Professor Ken Campbell, palaeontologist

Professor Ken Campbell. Interview sponsored by 100 Years of Australian Science (National Council for the Centenary of Federation).

Professor Ken Campbell is one of Australia’s most distinguished palaeontologists, certainly the senior palaeontologist in Australia, and one who has made a remarkable contribution to the study of that subject, not only on Australian fossils but also worldwide. He began his geological career in Queensland, under Professor Dorothy Hill, at the University of Queensland. Ken Campbell’s life has been a steady progress in understanding fossil material that began with work on stratigraphy.

He is a person who has had many honours. His early years were punctuated by a Nuffield Dominion Travelling Fellowship to Cambridge University in 1958, and this was followed in 1965 by a Fulbright Fellowship to Harvard University. He was a Visiting Scientist at the Field Museum, Chicago in 1981, and at the School of Anatomy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, London in 1985.

Teachers' notes to accompany this transcript.
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Interviewed by Professor John White in 2000.



Professor Ken Campbell is one of Australia's most distinguished palaeontologists, certainly the senior palaeontologist in Australia, and one who has made a remarkable contribution to the study of that subject, not only on Australian fossils but also worldwide. He began his geological career in Queensland, under Professor Dorothy Hill, at the University of Queensland. Ken Campbell's life has been a steady progress in understanding fossil material, that began with work on stratigraphy. He is a person who has had many honours. His early years were punctuated by a Nuffield Dominion Travelling Fellowship to Cambridge University in 1958, and this was followed in 1965 by a Fulbright Fellowship to Harvard University. He was a Visiting Scientist at the Field Museum, Chicago in 1981, and at the School of Anatomy at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, London in 1985. Professor Campbell has been honoured by the geological community in Australia, first in 1980 by the award of the Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales. Then subsequently he became the Mawson Lecturer of the Australian Academy of Science in 1986.

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A childhood in variable circumstances

Ken, could we perhaps start with where you were born and how you grew up.

I was born in Ipswich, 25 miles out of Brisbane. My family were clerks in a city store. During the Depression, both of them lost their jobs – my mother lost her job on marriage and a little later my father was sacked. I was only four then, but I remember the word 'sack' very clearly because it was so much a concern of the family: 'Where did he work? Oh, he's been sacked.' We found that all our friends were gradually losing their jobs. To me the word 'sack' meant the loss of family income. When my father was sacked, my mother's father put in some money and we bought a small newsagency in Boonah, a little place 35 miles further to the south-west. My father was a good tennis player and very good at cricket, so he gradually included a sports section in his shop, going to Brisbane to learn to do such things as stringing tennis racquets. He used to sing, as he said, 'in the great Cambrian Choir.' Ipswich being a coal-mining town, was full of Welsh people, and the Cambrian Choir was a very, very important part of his life, and so we got involved with selling music and that kind of thing. Music was part of my young life as well – not that I could sing, but I was always encouraged to try.

Did these difficult circumstances affect your early education?

Yes. It was very variable. I think I went to seven primary schools. We had to move to Boonah and to Brisbane and later we moved back to Ipswich. Every time I changed school I found myself at a different level, being asked all sorts of questions to which I had no idea of the answers. Nevertheless, I gradually worked through primary school. Cricket helped me tremendously to fit in. I was very keen on cricket and I always played for the school. But otherwise I'm no kind of an athlete, although I did represent my school as a high jumper – to look at me now, you'd never think it, would you? I was not allowed to play Rugby, though, because the fruiterer in Boonah had hurt his knee very badly, and my mother was much concerned about my knees.

Only about a month after the war began, my father enlisted in the Army – in the Militia, not in the AIF. He was a private in the national security group, with six bob a day and an allowance for wife and kids! That was important because it gave us a stable income for the first time in my parents' married lives, but it meant we had to move to Brisbane. Actually, in Brisbane I went to Coorparoo Primary School, which I found out much later was the school Dorothy Hill had been to.

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An uncertain path toward science

How did you make the transition to secondary school?

I sat for the Scholarship Examination, as everybody did at age 12 or 13. That gave entrance to a secondary school. Provided you passed at a sufficiently high level you were funded to go to a state secondary school, or if you went to a private secondary school you were subsidised. Both my parents had been to Ipswich Grammar School and thought the grammar schools were the place to go, so I went to Brisbane Grammar School. Even with my Scholarship pass, as a day boy I paid three guineas a quarter to go to the Grammar School. I was very glad to go there – not that it was a wonderful school, but it had a status in Brisbane.

Did you have good masters there who influenced you towards science?

During the war it was very hard to get science masters. All the young, interesting blokes had gone off to join the Air Force and so on. The people who taught me were all in their sixties. One had a Science degree, the physics teacher had an Arts degree, the mathematics teacher had no degree at all. My feeling is that the masters decided they were not far ahead of us so they just gave us the book and said, 'Read that, chaps. If you have any difficulties, come and we'll show you.' So the real point of secondary school education wasn't to lead me into anything, but to throw me on my own resources to meet the requirements of the classes. That was a tough way to be brought up, academically, but I think that 28 of us out of a class of 32 went to university to do science-based courses. What's more, most of those were relatively successful: directors of the Queensland Medical Research Institute and of the Queensland Engineering Institute, medics, dentists and the like. One fellow, though, went to do an Arts degree, for the simple reason he wanted to become a minister of the Presbyterian Church. We thought he was the weirdest person out. Fancy going to do an Arts degree! We looked askance at this poor fellow, because nobody really did an Arts degree from the Brisbane Grammar School unless there was something peculiarly wrong with them.

