Professor Stephen Boyden, human ecologist

Professor Stephen BoydenProfessor Stephen Boyden has had a wide and varied career. Originally trained as a veterinarian, he did research in bacteriology and immunology at the University of Cambridge, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the Pasteur Institute and the Tuberculosis Immunisation Research Centre of WHO in Copenhagen before going to the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU. He is perhaps best known for his work in the field of human ecology and human biohistory. Author of many articles and books on the subject, he was the director of the Hong Kong Human Ecology Program and a consultant to UNESCO's Man in the Biosphere Program. He is a visiting fellow at the ANU's Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies and deeply involved in the activities of the Nature and Society Forum.

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Interviewed by Professor Frank Fenner in 2003.


An insistent keenness on the life sciences

Let’s start, Stephen, with your early life. Were you born in the country or in the city?

I was born in a very urban area of south London, but when I was five years old we moved about 30 miles further south, to a place not far from Epsom. That was then the country, but it is now suburbia.

That move changed my life. While we were living in London an aunt had visited us every Thursday, bringing lots of little newspaper clippings of animals and plants, and I would sit at the dining table with her to stick these photos into a scrapbook. So I had become sensitised to the existence of living organisms even though, being in London, I had never really seen any. The transition to the country, with lots of animals and plants in a huge garden, was just wonderful. From that moment onwards I have had a very deep interest in the natural environment, in wilderness and the processes of life.

Did your schooling influence you in any particular way?

I went to a local, private primary school. That was important for me: I still remember giving lectures to the other boys on tadpoles and things of that sort, and I was curator of the school's museum.

Later I went to secondary school in Leatherhead, cycling the seven miles there and back every day, sometimes twice. That school did not encourage me or have any positive effect. As I think was typical of big schools for boys, it offered a large range of subjects – physics, chemistry, maths, languages, Greek, history, religious studies and so on – but biological science was simply not there. I think the dominant culture in those days was that the life sciences were so irrelevant to humans and to society as to be simply not worth learning about. But I insisted that I was keen to learn the life sciences, so the school made arrangements (probably the first time it had ever done such a thing) for me to go a girls’ school to do my biological science. That worked very well.

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Focusing on haemagglutination in bacteria

When you went on to the university, how did you decide what to study?

After secondary school I went to the Royal Veterinary College, in London, from 1942 to 1947. (Actually, at that time we were evacuated down to Reading because of the war.) I suppose my choice of study reflected my interest in animals and their welfare – my aim was to be a practising vet – but because I had a very good teacher in pathology and immunology, bacteriology and so on, I developed a special interest in that area and after finishing my degree I wanted to do research.

Your next step was to do a PhD at Cambridge. Would you tell us about that, and also how, in the middle of it, you happened to go to the Rockefeller Institute?

When I went to Cambridge I did a year of Part II Pathology, just coursework, in the Department of Pathology. But after that year I moved over to the Department of Animal Pathology, where the director was Ian Beveridge, an Australian. He was my supervisor and played a very important role in determining my future.

I had become fascinated by some of the work which Sir Macfarlane Burnet’s group was doing on haemagglutination by viruses, so when I started my PhD I put together a proposal for research in this area. Ian Beveridge commented, however, ‘Your proposal is probably very like the plans for the whole Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for the next five years’ – it was absurdly ambitious and no single person could have done the work, which would probably be done by the Hall Institute anyway.

Instead, he suggested, why not focus on haemagglutination in bacteria instead of in relation to viruses? Because nobody at all was working on whether bacteria have the same effect on red cells et cetera. I don’t remember receiving any further advice from him over the next three years, apart from some comments after a couple of occasions when I caused flooding throughout the building by leaving a pump on overnight. But in general he was very supportive, and that crucial bit of advice at the beginning determined the whole direction I went.

Within the first couple of weeks I got some interesting results. I treated red cells with an extract from Pfeifferella mallei, which causes glanders in horses – remember that this was a veterinary institute – to see if they would agglutinate. They didn’t. Then it occurred to me that possibly some products of the bacteria might have been absorbed onto the red cells surfaces without actually agglutinating them. So I washed the red cells free of all the bacterial matter and exposed them to antibodies to the bacterium. They agglutinated. This showed that they had absorbed components of the bacterium and now were sensitive to agglutination by antibodies – and, lysis – if a complement was present. I was quite excited about this: not only was it interesting, from a pathology point of view that the bacterial products attached to the cell surface, but also it offered a very sensitive technique for detecting antibodies to those bacterial components.

