Professor Roger Short, reproductive biologist

Professor Roger Short

Roger Valentine Short was born in Surrey, England in 1930. Short was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset before starting a bachelor of veterinary science at Bristol University. He completed his bachelor's degree in 1954 and then travelled to the University of Wisconsin in the USA on a Fulbright Scholarship to complete his masters in genetics (MSc 1955). Short then returned to the UK and began a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Short remained at the Agricultural Research Council's unit in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Studies, University of Cambridge until 1972. During this time he was appointed as lecturer (1962-71) and reader (1971-72). Short then accepted the positions of director of the Medical Research Council Unit of Reproductive Biology and honorary professor at the University of Edinburgh (1972-82). Short came to Australia in 1982 to take up a personal chair as professor of reproductive biology in the department of physiology at Monash University. In 1996 Short became a professorial fellow in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

Selected audio from this interview is available from ABC Radio National's The Science Show website

Human population growth the transcending problem of our times
Melatonin for jet lag
The long and the short of Roger

Interviewed by Professor Robyn Williams in 2010


My name is Robyn Williams. I work for the ABC making science programs and I am a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. I am here to talk to Roger Short, who is also a Fellow of the Academy.
He has done much research in a wide field of science for a long, long time.

Stories, fishing and theatrical flair

Roger, way back, what first turned you on to animals?

Well, Robyn, it all began on my mother’s knee. I can sort of remember it physically, but I can certainly remember it intellectually with great clarity. I still have my original copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Every night before going to bed, my mother would read to me aloud a chapter from Just So Stories. The one that really entranced me was ‘The Elephant’s Child’, about how the elephant got its trunk, and that’s what I have ended up doing some research on.

Isn’t that interesting. Why weren’t you turned towards something more mechanical such as engineering, using numbers and nuts and bolts and things like that? Why animals as such?

I think that was slightly parental revolt. My father was a mechanical engineer and an amazing man. Every single aircraft flying to this day depends for its navigation on my father’s invention, which was the pitot head airspeed indicator. I have got his original patent of 1912, and it is still unchanged on all aircraft. He was a great inventor. I was really in awe of him and thought he was a wonderful father but I had to do something that made me feel different from him, so I decided to get involved in biology. We were lucky to live on a tributary of the River Thames, so I spent every day of my life on my boat, which was called Imp, with my little dog Sam sitting in the bow, drifting down the river.

Messing about in boats.

It was an absolutely fantastic childhood. That gave me a love of wildlife and I got very interested in fish. I found that I was rather good at fishing because I could get up at dawn and go spinning in the Thames and catch these great big pike which no­one else could catch. I thought, ‘I don’t want to kill them, I want to put them back. But I want to show somebody that I’ve caught them.’ So I gill tagged them and, at the age of 16, wrote my first paper. It was a letter to the Field magazine on the growth and movement of pike in the Thames, by capture and recapture of my tagged pike.

Did they respond or print it?

Yes, they printed it, and I was very thrilled.

Before we leave your home, what about your mother? Was she an academic as well?

No, she was a dairymaid. My father first met her when she was milking cows. At the end of the First World War, he was working in Farnborough for the Royal Aircraft Establishment with his pitot tube airspeed indicators and other things. Marion, my mother, was milking cows. Dad fell instantly in love. My mother had had no tertiary education at all, I think she had left school at the age of 12, but she was a brilliant actress. She set up an amateur dramatic society called ‘The Coves’, the co-venture players. Every week we would read from start to finish an entire play with her colleagues in our house, and I took the small parts. From that, I learnt how to speak and how to use different tones of voice. It was an amazing experience and I learnt so much of the English language from my mother.

Hence your flair for show business. I remember the launch of one of your books, the one about sex, where you had a number of people dressed up as Adam and Eve and you had a stage setting. But we’ll come to that.

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Boarding School in Dorset

What about school? School is often a very dicey business because one’s hopes and ambitions can be thwarted. Were yours nurtured properly?

My school days were strange, the war was on. We lived just south of London and we were getting bombed. By then I was an only child, my brother had died of rheumatic fever just before the war. My parents said, ‘We’re going to have to send you away from home, so we’ll send you to a boarding school.’ They sent me to Sherborne School in Dorset, which was a lovely place to be. I missed my parents terribly, but it was a great environment. I became very friendly with a boy in the same form as me, we did English lessons together, and whose name was David Cornwell. But you would know him as John le Carré. To have had your childhood with John! Just a couple of years ago, we had a wonderful dinner in London reminiscing, because we hadn’t met since we had left school.

One day my mother came down to Sherborne School by train, there were no cars in those days because of the petrol shortage. She took me into the village park, sat me down in a seat and said, ‘Now, Roger, what are you going to do with yourself?’ I was 16. I said, ‘I don’t know, Mother. I’m very happy here.’ She said, ‘But what are you going to do? What’s your future?’ I said, ‘I’ve got no idea,’ and she said, ‘Well, I will tell you. You’re going to be a vet but you’ll never practice as a vet. You will do research,’ and I said, ‘Thank you very much, Mother’ – and that was it.

That is an astonishing insight, for someone with no proper education in the professional background of scientists.

Yes. If she had had an education, by golly, what would she have been? An amazing woman.

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Inspiration from both badger’s and scholars

Then you went up to Cambridge. Was it all very straightforward?

I went to Bristol first and did my veterinary degree, which I enjoyed. I knew that I was going to do something beyond it, so I started doing bits of research. I got fascinated by badgers and went out with some badger diggers. Badgers mate in the spring, in England that’s in February. Then the fertilised egg, the blastocyst, becomes dormant and fails to develop in the uterus all through March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December. Then suddenly, in the beginning of January, the egg wakes up and there is a two­month implanted gestation and the young are born in February.

