where you could de-fleece a sheep for a few cents for the active ingredient. We got in touch with this soy sauce company and they were absolutely delighted at the thought that, instead of selling perhaps a kilogram a year for wound healing in humans, they might sell a tonne a year for de-fleecing sheep. That started a long, very pleasant and fruitful collaboration with these delightful people in a seaport in the north-east of Japan. I visited them and they were the perfect hosts, as the Japanese are renowned to be; and they visited us and we were the perfect hosts, as Australians are renowned to be—but rather different. The relationship got so good eventually that, when we showed them a piece of research, they could actually say, ‘No, we’re not interested.’
I wonder whether there might have been a bit of an outrage about this because here you have Japanese involvement with an iconic industry. Here you are, trying to put the shearers out of work! What was the reaction?
There was quite a bit of discussion over the years. I can remember appearing on Late Night Live one night and, after I had been switched off, Philip Adams jabbing me in the ribs saying, ‘Well, we’ve been hearing about this for years and it’s a load of rubbish’. In fact, after 12 years in the marketplace, self-shearing has only two per cent of the market. This is mainly due to overpricing of the product to producers who are in very straitened circumstances; that is one problem. The other problem is the conservatism of the producers. The Australian wool industry was too successful for too long and it encouraged a mindset of: ‘We know how to do it and you can’t tell us anything else; we’ll come to you if we want an improvement.’
To commercialise the self-shearing process, we needed a person who was as pig-headed as we were but also tough and a businessman; and John LeBreton is such a man. He took it on and even paid us a sixfigure sum for the initial licence. He has got vision and courage and stubbornness, but I do think he overpriced the process. So, as I say, it has only a couple of per cent of the market. Which is sad as the process is better: you get better wool; the sheep recover faster; there is much less strain on the operatives and the workers do not have to be as skilled. When we had the huge boom and the number of sheep rose to 180 million in 1990, the shearing was carried out to a large extent by shearers from New Zealand, many of them Maori. They are tremendous workers, highly skilled and willing to put up with the shearing shed conditions, which, on the big outback properties, are pretty rough still. They don’t really exist any longer. There are now only 70 or 80 million sheep and a much bigger proportion of growers producing lamb, which is very well priced, rather than wool. We have almost lost that industry, yet it is a wonderful industry producing an unbeatable product.
Could you explain how it is that this chemical process was going to work in the sheep—because, if you give an injection and the sheep loses its wool in the field, it would be rather inconvenient, wouldn’t it?
Quite. There were two problems to solve: one was to keep the fleece on while the regrowth happened; and the other one was then to get the fleece off. In fact, if you had had the sheep bare, they would have been sunburnt. Ralph Chapman and others did some very nice work on sunburn in sheep and they showed that, except in the central part of Tasmania in the second half of July, sheep that were bald would, on average, get sunburnt anywhere in Australia, including Tasmania. So the fleece had to be kept on.
Now, I have mentioned that you induce a break by injecting the chemical. The break is complete within 24 hours and then you are growing one to four millimetres of wool a day. That break would grow out within a few days and the fleece would, indeed, fall off and be ruined. So a jacket of some sort has to be put on the sheep. We worked out a cheap jacket that could be put on simply; we even worked out and built a machine to automate the process to some extent. It was wonderful. We had these wethers that we used to put the coats on and take the coats off. These sheep led a pretty boring life as experimental animals, but these wethers would go up the V-belt of this machine, drop into the net, the jacket would be done up along their back and they would run around to have another go. You had to draft them off into a pen, because they couldn’t have another go - they already had a coat on—but they didn’t understand that; they were sheep. We worked the whole system out and we patented it.
We had a use patent on EGF, we had a process from the Japanese, who were very reliable suppliers, we had a net that worked and a machine to put the net on, and we had patents on those things as well. We offered all of that to John LeBreton and his company and they took the use patent on the EGF, because they could see that that was where to make the money. They also thought they could see how to make the coats cheaper and simpler and over time, with a lot of reverses, they did make them cheaper and simpler. They have a contract, via Elders, with the biggest wool scourer in the world. But the way that the fleece is now removed from the net is not with our neat shaking machine but by thousands of Chinese women pulling the fleece off by hand; so that has had the labour offshored.
But is the scheme still going and does it have a prospect??
I believe so. It is better—that is the point—and eventually, if there is a wool industry, it should take over.
Now I would like to go to three different countries, paradoxically starting with America. Why did you not do part of your career in the United States?