Perhaps he was good at Latin. Were you?

I didn't like Latin at all. But if you got more than 75 per cent in your Scholarship Examination you were lined up and told by the headmaster that you would be doing Latin. All those under 75 did history instead. To be honest, doing Latin wasn't my scene. But then, at the end of the first half-year, all those who got more than 75 per cent in Latin were lined up again and told, 'You'll be doing Greek.' My father was away at the time and I managed to convince my mother to write a letter saying I wasn't suitable to be a Greek scholar. So I managed to avoid learning Greek.

At the end of secondary school, I had no idea of what it would be like to go to a university. I did know, coming from my background, that it was very important to get a job. So I applied for a number of jobs – in the Shell Company as a chemist, in the PMG, in an insurance company – none of which was successful. And thank heavens for that, because I don't know what I would have been like had I gone to work as a technician in the PMG, wiring up telephones. I suppose the Shell Company thought I was too junior to be trained as a chemist.

The man leading the Christian group I belonged to at the Grammar School said, 'Boy, you ought to go to the university.' I said, 'If it means I've got to do Latin and if I've got to do poetry, I won't go.' But he broke the news to me that you didn't have to do Latin and English at a university, that you could do science instead. And having done French I had a foreign language, which you needed then to matriculate. So I thought I would try science at university.

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The 'one other' subject: beginning geology

What led you into geology?

I had a friend whose father was a jeweller, and he was interested in opals. He said that at university I'd better do some geology. Well, we went down to enrol and they said, 'Right, physics, chemistry, pure mathematics and one other. What's the one other going to be?' That's the choice that you had in those days. Botany, zoology or geology were the three options and so I said, 'It's going to be geology.' I thought zoology and botany were something that Girls' Grammar School students did – Boys' Grammar School students were much more solid in their science and did geology. And so we sat down and did geology together, starting in 1945, the last year of the war.

At that time the science teaching at Queensland University was abysmal, in all subjects. In mathematics, as in geology, there were three lecturers and a professor; chemistry did have more staff. I was thinking I might do physics. It wasn't long after the atom had been split, and all the journals were full of physical material. Looking at that I thought physics would be an interesting thing to do. Also, on a chemical side, people were interested in plastics. So I thought I would do geology as a side subject, concentrating on physics and chemistry.

Physics was almost mediaeval in its approach. We had to do practical experiments on equipment that should have been in the dump years ago. Most people were copying out experimental work that had been done the year before, because if you did that you would get an A. But if you were serious and tried to get results, as we did, you got a B. We were complaining, because even though we got lousy results, we got them by going back and repeating experiments, yet we were always marked down. I didn't think I was dishonest enough to be a physicist, actually, and so I dropped it at the end of first year. That left me with chemistry, geology and mathematics. The geological teaching was grim: 'Learn these facts and you'll be right.' We didn't see a pattern in the way geology I was taught. Nevertheless, my friend and I passed and decided to do second-year geology. I really wondered whether I was doing the right thing, in such a background.

The professor was H C Richards, a very distinguished man. But in the year before I started he had had a stroke. There was no money to replace anybody, so poor old Professor Richards – who couldn't even stand up – used to be wheeled in to sit in front of the class and give us lectures on crystallography. It didn't grab my attention, let's say.

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A beacon appears

Well, was your attention grabbed at all as an undergraduate in geology?

Yes, it was, in second year, because Dorothy Hill came back to the university after being in the Naval Service and an adjunct to the director of the Port of Brisbane. She had been in Cambridge from about 1929 till 1937, and she understood what a university was all about, that research was an important aspect of university life. I'd never heard of research until then. A lot of the work that she did with us as undergraduates wasn't terribly inspirational, but the fact that she was there and that she had this experience and knew where the university ought to be going made her an alive person for me.

You were one of those who wrote her obituary for the Royal Society, beginning by saying that 'for Dorothy Hill, science and the attempt to develop the academic standards of Australian universities were the interests which dominated her life.' Did that shine through when you first met her and when she began to teach you?

Yes, though not exactly in those terms. What shone through was that she knew that here was an area to be studied and that she understood something about the way a university should work. The university was terribly backward. The Vice-Chancellor had been brought in from being a director of the Public Service Board, and ran everything on making sure the bottom line was okay and nothing else. Dorothy Hill's understanding came through in her teaching. I believe that the University of Queensland at the present time is largely as it is because of her original initiative in the late '40s. She really stirred the place up, and after she had been there a while they started to appoint professors who knew something about research, who weren't trying just to grow sugar in North Queensland or to do something useful to the Queensland Budget.