I went out with this old badger digger and we dug up a sow badger. Actually, he wanted to eat it. We put the dogs down the hole and they were barking and we dug and dug. It took about four hours to dig down to this badger. I remember him saying to me, ‘And do ee see Brock, ee tap ’im on the nose.’ So the badger was killed and I opened it. It was a sow badger, and there was the uterus with vague swellings along the uterine horn. I opened up the uterus with my scissors and there were these one-millimetre-diameter pearls, these dormant blastocysts. They had been there since February, and this was June. I thought, ‘How amazing! Gosh, what a sight. They really are the pearls of life. I’m going to be a reproductive biologist.’ So I owe a lot to that badger.

Then you went up to Cambridge?

That took me first to the United States, actually. Having got my veterinary degree, I had heard of these Fulbright Scholarships and I thought, ‘It would be exciting to go to America.’ So I filled in an application for a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the University of Wisconsin, where there was a very good reproductive group. I was summoned to an interview at the US Embassy in London. The rather daunting lady who interviewed me said, ‘Mr Short, I have to say that I have never seen such a carelessly written grant application.’ I said, ‘No. I quite agree. I’ve never read one that’s quite as bad as mine either.’ She said, ‘What do you mean?’ and I said, ‘I agree with you. I could have spent much more time on it.’ Somehow we became friends from that moment and I got the scholarship. So I spent a year in Wisconsin.

Already you had learned the way to charm people: to be a bit pixilated but, nonetheless, get away with it.

Yes. If you can do something slightly unexpected, I think, you often can break through.

Just before I went to Bristol University, while I was still at Sherborne School, my father sent me a letter, he didn’t write to me very often. It was just a quotation. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice to the scholars of Dartmouth College. I have it in my pocket because I’ve carried it with me every single day of my life. Here it is, much tattered, but it’s all up here [indicates]. That was really a total inspiration to me.

What did Emerson say?

He said:

Gentlemen, I have ventured to give you the following considerations upon the scholar’s place, and hope, because that standing, as many of you now do, on the threshold of this college, girt and ready to go and assume tasks, both public and private, in your country, you will not be sorry to be admonished of the primary duties of the intellect, whereof you would seldom hear from the lips of your new companions. You will hear every day the maxims of a low prudence. You will hear that your first duty is to get land and money, place and name. ‘What is this Truth you seek? What is this Beauty?’ men will ask with derision. If, nevertheless, God have called any of you to explore truth and beauty, be bold, be firm, be true, for the hour of that choice is the crisis of your history; and see that you hold yourself fast by the intellect. It is the domineering temper of the sensual world that creates the extreme need for the priests of science. Explore, and explore. Be neither criticised nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Make yourself necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread, and if not store of it, yet such as shall not take away your property in all men’s affections in nature, in art and in hope.

What an amazing thing that Emerson produced for that graduation address.

Intellect and ideas versus materialism and indulgence. And that’s been your path – that address?

Yes, absolutely. That has been my guiding principle, really. The strange thing is that dad never asked me if I had received the letter and I never told him how much it meant to me, but it’s still there in my pocket.

It’s still with you after all these years.

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Cambridge vet

Let’s finally get you to Cambridge, shall we? Magdalene College.

Yes, Magdalene College, 1 January 1956. I am one of the postgraduate students in Magdalene. I am very happy there and have a lovely room. I buy a little cottage in Grange Road, which has now been pulled down for a college to be built there. I get married to the love of my life, Mary Wilson, a Welsh lass. She had just finished doing medicine at Bristol, where we had first met. I worked in the Cambridge vet school as a university lecturer.

I was also doing a PhD and became a member of Professor Thaddeus Mann’s Agricultural Research Council Unit of Reproductive Physiology and Biochemistry. Thaddeus was a Pole who had fled from Poland because of the persecution there. Actually he was a Catholic, I had always imagined he was a Jew, but it turned out that he was a covert Catholic. He was a wonderful supervisor. He said, ‘Roger, you can do anything you want. What would you like to work on?’ So I started working on measuring steroid hormones and he supervised my research. He had no experience in that himself, but he would come in once a week and sit down with me and say, ‘Roger, how is it going?’

I remember once he said to me, ‘Roger, you’re on this scholarship – do you think you have enough money?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yes, of course I do.’ He said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes. I don’t need any more,’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s very nice to know.’ It was such a lovely conversation. He was very concerned about me.

I am sure that he had never heard a reply like that before.

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A question of overpopulation

You went on, did you not, with Mary Wilson to have a number of children?

We had four children. This was the 1950s and the pill hadn’t come in. We had four children by accident – each one was a surprise.

Population has always been on your mind and I wonder why that has been such a strong theme in some of your work.

You’re asking if having had four kids and then another two by my second wife, Marilyn, did I feel guilty about the four in Cambridge? No, it didn’t really dawn on me that there were too many of us. Then one event happened that changed my thinking completely.

Going back to Rudyard Kipling, I had this love of elephants. Working in the vet school, I had heard from several people that every scientist ought to have a hobby project in addition to their main project. I thought, ‘My hobby project is going to be elephants, so why don’t I take a sabbatical year’s leave and spend half of it in New York, going into Rockefeller every day, and spend the other half in a remote little village in Uganda studying elephants?’ I learned more in the six months in Uganda than I did in the six months in New York. Studying those elephants was just so amazing. It really blew my mind to be in the heart of Africa. We were 100 yards south of the equator in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, so I have crossed the equator more times than most people. That love of elephants has persisted and is still with me.

But how did you actually get your hands on those elephants to study them? They can be quite dangerous to work with, especially the African ones.

I took my crossbow with me, which I still have, and I developed a dart. I think I was the first person to dart and immobilise an elephant using this newly discovered morphine analogue etorphine, or M99, which was developed in England. I discovered that you could knock out an elephant with just five milligrams – you needed only half a millilitre of drug injected intramuscularly. So I went about darting elephants. I also put the first radio collar on an elephant.

