Bruce Holloway received a BSc (hons) from the University of Adelaide in 1948. He had done some of his honours year research at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute and after his graduation returned to the Waite as a lecturer in plant pathology from 1949 to 1950. In 1950 he went to the USA and studied at the California Institute of Technology where he was awarded a PhD in 1953. Holloway returned to Australia and worked as a research fellow in microbial genetics at the John Curtin School of Medical Research until 1956. His initial work was setting up a system to study the genetics of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. He moved to the University of Melbourne from 1957 to 1968 where he was a senior lecturer in bacteriology (1957–60) and then reader in microbial genetics (1961–68). He was awarded a DSc from the University of Melbourne in 1966. In 1968 Holloway became the foundation professor of genetics at Monash University, a position he held in addition to being head of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology until 1993. He was appointed as an emeritus professor at Monash University in 1994.
Interviewed by Professor Ray Martin in 2008.
Bruce, what do you remember about your early life?
I've got a good memory of that, and I remember my childhood as being a happy one. (Of course, to most people, all childhood memories are good because you have nothing to compare them with.) I lived in a very stable family. My parents were hard working. They paid a great deal of attention to education for both my brother and me, and sent us to private primary schools and then a secondary school, Scotch College in Adelaide. They were very concerned about reading, and the weekly visit to the library was important so I learned to understand libraries quite early in life. My mother's hobby, before she got married, was elocution and she was particularly interested in people speaking well. Also, when I was still quite young, she bought me books to copy handwriting so that my handwriting would be good.
What are your memories of your school days?
I don't remember very much of the primary school, Tiverton, but I have very good memories of Scotch. It was a good private boys school – only boys. It was in very big grounds, on the property of a very wealthy landowner, so we had plenty of space for sports and lots of classrooms. At about age 13 you had to choose between a science set of subjects and a commercial set; to me, there was no question that I wanted to do the science set of subjects. That was a channel that went on for the rest of my school life.
I was involved in quite a number of activities at Scotch: I was troop leader of the scouts, I got to be an 'associate prefect', I was a sergeant of signals in the cadet corps, I was also in the drum and bagpipe group as a drummer. And, because my parents thought music was important and paid for me to learn the piano for nine years, I played the organ at the school's morning service, for the one hymn we sang. I enjoyed being involved in all those things.
Moving inevitably toward science
Did your parents and family have any influence in your interest in science?
I can't remember anybody from the family or any friends influencing me at all. I don't think there was ever a time when I didn't want to do science – though I can't tell you where I got the idea. I never wanted to do medicine or be an engineer. From a quite early time I was interested in growing things, particularly plants. The lady at the back of where we lived used to feed wheat to her chooks, and I borrowed some wheat from her and experimented on the germination of wheat seeds. Also, I found you could get peas from somewhere or other, and I realised that they germinated in a different way to wheat. So I started doing biological experiments on my own, totally without any outside influence.
This led me to trying to do biology as a subject at Scotch. There were a lot of children of farmers, landowners, at the school and we had an agricultural subject stream (it was part of the matriculation stream in those days) in which they did biology, and I thought it would be good for me to do that. When I went to the headmaster, though, and asked whether I too could do biology, as either an extra subject or an alternative subject, his answer was, 'No. Do something that will be useful for your career, lad.'
Did anyone outside your family stimulate your interest in science?
I think the biggest stimulus came from my own ideas. I was with a group of Scotch lads, however – eventually there were about six or seven of us – who all went on to university to do either science or agricultural science. They were an influential group; as we went through together we probably influenced each other. We were very lucky in having a very good senior science master at Scotch, John Dow, who certainly encouraged us and showed us the best way of doing things. So if there was an influence, I think it came from Scotch and my colleagues.
What sorts of memories do you have of studying science at university?
Oh, very happy memories. I really enjoyed going to university. It was a sort of liberation, in that there wasn't the discipline of the secondary school. Adelaide University is almost right in the centre of Adelaide, so I could be in the city each day, which I found interesting, with nobody telling me what to do: I could plan my own times. In those days, Wednesday afternoon at universities was reserved for sport. I decided not to play sport there; instead I discovered the Barr Smith Library, where I used to spend Wednesday afternoons exploring books on biology and so discovering all sorts of things which I didn't know about.
I enjoyed the classes. There was also the freedom to pick subjects, and in both the second and the third year I chose a combination of subjects which nobody else in the university was doing – in second year, organic chemistry, botany and bacteriology; in third year, botany and bacteriology.
Can you recall any incidents which influenced your choice of science as a lifetime career?
Um, no. I could have gone into the family business, which had been established by my father, but there was never any pressure to do that and I didn't want to. Initially, I didn't know much about careers in biology, so I vaguely thought of a career in chemistry. I then realised that perhaps I was more interested in biology, and started making inquiries about biological careers, and it went from there. I can't remember any alternatives that I ever considered.
I seem to remember that you did very well in chemistry.
Yes, I actually came top of second year organic chemistry and first year physical chemistry. The chemists were a bit put off by the second year result. They felt that a career chemist should get that position. But I enjoyed organic chemistry and I found it easy.
Why did you want to become a biological rather than a physical scientist?
Physical science interested me, but I realised that I had only average abilities in mathematics and it seemed to me that to be a physical scientist you really had to be good at it. While I could get by in mathematics, I didn't find it easy or feel I did it well, and I thought that would be a bit of a handicap.
The Waite Agricultural Research Institute
Why did you go to the Waite Agricultural Research Institute after completing your BSc?