To illustrate how much she inspired me, I might mention that at the end of the war Freddie Whitehouse was appointed to the Queensland University staff. Freddie had preceded Dorothy in Cambridge and had done well. But my parents knew that Freddie's parents owned a cake shop in Ipswich, and they said to me, 'This fellow did so well at the university, he was chosen to go to Cambridge, yet he came back and couldn't get a job. Is that what you want to happen to you?' A job was terribly important to me then. My parents were thinking, 'Gosh, here he is, studying this pollero-pallyo-pollo whatever it is, and he's going to end up jobless!' My father said to me, 'Think carefully before you go into this kind of thing.' But by the time Dorothy Hill had taught me, 'job' wasn't terribly important.

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The world opens up

I have read that Dorothy Hill herself was won into geology by the personality of Professor Richards, the old gentleman you were speaking about. She was impressed by his sense of humour, his sympathetic relationship with students and so on.

Yes. He had a social grip on the department. Everybody was invited to Professor Richards' place. He went to all the sporting events and so on, and he associated with the students in a social way which attracted her. It is interesting that Dorothy Hill had Richards in her highest regard throughout her entire life.

He did things like starting work on the Barrier Reef, for example. Although he was a petrologist, he realised that Queensland had this enormous resource sitting there and nobody was doing anything about it. He encouraged people to come out from England. People from the Royal Society came out and drilled a couple of holes at Funafuti. Who looked after that? Richards. And he was interested in drilling a hole on Heron Island and doing some work there. Coming back, she just fitted into that, as well as taking on other teaching work.

I think you believe that from the point of view of developing standards and academic quality, ideas come to 'stocked minds' and not to people who know where to get the knowledge if they need it. Was your mind 'stocked' in Queensland?

I think I should start my answer by saying that when I was in third-year, Dorothy Hill came to me and said, 'Look here, Campbell, if you want to do Honours I'll look after you.' I can remember that: 'I'll look after you.' I thought, 'Well, here's a chance. I'd better take that on.' She immediately started to teach me how to do research. She gave me material to work on and the relevant literature; she came and talked to me every day. It's hard to believe, isn't it, that every day she'd come down to me, an Honours student, and say, 'Well, Campbell, what's on today?' I had to explain what I'd done in the last 24 hours and try to get some idea across to her about where I was going in this particular project. It was that kind of stocking my mind with 'Here's the literature, here's the data. See what you can make out of that. Put it together, give me an answer, and I'll tell you what I think of it.'

When she showed me the possibility of an Honours project it opened the world for me – for the first time I saw that I could examine the world as an exercise in life. It wasn't just a matter of getting a job; but it was important for me to look at the world in a different way. She taught me how to look at a big variety of topics in an investigative way. This was very, very different from undergraduate work, of course, and it was her personal contact that taught me how to think about real-world issues.

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A good area to map

Dorothy Hill gave you a good area to map, I understand.

Yes. I had two years to do Honours because I was helping her in a research project. Every Honours student had to make a map. It might seem like a trite thing to do, but in fact it's very difficult to walk out into the bush with an aerial photograph and so on, map the rocks and find where the faults are, the folds and so on, especially in a complex area. I got an area on the edge of the Brisbane Valley up around Esk and Toogoolawah, where Permian fossils were known to be, because I was interested in palaeontology. So I went and climbed up hill, down dale and round about, spending over 100 days in the field, mapping.

It was of great interest to me to make that map, because I found all sorts of interesting problems – where the faults were, why the faults were where they were, how it was related to the Brisbane Valley – and also some interesting wider geological processes. Not only did I learn where the fossils lay in the sequence and what it meant in terms of age, but Dorothy Hill said to me, 'Now look here. The Shell Company is working on Permian in Central Queensland. Why don't you go up there and see if you can find some material that you can use comparatively?' I wondered how on earth I was going to get to Central Queensland, but she said, 'I'll introduce you to Mr Bezere, who is the surveyor working there, and he can drive you up.' And so for a couple of weeks I stayed in homesteads up there and did some work. That opened out a tremendous number of possibilities to me.

I was also interested in major tectonics as it applied to my work on the edge of the Brisbane Valley. Dorothy Hill was very keen on publication, and she told me my Honours thesis should be published. So when I wrote up all this stuff, I published it in the University of Queensland Papers – which nobody ever reads much, but everybody got a copy of it because I was interested in making my name. And who should respond (the only person who did, I think) but Sam Carey, who was the professor in Tasmania and well known in the geological world. He said, 'I like that idea about the Brisbane Valley, the way you think that the boundaries were moving. That's a good idea and I want to congratulate you on it.' Nothing to do with palaeontology, just with the way this area fitted. I thought it was very generous of the man to say that. Of course, Sam's now a Fellow of our Academy.

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Jobs that seem not to add up

I think you then had a pause in your career while you went off to teach in Albury. Is that correct?

Yes. I worked for a year with Dorothy Hill because she had money from the State Geological Survey to make a map of Queensland for a book on the geology of Queensland that she was going to write for the Geological Society of Australia. The whole place had been flown by the Air Force during the war, and the Lands Department now had the opportunity to fly, so we had masses of aerial photographs to interpret. I was employed to cover the area of Atherton Tableland down to Townsville and west over to Cloncurry. I spent days upon days putting out aerial photographs, trying to interpret the geology. I'd use little bits of information from the State Geological Survey; I'd go along and ask these fellows, 'When you crossed such-and-such a river on your trip to so-and-so, was that granite there?' So 'granite' got put on the aerial photograph and so on, and gradually we put it together.