When I went back to Cambridge, I found that lots of people were interested in elephants, so I got quite a few students who wanted to do PhDs with me on elephants. One of these students – my first, John Hanks, went out to Zambia, where there was an elephant cropping scheme, and started collecting data. The Zambian government objected to what he was doing, although the government were doing the culling, and he was put into protective custody. I had to try to get him released and I didn’t know what to do. I heard that Sir Peter Scott was visiting Cambridge and I thought, ‘Peter Scott knows Kenneth Kaunda very well’, he was the president of Zambia, ‘and perhaps Kenneth could get my PhD student out.’

I asked Peter Scott if he would come to my office one evening. He came at about six o’clock and he said – this is a verbatim quote – ‘When we started the World Wildlife Fund, its objective was to save endangered species from extinction, and I’m now near the end of my career and we’ve failed completely. We haven’t saved a single endangered species. But, if we’d put all that money we’d collected into condoms, we might have done some good.’ I remember thinking, ‘God, what a thought. Good heavens! Of course, he’s right. What am I doing here wasting my time in a vet school teaching horse-shoeing to vet students? I really ought to be leading a research group in human reproduction and seeing if we can get contraception working and available to everyone. It’s human population growth that’s the transcending problem of our times.’ To be able to remember that particular event and the evening itself – I can even see Peter Scott’s face as he said it. That was another life-changing moment for me.

Snorkelling elephants

I want to stick with elephants for a second. What made you think that they had been aquatic for a huge amount of their history? What aspects of their biology? At what point did that occur to you?

When you go back to that beautiful drawing in Rudyard Kipling’s book of the elephant in the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with Fever Trees, and his trunk being pulled by the crocodile, you can see that Kipling was aware of the aquatic nature of elephants. Through the cropping scheme in Zambia and a subsequent cropping scheme in South Africa in the Kruger National Park, we were able to acquire a collection of elephant embryos, the smallest being half a gram, which is about that big [indicates]. It was actually 450 milligrams and is the smallest elephant embryo that has ever been seen.

Here in Melbourne, in the department of zoology, I had a very good PhD student, Ann Gaeth. I said, ‘Ann, I’ve got these amazing early elephant embryos. Your PhD project is to serially section them. No­one’s ever serially sectioned an elephant embryo and goodness knows what you’ll find.’ Ann went away, sectioned them and came up to my office and said, ‘Roger, can you come and have a look? The kidneys look most peculiar.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the embryology of the kidney. I’ll get my wife Marilyn to come and have a look.’

We looked down the microscope and there we saw these amazing structures in the kidney, which are called nephrostomes, which are little tubules penetrating the whole surface of the kidney and ending up in little glomeruli. It is a way of bailing out the peritoneal cavity and siphoning that fluid directly into the kidney. Elephants have them – but no other mammal has nephrostomes in its kidney. Marilyn said, ‘Those structures are nephrostomes. They are a way of bailing out fluid from the peritoneal cavity and they’re found only in aquatic animals. The elephant must be aquatic.’ I thought, ‘God! The trunk is a snorkel. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?’

We then thought, ‘No. Let’s have a look at the trunk.’ I had dissected one or two young elephant foetuses and had noticed something strange: the lungs were stuck to the chest wall – but I hadn’t paid too much attention to it. Then I looked up an American veterinary review, which said that every single elephant that has died in captivity has had pleurisy because its lungs are stuck to its chest wall. So I thought, ‘Oh, probably that’s normal.’ We looked at these early embryos and foetuses and, yes, very early on the lungs stick to the chest wall and there is no pleural cavity at all. We did some work with a very good respiratory physiologist in San Diego who had spent his life looking at respiration and he said, ‘If you’re a snorkeler, you know that you’re not allowed to have a snorkel tube that’s much longer than that [indicates] because, if you do, you will actually rupture the blood vessels in your chest cavity. It’s illegal to have a longer snorkel tube’. And here is an elephant with a snorkel tube that is about eight foot long so they couldn’t possibly snorkel, were it not for the fact that they have managed to glue their lungs to the chest wall so that they can’t get a haemothorax, which is what you or I would get.

Presumably the elephants would have been living in rivers or lakes rather than out to sea.

I don’t think they were in the deep ocean, although they crossed large expanses of sea to get to remote islands off the coast of California. Santa Catalina Island has elephant remains on it and it had never been part of mainland California, so how had elephants got there? They had swum. David Attenborough has lovely shots of elephants swimming under water in the Indian Ocean.

Now that most fish have disappeared from the North Sea, the trawlers are trawling up the sand banks across the North Sea and coming up with all these amazing elephant remains, of which I have quite a selection here, from tusks to vertebrae to teeth. Mammoths, as they were then, were swimming across the North Sea between England and Scotland and Europe and they have really been great aquatic animals – and of course they are herbivores. We have been able to do their mitochondrial DNA just recently and guess what their closest relative is? The dugong. Elephants and dugongs arose from a common ancestor, called Anthrobacune, which I saw the first complete skeleton of in northern Hokkaido.

Controlling human fertility

In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, a very political book, and I wonder whether your attitudes to population had the same sort of political underlay.

I think I haven’t really been a campaigner. Paul Ehrlich’s book really hit the press. I have to say that I wasn’t terribly impressed with it, because I thought it was a bit too extreme. After I had left Cambridge I went to Edinburgh for 10 years to direct a Medical Research Council unit on reproduction. I decided that I would spend my time looking at what were the normal constraints to human fertility: how had human numbers been kept in check and what kept births spaced?

It turned out to be breastfeeding. We did quite a lot of work on that to show that in traditional societies, like in Australia in Aboriginal communities, if a mother exclusively breastfeeds her baby, the act of suckling will stop ovulation. The normal birth interval in traditional human societies is about four years or a bit more. It was only when we discovered the fact that we could shortcut the breast and feed babies with cow’s milk through a bottle that fertility shot up and, instead of having one child every four years, you could have one child or more a year. That had a staggering impact on human fertility. So I got very interested in that.

