Miss Margaret Dick (1918-2008), food microbiologist

Miss Margaret Dick. Interview sponsored by the Australian Government as an ongoing project from the 1999 International Year of Older Persons.

Margaret Dick has been described as a pioneer of Australian food microbiology. She made her outstanding career from the early 1940s as a microbiologist in Kraft Foods Australia, and rose quickly to become their
Chief Microbiologist. In addition, she carried her research and expertise outwards to influence national standards in Australia and to influence education in her field of expertise, and to work with government bodies associated with public health.

Interviewed by Dr Ann Moyal in 2000.



Margaret Dick carved out an unorthodox career and is exceptional in that her contribution to Australia's scientific development was made in the application of science to industry. She made her outstanding career from the early 1940s as microbiologist in Kraft Foods Australia, a leading company in food production in Australia. Joining the Kraft company in 1942, she rose quickly to become their chief microbiologist, and in her 40-year career there she was to play a pioneering role in establishing the standards and microbial quality of all the company's products.

In addition, she carried her research and expertise outwards to influence national standards in Australia and to influence education in her field of expertise, and to work with government bodies associated with public health. She has been described as a pioneer of Australian food microbiology.

An engineering heritage

Margaret, do you think your parents and your background influenced you toward a scientific career?

Well, my father came from a long line of Scottish engineers. His father had an engineering shop and all of the sons were engineers. My mother was a housewife – originally a dressmaker, in Glasgow. Her father was an accountant and her uncle was Professor of Physiology at Glasgow University.

My parents believed there was no substitute for education and they tried very hard to give us the best education they could, at the best schools they could afford to send us to. My father being an engineer, I guess we always had a feeling for mechanics, for science and engineering: my brother became an engineer, my two sisters went into teaching, and then I went on to do science.

You were born in Melbourne in 1918. When had your parents come to Australia?

About 1914, just before the war. One of my sisters had been born in Scotland, followed by a sister born in South Africa, and then my brother born in Scotland. I was the youngest.

You see, my father had been to the Boer War in South Africa, and he liked that country so much (especially the temperature, compared with Scotland's) that when he returned to Scotland he decided to look for a job in South Africa. There were so many engineers in Scotland that it was hard for them to get jobs there, and most Scottish engineers travelled overseas for jobs. My father went out to the goldmines and worked on the Rand gold mines, and my mother followed him when he got accommodation for her. They lived there for quite a few years.

The decision to move out of South Africa was made on two points. The doctor told my father that there was a chance he could get miner's phthisis if he continued working in the mines, and he should move out of that. Secondly, my father didn't believe that he should establish a family in South Africa, because he anticipated sooner or later there would be trouble. He believed that the South African should develop his own country. He had a great respect for the native South Africans, particularly the Zulus, whom he got to know because he employed them on the mines.

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The path into microbiology

Where did you go to school?

I went to Kew State School, followed by Mont Albert Central School, which was then the leading central school in Melbourne, and on to Melbourne Girls' High School (which became McRobertson Girls' High School).

Did you begin to feel that you had a special direction in science while you were at school?

I always wanted to do science, without knowing which science. In those days you didn't brush up against the various disciplines of science as young children do now – they are sent into laboratories to experience these things while they are still at school. So I didn't really know that I wanted to do microbiology until I got to the university and actually did it.

We had very good scientific teachers right through Melbourne High School, which had the pick of the teachers. They used to want to go to either University High School or Melbourne High School, which were rated the highest. It was very good for a teacher to receive a position there. All our teachers were women; the boys had their own school and most of their teachers were men.

It is good that schools such as yours gave women opportunities in teaching science. Quite a number of women got their degrees in science at Melbourne University in the 1930s and '40s. What courses did you do when you went there, in the late 1930s?

I decided that I had better do the new dietetic course devised by Professor Young, who was a biochemist, and Professor Osborne, a physiologist who was always interested in nutrition. It was an interesting course, basically in science – majors in chemistry and biochemistry, plus nutrition. The nutrition ran for two years, and incorporated in it was a number of small subjects like the economics of food production, dental health, public health – very helpful subjects when I actually decided I was going to work in the food industry.

We started off with chemistry and maths, and in my case biology and physics. Then we went into the microbiology, biochemistry and dietetics. The actual course was a Bachelor of Science degree, and if you wanted to get your Diploma of Dietetics you had to go and do a hospital year.