It was a relatively unsatisfactory process, because you could never get to go anywhere. Nobody had a vehicle to send you up there, and flying anywhere with the Queensland Geological Survey was totally beyond thought. They used to come along and see how many red pencils you had, because they didn't want everybody to have two red pencils, let alone going by aeroplane up to North Queensland. It was an appalling state of affairs. After a year of this I gave up. I said to Dorothy, 'I appreciate the opportunity to do the work but I don't think it's going to lead anywhere.' That was quite wrong. It did lead somewhere. It led to a good state map and was the basis for a lot of subsequent geological exploration.

But I had done mathematics in my third year at the university – I'm an appalling mathematician but I had learned enough to do reasonably well in the examinations – and so I applied for a job as a teacher of mathematics. I tried in Brisbane: nothing there, but the headmaster of the Boys' College had a friend at the Albury Grammar School who was looking for a mathematics master, somebody who had learned some mathematics. 'Would you take that on?' he asked. Well, by that time I was 23 or 24, I was engaged to be married, and I thought, 'I have no job as a geologist. I will go and teach.' So I went down to Albury and taught there for a year.

That was an interesting experience, since many of the kids were going back to drive tractors on their father's property: 'What's the good of integration to me? It'll help me drive a tractor, won't it!' It was very, very hard to teach kids who had no interest in mathematics whatsoever, no interest in logic. I tried to teach them geology but the headmaster said, 'You won't stay here forever, old boy, and who am I going to get to teach geology after you go? No!' So I was concentrated on mathematics. The headmaster himself really had no academic training. He was not a graduate and depended on professional associations as his main qualification. He had no idea of the way to run that kind of a school. It was interesting to see that he was much more concerned with getting people through the Higher School Certificate than with building up the school.

But at the end of that year a message came from Brisbane, 'There's a possibility of a job in Armidale. When you come back to Brisbane for Christmas, call in and have a chat.' So I did.

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An exciting chance: pursuing a palaeontological pattern

Tell us about your Armidale period. You were doing your doctoral thesis at the same time, if I am right.

That's right. That was a funny thing, because I had a Masters degree by that time, having worked up the stuff from the Shell Company's Central Queensland material at night-time while I was working on the state map.

In Armidale we were a college of Sydney University. We taught what Sydney told us to teach, which irked me no end: I had some ideas about teaching which I wasn't allowed to introduce because it didn't fit people for the Sydney examinations. But the head of Geology and Geography was Alan Voisey, who had been a student with Sam Carey at Sydney University. Alan Voisey was an exciting man, with his hands on a number of interesting problems. Kids came to Armidale from all over, even from Perth, to do a geology degree because Alan had such an influence in industry and to work with him was seen as such a good thing. We had a very active school there.

When I arrived, Alan said, 'Look, I've got a couple of kids here who really should go and do some fieldwork in the long vacation. For your first job would you like to take them down to the Werrie Basin and show them how to map a section?' That was fine by me, so off we went and I was introduced to that marvellous sequence. Those kids were very able people – one ended up as the dean of science in Newcastle, and the other became an associate professor at Stanford. To work with them first up was excellent.

That started me off on the Werrie Basin area, which is a standard area for the whole of western New South Wales. That's important, because the area goes under the Artesian Basin to come up in Queensland as the Yarrol Basin and the Bowen Basin. So I was able to tie in with Queensland. Someone who had been a student a little bit after me had been working in the Yarrol Basin and had got together a sequence up there, and I could see that I was going to find similar things in New South Wales. It was the allying of the Yarrol Basin with western New South Wales that I thought was an exciting thing to do.

This is part of your first big theme, as I remember. You managed to convince the Queenslanders that it was well worthwhile to look at the Permian and Carboniferous Eras, and that you'd found a very special group of animals in those fossils. You had gained an interest in these animals for themselves.

That's right. I said to the Queensland folk, 'I've got to get a PhD. How would it be if I tried to tie this section in New South Wales into the Queensland section?' 'Oh,' said Professor Bryan, 'I'm not too sure about that. It sounds a bit pedestrian to me.' I explained that it was not pedestrian; it would be the first time we had actually tried to tie a sequence like that into a sequence in Queensland, with the middle part covered up by the Artesian Basin. Anyway, Dorothy Hill said, 'I think it's a good thing to do, but concentrate on palaeontological work.'

I should say that Dorothy Hill's main teaching was that palaeontology is 'the handmaiden of stratigraphy'. That was in all the books then. Nobody would believe it anymore, but that was the way she was trained. But palaeontology is the study of the life of the past, and fitting it into a pattern. One of the features of this pattern is the stratigraphy associated with it. Other features of it are things like the way the animals changed according to environments. And thirdly, evolution is an important part of palaeontology.

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Continents can move – the faunas say so

After you finished your thesis, you got a Dominion Travelling Fellowship to Cambridge. I will ask you later about the insights you gained there, but for now let us look at what happened when you returned to Australia. Working on the Gloucester region of New South Wales, for example, you found that the fauna and flora of the late Carboniferous was extremely interesting and quite significant.