Then, in 1960, Gregory Pincus and Min Chueh Chang at the Worcester Foundation in the States were doing their work on trying to find out whether you could use hormones to suppress ovulation. They showed that, if you used derivatives of progesterone, which you gave to rabbits by mouth, by injection or into the vagina, a gestagen would stop the rabbit from ovulating. That was the discovery that led the way to the first development of the oral contraceptive pill, which came onto the market 50 years ago, give or take a couple of weeks. I think the discovery of the pill was amazing.

We did quite a bit of work on this in Edinburgh, looking to see what women felt about the pill, because you took it in such a way that you had a period once a month. I wrote a paper called ‘Why menstruate?’ which caused quite a stir. It said, ‘Why don’t women take the pill more continuously? You never need have a period if you don’t want one.’ I asked Pincus why he didn’t advocate this when the pill was first discovered and he said, ‘It was so revolutionary for a woman to think of taking something by mouth that would be a contraceptive that we didn’t want to confuse it with the other revolution of not being cursed with monthly menstrual periods.’

Do you mean to say that, if you keep taking the pill, you don’t necessarily have to have any kind of menstrual cycle?

Absolutely. We did a big study on 100 women. We said, ‘We’re going to call this the tricycle pill: you take it for three months at a time and then have your withdrawal bleed, so you have only four menstruations a year.’ I have always loved the definition of menstruation that is ‘the womb weeping for its lost lover’. Isn’t that lovely?

But there are no long­term effects? The body doesn’t change?

No. A big paper has just come out in March this year in the British Medical Journal on an amazing study of over 46,000 women who have been followed for 29 years – those who have been taking the pill and a control group who have never taken it – showing that the pill has spectacular benefits. I mean, it halves your risk of cancer of the ovary, which is a really nasty cancer, and cancers of the uterus. Also, if you breastfeed, you protect yourself very significantly against breast cancer, which really is a ‘nasty’.

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‘Holy’ observations

This all goes back to some observations made in a nunnery in Genoa 300 years ago, when they noticed that the nuns were all coming down with breast cancer – and breast cancer is an occupational disease of nuns. So there is a message here for the Catholic Church: if Pope Benedict would allow it, all nuns should go on the pill continuously because it would save their lives. But, he has labelled the pill as one of the new deadly sins.

Did any of that bring you into conflict with the established church or churches?

Oh, yes. I had a lovely encounter with George Pell when he was Archbishop of Melbourne. He wrote to the Monash vice-chancellor Mal Logan saying that it had come to his attention that I was distributing condoms to the medical students in class and this practice must cease. I was summoned to Mal Logan’s office and Mal said, ‘Roger, we’ve got this letter from the Archbishop of Melbourne. What do you propose to do about it?’ I said, ‘I’d like to think about it. Could you give me a week to think of a reply?’ and he said, ‘Yes, but no more.’ So I went straight back to my office and got in contact with my lifelong friend Mechai Viravaidya in Bangkok.

Mr Condom’.

Mr Condom’ – and I said, ‘Mechai, could you urgently make me 200 t-shirts with the following logo: ‘Don’t use Vatican condoms – they’re holy.’ I got this packet of 200 t-shirts and dished them out to all the medical students. I saved one and took it to Mal Logan and gave it to him. He was absolutely horrified – his jaw dropped. But his wife was standing beside him and she roared with laughter, and then I knew that we had won the argument. We never bothered to reply to Archbishop Pell, now Cardinal Pell, and I don’t think he has ever forgiven me.

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Ever since Adam and Eve

Now I’d like to talk about sex, especially your absolutely marvellous book Ever since Adam and Eve. How come?

Malcolm Potts and I had been friends since university days in Cambridge. He was the director of Family Health International in North Carolina and he had asked me to chair the Board of Directors of Family Health International, which runs family planning programs all over the world. We went out to have a coffee and Malcolm said, ‘The two of us have such interesting experiences in the field of reproduction – why don’t we write a book?’ So we pulled a table napkin out – we have still got it somewhere – and, with a biro, wrote 12 chapters of the book. I said, ‘That’d be great fun to do.’ Then he said, ‘I’ve got a friend who is connected with WNET in Boston and maybe they’d like to do a television program of it and we could write the television programs.’ I said, ‘That’d be fabulous.’

To start with we wrote, what became Ever since Adam and Eve, as a television series. Then WNET had an election and changed the chairman of the board, who had previously been a man, to a woman who said, ‘Huh! A book on sex just by two men? We won’t release a program on sex written just by two men. We won’t consider it. That project’s cancelled.’ So there we were, left with the television treatments. We had actually started filming in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and had got some amazing film. We thought, ‘Okay, we’ll do a book.’ So that is how we got to write the book.

Was any of the camera footage used?

No. It is pretty amazing footage, some of which I don’t think I can even mention in this interview, as it is too sensitive. But there is one lovely sequence about old men in the Highlands of New Guinea. They know that they are getting old because their male reproductive function fails and they can’t ejaculate any more. So when they are feeling really old they know that they have got to get some fresh semen if they are going to continue living. They are told to climb to the top of this mountain where there is a tree that, if you cut it, exudes a white sap and, if you eat that sap, it will rejuvenate your ejaculate. Of course, they all die on the ascent.

Oh, so it’s a kindness.

Yes. And it was a lovely form of euthanasia.

There have been any number of books about sex, but yours was distinguished by not being at all pious and absolutely about fun.

Yes. We thought that by structuring the book so that you had little box inserts which were snippets of interesting information to leaven the text. And then trying to use, wherever possible, classical paintings and drawings to show the antiquity of our interest in coming to terms with sex, it might end up not being a sexy book and that is why we tried to give it a non-sexy title. It has been exciting that it has been translated into several languages. The Italian edition is absolutely beautiful, with some lovely Italian paintings which I was unaware of. There is a Spanish edition, a Korean edition and a Chinese edition, which has all the illustrations deleted, which is rather a shame.