Well, Adelaide University had the Scottish system of a fourth-year specialist honours year, and having come top in third year botany I was eligible not only to do honours in botany but also to take any of the various streams that were available. In those days, the streams for botany were plant physiology, plant taxonomy and phycology, which is the study of algae. For a variety of reasons, none of those interested me very much. (I hadn't done biochemistry, which was a sort of prerequisite for doing plant physiology.) But in the third year of botany we had done a unit at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute in mycology, the study of fungi, run by the Department of Plant Pathology. It was a very well-run unit and I enjoyed both that and the people, and it seemed to me that that would be a good place to do honours. I don't think anybody from the botany area had ever done honours in the Waite Institute, but I spoke to Joe Wood, the professor of botany, and he agreed to it.
So in December, just after the results came out, I went and spoke to David Adam, the head of Plant Pathology. He agreed to take me on for an honours year and suggested that I look at a problem they'd had with virus diseases of orchids. That suited me because it meant the combination of the bacteriology and botany streams, which seemed a good idea. I then went off for the long vacation. But when I came back, in early February, he said, 'Oh, I've changed my mind; we've had pressure to study a fungal disease of apricots called gummosis. I want you to study fungi' – and it was arranged that I would study the biology of the fungus. There was also a CSIRO appointment, Judith Grace, who studied the field work, mostly in the Barossa Valley, and I sometimes went with her on field trips.
That started the team effort which went through most of 1948, the honours year, with the result that I got first-class honours. (In addition, of course, I had to do other subjects: I had to do a statistics course and also go to lectures in the Botany Department.) At the end of that year, both junior staff members of the Department of Plant Pathology left, one to go to England to complete a PhD and the other to go to ICI. So suddenly there was a vacancy and I was offered a temporary job of lecturer in plant pathology, which I took up at the beginning of 1949. While I didn't give any lectures, I did run the prac classes for both the science unit in mycology for the Botany Department and the agricultural science unit for Plant Pathology – and I did my research and also participated in some diagnostic work which the department did.
It was a very broad and interesting year. The Waite was an interesting place. I lived nearby and I found it a very good place to be. It gave me a career option immediately.
Genetics research in California
What factors led you to go to the California Institute of Technology and study biology for your postgraduate work?
Well, during my honours year I had begun to realise that there was a lot of interesting work on the genetics of fungi, which I had never encountered before, so I read up on that. I continued to read up during the first year I was a lecturer. There was one fungus particularly, Neurospora crassa, in which a lot of work had been done, much of it by George Beadle. As part of my work on the fungi I was working with, I studied a phenomenon called heterokaryosis, on which George Beadle had done a critical experiment.
Then, during late 1949 or early 1950, we had a visit to the Waite by a very distinguished plant physiologist, James Bonner, from Caltech. He gave two fantastic lectures which I felt were marvellous. I was able to meet him and I told him about my interest in doing genetics. He said, 'Well, at Caltech we've got a great group in Neurospora genetics. You should try and come there.' Fortuitously, at about the same time, Fulbright scholarships were advertised. I applied, and won a scholarship – which not only covered your travel costs but meant that you also received a Smith-Mundt Award to cover your living costs. In addition, Caltech gave you an institute scholarship to pay your fees.
So, in September 1950, I went off to Caltech. At first, actually, I didn't have George Beadle as my supervisor but Sterling Emerson, who was a great guy. He had me working on a problem in heterokaryosis, but it didn't quite gel. In about May 1951, he went on study leave to the United Kingdom and George Beadle became my supervisor. Recognising that my particular problem was no longer to be supervised by Sterling, I looked around for another one and I repeated the experiment that George Beadle had done – but it didn't work. When I looked into all the factors, it turned out that I hadn't used quite the right strains. So I got those strains, repeated the experiment and it worked like a dream. It occurred to me that perhaps the occurrence of heterokaryosis was not as simple as had been imagined and there could be genetic factors which determined whether or not heterokaryons were formed.
I went to George Beadle and said, 'Look, I've got this result. What do you think of this as a research project for my thesis?' He said, 'Great,' so in effect I picked my own thesis topic. That worked out very well and I eventually identified five genes which affected heterokaryosis. It was the first genetic analysis in Neurospora of a multigenic trait, and I published that work in Genetics.
At Caltech, however, under the American system, doing a research project was not the only aspect of the thesis, and writing a thesis was certainly not the only component of doing a PhD. I had to attend courses; I had to pass qualifying exams in four subjects, one of which I remember was biochemistry; and I had to do a research project. With another graduate student, I worked with Henry Borsook, who had written the definitive textbook on biochemistry which I had used in my undergraduate work at Adelaide. He put us on a problem relating protein synthesis to RNA metabolism – which I think was well ahead of its time, given what happened with genetics later on. Those experiments also worked and we published that paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Then I did a minor subject in plant physiology – with James Bonner, whom I had met earlier – on an enzyme assay for ATP, adenosine triphosphate, and that too was published.
You had also to do written examinations in both plant physiology and genetics. When you had done all of that, you were technically eligible to start your research work, but in reality you had started your research work well before that.
At Caltech, do you have to defend your PhD publicly?
Yes. It's announced in the institute bulletin, it is a public event, anybody can come. I had an examination panel of eight professors, only two or three of which were geneticists. Henry Borsook was on the panel and his question was, 'I don't know anything about genetics. Explain to me, as a non-geneticist, what you've done in your thesis work.' It was not a question I was expecting, and I had to think about that rather carefully.
A friend of mine in Scandinavia was defending his PhD thesis when his girlfriend, in the audience, stood up and asked if he was prepared to marry her. You didn't have that experience?