The course was mostly designed for people who were going to work in hospitals, I suppose, but you had the fortuitous opportunity of using it to go in quite a different direction. Did you find university stimulating and enjoyable, or was it hard grind? Were you good at mathematics?

Oh, I could pass. I wasn't a very good student. I hated exams; they worried me. But if I was left on my own and could follow my own bent, I think I could manage.

Graduating from Melbourne with a BSc in 1941, the early part of the war, how did you find job prospects?

Not very good. Actually, Professor Rubbo, who was in charge of microbiology at that time, used to take in only about as many students as he thought there were jobs for. That was rather an interesting aspect of his courses, and I think it was a very good way to approach it. He always associated his intake with the jobs structure.

To get a job I had to go to Adelaide, where I worked with a group of doctors. Even as early as that they had a clinic of four or five doctors, as people have today, and I worked in their laboratory and occasionally helped in the radiology section.

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Joining the historic Kraft Walker Cheese Company

How did you move into a career with the Kraft company? You were there for 40 years, and had a transforming effect.

I found things very restricting in Adelaide. There was no society for microbiology in those days and having come interstate I had no contacts. Although I enjoyed working with these people, I felt I was just going to stagnate, so I went back to Melbourne – and not very long after that the Kraft Walker Cheese Company had a position available, which I took.

Even then, in 1942, Kraft Walker was one of the major food producing industries in Australia, and today it is described as a 'food giant' in Australia. Could you tell us about the cheese company's origins? I understand that it was founded to ship canned butter to Asia and the Middle East, and then became diversified.

The company was started by Fred Walker, way back in 1902 or '03. A chemist he employed, Dr Callister, did all the work in preparing the way to make Vegemite, from yeast right through to a yeast paste, and for that he got his Doctor of Science. The company had originally made Bonox, which is a meat extract, and they also produced a range of canned food.

When Fred Walker heard that Mr J L Kraft, in America, was looking at a method of preserving cheese – which became known as processed cheese – he went over to see Mr Kraft and they came to some arrangement whereby Kraft got an interest in the company and we made processed cheese. (It was Dr Callister who worked on that in Australia, after Vegemite.) But the company is much more than a cheese processor – it's a food company, basically.

After Fred Walker died, the majority shareholding in the company continued to be held by Australians, but in about 1950 Kraft decided they wanted to make a takeover, and managed to get some of the shares to give them a majority holding.

Women microbiologists in a dynamic, challenging scene

The company, when I arrived there, was very dynamic. Fred Walker had been very innovative, and he left a large proportion of his shares to the people who had helped him build up the company, including Dr Callister, an engineer called Frank Daniel, two salesmen and two accountants. The first two of those were important people in the dynamic nature of the company, and that is what kept everybody going. There was always a challenge. I remember being called down to Mr Daniel's office, where he said, 'You know, there must be an easier way of making cheese. Why can't you just take some milk, add something to it and do something to it, and then we make processed cheese from it?' This was the sort of challenge that was going on all the time. Frank Daniel was challenging the engineers, 'Why can't you do this process more simply?'

Callister was the research man, and he believed in research within the company. He employed chemists and young people from school, putting them into the chemistry laboratory before they went into Production. The young people used to go to RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) and do their course, and eventually they became production managers. Even the manager of the production side when I arrived, H G Osborne, had gone into the laboratories when he was employed, and then into Production.

The person in charge of me was Keith Farrer, who was in charge of the laboratories. But I seemed to be caught between him and Gerard Osborne, the manager of production. Osborne was a very dynamic leader. He'd be in the factory any time after 6 o'clock in the morning, and he walked around in it an awful lot. He knew all his people by name. And it became very big, I can tell you. Where we started with a staff of 40 and perhaps 200 in the factory. We were up to 1000 in the factory and several hundred staff by the 1950s when we moved from the factory, on the banks of the Yarra opposite the railway station in Melbourne, to Port Melbourne.

Did you work with any other women when you arrived?

I worked for about a year with Joyce Griffiths, the microbiologist for the company. She was a graduate from Reading, in England, and she was setting up the procedures for testing the food. But it was wartime by then, and she was taken over by the Americans, who wanted the food quality control for their Australian bases looked after. That left me with nobody again.