I was about to write up a little paper on this but I read in either Nature or Science a paper by Dubos and Middlebrook, describing exactly the same phenomenon for the first time, but with a different kind of bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. That was a little bit disappointing, but in the long run it had very positive effects, as it was then suggested to me that I might actually go and work for a year with Dubos at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, and I was offered some funding to do the second year of my PhD at the Rockefeller Institute.

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Via one chance event to a widely used antibody test

At the Rockefeller you met Rene Dubos, with whom I had worked for a year, just about a year before you went there.

That’s right. I found that everybody was talking about Bobby and Frank Fenner, and they continued to talk about them for the rest of my year there, so I felt I knew you long before I actually met you in 1960, when I came out here.

That year in New York was very important indeed, for several reasons. One was that I had become interested in the mechanism of the bacterium products becoming absorbed onto red cell surfaces and I wondered what role it played in pathogenesis and that sort of thing. I started to do some experiments testing a hypothesis I had about the mechanism, and although the hypothesis turned out to be completely wrong, one of the experiments turned up something significant.

I was treating red cells with fructose and then testing their capacity to absorb antigens, but when I needed some fructose there wasn’t any on the shelves in my lab. Eventually Rollin Hotchkiss, in the same department, kindly lent me a little bottle of fructose, and when I took it back into my room and treated red cells with it, I discovered it had a most remarkable effect. After treatment with a very dilute solution of this fructose, the red cells would absorb proteins onto their surface, and if you used the right concentrations of fructose and of proteins – egg albumen or some bacterial antigen – they would absorb protein but not agglutinate. But if you then added antibody to the absorbed antigen, they would agglutinate. That seemed to confirm my idea that fructose has some key effect on the antigen surface.

After I had given Rollin his bottle back I carried out the experiment again, but with a different bottle of fructose – and it didn’t work. Even when I tried another bottle of fructose it didn’t work. It worked only with Rollin Hotchkiss’s fructose sample. That was not too good in terms of my hypothesis, but it was still an interesting phenomenon, with tremendous practical potential.

I realised that Rollin’s fructose sample must contain a contaminant and I tried to work out what that was, looking into the processes by which fructose is prepared, et cetera. Eventually we discovered that the contaminant, the active agent in this effect I had found, was tannic acid. And out of this developed what came to be known as the tannic acid haemagglutination test, which consisted basically of taking sheep red cells, treating them with an extraordinarily high dilution of tannic acid – probably one in 100,000, or something like that – and then with a protein, antigen, at the right concentration. After we had washed these red cells (treated with tannic acid and now having absorbed protein) they were exquisitely sensitive to agglutination by antibody. This formed the basis of a test for antibodies – or antigen, depending on how you did the test – probably the most sensitive test for antibodies available at that time.

That finding wasn’t terribly interesting theoretically – it didn’t tell us anything about the mechanisms by which bacterial products interact with cells – but it was really useful. The tannic acid haemagglutination test was used widely for quite a few years afterwards. And consequently the paper was quoted a great deal, which was important to my career. Yet it was the result of pure serendipity: there were no brilliant thoughts on my part (my hypothesis was wrong) and I used dirty reagents!

So Rollin Hotchkiss’s fructose happened to be contaminated with tannic acid. In a sense, that illustrates the importance of chance events.

Pasteur said, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind.’ I suppose, in retrospect, my mind must have been prepared. I didn’t think of it in those terms then.

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‘Don’t be afraid to hypothesise and think.’

You mentioned that there were other reasons, as well, why the year in New York was so important for you.

The whole experience of working in Dubos’s laboratory was very important intellectually. I had many good friends there, particularly Manny [Emanuel] Suter – I am still in contact with him. Also, I am sure Dubos himself had a great positive influence on me. Certainly I enjoyed my interactions with him. He was an extremely generous person and I remember many weekends when he invited me up to their country place in the hills north of New York.

Rene and I used to go for long walks during which we would be talking more or less non-stop about not only immunology but nature. I think he shared my built-in love of and enthusiasm for the processes of life and the natural environment, but also we were both very interested in the implications of the human evolutionary background for our behaviour today, for example, and for our patterns of health and disease and so on. What I remember most strongly is his encouragement: ‘Don’t be afraid to hypothesise and think.’ If you had some sort of silly idea, he’d listen to it. The encouragement he gave me has stayed with me. I have lots of ideas, most of them stupid, but basically his advice was, ‘Don’t be afraid to have ideas; then you can try them out on people.’ That was a very important aspect of my life experience.