[laugh] No, I didn't have that distraction. What did happen to me was that I went into the room and was examined probably for an hour and a half or two hours, after which I was asked to leave while the examiners made their decision. As I waited outside, 15 minutes went by, 30 minutes went by, 45 minutes went by and I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, what's happening?' It was nearly an hour before they came out and said everything was fine. When I asked, 'What took you so long?' they said they'd been trying for a long time to get together to discuss another topic!
Back to Australia in genetics, not plant pathology
Between 1953 and 1968 you worked at the Australian National University (ANU) and then at Melbourne University. Had your experience at Caltech influenced your research direction – for example, the area of biological science which would become of most interest to you?
Well, yes, it did. When I left the Waite for Caltech, I did have a plan. Although I didn't have a permanent position in plant pathology, David Adam said he would guarantee me a job when I had finished my PhD in genetics. I think he realised that genetics did have a role to play in plant pathology. Unfortunately, he died in 1951. So, when his successor was appointed, I wrote to him, said that I was doing this degree and I had this verbal arrangement with David Adam, and asked what the situation was. On the same piece of paper, however, this guy wrote back, 'I don't feel obliged to honour any of my predecessor's promises.' I then was out of a job. I didn't know of any other place in plant pathology I could go to, so it seemed to me that since I was learning a lot of genetics, I would be a geneticist. (In actual fact, about nearly 35 to 40 years later, I came back and did some plant pathology work using the genetics that I had learnt in the meantime. So I went full circle.)
As I was realising I had to get a job now in genetics, somebody from the ANU's John Curtin School of Medical Research visited Caltech during a world trip on laboratories. I think he was the laboratory manager, rather than a scientist. I got to meet him and I told him about myself, saying that I would like to come back to the ANU, if possible, doing microbial genetics. He duly reported this to Frank Fenner, who had been appointed as the professor of microbiology. Later on, I was sent a copy of an advertisement for a research fellow in microbial genetics, which to some extent was targeted at me, and I applied. I don't know whether there were any other applicants, but I got the job.
So, at the beginning of 1953, I went to Canberra to see Frank Fenner. Because the laboratories weren't ready, I had to spend some time working at Fairfield Hospital, in Melbourne, but eventually I got a lab in Canberra. Frank had said, 'Now, you can do anything you like, provided it's not Neurospora genetics,' and I had to think of another topic. He suggested one for me to start with, which I did, but at the same time I worked on a long term project.
At Caltech I had been impressed with the bacterial and bacteriophage genetics work that was going on there. I'd also been impressed by the fact that every day these guys would ring up people all over the States and talk about their current experiments – there was this network of instant information being passed from laboratory to laboratory. Realising that if I was working in Canberra I would be outside that network, I decided that I really had to get another topic in bacterial genetics. So I went through Topley and Wilson, the classic microbial textbook of the day, to work out another bacterium in which it would be good to establish genetic systems, and I settled on Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
I would have been less confident of starting that if I'd known two things. The first was that in about 1948 or 1949 an extremely famous French scientist, François Jacob, who subsequently won the Nobel Prize, had been faced with a similar situation to do his doctoral work at the Pasteur in Paris. He had started with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to work out a genetic system of exchange, but had been unable to get it to work, so he went on to study the bacteriophages of P. aeruginosa. (P. aeruginosa was very rich in bacteriophages, and that was one of the things that attracted me to it.) So he published his thesis on phages, not genetics, of Pseudomonas. And somebody in Adelaide had also been unable to get it to work. If I had known that two people independently had had the same idea but hadn't got it to work, I wouldn't have been so enthusiastic. Ignorance was bliss, however. I got the experiments together and the first one worked, so I was very pleased. Only later did I find out that it wasn't an original thought – but I was the first to do it.
Basically, what I did then was to set up a genetic system for Pseudomonas aeruginosa: conjugation, mapping, transduction, bacteriophages, looking at mutants. I started that at Frank Fenner's department, but after I had been there for a few years Frank said, 'Look, I have had second thoughts, not about your work but about the future of the department. I've decided we're not going to have anybody in the department except animal virus workers. You are welcome to stay as long as you like, but there'll never be any collaborators; it'll just be yourself.'
At about that time I heard of a vacancy in Syd Rubbo's Department of Bacteriology at the University of Melbourne. I wrote to him, and he offered me a senior lectureship. Curiously enough, for some reason I didn't answer his letter immediately, which was remiss of me. In his letter he offered me £1,900 as a salary. When I didn't immediately answer, he wrote a second letter offering me a salary of £2,000 pounds, so I answered that letter immediately. We moved from Canberra in about February–March 1957.
Then I was able to set up a small group. I had a research assistant and over a period of time I got honours students, postdoc graduate students and visitors from overseas, and we established the genetic analysis of Pseudomonas.
Establishing genetics at Monash University
In 1968 you were appointed to a foundation chair at Monash University, and after a distinguished career you were appointed as an emeritus professor in 1994. Would you like to say something about your memories and some highlights of your long time at Monash?
In 1963 I was invited by the Department of Biochemistry at the medical school at Monash to come and give a third-year unit in microbial genetics to the biochemists. I did that for five years, until at the end of '67 I was invited to take the foundation chair of genetics at Monash. That chair, like my Melbourne appointment, was not advertised; I had to go through an interview process and supply referees. Then I was offered the chair and I accepted. That gave me the opportunity to set up a department.