The first bacteriologist to come into the company, though, had been Audrey Osborne – Professor Osborne's daughter – who was employed by Callister in 1929 when he got onto making processed cheese. She was probably one of the first microbiologists in industry, apart from perhaps the dairy industry. Her married name was Audrey Kahn. She became a very well-known nutritionist.

Emphasising quality

So, aged only 24, you go into this firm as one of the key people. It seems to me that they expected a great deal of you instantly.

Well, everything starts in a small way, and we started in a small way. Kraft was very particular about quality. From every batch that was made in the factory, every day, a sample was taken to be inspected the next morning – by everybody in production, from the directors down. So my emphasis had to be on quality too. We had to start testing the food and making sure the process was good enough. And if they decided they wanted to make a better product by reducing temperature, that all had to go through the hoops. We had to make sure that the product was quite safe and stable, and could sit in cupboards for a long time and so forth. So that was where it all started: people don't eat food unless it is good to eat. You look at texture, but in the background is the safety.

We didn't realise at first that microbiology was the most important thing in food science, did we? You were really there to focus and develop this whole concept. I suppose there weren't many textbooks then on the microbiology of food.

No. When I went into Kraft there were two textbooks which had a bit of microbiology in them in the dairy field, and a very big book by Tanner – virtually a compendium – on the microbiology of foods. That was just a collection of all the accounts and information on microbiology that had been published; Tanner had examined all these and had written up the subject from the results that he had collected. So, basically, all the methods we had to start with were medical methods.

Kraft did supply us with a lot of information; they had a very good library. As the years went on and people started publishing various methods – a lot of them from overseas – in the various journals, we had to pick out the methods that we wanted to use for our own products. We were all the time hunting for methodology and any information we could get on foods, examining it and deciding that one method was better than another, and whether to introduce a method to replace the previous one.

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Product research: 'It will all be used some day'

The presence of Allied troops in Australia during the war brought some pressure to make different products. You were immediately linked into that, weren't you?

Oh yes. The Americans wanted food for the troops in their bases here, and they wanted their specialist lines, particularly for the officers' canteen. This presented another challenge to look at new products, as we were suddenly thrown into making things like chilli con carne and chicken in various sauces. In addition, they wanted dehydrated foods, particularly dehydrated vegetables. A vegetable dehydration factory was the first building on our Port Melbourne site, I think at the suggestion of the government. So we had to get into another lot of methodology and investigations into what organisms were in this new product too, until we could say, 'Everything is fine, we hope.' So these various products built up.

In the meantime, Kraft decided they would make mayonnaises, and then they needed more yeast for their Vegemite so they built a yeast factory on the Port Melbourne site near the dehydration factory. They put in consultants to set that all up. Although the consultants were supposed to present it to us as a final plant, they had problems with their yield of yeasts and they were looking round for the reason so they asked us to look at certain amino acids that were in the media. In the research labs we had been doing work on vitamins and amino acids. Dr Farrer was particularly interested in vitamin B1 and B2, but B2 could not be examined by chemical means. Ways of using microbiological methods to estimate these factors in B2 had been published, however, so that is where we started our work on the B2 vitamins.

You took that further and did your Masters degree on it over a period, didn't you?

Yes. We started off with riboflavin and the various other factors in B2, one of which was folic acid – which has recently interested a lot of people. We went on to folic acid because there was some talk of it being involved in pernicious anaemia, so we thought, 'Well, we'd better know about that.' And it was interesting that in the 1980s, after I had retired, when I went back to Kraft for the opening of the new laboratories they had built there, a young girl in the audience came up to me and asked, 'Why did you do work on folic acid, way back in the 1940s and '50s?' I said, 'Because we believed in knowing everything about our product. We wanted to have complete knowledge.' And, as Dr Callister always said, 'You never lose anything. It'll be used some day.'

Did you find in some of this early research that there were dangerous things happening in food? Did you ever have to discard, in those early stages?

No. We never went into production unless we were thoroughly sure. Not only did we test the product that was made, but we did shelf-life tests. We had large incubators with product in them, running at various temperatures, and we then brought the product out and re-tested it. If we had a blow in the incubators, the can would come out and be examined by microbiology, and all the seams of the cans would be examined. And in the most cases it was something to do with the seaming. Very rarely did you get other things. We did have odd organisms that caused problems, none of which were of health significance but which were of significance to keeping quality. And then it was on for good and all.