I think it is the country. It is a great place to visit. There is so much to see and do. There are wonderful people, wonderful scenery and an incredibly high standard of science, but there was something about the atmosphere of the science there, that just did not suit me. I do not think I am competitive enough for the US. I would go to conferences there and then I would come home with relief. Whereas, if I went and did some work in Vienna, I would come home sometimes with reluctance. Many of my good friends—Nick Martin is one—say ‘you can’t be taken seriously as a scientist if you haven’t cut it in the US,’ and to some extent I agree with them and think that I can’t be taken seriously, full stop.
But I have never regretted not working there, even though there are many places where I would like to work. I mean, I have never seen Joseph Priestley’s farm in North Pennsylvania, which is now a Unitarian museum, for example. I have never been to Boston; I hope to go there in the future. My Great-Uncle Elton Mayo was a pioneering leader in industrial sociology at the Harvard Business School, and I have never been to Harvard. I like Chicago; I think the University of Chicago is a wonderful place and there are many other wonderful places in Chicago. I like California; so much of it is rather like home. New York, of course, is wonderful; although, even more than the other places, I would not like to work there. I think I am fairly Mediterranean, although I may not look like a Mediterranean person. I like the pace of life in Adelaide. I like the pace of life in Italy and Spain and the south of France; I like the climate. I have generally been able to work hard wherever I was.
But, of course, Edinburgh is not a Mediterranean country; why did you go there?
Yes, well, Edinburgh is the ‘Athens of the north’, just as some people with tongue in cheek have called Adelaide the ‘Athens of the south’. Although, strictly in terms of the number of Greeks, Melbourne measures up much better. Edinburgh is a wonderful place to work. I was a postdoc there for three very happy years, first with Alan Robertson, who at that time was probably ‘the’ outstanding intellect in quantitative genetics in the world. He was a wonderful man to work with. He was doing some work with drosophila and I did some work on frequency dependent selection on the alleles of alcohol dehydrogenate, an enzyme dear to our heart and liver.
Now, Oliver, I need alcohol dehydrogenase, I love my wine, but why do fruit flies need it?
‘Fruit fly’ is a misnomer. Animals like the former Dacus tryoni and the worst fruit pest in Australia these days, Bactrocera tryoni—now that’s a fruit fly. It lays its eggs on and in fruit; they destroy the fruit and it is full of maggots and you can’t eat it. Drosophila is called a fruit fly because you find it near fruit. Its name means something to do with ‘loving dew’. I think that is from the Greek: ‘drosos’ or something is ‘dew’ and ‘philos’ is ‘love’. What it actually loves is yeast—and, where there is yeast, there is alcohol. You grow Drosophila melanogaster on bottles of porridge seeded with yeast—it may not be porridge exactly, but you could use porridge. As the yeast grows, it provides food for the larvae of the fruit fly and it produces a lot of alcohol. These fruit flies have to have very active alcohol dehydrogenase. The alcohol dehydrogenase breaks the alcohol down to the aldehyde and then another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase, breaks that down and so on. The animal gets energy from this, as we do too. If you drink too much, you get fat and you probably also get a fatty liver because that is where the reaction takes place.
I worked on this widespread enzyme. I mean, even maize has an alcohol dehydrogenase; probably most plants do. It is a widespread enzyme and it is an important one. I was working on the different types of the enzyme, which are the outcome of just a couple of different alleles (forms of one gene). I was looking at whether the enzymes were different not just in their activity but also how the animals responded with crowding or with more of one type than another. I found that there was ‘frequency dependent selection’: the more of one allele you had, the less fit it was in relation to the rarer one. That is one of the many mechanisms for maintaining variability that you find in nature.
And Holland: what did you do there?
I had a wonderful PhD supervisor, George Fraser—or ‘Fazekas György’, as he was as a boy. He was a Ruthenian Jewish refugee in England, who by brilliance went to Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford, Winchester College and Cambridge, all on scholarships because his parents were refugees. He had an extraordinary career trajectory for about 15 years, always upwards, to better and better posts. After that, it plateaued because he only stayed a couple of years in each place and people got sick of getting ready for him to arrive and then getting ready for him to leave. He had a couple of years in Adelaide, during which time he wrote one of the definitive works on the causes of blindness or deafness in childhood. He also was my supervisor, when Henry Bennett went on study leave to New York, and he was very generous with ideas, with help, with data.