It was very exciting (and I don't think it happens very often) to be able to start off as one person to build a department: getting staff – academic, technical and support – finding space, getting equipment, integrating everything into the teaching program of the university. It went on for many years, and I was fortunate in having good staff and a very sympathetic environment at the university. So the department was established, with Pseudomonas genetics probably the biggest part, although we also had other types of geneticists, in population and cytogenetics.
Over the years we established a genetic system in Pseudomonas. Unlike what I had found in the E. coli system – from what I had seen at Caltech, people were rather reluctant to exchange strains – I decided from the very beginning that we would make our strains and mutants available to anybody who asked. This meant that people worked with our system, and I found it was very positive because it meant we got a lot of information rather than only giving it. In the long term, the strain that we finally selected for the main genetic analysis of Pseudomonas (called PA01) is now the major strain used for Pseudomonas aeruginosa worldwide and is the one that has been sequenced.
So that's a long term investment into various types of the analysis, and that was the main work at ANU, Melbourne and Monash. It went on from 1953 to almost 2000.
I had decided deliberately that we would not focus just on one species of Pseudomonas but on a range of organisms, so once we had the genetic system going for Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is a species of medical interest, we then thought it appropriate to look at other species. That brought us into species of interest to industry and also to agriculture.
In due course, quite unexpectedly, ICI Australia came to me saying that ICI had a problem with a Pseudomonas in a project in England, and wanting to know if I would study its genetics. Curiously, that organism had been identified in England as a Pseudomonas, but as soon as we got it we realised it wasn't; it was a totally different genus. We took the project anyway. It concerned an organism that was going to grow on methanol and produce biomass. (Production of biomass is making living creatures out of a chemical base. You do it in brewing, where you take sugar and convert it into yeast, which grows, and the by-product is beer. You get rid of the yeast before you sell the beer, and what you are throwing away is the biomass.)
ICI had built a six million litre, stainless-steel fermenter and pumped in oxygen and methanol – they had an excess of methane and they had a process for making methanol. This organism would convert methanol into biomass and they felt they needed some genetic studies of it. We subsequently did those and we developed a system of doing genetics of methylotrophs, which the organism was.
That was a first interaction with industry, which we developed over the years. It became another interest in addition to the fundamental work which we were doing on genetics.
Were there similar departments of genetics in other Australian universities?
No. The first Department of Genetics was founded at the Waite Institute in about 1953 by David Catcheside, but when I was an undergraduate you could not study genetics. Neither could you do a PhD in Australia – and it was made clear to me that I would have to get a PhD if I were to have a good academic career. So, when I had the opportunity both to study genetics and to do a PhD, to go overseas was the only decision I could make.
It was interesting that, when my award of the Fulbright was announced and I was going to do the PhD at Caltech, some very well-meaning people took me aside and said things like, 'Do you quite know what you're doing, lad? To get a good job in Australian universities you've got to have an English degree, preferably from Cambridge or Oxford – London would be okay. But this American degree, I'm not sure it's going to be recognised or be good for your career.' I didn't take their advice, and I think it was a good thing that I didn't.
During your Monash years did you have any significant collaborations in Australia or overseas?
Until the latter part of my career, I really didn't have any close collaborations in Australia. We sought them but, for a variety of reasons, they didn't eventuate. We did have a large number of collaborations overseas, with the United Kingdom, America and Japan. The Japanese, particularly, were very interested in Pseudomonas. Three Japanese professors came and worked in my department, and we had numerous visitors from the UK and America. We established close collaborations with people in America and the UK, out of which we published papers together. They were a significant part of our scientific work. We had people come to visit us and some of my students went to work with people in the States or in England. We exchanged graduate students, postdocs, and they were significant. I had a particularly close association with Irwin Gunsalus at the University of Illinois, and I would go there for a month or six weeks and work in his lab. He was primarily a biochemist and wanted genetic input to his work, so I would do some genetic experiments with him.
You have touched on your main research interests at Monash. Did you have any other special interests during that long period?
The late '60s, early '70s was a very exciting time to be at Monash. Louis Matheson was a great vice-chancellor and I feel privileged to have been appointed by him in that time. It was a very friendly place. You got to know people very quickly. I sat on quite a number of committees over the years. I was on council, I was president of the faculty club and I was even, at one time, president of the students' golf club – an interesting experience, particularly at their annual dinner. I made many friendships at Monash which have lasted till this time.
It was a broadening of experience, because one of the things that I was appointed to as a Monash person was the Anti-Cancer Council. It was agreed that Melbourne University would have two positions on the council and Monash would have two. I found that fascinating. I actually stayed with the Anti-Cancer Council first as a member of the committee, later as its chairman and then as a member of the council from about 1969 till probably the mid-1980s. That gave me a big exposure to a lot of things, including how to run a granting organisation. (I was chairman of the Monash medical and scientific committee, where we ran a granting scheme and also interacted with research workers.) It proved to be quite valuable for some things I did in later life. In addition, I met a lot of people around Melbourne.
All those activities at Monash were good. I had three sabbatical leaves. I taught mainly in the Faculty of Science, where I used to give about 50 lectures a year, but also I taught in the Faculty of Medicine in first and fourth year, I think, and supervised some postgraduate work. There were a lot of things I didn't know to begin with, so it was a good learning experience for me.
It was great to be at Monash at that particular time, even though the student problems were something that we hadn't expected – I was involved because at that time I was acting dean of the Faculty of Science. And then the whole time right through to when I retired in 1993 I think was a good time to be at any university in Australia.
We hear that Albert Langer was perhaps a leader of the student problems at Monash, but was there a more significant reason for student unrest there at that time?