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New responsibilities: from preventing failed vats to inspecting factories

When did you become the Chief Bacteriologist, in charge of quality control?

I was Senior Microbiologist for some years before I was made Chief Bacteriologist. The reason for that was that we had a male microbiologist at one of our country factories – Derek Shew, at Allansford factory – and he had been there longer than I had. He was the centre for the microbiology of most of the cheese factories we had.

He worked in the laboratory initially, doing some interesting work on the fact that when you make cheese you can get failed vats. That means that the cheese starters don't produce acid. The starters are cultures of organisms that are added to the vat to produce acid, which causes the moisture to come out of the cheese so that you get curds and whey. Then you can work on the curd and produce the bulk cheese as you know it today.

He could not understand the reason for these failed vats, but he found in a published article by Whitehead, in New Zealand, that he had discovered a particle which he believed attacked cheese starters. So Derek Shew went over to see Whitehead and worked with him, trying to sort out the problems with these bacteriophages, as they were called, to see how we could prevent them from causing the cheese vats to fail.

The bacteriophage is rather interesting. It is a virus-like particle which enters the cell, and instead of the cell multiplying itself, the phage multiplies within it to produce anything up to six to sixteen phage particles. That causes the cell to burst, releasing a whole lot of all these phage particles, which then can attack new starter cells. It is a big problem, and I think it is still with us. Derek Shew worked very hard on preventing failed vats, and eventually I got involved with it too when he had to leave because of his wife's health.

Then we got involved with all the cheese factories. Each cheese factory had its own manager, and of course it wasn't up to me to decide, 'I'm going down there to investigate their factories,' but I was soon told I had to do it. Mr Osborne walked into my office and said, 'Do you go round the cheese factories? I think you should' – just as he said later on, 'Do you go through all the new plant with the engineers while it is on the drawing board?' When I answered, 'No,' he said, 'Well, I think you should.' He was directing me in the factory area, to make sure that I went round everywhere.

I have a vision of you as a young woman suddenly thrust into this very complex and diverse experience, not just at the research bench but in the whole business of devising methodology and procedures, and formulating plans for better work and cleaner, more hygienic systems. I gather that once you began to go round the cheese factories you and your team were assessing their quality control.

Yes, we used to do technical audits. They always liked to know when I was coming. Particularly, at one stage we bought a fish factory at Eden and then we had to go and sort it all out. The engineers went in and devised ways of cutting tuna efficiently and easily so that the people didn't have back-breaking jobs to do. And we went in regularly to audit their cleanliness and sanitation. I remember one day driving down the hill towards the factory, with the wind blowing just in the right direction. You could smell the hypochlorite – they were getting ready for me!

Step by step to knowledge and influence

Did you encounter some opposition to your presence in these places?

Oh, you did. It varied with the people. Some men didn't like women working with them, particularly if they were reporting on their work, as I virtually had to do. I got on very well with the engineers that I worked with mainly, although some of the younger ones didn't like me looking at their plans or anything. They weren't having that. I had help behind me, however, in that if I said something was to be done and it wasn't done, Gerard Osborne would want to know why.

Perhaps you could get on with the engineers because of your family background. But what were the engineers doing in these factories?

There was always new plant going in, to produce new products. They had to do the whole planning of the factory area and the installations, and make sure that the process was efficient. A lot of the work was done by the Kraft engineers themselves. The Chief Engineer, Doug Lambert, was very good. Actually, he worked with our cheese-maker, Joe Sharkey, to mechanise cheese-making for the first time in the world. That was started at Kraft in Australia. Joe Sharkey was a very good cheese-maker. He knew his curd backwards. He used to say, 'Now, just look at that. Can't you just feel how silky it is?' Kraft owes much of its reputation to his knowledge.

It seems your own expertise was growing apace. Somewhere about the early 1950s you were involved in devising a scheme called Hazard Analysis by Critical Control Points. What was that?

Actually, it was so named in the 1970s by the International Commission on Microbiological Specification for Foods, an overseas group which put out a lot of books of which the last was on what they called HACCP [pronounced hassup] – but what I had been doing all over those years was basically the same. I had put in many procedures on the microbiological side, together with the engineers and production people, who decided, 'Yes, we have to have controllers here, and we have to have recorders here in the process, so that everything is completely covered.' And basically that became HACCP.

You see, I had started slowly in all this and it built up. As you got new products you got new knowledge, you worked with new plant, and so it just went on.