He had been working in Greece with people like George Stamatoyannopoulos, under the direction of Arno Motulsky of Seattle. He gave me a whole lot of data to analyse and said, ‘Professor Mayo’—because that’s what he called me in those days—‘there must be something in these data; have a go.’ Well, he might not have said ‘have a go’, because he sounded very English. He had data on serum cholesterol in two Greek villages between which there wasn’t much mixing by way of marriage. We looked at the gene frequencies for a whole lot of polymorphisms—that is variable genes, like the ABO blood group system and various other blood groups—and we looked at the cholesterol level. I read the literature, worked out how to allow for differences in cholesterol levels due to age and sex, and wrote programs to fit curves. I was able to show that people of blood group O generally had a lower cholesterol level, all other things being equal, than people of A and probably AB blood group. We found a couple of other associations like that and published the results. We didn’t think much more about it really, because it was just rescuing some interesting data from Greece that were part of a much bigger study to do with haemoglobinopathies and their relationship to malaria in those Greek areas.
It turned out that it was the first time that anybody had picked up an association of this kind, and other people repeated it. It wasn’t any use in risk-factor work. High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease; cholesterol in low-density lipoproteins is a bigger risk factor for heart disease still and there are other risk factors, like being overweight, smoking and so on. Well, one’s blood group wasn’t a risk factor in that sense; nevertheless, it was an interesting discovery and the first of its kind. People like Fisher had said in the 1930s, looking at these polymorphisms, ‘They may be neutral; the variation may mean nothing.’ After all, Darwin had said that some variation is meaningless, even though variation is the raw material on which natural selection acts to produce evolution. It would not be surprising if something as cryptic as the shape of molecules on the outside of the red cell do not mean anything; but, equally, it would not have been at all surprising if it did mean something.
In fact, some of these polymorphic associations have been much stronger and have been useful in disease diagnosis and today are being used in drug design. So-called designer medicine or designer drugs, pharmacogenomics—where you tailor what drugs you give to a person according to her or his genotype and what drugs will react badly and so on—all depends on the kind of work that we were doing then in the late sixties. It is a discovery that I am proud of, because I was just given the data for a rescue job and I wasn’t told how to analyse them. I was a PhD student and I did not know what to do, so I read the little bit of literature available and I worked it out for myself. It is part of a much bigger picture now; it was just one finding.
I stayed interested in that sort of association and did a little bit of theoretical work later but never again got a wonderful set of data like those. In fact, George Fraser remains a dear friend—not a hero. I know George too well for him to be a hero, but he’s a wonderful man. He is 10 years older than I am and we produced a ‘Festschrift’ a few years ago to his 75th birthday, and it is a very fine volume. In fact, it is the most recent book I have produced—2007—so I’m a bit behind with other work.
Was Holland a really significant period for you; did you enjoy being there?
It was very significant for two reasons. One was that it was where our second child was born, our daughter. Having seen my three children born in Scotland, in Holland and in Adelaide, I would say that the Dutch have it right. I said to the obstetrician, ‘Can I come to the birth, please?’—I asked because in Scotland this was not so good. Luckily, in Scotland, I was working in the same building, so I put on a white coat and turned up. But in Holland the obstetrician said, ‘Husbands are indicated.’ I said, ‘What about visiting hours?’ and she said, ‘Childbirth is not a disease and, subject to the other women in the room, there are no visiting hours.’ As I was driving away from the Akademisch Ziekenhuis, which I worked in, at six in the morning, after Rebecca was born, a stork flew up out of the canal that went through the hospital. Only the Dutch could have proved that storks bring babies in such a beautiful way.
That was one thing about Holland. The other thing about Holland that impressed me was to work in a country where the language was not English and where everybody politely stopped their conversation in the tearoom to fit you in and moved from Dutch to English. That was a humiliating experience because they were so courteous and so kind. It made me do what I’ve done in my retirement, which is to learn, not Dutch, but German, Italian and French so that I can at least try to keep my end up in some places that I like being in. Holland is a wonderful country. There were things wrong with it at the time that we noticed immediately, the way that visitors do. George Fraser, who invited me there and gave me a permanent job, left after two years, so I was very wise to come back to Australia because I would have been a bit of a shag on a rock in his department without him.
You came back to South Australia and it is not at all surprising that you became involved in wine; in fact, you grew your own grapes. Did you do this as a scientist or just as an enthusiast?