Yes. It's a remarkable thing that many palaeontologists were against movement of the continents. Looking back, I think it was because the geophysicists could find no mechanism for the continents to move. Dorothy Hill, having been brought up in Cambridge, was influenced by a geophysicist named Jeffreys (author of a book called The Earth) who showed quite conclusively that there was no possible way of moving the continents. That stayed with her all her life, and as undergraduates we were taught that the continents were static.

On the other hand, faunas seemed to show something different. I have here a map on which I can show you something of the way in which the sequence was built up in the Gloucester area. You can see things dipping in this way, with the end of a syncline coming around; these are some of the stratigraphic units that you can map. Inter-stratified with these units were faunas which, by the time you got up to the highest part of the sequence, were very distinctive Levipustula faunas. To relate this to anywhere else was very difficult, because at that time the whole of Gondwana had moved southwards – Ted Irving thought by as much as 50 degrees. This meant we had changed from a tropical, Lower Carboniferous environment to a frigid, Upper Carboniferous environment, and so the fauna changed. Whereas we could compare our Lower Carboniferous faunas with the faunas in the northern hemisphere, we could not compare our Upper Carboniferous because it was the unique cold fauna.

So I started to publish on this material. By this time I wasn't publishing in the University of Queensland Press any more, but in the international journals, and it was picked up by the people working in the foothills of the Andes, in South America. They wrote me letters saying, 'Do these specimens that we are sending over look anything like yours?' I nearly had a fit – I could have collected them at Gloucester! They were virtually identical with that material. And then some other people started working in South America on similar faunas, and they were the same. It suddenly transpired, from considering the continents in terms of their Gondwana pattern instead of their present pattern, that we were looking at a margin of ancient Pacific Ocean, on one side South America, down through Antarctica, into Australia. To my mind this was a very strong example indeed of the way in which things had moved.

Fortunately, Ted Irving was in the Australian National University's Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES) at the time. Ted had applied for a PhD in Cambridge but had been failed because his work on palaeomagnetism wasn't considered good enough. He is now a most highly regarded scientist, and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a leader in palaeomagnetism around the world. I got Ted to come to Armidale and I took him out to the field and showed him all these things. He was very intrigued, particularly with the glacials and the Levipustula faunas. That was an enormous boost to me, because fossils dealt not only with stratigraphy, but were a very important aspect in biogeography, which fitted in with the ongoing pattern of development.

And all of this was about five years before the advent of the plate tectonic revolution. Yet, after 10 years in Armidale, you came to the ANU. Why was that?

The great advantage of Armidale was that I had ample opportunity to work; I had good students. But there were no other palaeontologists. The professor at ANU was David Brown, a palaeontologist – he knew what I was on about and I knew what he was on about. I would have somebody in the department to talk to, which was a great advantage after Armidale in isolation, so I decided it was time to come to ANU. I made a decision then: '10 years at one place is plenty good enough, and I'll move to another place.' That is why I've been here 38 years!

Getting going on trilobites

After you came to Canberra you got a Fulbright Fellowship to Harvard. Didn't that lead you to become one of the great experts in trilobites?

I wouldn't say I am an expert, but I did go to learn trilobites from Whittington. He had a National Science Foundation grant on which he employed me. Coming out of the Carboniferous, I'm now plonked in the middle of the Silurian and Devonian and there are ample trilobites here, and I needed to learn something about them to have my own PhD students here. Whittington was expecting a bloke from the southern hemisphere, coming from an area which is frozen, who would probably have a mind frozen in some way or other. But I knew a fair bit, and I think he was very much concerned that I was as far ahead as I was, so much further ahead than any of his other students. We became very good friends, and after I'd worked on Silurian trilobites from Oklahoma, he asked me to work with him on a project in Maine, for a joint paper. That's what got me going on trilobites.

And then led to your major work with the International Treatise on Palaeontology? It is a landmark piece of work.

That's right – and I'm still working on it. I'll never give it up. In fact, one of my students from Canberra and I are together doing a group for that Treatise. Also I had a remarkable student, Brian Chatterton, who came from Trinity College, Dublin, and worked with me on the material up on the Burrinjuck. He was working on brachiopods then, because that was my original field, and he started to find a whole series of things. He contributed a major section to the first volume on trilobites for the Treatise.

In addition, I had another Queenslander, Peter Jell, who worked on Cambrian tribolites, and he contributed several sections to the Treatise, and another man, David Holloway, who is also making major contributions. I am grateful that in a large international exercise three of my students have taken a leading role.

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A story with more than one part

In view of the evolution of your work from stratigraphy into the animals themselves, let's return now to your Dominion Travelling Fellowship to Cambridge, where I think you developed a new way of looking at fossils. You said to me recently that you have always tried to make sure your students go overseas if at all possible.

That's certainly true. I had never been overseas before I went to Cambridge. We went on the Strathnaver – five weeks, it took – and we were the first people through the Suez Canal after the blow-up there. We were buzzed by Egyptian Air Force planes and wondered whether they were going to land on the top of the ship, and we weren't allowed ashore or anything of that sort. It was all interesting as part of the trip.