Then Cambridge University Press said, ‘We’re going to have to stop publishing this book. It’s become too popular and we are making a profit from selling it and, if we’re shown to make a profit, that puts us at odds with the charity commissioners. So we are ceasing its production by CUP. We’ve sold every single copy of the second edition and we won’t produce any more.’ I said, ‘But surely that’s crazy, isn’t it? You’re meant to be an academic press,’ and they said, ‘No. We are governed by the charity commissioners.’ It was actually the treasurer of CUP who told me this. The University of California Press in Berkeley said, ‘We’ll take it over.’ They now produce it as a DVD, which sells for $1, and as a soft back, which sells for $10. So it has been kept in print.

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The God gene

Sex has obviously been a part of everyday life for the whole of human history, apart from during a period of a couple of hundred years when there was this new sense of prohibition. Where did that come from?

I think it was the perfect vehicle to monopolise in order to control people. I always like the analogy of ‘a bit in the mouth of a stallion’: every time he moves his head, he feels the bit and he knows there is someone sitting up there controlling him. In prohibiting whatever aspect of normal human sexuality you want to – and different religions have chosen different bits – it means that every time you think of it, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a rider up there.’ It is a very powerful way of controlling societies.

But there has been a very exciting development within the last few weeks and it goes back a few years. I was sitting at Imperial College in London next to Lord Robert Winston, who you know, and we were at an international twins conference. There were 600 of us. The last speaker was Thomas Bouchard from Minnesota. Thomas stood up and said, ‘I’ve spent the whole of my life working on the behaviour of identical twins reared apart. Today is my last lecture because tomorrow I retire, and I’ve saved my most important discovery until this moment. Here you are, 600 of you, experts on twins, and you will not know the answer to the question I am about to pose to you, which I have solved. The question is this: what is the only type of behaviour that will always be identical in both twins, regardless of whether or not they have been adopted into different environments? There is only one of all the types of behaviour that you can think of in which both twins always behave identically – what is it?’ I remember turning to Robert Winston and saying, ‘I haven’t a clue, have you?’ and Robert said, ‘No. I don’t know what he’s on about.’ There was absolute silence and Thomas Bouchard said, ‘I’ll tell you. It’s religiosity.’ I nearly fell through the floor. I thought, ‘My God! How amazing that there’s a God gene.’

I was talking to Nick Martin at the Academy the other day and he said, ‘Yes, they now think they’ve got it mapped on chromosome 9.’ It is a gene or a group of genes that control faith. The brilliant British-American New York Times writer, Nicholas Wade, in his latest book called The Faith Instinct, has looked at all human societies and he has shown how absolutely essential it was to live as a society with a common belief system which united you. Okay, the gene has passed me by, but it has given me a new respect for the church.

I was talking to Richard Dawkins last year and I have been corresponding with him recently saying, ‘Richard, you’ve got it wrong. You wrote The God Delusion. Actually, it’s ‘the Dawkins delusion’ because you have totally dismissed God. Whereas the concept of faith in something does not have to relate to a God. It is that a uniting spiritual belief is deep within our genes and has been responsible for social cohesion of communities. If you want to take it one stage further, maybe I should get back to George Pell and say, ‘Isn’t it tragic that the Catholic Church has chosen to prevent those who are most likely to have the God gene from reproducing.’

Okay, a gene for God. But I don’t really go along with that, because people like Robin Dunbar, who is now in Oxford, have written about the evolution of the brain, saying that it is more a case of there being not a particular gene and therefore a protein that has some sort of God effect but, in human beings, a feeling for the wider community. In other words, what you are looking at with your sophisticated brain is something far more cultural and widespread than God-like. Could that be it?

Yes, I would agree with that completely. For example, Nicholas Wade has a lovely chapter on the Australian Aboriginal belief systems. Okay, they don’t have a God, but they have a real spiritual concept that is a unifying theme and it differs a bit between differing communities. It would be fascinating to study that. If I were starting life again, I think I would like to go and look at that.

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Citrus fruits to combat AIDS?

Talking about sex, where did your ideas about citrus fruits, such as limes and lemons, come in as a possible way of combating AIDS?

I’m glad you have raised that because I think one of the hardest things to do in life is to prove yourself completely wrong, and that is what I have done with lemon juice. It was a few years ago that I was sitting in this room with Jonica and doing a program for the ABC on lemons. I was full of enthusiasm because we had shown that lemon juice is a very effective spermicide because of its acidity. It has a pH of about 2.4 and it irreversibly immobilises sperm within a second of coming into contact with them. We know that Casanova, who needs no description, died a wealthy man because he didn’t have any alimony to pay to his mistresses. That is because he insisted that they all put half a lemon in their vagina before sex. That is still one of the most effective contraceptives that we know of. The lemon juice coming up against the cervix plus the mechanical barrier of the lemon peel stops any sperm getting through the cervix.

What we did was take up Casanova’s finding and check out the spermicidal effect of the lemon juice. And we confirmed absolutely that it is amazingly effective as a spermicide. Then we looked at what it did to HIV. We found that HIV, as we have known for quite some time, is extremely sensitive to low pH. In the laboratory, provided that you could get the pH down to about four, lemon juice would kill HIV instantly. So we thought, ‘We’ve discovered a new role for an antique form of contraception, which could actually protect women from HIV.’

Maybe it is a mistake to talk to the media about your inspired ideas, because 99 per cent of your ideas are wrong. But I did have quite a lot of media coverage, which helped because we were able to raise about $15,000 from physicians in Australia and New Zealand and mount a clinical trial of prostitutes in Jos, Nigeria. Some of whom were already using lemon juice and had been for a decade or more and some who had never used it. We have just published the results with a lovely Nigerian, Soloman Sagay, and Godwin Imade – who was in the department of obstetrics in Jos and is the first author on the paper. Godwin Imade was David de Kretser and my student at Monash. We looked at 398 female sex workers in Jos, a quarter of whom said that they were using lemon juice as a douche either just before or just after sex and three quarters of whom said that they never used it. None of these girls had ever been tested for HIV, so we tested them. The results showed that exactly 48 per cent of both groups were HIV positive. There was no evidence of any beneficial effect from the douching! I was shattered: to actually shoot yourself down in flames!