Keeping ahead: testing for penicillin and enterotoxins

As the Kraft company grew to pre-eminence in Australia, developing whole sets of new products, your microbiological work came to include research on penicillin and staphylococcal enterotoxins, for example. Was work on such a series of problems distinctive to that company, or was some of it going on in other places?

Well, we were always first. We never knew really what other companies were doing. We seemed to be always ahead of everybody, but that was our aim: we wanted to keep ahead of our opposition. Quality was always the first thing.

When penicillin became available, the vets started to use it for the treatment of mastitis in cows. This became a vital thing for us, because as part of our quality the suppliers were supposed to keep the milk back for two to three days before it was allowed to go into the factory. Kraft, at all their country locations, used to employ field officers who would go out to the dairies and watch the cleaning, the sanitation, and talk to the farmers about any problems they had. In other words, they were watching the quality of the milk coming in. (In my earliest days there, it came in milk cans; then it was stored in refrigerated milk tanks; and then refrigerated tankers used to bring it to the factory. So there were big changes.) But this penicillin was a problem, because it could stop the starters from working in the vats. So we started to test for it.

Originally, the testing was done with a methylene blue test. The standard assessment before milk would be paid for was that the quality had to be up to a certain standard of methylene blue. But when you had penicillin in the milk, the methylene blue never went white. So few organisms would grow in the milk that it stayed blue for days! We decided we needed a better way of testing for penicillin. A test was devised by Jill Naylor, who worked in my lab, and that was put into practice. We used to assess all the suppliers' milk to all country factories every so often for penicillin, and report back to the factories.

And what about the staphylococcal enterotoxin? Just what is enterotoxin?

Enterotoxin is a name devised to explain a material that is produced by the growth of staphylococci which upsets the stomach. It is not caused – this is important – by the organism growing in your stomach, as it does with salmonella, but by the toxin produced in the food by the staphylococci. When you eat that food, you eat the enterotoxin. That is why it is called 'entero' rather than an endotoxin.

Cases of staphylococcal food poisoning from blue cheese did occur somewhere in America, and although this was nothing to do with us specifically, it caused people here to think about how we could test for staphylococcal enterotoxins. Staphylococci may grow, but they don't necessarily produce enterotoxins except under special conditions. And when we hunted through the literature, we found that Bergdoll, at the Massachusetts Institute, had come out with a method for testing for enterotoxin. But the problem was that to do so you had to have enterotoxin, which he was producing in his own laboratory.

I imagine that you would find such a life fascinating and never want to leave it. You published some papers with your results in particular fields of microbiology, but did you feel constrained because confidentiality prevented you from publishing more?

One accepted that and didn't worry about it. There was always something else happening that you had to get on with, always a challenge. That is what kept you there, and an enormous number of people from around my time stayed for 40 years. You always had something to think about, something to do, something that was new.

Setting up the essential reference methods

You became quite involved with reference committees attending to standards in food. Would you like to tell us a little about that additional use of your expertise? I think the Australian Society of Dairy Technology was the first to set up a committee.

Yes. The dairy industry, to support their exports, had to keep up with what was going on in Europe. The Europeans were developing methods by which they were going to test Australian products, and so they would send out information for us to say whether we agreed with them. After a while it became clear that really we did not have enough details of reference methods. I particularly emphasise 'reference', because most people talk about them as 'standard' methods and think that is the way they have to work. They are reference methods. The dairy industry had two aborted attempts at setting up a committee to work on reference methods, but the first chairman died and the next one became very ill. The industry then put it to the Standards Association of Australia to get a committee together to work on these methods. I was on that from its start until I retired.

Also, you became involved very early in a group which the National Health and Medical Research Council got together to inquire into microbiological standards in foods in general. How did that come about?

The NHMRC's Committee for Standards for Foods had set chemical standards, and they began to think they might need microbiological standards as well. But they didn't know whether the time was right for that to happen, so they got together three people – Dr Bill Scott, the senior food microbiologist at Food Preservation, CSIRO; Dr Kevin Anderson, from the Adelaide Medical and Veterinary Institute; and myself. We had a little meeting in Canberra and went through the various aspects of organisms that could cause health problems in food. We decided there were one or two cases that might have merited standards at that stage, but we had no reference methods. How could we set a standard without reference methods? That decision went back to the main Foods Standards Committee, whose Chairman, Dr Vickery, put it to the Standards Association to set up a committee to prepare standard reference methods for food. And so that is how that began.