Being interested in stratigraphy, I took with me Permian specimens from Queensland and New South Wales – and Tasmania, and Western Australia – trying to fit together a stratigraphic pattern which would cover the whole area. In Cambridge, Martin Rudwick said to me, 'These are just relics of past life. What do you know about the way these things lived? What do you know about the way the feeding organisms worked? What about the perforations in the skeleton? What on earth are they for? You've described them all, but what on earth does it all mean?' This is functional morphology, and he suddenly raised for me the possibility that as well as getting the stratigraphy out of these animals, you could see the way in which they evolved. It was a real eye-opener to me: I had to start then and learn some zoology to put with the geology, to see how all these things fitted together.

It was Martin Rudwick who really started me off. He was doing some experimental work on animals, making up models to show how they might have fed and respired. That kind of work stirred me up to try to do something about function, and function as part of the history of life. Previously, most of the descriptions had been generalised, useful descriptions to enable people to identify the animals and put them in a stratigraphic column, but unfortunately that's only part of the story.

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Rates of evolution

After you had got interested in the fossils of the south coast of New South Wales and so on, you became interested in rates of evolution and organised a conference with Max Day. Perhaps that was a pivotal point for you. Could you describe that, and also explain what is meant by 'rates of evolution'?

Max was also interested in the periodic way in which evolution was taking place. It wasn't a uniform process. Why did it happen in periods? He went to talk to Michael White, in the Research School of Biological Sciences (RSBS), who said, 'You ought to go and talk to Ken Campbell. He's interested in that' – because I had organised a symposium on this with the Bureau of Mineral Resources people, RSES, RSBS and so on. Until Max came over and knocked on my door, I'd never seen him before in my life. But when he asked whether we could organise something on rates of evolution, variation in rates, I said I'd be absolutely delighted.

From a look at present-day organisms you can get a great deal about the genetics, a great deal of morphology, a great deal about diversification into different environments. From this we draw up a schema of change which is based on present conditions, and we try to extrapolate these into the past. I don't think you see this uniformity of rates if you look back into the remote past. In the evolution of the Cambrian forms, for example, you see not a big variety of species but a big variety of body-plans. And after a short period of time, maybe 50 million years, you start to see these being weeded out and you end up with a limited number of body-plans, all diversifying in the environment. In other words, there is a difference in rate of production of body-plans from the rate of production of species.

So it's like a very broad start which contracts and then expands again, is it?

That's right. It contracts, but in contracting it speciates rather than producing more body-plans. That's the critical thing. The example I used in that symposium was the echinoderms such as fossil starfish and fossil crinoids. There were 21 basic plans of these things by the Middle Ordovician. There are four existing at the present time. But there are more species of them existing at the present time than in the early period. What we see is something happening genetically to expand the thing, but then selection taking place, removing a lot of forms which it seems weren't up to much but had expanded in an unpopulated environment. So the opportunity for the expansion of body-plans was good but then it restricted later on, and the best ones remained. The best ones then speciated into the environment.

How does that differ from classical Darwinian evolution?

In Darwinian evolution we tend to think of speciation producing two or three models, which then further modify and modify, by mutation. So, looking at a pattern of speciation, and speciation of body-plan, we ought to see a few species at the beginning, gradually diversifying up through time. But in fact you don't get to the new patterns until later on in evolution: earlier on, we see a great diversification of pattern and a weeding out of those afterwards. Darwinian evolution is exactly what you'd expect from studying modern animals and the way modern animals work, and modern genomes. But it may not be the way in which Cambrian evolution took place, when genomes were very different from the genomes we have at the present time.

Although this view is not yet generally accepted, there are now many people saying that the main problem of evolution is the evolution of body-plans, not the evolution of species as in the Darwinian idea of development from speciation. Stephen Gould is still a Darwinian in a sense, as we all are Darwinians in a sense, but it is not the basic problem of evolution. Evolution of body-plans is the distinctive thing.

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A fruitful encounter with a lungfish head

The next big chapter in your career development is your work on lungfish and vertebrates. Would you like to say a few words about the part played by Frank Rhodes's visit to the ANU?

That was in 1964, when we had a series of Vice-Chancellors' visits from overseas. Len Huxley was the Vice-Chancellor here at that time. David Brown, the Professor of Geology, managed to convince him that it would be a good thing to get Frank Rhodes, a palaeontologist from Swansea, to come out. Frank had made an impact on the world not only in palaeontology but also in university administration – in fact, such an impact that he went on to be the President of Cornell, and he was at Cornell for many years.

Anyway, in those dim and distant days Frank wanted to go and see what the local geology was like. Huxley thought he'd better come too. As we were walking down a track I picked up a specimen, the like of which I'd never seen before – the head of a lungfish. I'd never worked on vertebrates but I had an interest in them and I had been doing a bit of reading on them, so I knew this was an important specimen. That started me off to do the work on lungfish, and it has been part of my research ever since 1965.