But surely having an experiment that doesn’t actually come off but shows a negative is good science.

Although it really hurts your ego, as was said by Kipling, ‘if you can keep your faith when those about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you’ –

But that is just one study. Does that mean that the whole experiment is over?

No. We have decided that it was not a very good study, because it was a cross-sectional study. We couldn’t control whether the girls were using the lemon juice before or after sex. If you think about the yucky details, the difficulty is: how can you be sure that the few millilitres of lemon juice that you are putting into the vagina mix adequately with the whole of the ejaculate? That is probably where it has let us down. So what we have done is use the balance of the money that is left, from these generous donations of the Australian and New Zealand physicians, to make sure that every female sex worker is tested for HIV and that all those in Jos who are HIV positive are now on antiretroviral therapy. So, in the end, it has benefited them.

We are not planning another study, but we have come across another development which could be exciting. This is where I think my veterinary background helps because you can think comparatively as a vet. I always like the phrase: ‘You go to a vet to get doctored, but you go to a doctor to get vetted.’ There is a nice complementarity to it.

Yes. There is also a t-shirt that says, ‘A real doctor treats more than one species.’

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Self-made condom

I have always said when lecturing medical students that, of the male and female reproductive tract, the foreskin is to the glans penis what the vagina is to the clitoris. They are exactly homologous structures. We know that the vagina is extremely sensitive to oestrogen. Nature has designed it that way because the only time the female reproductive tract is going to be exposed to an influx of potential pathogens is as a result of sexual intercourse. So you want to make sure that intercourse is occurring when the whole of the vagina is maximally defended. The best defence is to use the oestrogen to keratinise the lining of the vagina, which is exactly what it does.

I thought, ‘If I believe what I teach’ – that the foreskin is the homolog of the vagina – ‘let’s see if oestrogen has any effect on the foreskin.’ So I borrowed some of my wife’s post-menopausal oestrogen cream, called Ovestin, which is the compound oestriol, and put it on my foreskin. You don’t need ethics approval if you do it on yourself and, within 24 hours, I had keratinised the inside of my foreskin.

How could you tell?

There was no difference in feeling, but you could see a difference. You could no longer see the fine capillaries, because the keratin had occluded them. I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ So I did a little study on myself and then got one of my colleagues to repeat it on himself, and we published this in PLoS One, the exciting, new online journal for Public Library of Science, on 5 May 2008. Just prior to that, we decided to patent it. Melbourne University paid for the provisional patent but said they didn’t want to be involved in the definitive patent, because this was a discovery that would really only benefit developing countries. The university were not interested, which I thought was amazing. So I paid all the patenting costs out of my pension.

The idea is that this treatment can keep HIV out?

Yes. If we wash our hands in a pure culture of HIV, provided that we don’t have hangnails, we are not going to get infected. HIV cannot get through keratin. It is not normally there, but if you can generate this keratin on the inside of the foreskin you can stop HIV entering the penis.

We are at a very exciting stage. As recently as Friday of last week, I was at Monash discussing this with colleagues there. We would like to donate the patent rights to South Africa. We would like to see whether we can do a trial of this cream in the South African army. The army has a 26 per cent incidence of HIV, which is so high that the head of the army has declared that the army is no longer an effective fighting force. It is just staggering. If we gave this cream to the recruits, who are all screened for HIV before they are taken into the defence force, and said to them, ‘All you have to do is put a little bit of this on your foreskin once a week,’ we think there is no way that HIV could get in. We have shown abundantly that it is through the inside of the foreskin that HIV gets into the penis. Hence, the amazing protective effect of male circumcision. Circumcision gives you at least a 50 per cent protection but that depends on how much of the foreskin you remove in the circumcision.

We are in a very exciting phase: we have made the discovery and we have published it. It has caused a lot of interest. We have got a patent here and also in the United States, where the main manufacturer of oestriol cream for women is located. The manufacturers never even thought that it might have an effect in men. When they wake up to the fact that we have got a patent on their product, I think they might be interested. Also, it would be nice to be able to donate the patent, first of all, to South Africa, and next to India, and really help them to contain their HIV pandemics.

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Hormone of darkness

You have also taken out another patent, to do with melatonin against jet lag. What made you think of that?

In my school days I decided to devote one mid­summer day to going to Stonehenge to watch the sun rise above the Heel Stone. It was an amazing, inspiring experience to think that Stonehenge was built thousands of years ago, and they had got it so architecturally perfect, that only one day of the year does the sun rise over this one stone. That started me looking at circannual rhythms. I thought, ‘How is it that all animals in the Northern Hemisphere control their breeding according to the time of the year? What is the time mechanism?’ My colleague Gerald Lincoln and I were able to show that it is light reaching the pineal gland. The pineal gland produces this hormone, melatonin, at night. We call it the ‘hormone of darkness’. Melatonin is able to feed back on the suprachiasmic nucleus above the pituitary gland and control the pituitary secretion of sex hormones, that is, of gonadotropins.

When I came to Australia, I thought, ‘We can give melatonin to sheep and completely change their breeding season or remove the pineal and create what Gerald beautifully called ‘a ram for all seasons’. ‘Here am I, having to fly all over the world – why don’t I start taking some melatonin myself?’ I had to go to a committee meeting at Family Health International in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I flew from Melbourne. I thought, ‘If melatonin works in sheep to control circannual rhythms, it might control my circadian rhythms.’ So I took melatonin to give me night-time in North Carolina when I was on the flight leaving here. I got to North Carolina and felt pretty good and I chaired the board meeting. One of the board members, who was the chairman of a pharmaceutical company, unfortunately called ‘Upjohn’, came up to me and said, ‘Roger, how could you fly in to the States and chair that board meeting?’ I said, ‘I took this stuff, melatonin, and so I got a perfect night’s sleep in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when it was actually midday in Melbourne.’ He said, ‘Boy, you go and file a patent.’