These committees are long-lasting and draw on people from the universities, CSIRO and so forth. You were always chosen to represent industry and manufacturing, weren't you?

Yes. I always seemed to be the nominee for industry – with the company's support. They wanted to see that the work was done satisfactorily for industry in total. And we contributed our tremendous database, containing all our testing results and knowledge of investigations for various organisms and so forth.

You built up close relationships with people working in CSIRO, didn't you?

Yes. CSIRO Food Preservation, with Dr Vickery heading it, made a great impression on industry. One could go to CSIRO and talk to them, and know you had confidentiality. That was the very big point in the days when I dealt with them.

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Listening, advising and teaching in a hidden world of food standards

It has been commented that you kept these committees honest in commercial aspects, and that you were a tremendous contributor but also very strong. Did being a woman, perhaps the only one among those key scientists, lead you to be more outspoken?

I was not the only woman, not with those committees. But we did have our arguments at times. My friend John Christian, at CSIRO, and I were at loggerheads a couple of times. I wouldn't agree with him. So that would have resulted in that comment. I was never outspoken unless I was sure of my ground. I always like to be accurate. Other than that, what other people said was just as important as what I said. They'd have different ways of looking at things, and you must listen.

Serving on a number of committees for 25 years, in addition to your normal challenging work, must have kept you fairly occupied. You would have had to do a lot of homework for these things. And an involvement we have not yet mentioned is advising the Australian defence forces on their microbiological standards for foods.

Yes. The microbiologist they had working for them decided that really they should have standards for the various foods that they purchase for the Army and the other Forces – including dehydrated foods – so he set up a little group and we made standards for the Defence Force.

It's a hidden world that you were occupying. It is all too easy to take for granted the quality standards we have today, such as 'use by' dates on food. If there is an outbreak of poisoning anywhere we are very excited about it, yet we generally have no idea of the ongoing work to prevent such things. But the background to the precise standards that protect us has been your life.

Yes. We used to be worried about restaurants and also about groups of people having big picnics, where they didn't have refrigeration for the large amounts of food they had prepared. When they took it out, you would get cases of food poisoning because of the lack of refrigeration and such things. That area worried the Australian Institute of Food Science, which for years and years ran lectures for people who worked in factories and in restaurants. We tried to work with the food inspectors from the councils, to get people along to these lectures held every year on hygiene and sterilisation, disinfection and so forth.

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Promoting access to microbiology studies

We have noted that microbiology was available at Melbourne University, but mostly for people who would serve in medical situations. You have been engaged in various attempts to set up new courses, haven't you?

Yes. One of the problems for girls coming from school to work in the laboratories was that they couldn't make a career and advance within the laboratories without a formal education. The firm used to give the girls working for me a half-day off per week to go to a course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology for the chemistry diploma, and that got them so far, but what they really needed was microbiology. I was able to arrange with Professor Rubbo that a number of them, once they had completed so much chemistry, would be allowed to do microbiology at the university as a single subject. Several girls who had been in the laboratory for many years were then able, with their education, to advance up the tree.

I had a ring one day from Dr Eileen Fisher, who worked at Burnley Horticultural College, to say, 'I've got a problem. I've got people working for me, particularly girls, who cannot advance because they haven't got a course to do. What do you do with your girls?' When I explained what I did, she said, 'Well, really we need a course at somewhere like the RMIT to provide microbiology for these people.' (RMIT had microbiology, but it was used for the medical side.) So we got our heads together and thought out what we really wanted as a course. She wanted subjects like entomology and parasitology included in it; I wanted food microbiology. I rang Lucy Alford, at the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, and asked, 'Lucy, are you interested in such a course for some of your people?' and she said she was. So we devised this course.

Then Eileen Fisher brought in John Roberts of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science to act as a go-between with RMIT, and RMIT agreed to the course. But unfortunately, when they brought it out, they had cut out all the subjects that Eileen Fisher wanted, so it became very similar to a university degree course. At least it started general microbiology for a lot of other people.

You were more successful, I think, in your contribution to the course planning by Bendigo College of Advanced Education for their Diploma of Applied Science, which had microbiology in it.