No. I think that there was student unrest throughout other universities, and that personalities dictated whether universities had more student unrest or less. I think we had personalities at Monash which encouraged it. What may not be generally known is that one of the big issues of the time was Albert Langer's exclusion from a particular course. He had done a brilliant undergraduate course but he had a somewhat mediocre honours year, in which he did the course work in mathematics well but the project not very well, and so he didn't get a sufficient grade to enable him to go on to graduate work. He wanted to repeat the honours year, but the Faculty of Science didn't think that appropriate. As acting dean of science, I actually signed the document which excluded Albert Langer from a second honours year. Kevin Westfold was the person who got the blame in books and documents of the time, but he didn't have anything to do with it.
You don't put that on your CV, I suppose!
Interactions between science, technology and industry
As your career has progressed, you have been closely involved with several important government advisory committees, including the Industry Research and Development Board, the former Department of Science and Technology, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the Cooperative Research Centres program. What were some of the highlights of such involvements?
The interesting thing about a lot of those interactions was that I didn't seek them; they came to me in various ways that I hadn't expected. Take the IR&D Board, which actually had a precursor in 1983, the National Biotechnology Program. In 1982 or early 1983 I was in the United States and had been invited to give a seminar, as part of my visit there, at Texas A&M – one of the land grant colleges of Texas. Although it is way out in the sticks, it is one of the wealthiest universities because it found oil on the campus. And because it is a bit isolated, it likes to have visitors. (If you are going to Texas A&M, at College Station, you're not going anywhere else; you are on your way somewhere else and you have to stop off there.) Also, we had a collaborator there.
I gave my seminar, and when I got back to the hotel the people at the desk said, 'Oh, a Mr Jones rang you while you were out and he wants you to call him back.' I realised that the return telephone number was an Australian number, but I couldn't think of a Mr Jones that would want to ring me in College Station, Texas. Anyway, I got the desk to ring the number. A girl answered, and when I said I had had a message to ring, she said, 'Oh yes, I'll put you through to Barry.' It was Barry Jones, Minister for Science and Technology at the time. He wanted me to chair the National Biotechnology Program committee and to set up a granting body for biotechnology. The initial period was to be for three years. There was about $10 million for grants, spread over three years, of which about $3 million was to be given away in the first year. This was totally out of the blue; I hadn't expected it. So I said, 'Yes, but I'll have to get Monash's permission if I am going to do something like this.' He said, 'Well, who do I speak to at Monash?' and when I suggested he should speak to Kevin Westfold, he responded, 'I'll do it immediately.' So the committee was organised and we attempted to give away that $3 million in the first year.
As I was not sure how this should be done, I sought advice from a variety of places – an interesting experience. I went to the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and asked, 'Well, what do you think is the best way of spending $3 million on biotechnology?' They said, 'It's really very simple: give it all to the wheat industry.' I went to a very senior industrialist and asked, 'What should I do?' He said, 'It's a total waste of money. Biotechnology is never going to be of commercial interest' – that was in 1983. I went to the Department of Science and Technology, whose view was that we should have three grants, each of $1 million a year, for three years. That didn't appeal to me, because $1 million was a lot of money in 1983 and I thought, 'Who in Australia would I trust with $3 million over three years to spend it wisely?' Basically, what we did was to give about 10 grants a year and we gave 10 grants subsequently. So we spread it out.
The body changed in 1986 to the Industry Research and Development Board, which had three main areas of technology – biotechnology, information technology and materials technology, with a bit of spread of that – and I was a member of the first IR&D Board. By then I had spent a lot of time on the National Biotechnology Program committee and I'd more or less made up my mind that three years was enough and somebody else could do it. I think I actually said no to begin with, until the next day when [Industry Minister] John Button rang up and twisted my arm. He was very persuasive and I took on the next three years as a member of the IR&D Board. Again I'm very glad I did that, because it was a very educational experience. We were a statutory body. (It was the only time I have ever had to sign and seal a document, through becoming a statutory body.) They flew us around first class, we had cars picking us up at home, we were looked after. I had a secretariat of about four or five within the department, which by that time had changed its name to, I think, the Department of Industry. So that is how I became involved.
While I was Secretary of Biological Sciences of the Australian Academy of Science, I had a number of interactions with the Department of Science and Technology and got to know the people there. For example, in about 1986 they decided that they wanted to establish a closer technology linkage with France. So a group of us were selected, with two or three public servants, and sent off on a diplomatic mission to establish linkages between France and Australia in biotechnology, information technology and materials technology. That was a great experience. For reasons I can't remember, I was the first one who went. I was met at the airport by a representative of the French department of foreign affairs, a lady who was very competent and spoke English with barely a trace of an accent. She took me around to various places, looked after me and made appointments for me. Then the rest of the team came and we worked more as a group until, for some reason, I split off and went off on my own for the last period of the visit. I do not think there were any linkages established in biotechnology, but some other linkages were established and so the visit was a success.
Research and master classes for ACIAR
You asked about my involvement with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). That was an NGO, a non-government organisation, which funded training and agricultural research in developing countries, mainly in Asia. They had established that there was a major problem with bacterial wilt disease, a soil-borne vegetable disease caused by a Pseudomonas species, Pseudomonas solanacearum. They wanted somebody to work on that and they felt an understanding of the genetics might be useful. So they funded me to go to a conference in the Philippines and they funded, very unusually, the appointment of an Australian postdoc so we could get the stuff going. And then I was encouraged to apply for a major grant, which I did. The first time we put it in, they cancelled their grants for a year for budgetary reasons. We had to resubmit it and we got the grant, but they still had budgetary problems and they postponed it for a year. It wasn't till the beginning of 1993 that we actually received the money. That work extended until 2001, well after I'd left Monash as a professor. We had something like $1.5 million or $1.6 million from ACIAR over the years, working on the genetics of Pseudomonas solanacearum.