I’m afraid that what we did was grow grapes and sell them to the co-op, and I was not at all scientific. As a scientist, I would say I am a bad poet. We had 16 years of experience. Or, as a big wool producer in the same district said to me once, ‘Or one year’s experience 16 times, Oliver.’ It was a bit unkind. But we had some tough times, like in 1983, when there was flood and drought at the same time and an enormous storm that blew our machinery shed 100 metres up the track. We did not have a lot of vines. We had a 20-acre property—eight hectares—and about half of it was planted, mainly with bush Grenache, which produced wonderful fruit. I am a great fan of bush Grenache, as in Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and places like that. But we just sold the fruit. The idea was that it would be a longterm proposition for a retirement activity. But, when we moved to Sydney, we wanted to buy a house and we wanted to keep the house that we are sitting in at the moment and we didn’t want to be in straitened circumstances. So we sold pretty well everything else we owned, besides this house, in order to buy one in Sydney and not owe money.
The vineyard was never scientific. We planted some Riesling and we did that as well as possible; we got the best advice. We grafted half a hectare of the Grenache over to Pinot and then we got another enormous storm, which blew almost all the grafts off, and we got a bit disheartened. We did not do experiments; we were not scientific. When I made wine, it was by traditional rubbish bin method. I made some wine in the year I turned 40 and we drank one of the last dozen bottles of that one the other day and it was drinkable, and I regard that as a bit of a triumph. I now have some Shiraz, some of which comes from the Grange vineyard, in the front garden, I make a tiny vintage every year, and sometimes it is drinkable.
So you love wine possibly like I do or with a more specialist approach?
I did do some scientific work for the wine industry, as a consultant. For example, I designed a quality-of-cork trial for Yalumba—probably one of many trials that contributed to the almost universal use of something other than cork. I have a keen historical scientific interest in wine. I have always kept a wine book and written notes on what we were tasting. In the 1970s, a cousin who was a colleague of a man who edited a wine series for Faber and Faber, approached me and said, ‘Are you interested in writing a book about Australian wine?’ I said to the cousin, ‘Certainly.’ I wrote a prospectus, a few specimen pages, and sent it off and thought no more about it. The next thing, I got a contract from Faber and Faber. Then I did have to do some, what most people would call, ‘research’. It was just a pleasure—I mean, to go to vineyards you had never been to and taste their wine and to order wine from places you do not often go, like the south-west in Western Australia. I have only ever been there three times and had been only once before the book came out. That was such a great pleasure.
The book was well reviewed and did reasonably well. The first edition sold out and they asked for a second edition; that sold out and they did a second printing. But that got some bad reviews. They said, ‘This book is out of date,’ and, ‘Mayo is not that old but he’s a boring old what’s it,’ and Fabers didn’t want another edition. By that time I was not a carefree academic; I was in CSIRO. So, while I was disappointed that they didn’t want another edition, I was relieved as well because, by that time, there were 1,500 labels and a million tonnes of fruit being harvested. In order to have gone to all those places and have the book out of date, yes, but at least respectable would have been huge. It was a good thing that I didn’t do a third edition.
I want to take you back to when they ran the first Australia Prize, which is now known as the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. That very first time, the winners included Allen Kerr for work on genetic engineering. He told me—I was quite surprised—how sensitive he was to the antagonism that he felt about this particular work. Indeed, one of the other winners came from the Max Planck Institute in Germany and he said, ‘You can’t even talk about genetic engineering publicly in Germany, because there’s so much hostility to it.’ How do you explain that situation these days in the 21st Century?
There are two quite different things in what you have just asked: one is enormous and the other is Allen Kerr. I would just like to mention him for a moment because he was one of my mentors in wine tasting at the Waite and in the way he did his science. We discussed earlier that wonderful paper by Crick and others showing that the code was a triplet code; well, Allen used to do absolutely beautiful plant pathology experiments in which he would get a yes/no answer. As I ran the statistical consulting service at the Waite, I was always grateful to him because he never troubled us. He did beautiful experiments and he measured things, obviously, but he didn’t need statistics, because he was brilliant. He was a shining light on the hill for everybody, including statisticians. His work on Agrobacterium tumefaciens—which is a bacterium, as its name suggests, that you can use to introduce genes into plants—was, indeed, pioneering for genetic engineering of plants. He also produced a cure for the disease that that bacterium causes in peach trees. It was a very simple cure. You inoculate the roots of the seedling or tree that are you going to plant with a culture of a nonvirulent strain, and it works. It was the kind of simple, again, yes/no thing—like vaccination, in fact—that only a person close to genius could produce. So that’s Allen Kerr, a great scientist.