Yes. Those country educational institutions were upgrading – Ballarat School of Mines upgraded their courses; Bendigo did the same and they introduced an applied science degree. Nancy Millis and I were asked to go up to the interviews for the appointment of the microbiologist for their course, and then when they formed an advisory committee they asked me to join that. (In the latter part of it I was the committee Chair.) The course was devised to cover all the types of work that might be involved for students working in the country. So as well as the microbiologists, they also had on their course advisory committee a veterinary person, an agriculturalist and so on to advise them. It was an interesting course, in that they managed to get the industry around them to participate with the students, giving industry people a chance to see what sort of students Bendigo were bringing out and also giving the students a chance to work within the industry.

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Academic recognition

I am fascinated that whereas so many scientists, both men and women, go into a field and continue in a fairly straightforward way, never doing more than expand on the PhD thesis they have written, after you did your Masters degree a PhD was not relevant to your career. Instead, you have been occupied across a whole set of fields in a very dynamic company, building up expertise and applying your knowledge to the formulation of a wide range of procedures. We could say that you are a dynamo yourself, and your own dynamic activities stretched out across a whole spectrum of national and educational activities.

Even quite early in the piece, in the 1950s, you were being widely praised for your professionalism and your ability. In 1970 you were elected the first woman Fellow of the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology, and that same year you won their Award of Merit. What was that for?

Well, the Fellow is the usual recognition of your input into the industry. The Award was awarded for my specific work within the food industry.

In 1977, you became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, which had been set up in 1976 as a sort of counterpoise to the scientific research emphasis of the Australian Academy of Science. The Academy of the Technological Sciences became an independent organisation to recognise achievement of a very innovative and creative kind in applied science and industry. Women were not often elected to the Academy of Science, but at the founding of the Academy of the Technological Sciences two women were elected as Fellows, June Olley and Helen Newton Turner – and you were elected the following year. Within that Academy, have women had much of an influence?

I would say they have influence, certainly an interest. The person who I found was most interested in having women in the Academy was Sir Ian McLennan, the driving force in the formation of the Academy. It didn't matter where you saw him, he always recognised you, he always came and talked to you. He had no qualms at all about women being there, and I think that put their presence in good standing to start off with, because he was President. Although I don't get along to the Academy now because of my invalidity, I used to enjoy going to their seminars, annual meetings and so forth, because it seemed to me that their aim was, 'What can the Academy do for Australia?'

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Helping others to understand more

In your career, did being a very important scientist in a very male industry create any difficulties for you? Or did your temperament, with your calmness and readiness to get on with any challenge, make that easier for you?

I think my temperament helped. There was always a division between the male and the female. I never could quite understand why, because we were all contributing, but from the time I started there was always a little barrier, right up to the time I left. I just ignored it.

Reflecting on the women that worked with you and the young ones you have trained, do you think women approach their scientific task differently from men?

Well, they did in my time. I always liked to employ women in microbiology because they had a sense of detail and accuracy, whereas I felt that the men liked to shortcut – and you can't do that in microbiology. I had a few men in the lab which was used as training for production jobs. They had always gone into the chemistry laboratory but it was decided they would come into my lab, and quite frankly, although I enjoyed having them, it was a nuisance. We would just get them trained and away they would go to Production, and then we would have to start all over again. In my time, the women in the food industry, particularly, knew they were probably never going to get to a top position, but the men always knew that they would want to be managers.

You retired in 1983, at a point where women should have been having an easier time. Did you serve as a mentor to the women you trained? Or would that word not have been in the vocabulary of the period?

No, I don't use the word 'mentor'. I help people. I helped the young ones get training and advance, and quite a number of them went out to find jobs in other companies. And it is interesting, I have had them come up to me since I retired and thank me for the training I gave them. It has been very pleasurable to receive such thanks.

The training side of it has been interesting. Just a little story, as an example, concerns a production manager we had in our dehydration factory in Tasmania. When I arrived over there he looked askance at this woman walking in. We did some work and I said quietly, 'John, I think these counts are too high. You can do better than that.' So he immediately went away and got Tanner, the compendium I mentioned, and showed me all the counts in Tanner. I said, 'Yes, I know all about those, but I'm sure you can do better.' Anyway, nothing more was said, and we worked away. After he left the company, he wrote to thank me for how I had helped him to understand more about the production of food. That was unusual, and I appreciated it very much.

Thank you, Margaret, for a wonderful story.

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