The bones are embedded in limestone. Bone is apatite, calcium phosphate, and the OH molecule is usually replaced by fluorine, so you get fluorapatite as the common preservation. That dissolves in acetic acid but only very, very slowly. We found by practical experience that by putting these things in acetic acid you could take away all the limestone and the fossil would be preserved. This is possible only if you etch it for two days, wash it for three days to get rid of any salts that had been deposited, dry it out, put it under a microscope and, using a highly penetrative plastic on the end of a camelhair brush, cover up all the exposed bone. By doing this over about four months you can get a specimen clear of the matrix.

I have with me a lungfish specimen, about 400 million years old, which is very heavily ossified. It has a lot of bone over the skull. The acetic acid goes right down all the tubes there, and by running the preservation plastic through them you can find out where the tubes go. You can see the nerves coming out of the brain and the position of the jugular vein as it comes in, you can see the notochord, the brain and so on – the degree of anatomical detail which became available with this technique opened up the neural and vascular system of these early vertebrates.

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Evolutionary areas to map

Here is a Burrinjuck specimen, from Wee Jasper, which was found with the roof eroded off the top to expose the brain case. You can look inside and see where the brain was, and the canals coming out to the snout; you can see where the optic nerve comes out, where the jugular vein comes in – you can see the various parts and pieces, and you can prove they were there by getting a bit of fishing line, poking it in the hole and seeing where it comes out. So, aha! there's the pituitary gland in the bottom; you can poke a line down that and watch it come out of another hole. So it's a buccohypophyseal canal running through.

Working on this kind of information, we find a tremendous similarity between the earliest forms of the brain cases and modern forms, because in Australia we have one of the living species of lungfish. One can use some of the soft tissue from the living species – it is not ossified because it's all in cartilage, whereas the earlier species have everything preserved in bone – and one can observe the passage from a highly bony precursor up to a modern animal. That's another very interesting thing.

Why should an ancient animal be very bony and a modern one be a cartilage animal?

I have no idea. But obviously the genome first learned to lay down bone rather than laying down only cartilage to model everything in. Some cartilage does become bone as the animal develops, and that is what has happened with the modern ones. We can work out also that these creatures were long-living, because when we look at the X-rays of the individual plates we can see the laying-down of individual layers on the surface. But the interesting thing to me is that although the external characteristics in a modern lungfish and a Devonian one are very different, if you look at the brain case you can see that the nose, the eyes, the jugular match up almost exactly between them. It means you had the basic neural pattern first established, and then what encompasses the neural pattern gradually evolved through time.

That neural pattern is also highly genetically conserved, obviously. Have we any understanding of why some things are genetically conserved and others not?

Well, I think this is a wonderful future for palaeontology, an area where we should be working not with stratigraphers but with geneticists. I see this as the coming area, where palaeontology – the Cambrian business that I was talking about before, and all the business that we are talking about here – has to be matched with genetics. How we are going to do that, I don't know, but I suspect we are going to have to remodel primitive genomes. This can only be done by computer, which poses a very different aspect of palaeontology from my making a map of Queensland.

Would you say you have moved from making maps of the countryside to considering the making of maps which allow you to follow the evolution of the genome itself?

Exactly. That's what I hope will happen. This is a bit pie-in-the-sky at the moment, but our discussion on rates of evolution interested George Miklos, in the ANU's RSBS. He was very interested in the pattern formation arrangement and kept asking where the precursor of that massive bony material was. 'It must be round somewhere,' he said. And when I told him we had looked and looked around the world for Silurian lungfish but there weren't any so I presumed they weren't evolved in that particular format in the Silurian – this is something that happens in the Devonian, as a sudden genetic change – that really got George started, and he has written quite a bit on this aspect.

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A new set of mapping tools: geology, biogeography and genetics

Your ideas on the relationship between morphology and evolution have not been without controversy. You told me once about a colleague's phrase 'this self-serving paper of Campbell' in this respect. What was that all about?

This fellow had a Chinese PhD student who, putting bits and pieces together, had come to the conclusion that the early fishes were all air-breathing. In my view he had no functional evidence to show this. He was saying, 'The relationships are this and this. That thing is air-breathing. You can't have air breathing developed independently, therefore it must have been a primitive character which has been carried all through.' There is no morphological support for that view.

Let me demonstrate what I mean with these fossil specimens. First, this is a palate of Neoceratodus, which comes from the Mary River, in Queensland. These are the teeth, this is where the lower jaw fits on, and the teeth match together for grinding. A structure in here (the parasphenoid) makes the roof of the palate. When these things breathe, they open their mouth and they take air into it. They close their mouth and the tongue slips in and acts as a valve to stop the air getting out again. They go down to the bottom and then come up, open their mouth again and take in another gulp of air. After they have done that four or five times, they just sink to the bottom, the muscles contract and the air is pushed from the mouth back into the lungs. They do that by the movement of the pectoral arch, which carries the pectoral fin, which moves out and up, and two special gill structures, the hyoid arch, which also moves as an arc. These two work in concert – one moves down, the other moves down, opens the space, the air comes in and they move up and shut it off again with the tongue.