Just the other day, Jeff Ellis, whom I taught and who was a student of Allen’s, was elected to the Royal Society; he has been in the Academy for some years now. I sent him a congratulatory email that said, ‘You’re the first student of mine to get into the Royal Society.’ He sent back an email that said, ‘When I got the news it was two other Mayos I thought of’—and that was because my Aunt Jean, who is still alive, and my Uncle George, who sadly is not, taught genetics in Adelaide and they taught both Jeff and me.
Anyway, to come to genetic engineering. When genetic engineering was first being commercialised by people like Monsanto, under the inspired and horrible leadership of Robert Shapiro, it was being promoted as ‘we are gods now’. And many of the scientists, including a colleague of mine in CSIRO whom I won’t name, said, ‘We’re gods; we can do anything. Animal breeding in the traditional sense is dead because it’s just unnecessary.’ That was in the 1980s, when Greenpeace and other multinational conservation groups were looking for new foci, new targets—whatever you want to call them—new subjects to raise concern about; and there they had a perfect enemy: an industry that was arrogantly saying, ‘We’re God; we’re changing the world. All your traditional disciplines where you worked with producers to produce better plants and animals are all dead and buried.’
What a perfect target for people like Greenpeace when you could get somebody like, in the UK, Lord Melchett—whose grandfather, got his peerage as head of ICI, to lead the Greenpeace fight against genetic engineering in the UK. When you could get that sort of thing happening, you have clearly engineered a confrontation. The scientists did not respond sensibly; they responded like scientists. They said things like, ‘We’re right and the risks are minimal. We know; trust us, we’re scientists.’ These were really stupid things to say—things that you should never say in your dreams, under the shower, to your life partner; you just shouldn’t say them.
The general public, who had heard scientists say things like this about, for example, nuclear energy, immediately thought—particularly as the media like a good stoush—‘These people are trying to force something else down our throats, namely Frankenfoods.’ There is a good word for you; after all, Frankenstein was the doctor who produced the monster. So here we are: we have got a whole lot of doctors producing monsters. People speculated publicly about taking an antifreeze gene out of a fish and putting it into a tomato so that you would make tomatoes frost resistant. Well, nobody has ever done that to my knowledge and certainly it’s nowhere near commercialisation. You had all of those things happening, which made the public distrustful, made the conservation organisations gleeful and made the companies resentful, defensive and secretive.
So you left Sydney. Most of the CSIRO work that you supervised had been closed down or been exported, as you said, partly to Adelaide and much of it, to Brisbane?
The cuts in Adelaide were not to my division; they have been to a whole range of other divisions. What we have seen is that different state governments have had different attitudes to science. The Victorian government has encouraged science with Bio21 and things like that. The Queensland government under Anna Bligh’s predecessor, Peter Beattie, encouraged bioscience to a really remarkable extent for a state government. Whatever his faults—and I am not expert on this subject—he did have a vision and he stuck to it, as far as bioscience was concerned. The state government was putting what it could afford into bioscience and a really big new ‘precinct’, as they call it, was being developed at St Lucia, next to the University of Queensland. The CSIRO had a lab there that needed rebuilding and it had a lab at Long Pocket that needed rebuilding. The decision was taken—and I was part of the decision—to close Prospect and to strengthen animal research in Queensland, along with all this other strengthening of research that was taking place in Queensland. The decision was also taken to move all the health activities to the enormous fortress-like Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, which is there to guard us against exotic diseases. It has got fine scientists in it and extraordinary conditions for working on really dangerous pathogens.
So those decisions were made. Even though I was distressed and remain unhappy about the closure of Prospect, that’s more my problem and those of the people who were personally affected. We had worked really hard to build something good for the future and it was basically knocked on the head and destroyed. The CSIRO is now quite weak in New South Wales and, without wanting to criticise the State government, I would say that there was a lack of vision over many, many years there and labs closed and moved and no notice was taken. We had lengthy interactions with the State government in the 1990s but to no avail.
Going back to Armidale though, they’ve had a very unhappy time at the university in Armidale, especially at the top: the top administrators have been brawling rather unhappily and, as a result, the scientists have felt rather neglected and lots of the research has been on hold. But what about some of the laboratories that you used to run outside; how are they faring at the moment?
In Armidale the situation is that the people there are doing very good work; the headquarters of the sheep CRC are there. Keeping it open, given all the other things that have subsequently happened, was probably the right decision. Unfortunately, it remains understaffed. Australians want to work in big cities; they don’t want to work in rural areas. So the Livestock Industries Division has closed the Rendel Laboratory is in Rockhampton, although it still has a field station there. It has strengthened the Townsville CSIRO laboratory a little bit. It has closed the field station out of Perth and the staff there at Floreat Park working on livestock have to use university facilities. It is good that they are cooperating, but it does mean that there is no dedicated CSIRO field station in Western Australia any longer.