You created the concept of master classes for ACIAR. What were the challenges and successes of these classes?
When we got the grant from ACIAR to work on issues with Pseudomonas solanacearum, basically we were for the first time using molecular genetic techniques. We were going to collaborate with people in the Philippines and Indonesia, but the people we were working with really didn't have very much knowledge of those techniques or experience in them, nor did they have laboratories with the necessary equipment. So I decided that as an important part of the project we would train them in the techniques. They came out either to our lab at Monash or to Adelaide or Brisbane for periods of three to six months. We taught them the techniques, showed them the equipment and bought equipment for them which they took back.
When we were setting up our molecular genetic systems at Monash for the first time, we very much benefited from being able to ring up and talk about techniques with people in other departments at Monash and in other departments and organisations in Melbourne, because a lot of the stuff wasn't written down. It was very much, 'It works,' or, 'It doesn't work,' and, 'Why not?' So initially there was a lot of folklore involved. It occurred to us that it was not a really good idea to send one or two people with a limited training in molecular biology back to an individual laboratory where there was nobody to talk to.
So the master classes were part of the ACIAR grant: we would take three or four people from each of the places we were collaborating with and give them an intensive three week course in molecular genetics. That was how they started, the first class being in 1993. They proved to be quite valuable, and continued.
During, I think, 1993, like all other Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) I had a letter from the then chairman, Sir Arvi Parbo, saying that ATSE was interested in doing broader topics and wanted suggestions. I dashed off a letter to him saying, 'Well, why don't you have training classes in modern technologies?' but didn't think anything more of it. Next thing I found myself sitting opposite Arvi Parbo talking about this – yes, they had selected this idea, it was going to be one of their projects, and would I run it? He was a very persuasive person, and it was agreed that I would do this through the Crawford Fund, an organisation which was already associated with ATSE.
So I set up a series of master classes, not only in molecular genetics and molecular technologies but also in a range of other topics. Over the period from 1993 to 2004, when I decided not to continue with it, I ran 24 master classes which nearly 500 people attended. We had some of them overseas, for example one in South America and others in Asia, and we had them in different parts of Australia. They were funded in various ways. Some weren't funded on the day they started and we had nail-biting experiences, but we didn't actually ever have to cancel a class or anything like that. Other classes, we had plenty of money for. They were in a range of technologies, including quarantine technology, but towards the end of my time we settled down to classes more in the management area, such as a course on research management in agriculture – which I think we repeated three time. The Crawford Fund continues to fund master classes even though I finished in 2004.
I think it was just an idea that suited the times, that you needed a selected topic and you needed a name other than 'training course' or 'workshop'. We wanted to get senior people to these classes so they would understand, but senior people in Asia, particularly, are not interested in going to a workshop or a training class. That's not their ideal way of spending their time. Call it the 'master class', however, and it has another sound about it – and they came. We got quite senior people, who in turn were very influential in persuading their governments to fund the work.
The Department of Science and Technology and ACIAR interactions were the major Australian ones I had. We collaborated also with the University of Adelaide, the University of Queensland and the Department of Agriculture in Victoria.
Involvement with CRCs and the bureaucracy
And the CRCs program?
That again came totally unexpectedly. It was after I retired, but the CRCs had started in 1991. I had had some interactions with Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe regarding a review of Sydney University, and later, for some reason, he rang me up one day and asked whether I would accept the chairmanship of the CRC for Vertebrate Pest Control. That was a CRC aimed at rabbits, foxes and mice, using the technology of inhibited conception; in other words, making the females or the males sterile so they didn't breed. I held that chairmanship for five years, a great experience.
That led me into being involved with the CRC movement generally and I was invited to be a visitor for the CRC for Plant Science. That was really good. In those days, a 'visitor' was really a sort of ombudsman between the government on one hand and the CRC on the other – a good appointment. If there were any problems, you acted as a go-between on matters in which, perhaps, in the initial stages they didn't want to do anything on an official basis. CRCs varied in the way they treated visitors. Eventually the position of visitor was abolished. That was a great pity, I believe, because I and other visitors had been able to be useful in getting CRCs working better. Just to name one, when I was visitor to the Plant Science CRC, they really used me a lot and I did quite a lot of things for them, and I think that helped them.
Altogether I was involved with five CRCs – I was chairman of one, on the board of another and visitor to three – so over that period I went to a lot of meetings with different CRCs. The CRCs are still going as a great part of Australian science and have done a lot of good.
In one way and another you must have had a lot of dealings with the government bureaucracy. What were your challenges and successes in influencing them?
I don't think we ever influenced them; I think it was a matter of finding ways to get around them. I have mentioned the preconceived ideas of how we should spend the grant money in the biotechnology scheme. (The same sort of thing occurred later, on the IR&D Board.) One of the problems we had was that the public servants really didn't understand that something may take 10 years to develop; they thought in a much shorter time zone, like three years. It was quite bizarre for them that we should be funding something for three years but actually planning 10 years of support and saying so at the beginning. Time scale was an important aspect.
As to the actual processes by which we went through this, it was about the time of the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister series on television, and I have to tell you that we had experiences which exactly merged with the situation in those series. One night the board decided it would like to talk to John Button on his own. This created chaos amongst the public servants, who didn't like the idea at all. And then the meeting, which was originally set down for 30 minutes, went on for well over an hour, much to the dismay of the public servants who weren't invited. We also had the situation that they would give you a great pile of paper at a meeting and you knew that somewhere there was buried a significant paper that you had to find – it was never on the top, and that was the challenge.