Now let's compare that with a Devonian lungfish. It seems to me that the great bone of the parasphenoid is represented by a tiny little bone and leaves no space to hold air. The teeth come right back to occupy the posterior part of the palate and throat, but in the living fish it is way forward. And we know that the hyoid arch, which we have from these specimens, fits into this little space and there is no way it can move up and down because there is no space for it to move into. We can see that in this kind of an animal the teeth aren't suitably placed to have a tongue to act as a valve, the space in which the air is to be held is so small it is not going to work, and the functional movement of the relevant structures doesn't allow air to be pumped back in. That is very interesting.

All these things occur in a marine environment. How did they breathe? Fortunately, for these species we have the gill arches. These arches have grooves down them, down which the arteries can run, and you have little spaces which come out and carry the little filaments on which the oxygen exchange takes place. In other words, they had a fully functional gill apparatus. There is no need for them to have this apparatus that modern lungfish have for air breathing.

Is there a missing link, then, between the Devonian and the modern lungfish? Or can you trace a whole geological record of change in the breathing apparatus?

No, you can't trace a whole structural change geologically. But by the time you get to the Late Devonian and the Carboniferous, the next period up from the Devonian, you start to find a new kind of pattern appearing. In other words, it is a rapid change. It occurs with animals that are in freshwater deposits, and in the Coal Measures. What I see is a rapid change from marine organisms, which were gill breathing, to Coal Measure, freshwater environments in which air-breathing structures occur. Incidentally, aestivation burrows, in which animals live during dried-out periods, first appear in the record in the Late Carboniferous – you can see animals in burrows in these things. And so it seems to me that the stratigraphical, structural, biological evidence all fits together to make an interesting pattern.

I think, Ken, you have been one of the people much involved in getting a change in the mind-set that palaeontology is merely the hand-maiden of stratigraphy. Would you like to speculate on the future of palaeontology in bringing together the things you have just been talking about?

I do believe that's important. Stratigraphy remains very important. Because our data are geological data, we need to remain geologists. But it is the fact that these things are living animals which is becoming the important development. As I see it, we are developing things not only like biogeography but genetic studies which enable us to understand how changes can take place in organisms in ways which were previously unthought of. That is, gene modules can operate to make new designs very, very quickly, provided they are not under some kind of control mechanism.

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The process and outcomes of putting it all together

I'd like now to turn more to Ken Campbell the man. Perhaps you would tell us something about your family – your wife and your children.

I met my wife in Brisbane. She was a secretary, with no scientific training. We were married halfway through my time in Albury. For Queenslanders who had never seen snow, Albury seemed quite a strange place to live. I remember that we arrived in the morning on the train, and when we put up the window my wife looked out and said, 'Oh, there's been a bushfire through the place! None of the trees have got leaves on.' To a Queenslander, that's strange.

Anyway, the rest of the family: we have three children. The eldest has a general practice, the second one is an architect who is also an assistant manager of a large shopping complex in Sydney, and the third one did history and politics at ANU.

They're all boys?

No, the middle one is a girl. The younger boy worked for IBM, worked in the Public Service, and finally decided he was going to be an Anglican minister. He spent some time in college, but suffered with chronic fatigue syndrome and had to give that up. He did a course then externally, and is now engaged in theological work in Brisbane.

In your university days you were with a whole lot of students, learning with and from them. You were also working with students in other disciplines, in various faculties, whose interests were reading philosophy, Christian studies and things of that kind. Being a geologist, you must have been challenged to some extent by the relationship of your Christian life to your geological, scientific life.

Yes indeed. That's another broadening aspect. I had some very good friends in King's College, the Methodist college there, and we used to get involved in discussions. I remember going along to the room of a fellow who had rows and rows of books. I'd never seen anything like it before in a private library. And it covered all aspects of understanding. He was reading philosophy, theology, science – incidentally, he was doing an Honours degree in zoology, in which he got first-class Honours and a university medal. Talking to him was a real eye-opener to me and it broadened my understanding of the world. It was a very important part of my university education to meet such people and to find that the poor old fellow who went off to do Arts, to be a Presbyterian minister, wasn't as stupid as I thought he was!

What are your reflections as you look back on your life and the way in which it has developed?

I would say that if you had asked me at age 17 was I going to become a geologist, I would have said, 'How ridiculous.' There was absolutely no way I would have become interested in geology but for the influence of people on me – in particular, Dorothy Hill's influence on me as a person to take account of Nature in a distinctive sort of a way, to investigate Nature and to find how Nature fitted in with an attitude to life. That has been a very important part of my existence.

Another personal influence was being sent to the university by somebody who told me what a university was all about, when I had no idea myself. To have had somebody talk to me and say, 'Look here, you've got the capacity to do some university work. Why don't you go and do just that?' is terribly important. The other personal impact on me was made by my students. I have had some very good students, who themselves have gone on and made an international reputation in the world, and the discoveries that those people made broadened my own attitude very much.

My Christian position also encourages me to look at the world in a different way. I think that gives a breadth of view which encompasses not only the material world but my other personal experience, my attempt to understand why it's important to be moral, why it is important to be aesthetic, why it is important to have philosophical views which match the rest of your views. They are tremendously important to me.

But as to me as a person, which is the question, I would like to put all these things together to make a Ken Campbell. It is that attitude which I think makes the whole of my life.

Thank you very much, Ken Campbell.

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