We have retreated from many sites, and that means that you can work in fewer environments—and the environments are changing. Global warming is certainly going to lead to a hotter Australia and a need for adaptation in the rural areas, because we are not going to be able to prevent global warming, on account of lack of action at the top—not the top of CSIRO, I hasten to add. So keeping a rural area going is good. Armidale is at a relatively high altitude and it is relatively cold; it is a fine wool area, like Tasmania, and it is a cattle area, like much of Australia. It is not a very typical area, but it is good in that it has a significant university with a very strong rural focus and our lab has good facilities, good staff and brilliant field stations. If you look 30 or 40 years ahead and we still have a livestock industry in Australia, Armidale will prove to have been a wise choice, I think.
You mentioned before your interest in languages. In 2008, you actually did a BA qualifying in Italian and German. That’s pretty clever, isn’t it?
It wasn’t very clever in any real sense, in that, when you’re no longer young and you’re an undergraduate, you know why you are there: you’re there because you want to learn. This makes you a pleasure to teach because you hand in neatly printed assignments on time, you prepare for the tutorials and, if you have to give a presentation, my goodness, you’re ready for it. The staff love that, because they are under stress. Australia—if I might digress—is a very crass country where, if it is not immediately enjoyable or useable tomorrow, it can’t be of any use. So things like modern European languages or, indeed, ancient European languages are clearly useless—‘because everybody ought to speak English, shouldn’t they?’ So all of the staff are under threat and are doubly grateful, not just because you turn up and are reliable but also because you are there at all and interested in the subject.
What did the students make of this old man in their midst?
They were great; they’re wonderful kids. The ones I did Italian with have put me on Facebook; I don’t know how to use it, although I’m probably better than Mr Howard was with his BookTube. They regard me as some sort of honorary grandfather, I think. The ones who finished Italian with me were all keen to go to Italy to use the language and to find out more about the culture. Young people are wonderful; it’s just that they don’t realise how lucky they are.
Now tell me about Graham Wilkinson and the effect that he had on your work.
Graham is a remarkable bloke who, like me, met Fisher very early and was strongly influenced by him. Graham made a number of contributions, some of them based on trying to take Fisher’s ideas about inference further. He started to look very hard at the design of experiments for field trials. This was a topic that was of great interest because one of the big expenses in breeding new varieties of wheat is simply the scale you have do it on. That is, having to harvest thousands of plots of gradually increasing size over a period of years. You want your designs to be as efficient as possible in the sense of getting the information that’s in the plants that you’re measuring out of the numbers you are growing and allowing you to choose the best varieties, most reliably, to have a good handle on disease resistance and things like that. Essentially, people were using designs that Fisher and Yates had invented at Rothamsted in the 1930s. And, in the late 1930s, a Greek called Papadakis had thought of an improvement on this; and Maurice Bartlett, another notable UK statistician, had shown that Papadakis’s ideas were all right but that you couldn’t use them essentially without a lot of bias - or misunderstanding of what you had really found. Graham Wilkinson thought hard about this and he came up with an improvement on Fisher, Yates, Bartlett, Papadakis and a score of other people. It was a very simple insight that allowed you to build the variation that was in the field into the analysis in a better way in order to get more precision. It was novel, so we had to work out how to design and lay out the experiments and how to analyse them.
I led a team where Graham was the ideas man. He was very up and down—and I speak only as a layperson—in a manic depressive way. In 24 hours up, he would do a fortnight’s work. He would ignore what the team had been doing in the previous month and just go off in a new direction; and mostly it was an improvement, although not always. So I had to keep the team—Trevor Hancock, the very applied statistician; Stan Eckert, the computer whiz; Graham; and me—on the road, get the experiments designed in such a way that the plant breeders could use them in the next trials, keep Graham happy and keep the team happy. It was a very small team, but it was about making that happen and getting it out as a paper. The paper was read in London at the Royal Statistical Society with, at that time, the most people attending and writing in discussions. That was a fine achievement. It was all obviously in the computer; we built a package and sent it gratis to about 150 locations in the world. Designs based on what Graham invented and we developed are now the substance of variety trials all over the world. In terms of a longterm influence on applied science, I think that is something that I am very proud of; and I am particularly proud of helping Graham to realise his brilliant ideas in such a tangible form.
Thank you Oliver.
© 2017 Australian Academy of Science