Two days later I flew back to Melbourne, this is now in April 1983, and went to the vice-chancellor, who said, ‘We’ll organise for you to meet with a patent attorney over the Australia Day weekend and draft a patent.’ We filed the patent. Then I did quite a lot of experiments on myself wearing a rectal probe up my backside, which recorded my deep body temperature every five minutes for a month. It was the most awful experiment I have ever done. You want a shower but you can’t have one with this probe in place.

You should use students, like everybody else.

Yes, I should have done, but then you have ethics committees. That experiment showed very convincingly that, if you fly right around the world and you take melatonin, melatonin drops your core body temperature, and that is essential for sleep. So we filed the definitive patent. I collaborated with a colleague, Stuart Armstrong, who was working on melatonin in rats, and we got the same effect in rats. Melbourne University took ownership of the patent because we were working there and that patent was viable for 20 years. The patent has just expired. When we wrote it, we said that melatonin should be ideal for astronauts, shift workers and polar explorers. So it really covered quite a lot of areas other than just jet lag. And, lo and behold, Paul Davies told me that he had had an email from Andrew Thomas, the Australian astronaut on Mir, who said, ‘People couldn’t survive on the space station Mir without melatonin.’ It was absolutely vital for them because, the space station was orbiting so fast, they were giddy with photoperiodic sickness, and melatonin saved their lives.

Isn’t it peculiar that you can’t buy melatonin in Australia but you can buy it in America, where it’s a health product. Why is it not freely available in every country?

It is because the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee won’t approve a drug unless a pharmaceutical company or somebody will cough up the $80,000 to $100,000 that they need to consider whether it should be made available. The companies that are marketing melatonin in the United States say, ‘Australia is a small market. It is not worth paying that amount of money.’ But a paper just published at the beginning of this year, a major review, just called ‘Jet lag’, says that it is absolutely proven to the hilt that melatonin works to alleviate the symptoms of jet lag. Of course, there is no mention of us at all. He has never read the US patent.

It has often occurred to me that if you are blind, you don’t have that effect from melatonin. I wonder whether some blind people are permanently jet lagged.

I have talked to quite a number of blind people who have told me that they really have a major problem because they feel so disorientated. I have suggested to several of them that they buy some melatonin from the States and see whether it resolves their symptoms. One person told me that it had transformed his life. It won’t work in all blind people, because the cells in the retina that perceive light are very basic cells and they are the ones that re-entrain the pituitary gland to secret melatonin at night-time. You may not be able to see visually, but you may still perceive light, which may be sufficient to entrain you. But, if you are totally blind, I think melatonin would certainly help.

Yes. But, however much some of us might think melatonin is a fantastic drug, and I, myself, have taken it often for years with great effect, some people dispute that it actually works.

Yes. Some people will say, ‘I never suffer from jet lag at all – it doesn’t do anything for me.’ But this recent review in January this year, leaves no doubt from a number of double-blind trials that it works.

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King Canute

One of the last publications I have seen of yours is something that you wrote about King Canute for the journal Nature. Where did that come from?

That is an interesting story. I collect antiquarian books and, about 20 years ago, I saw in a booklist a book by John Manwood called A Treatise and Discourse of the Lawes of the Forrest, 1615. I thought, ‘How fantastic to have an almost 400­year-old book on English forest laws. I’ll buy it.’ I got it for a couple of hundred pounds and it is on my bookshelf here. When I opened the book, I was amazed that, after all the introduction and summary of the chapters to come, it starts with the forest laws of King Canute – a Dane, King of England – which were laid down in Winchester in 1016 AD. 1016 AD! That is almost a thousand years ago, and here are these 36 forest laws in which Canute is saying that it is absolutely vital to preserve forest. I thought, ‘Isn’t that amazing. Here we’ve got the Copenhagen climate conference coming up in the capital of Denmark and here is Canute who, although King of England first, was subsequently King of Denmark and King of Norway also. The coincidence is so amazing.’

I wrote to the editor of Nature and said, ‘Would you accept a little correspondence slip about this?’ and he said, ‘Yes, send it in immediately.’ Within 24 hours, we had contrived a very simple letter to Nature, which was published at the beginning of December 2009 just before the Copenhagen climate conference. I have had responses to that from all over the world, mostly from expatriate Danes who have pointed out to me my slight mistake that Copenhagen was not the capital of Denmark when Canute was in power, it didn’t exist at that time, and they don’t quite know where Canute had his base in Denmark. But basically it is a very exciting advocacy for planting forest.

I have been exploring at a rather high level the possibility of getting a new forest planted in Britain, because there has not been one since Henry VIII planted the New Forest around Southampton to produce oak for the men-of-war. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could have a ‘Forest of Windsor’ planted in Britain. With the different objective of doing something to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to do something biologically to combat global warming?’ So keep your ears pinned to the ground to see whether there isn’t a royal announcement about creating a ‘Forest of Windsor’. Hopefully in the Duchy of Cornwall, where there is a lot of land which is very poor arable land but which would be perfect to reforest.

Closer to home, how did the Australian Treasury come into this story?

That is very interesting. I saw in the Australian that Ken Henry, Secretary of Treasury, had given the graduation address to the students at ANU on his life and the fact that his father was a forester. He had realised how appalling it was that his father had spent his life cutting down trees in New South Wales and how he, Ken Henry, felt that these days he was really a conservationist and would like to try to do something to make up for what his father had done wrong. So I thought, ‘I wonder if he knows about King Canute?’ I thought, ‘How do you get in touch with the Secretary of Treasury? He must be untouchable. But let’s try the obvious way: let’s look up in the telephone directory the phone number of Treasury, ring them and see what happens.’

I phoned the Treasury in Canberra, and said, ‘Could I speak to Ken Henry’s personal or private secretary?’ ‘Yes.’ I was put through to her straight away and I told her the story. I said, ‘Could I possibly have Ken Henry’s personal email?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ So I sent him an email and enclosed as an attachment the front page of King Canute’s forest laws. I got an immediate reply from him saying, ‘This is absolutely fantastic. We have just had a meeting of all the state treasurers trying to decide who owns Australia’s forests and no­one had a clue, and you sent me the answer: it’s the Crown.’ He said, ‘I’m so thrilled.’ I think that is actually rather exciting.