Mind you, I have the greatest respect for these people, because they are doing a job and it is a difficult job; they work hard. But the idea of outsiders coming in with influence is a bit worrying to them, because they in the end are responsible. We can walk away at the end of our term of appointment, 'all care and no responsibility', but they are responsible. I understand what their job is and so it was an interesting interplay of different methods.
You have been a consultant to overseas industrial enterprises such as ICI, as you have explained, and Calgene. Did you find that these involvements were beneficial in promoting a better understanding between industry and academia?
Both the department and I certainly benefited from those associations. We got money for the department, funding for staff and for equipment, so Monash and the department benefited. The two companies knew exactly how to deal with academic consultants, and I learned a lot from that.
But I was singularly unsuccessful in identifying Australian companies which understood what was needed. ICI Australia was an exception, but they were basically the same company as ICI. At Monash I tried a number of other Australian companies but I never succeeded in getting a good interaction. When I was on the IR&D Board and on the biotechnology committee I found again that Australian companies needed a lot of new knowledge and comprehension to understand what was required to get a good collaboration going. It was a pity that we didn't have companies with the extensive view that the overseas ones had already acquired.
You have been a director of the company Montech Pty Ltd, which attempted to commercialise Monash's research work. What were the challenges, and why do you think it failed?
I was one of the first directors appointed and I continued until about 2001, so I must be about the longest serving director of Montech in its existence. I suppose I have to take some of the responsibility for the fact that it didn't succeed, but I find it hard to actually give you an explanation of why not. I can give you a number of things which contributed to it.
Firstly, Montech was moved off the Clayton campus, first to Caulfield and then to the city, and that moved it off the radar of the people working at Clayton. Secondly, I don't think Monash had a good business plan for what it wanted Montech to do. There had been some excellent successes of similar companies involving universities – the University of New South Wales, for example – so it wasn't too hard to imagine what they would do. But that never seemed to be the case with Montech, and the academics and others realised that there were ways of getting funding and interacting with industry which didn't involve Montech. I think in the end that view prevailed, that the academics amongst themselves decided they didn't need Montech, and Montech was desperately seeking for a role which it never acquired. Then it was disbanded, and although I was not a director at the time I was not surprised. I feel its disbandment was a great pity, because setting it up should have been good for Monash and for the commercial development. There is now so much commercial development of research that, indeed, universities can't afford not to have an effective means of doing it, and I think Monash slipped behind with this one. So I count it as not one of my successes.
The importance of family and of mentors
We've talked about some of your biology and academic pursuits. What have been the other main interests in your life?
Well, I'm not a collector. I had the usual schoolboy hobbies of making crystal sets, photography and all those things, but I never carried those on into adult life. I've just found that with all the activities I have had – and have thoroughly enjoyed – and with the importance of the family, there hasn't been much time. That said, I am very interested in music. Having learned the piano for nine years has enabled me to understand a bit more about music when I listen to it. (I can probably still read sheet music.) I get a lot of stimulation and relaxation out of music.
I used to play tennis until an injury stopped me from playing for a number of years. I got back over that, however, and tried to start again in about 1990. Since then tennis has been an important part of my life, and I play it in my retirement.
I've simply found that there are 24 hours in a day, and I seem to be able to fill them up without having a major other activity.
You mentioned the importance of your family. How was your family involved in your professional career?
Oh, it was very important. And Brenda has to take a large share of the success through what she did. We got engaged in 1950, after which I learned that I had got the Fulbright grant. With the Fulbrights in those days – I don't know whether it is true these days – you couldn't take dependants, so we had to postpone the wedding: for two years Brenda was in Adelaide and I was in California. That wasn't a pleasant thing for her. I found out that I had a return airfare from America and I was able to convert that into other ways of transport back by ship, so we met up in London and were married there in November 1952. At the time Brenda married me, I didn't have a job, I had very little money and I hardly had any personal possessions, so she was taking on a severe handicap case, with a great deal of trust. On the way back, however, in Fremantle I received a letter saying that I had got the job at the ANU – at least I had a job.
That meant moving to Canberra. We were in Adelaide for a month or so, we next moved to Melbourne for a while, staying in a boarding house, and then it was on to Canberra, again staying in a boarding house for a while. So we didn't set up house for quite some time after getting married. Canberra in the early 1950s didn't have all the amenities that it has now, it was not an easy life, but she coped with all of that. We had two children and then moved to Melbourne in 1957. We knew only two people in Melbourne, and they were both from Adelaide.
Brenda has superb social networking skills and over the years she has developed a social network which still exists, and friends that she established back in the late 1950s are still friends. She's excellent at that, much better than I am, and she's really contributed a lot to that part of our life. In addition, she has provided an excellent environment for me to work long hours – a stable, happy environment. She looked after the kids and brought them up (I did my bit, of course) and, when I had the department at Monash, she did a lot of entertaining for members of the department and for visiting scientists; some people stayed with us. She did all that and did it very well. So she has to take a great deal of credit for any and all successes.
The children have been an important part of my life. It gave me a great deal of pleasure that we could take them overseas on three occasions during their early years – I think the fact that they were able to travel did contribute to their education – and also provide an education for them.
So, yes, my family has been very important and probably one of the reasons I haven't got a passionate hobby.
Beyond the support and encouragement of your wife, whom would you regard as mentors in your life?