Does this mean that the Australian Treasury and the state Treasurers have some control over Australian forests?

Yes, ultimately. How that juxtaposes with private ownership of forests, I don’t know. But, for example, I discussed with Ken Henry, ‘Wouldn’t it be exciting if we could take the old-growth forests of Tasmania and call them a “new forest of Canute” or, even better, if we could take the poor deforested Murray-Darling Basin and replant it with a “forest of Canute”?’ Those dreams are still dreams, but they might actually congeal into reality.

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A move to vegetarianism

I am somehow reminded of one of your schemes suggesting that, when we die, we should be buried upright and be connected to the soil and fertilise a tree. That generalised concern that you have about the future of the world, in terms of conservation and population, which you’ve mentioned so much, I wonder what your world view is in 2010 about our prospects and where we are going.

I think the greatest threat that we face is the way in which we have destroyed our natural environment. When I was born, as you said at the beginning, there were only two billion people on Earth. Today there are 6.8 billion. Although neither you nor I will live to see 2050, which is when there are expected to be at least 9.1 billion, we have really got to ask whether that is sustainable in the long term.

So it’s 2050 and the population is 9.1 billion people – huge numbers. What is that going to do to the world? I wonder, with all your enthusiasms, whether you are positive or negative about our general prospects.

It is going to mean that we have got to drastically rethink agriculture. Even the FAO has announced that we should immediately start trying to halve the world’s population of cattle and sheep because of all the methane they emit. They produce more global warming gases than the exhaust pipes of every vehicle in the world. Think what that is going to mean for Australia: bye-bye cows, bye-bye sheep. Also, we have to cease eating so much meat. I was just reading a lovely quote from Isaiah, which I think is such a profound statement: ‘All flesh is grass.’ Wow!

Our challenge for the future is to think of how we can make use of solar energy, which is our life blood. Solar energy is stimulating the growth of green things, which are vital because the chlorophyll in those green things is sequestering CO2 from the environment. In the case of trees, one tree sequesters a metric tonne of CO2 every 100 years. We have got to think about how we can feed ourselves on that grass. We are not going to eat grass – but to let the grass be eaten by a cow, which we then kill to eat, is so hopelessly inefficient. With the cow farting and belching so much methane and CO2 in the process, it is just not economic. Maybe we have got to adopt a vegetarian Indian-style diet, which clearly India has had ever since the beginning of Hinduism. We have got to totally change agriculture. Australia won’t be able to export value-added water, which you and I call ‘wine’, to the rest of the world, because we are short of water ourselves.

The phenomenal challenges for the future are with how to feed ourselves. The bottom line is that surely it is wrong to think that bigger is better and that Australia would be a better place if we had 36 million people instead of the current 22 million people – it would be a poorer place environmentally. And, for my children’s children’s sake, I don’t want to see Melbourne double in size.

Your approach to life and to science has been of enjoying the ‘thumb’ and one of your other favourite words is ‘amazing’. Given the rather bleak situation that the world seems to be in, I wonder whether you think we’re going to make it.

No. I think I am still an optimist, albeit a somewhat diluted one.

You’re not a Canute.

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Covert feminist

No, I’m not a Canute. But I think I am a covert feminist. I think, if we could give women total control of their fertility, they would ensure that human fertility at a population level would come crashing down. If every birth was a wanted birth, the world would breathe a lot easier. I think we have absolutely failed, even in a country like Australia, to give women that control. I mean, how crazy is it that you can’t take the oral contraceptive pill unless you get a prescription from the doctor? That is idiocy, particularly for a young teenager who has just fallen in love and wants to experience the joy of sex and who has to go crawling to a GP, with the consent of their parents if they are under 16, to ask if they could possibly have a prescription to get the oral contraceptive pill. No wonder we have such a high rate of teenage pregnancies. And what a tragedy to have to begin your reproductive life with an abortion!

If we put women in control of their own fertility and – as my great mentor Sir Dougal Baird said back in 1968, save women from the tyranny of excessive fertility – and give them absolute control of their fertility by making the pill freely available to them, I think the world would be a much happier place. There would be less unrest because there is now very good evidence to show that the countries with the highest rates of population growth are those where young people have the least chance of an education. To be reared in one of those countries like Pakistan or Palestine – where 50 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 – if you are a young teenager, you will have no education, you will be illiterate and you will have no hope of employment. Terrorism is probably the only thing that is open to you. Giving women the chance to control their fertility so that every birth is a wanted birth, is the way that the world has got to go.

And science is a part of that answer.

And science is very definitely right in the middle of that answer.

Post Script (an update sent in March 2011)

I celebrated my eightieth birthday in July 2010 at a family gathering at my daughter Fiona’s fifteenth Century Parehayne Farm, Colyton, South Devon. The entire family was there: both wives, Mary and Marilyn, all my 6 children and their partners, and my 7 grandchildren. After a celebratory lunch in the old barn, with speeches and good cheer, Fiona announced that they would like to give me my eightieth birthday present, but it was outside in one of the fields. So we trooped outside, where I was expecting to find a horse or something. But no, we walked to the farthest field, and there, high up on the hillside, was a post, wrapped in polystyrene. I enquired what on earth it was, and they said it was my birthday present, and I must climb up and look.

I slowly ascended the hill, quite puffed, and reached the mysterious post, which I was told to unwrap. And there was a beautiful carved piece of oak, simply engraved with the words “Roger’s Wood”.  And as I looked around me, here were all these young saplings, about my height, that the family had planted for me! I was overcome with emotion. There were Oaks, Beeches, Limes, Field Maples, Cherries and Rowans, which would grow and flourish for centuries to come, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and providing shelter for the badgers, foxes and roe deer in the neighbourhood. They had restored my English roots!  Touch wood says it all.

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