That's a difficult question, because I can't think of anybody who's had really a dominant long term interest in what I have done, I suppose because I've moved around. I'd certainly nominate John Dow, my science teacher at Scotch, who instilled in me a lot of the basics of science that I remember. Then David Adam, at the Waite Institute, was so supportive when I really wanted to go out on something new – the genetics – and he encouraged me and discussed things with me. It was a great pity that he died, because otherwise I would probably have gone back to the Waite. My career would then have been different, but I think it would have worked.
Frank Fenner was very supportive at a time when I had come back with this new technology, the only one in Australia doing it, and he gave me a blank sheet. I could do what I wanted to; he didn't interfere. So he was important. Then Sydney Rubbo, while not interacting in the research work, did provide a model for head of a department which I found very useful when I was a department head myself. And finally there was Louis Matheson.
As a series of people, they have contributed in a variety of ways to things I've been able to do, and they deserve credit for that.
Much-valued recognition and a busy retirement
You have received a range of prizes and distinctions from various organisations. Which one gave you the most pleasure, and why?
There is no question that that was the Order of Australia. I heard about it in about October 1988. Brenda and I had just been in Sydney for a conference, the return visit of the French in the diplomatic exchange I have spoken about. During that time, our first grandson had died, aged seven months, and it had been a traumatic period. We came back to Melbourne and as we went through a great pile of mail that the neighbours had collected I opened one – I didn't really look at the envelope much – to find a letter saying I was to be offered an Officer of the Order of Australia. It was just overwhelming. I'd never expected it; I didn't know it was happening. To this day, I don't know who nominated me and supported me. I was extremely fortunate to get it. When I see the calibre of other people who get it, I'm a bit surprised that I'm there. That undoubtedly gave me immense pleasure – and Brenda could share in that, because she could come when I got the insignia. She deserves part of the credit for that as well.
It seems a weakness that although in the old orders of knighthood the lady who had done so much work was given some sort of recognition, in Australian orders they aren't.
Yes, they should do that with the Order of Australia.
Considering your many achievements, is there anything you would like to have done but haven't?
Yes, I would have liked to be fluent in another language. I tried during the technology mission in France: I had lessons, I went to a course in French. (I had done French at school and kept it up a bit.) But I would have liked to have been fluent in such a language. Another of my unachieved ambitions is to understand modern art. I have had no training in that and I just don't understand it, so that too is an unfinished thing.
There are a few experiments I would like to have done but didn't do. I discovered something which goes by the name of the '43 effect'. In that case I actually did the experiment – working in a group you don't always do the experiment yourself – and it has been proved to be very useful for particular experiments. Everybody who has tried has repeated it. But nobody has an explanation for that '43 effect', and it was always one of my ambitions that I would find the explanation for it. Something happens when you grow Pseudomonas at 43 degrees.
One of the interesting things which I did do but haven't mentioned, and which gave me a great deal of pleasure at the time, was to contribute to Celia Rosser's success. That is something I would like noted in my CV, that I appointed Celia Rosser as Science Faculty Artist at Monash University. (A lot of other people then helped.) Celia came to paint the Banksia, the only genus of plants that has been recorded in accurate paintings, out of all the genera of plants that occur. The three volumes of her paintings have been presents to the Queen on three visits to Australia. I was instrumental in arranging for an exhibition of Celia's work at Kew Gardens in England, in 1993, and that was a great experience. I just feel that that's something I did which was totally unrelated to science and which I got a great deal of pleasure out of. It was great to be part of the Celia Rosser story.
All in all, I think I have lived a full, very pleasant and rewarding life, and I don't really have any unfulfilled ambitions.
Finally, how does someone as active as you deal with retirement?
Oh, by sheer luck – that is the answer. I'd actually decided to plan my retirement and I believe there was a sheet of paper on which I had written down the things I wanted to do. And I'll tell you now, I did none of them.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, getting the ACIAR grant on the bacterial wilt project was delayed so that it didn't actually start until 1993, which was to be my last year at Monash. So I knew that going into retirement at the end of that year I would have two years more of that three-year project, and I didn't need to think of anything else. Then, surprisingly, Montech asked me to continue as a director after my retirement, so that was an additional activity. In addition, early in January 1994 Monash contacted me and asked me to conduct a review. So I had immediately three activities. Later in '94 I was invited to the CRC for Vertebrate Pest Control, and so it went on, year after year.
The aspect that really surprised me was the number of people who were prepared to pay my airfare to come and talk at a conference in some other part of the world, and that went on till 2001. I was totally astonished that people still thought enough about our group's work on Pseudomonas for me to give talks at some quite interesting meetings. One of the most interesting instances concerned the Louis Vuitton organisation, which had a prize in biotechnology for which I was on the selection committee. (The committee functioned by email and picked the prize winners.) We were all invited to go to Paris at Louis Vuitton's expense – Brenda and I flew first-class from Australia and stayed at the Trianon Palace in Versailles. None of that was expected, but it was a marvellous experience. That is the sort of thing that kept on happening.
Then there were the CRC activities. I had a number of consulting jobs, and my appointment at Montech kept being renewed. I went on giving master classes until 2004, when I decided I should give that up. And in the year 2004–2005 I was involved in editing a book on the content of the class on research management in agriculture. Really I didn't stop all that stuff until 2005.
So I'm not sure what you mean by retirement. All I can say is that I've had activities and I've never actually had a paid day-job since the end of 1993!
Bruce, thank you very much for sharing your remarkably distinguished and rich life.
Thank you, Ray.
© 2023 Australian Academy of Science