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Investigating the immunology of tuberculosis

Did you return to Cambridge after that year in New York?

Yes. I went back to Cambridge for another year and wrote up the PhD.

Then I worked for a year at the Pasteur Institute with Pierre Grabar. That was a fantastic year, during which I was still interested in the interaction between cells and bacterial products, but did not achieve any memorable results.

I might add that although I had learned French for eight years at school, when we went to live in Paris I found I couldn’t communicate. Even when I left I still wasn’t any good at it. I’m hopeless at languages.

Your next move was to Copenhagen. How did that come about?

It was a bit unexpected. During my year in Paris I was contacted by Hubert Bloch, who was Swiss but working in New York – not at the Rockefeller but at another institute – where I had known him moderately well. He had been given the job of setting up an international laboratory in Copenhagen for the World Health Organization and he asked me whether I would be interested in working there after my year in Paris. I went to Copenhagen, was interviewed by various people and had a look around, and the idea appealed to me. I was eventually appointed to the position and later became chief of this laboratory, the Tuberculosis Immunisation Research Centre. I was pretty young for that responsibility, I suppose.

I was in Copenhagen for eight years, a very enjoyable period. My eldest two children were born in Copenhagen and grew up speaking Danish like Danes – but not to me, because my Danish was so bad.

We had eight or 10 on the staff. The scientific staff were mainly from overseas. My closest colleague in that time was Ernst Sorkin, from Basel, in Switzerland, and another was Joan Rhodes Madsen, from England.

We concentrated initially on trying to sort out the antigens of the tubercle bacillus, using the tannic acid tests, but also other immunological methods for trying to identify different antigens. We hoped to find that one antigen was particularly important in relation to the establishment of immunity and so on. That turned out to be extremely complicated, and although we published several papers on the antigens of the TB organism, we didn’t make any kind of breakthrough.

Even now, when the genome has been sequenced entirely, people are still working very hard to find out which proteins matter.

That’s right.

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Delayed type hypersensitivity and the cytophilic antibody

Then I got particularly interested in delayed type hypersensitivity, because that is characteristic of infection with the tubercule bacillus. One felt that delayed type hypersensitivity probably played some important role in resistance to tuberculosis, but very little was known about its underlying mechanisms. We never made much progress in one sense, but in another sense we did. In trying to analyse delayed type hypersensitivity we used a technique for eliciting it against any antigen.

In this work we decided to make use of Freund's adjuvant, which is used to boost antibody production. If you take, for example, Freund's 'incomplete adjuvant' (which is just paraffin oil), mix it up with an antigen – egg albumen, say – and inject that into an animal, you get a very strong antibody response: humoral antibodies, gamma globulins. But if you use Freund's 'complete adjuvant' (a mixture of the same paraffin oil and killed tubercle bacilli) and if you put your antigen – egg albumen – into that, mix it up and inject that mixture into an animal, as well as very high humoral antibodies you get very strong delayed type hypersensitivity to the egg albumen. So if you inject egg albumen into the skin, intradermally, of an animal immunised in that way, you get your typical delayed type reaction: nothing coming up within a few hours but at 24 or 48 hours a big swelling. That is what happens in tuberculosis itself; it is the basis of the Mantoux skin test for TB.

So we had animals immunised in the two ways. We discovered that those which had been immunised with the complete adjuvant, and had delayed type hypersensitivity, had in their blood a kind of antibody which was quite distinct from the ordinary gamma globulin. We called it cytophilic antibody, because it had a property such that if you took macrophages from any other animal of the same species – and exposed them to this antibody, they became coated with the antibody. And if those cells were then exposed to the antigen, they would absorb it.

Our first experiment was to immunise animals with red cells. We had animals immunised with Freunds complete adjuvant and Freunds incomplete adjuvant, but mixed with sheep red cells as the antigen. We then took the serum from those two groups of animals, treated macrophages with that serum, and washed the macrophages and exposed them to sheep red cells. We found that the serum from the animals which had been immunised with the complete adjuvant and had delayed type hypersensitivity affected the macrophages so that they would absorb the red cells. You would get rosettes of red cells around them. Macrophages of an animal which was immunised with this complete adjuvant would absorb the antigen, whereas macrophages immunised with the incomplete adjuvant would not absorb the antigen. So there was a definite phenomenon here not previously described.

That was towards the end of my time in Copenhagen. I notice that in the literature these days the term ‘cytophilic antibody’ is used a lot, so the phenomenon is now well known. Although we tried, we never discovered its role in either immunity or delayed type hypersensitivity, and I am not sure that anyone has since done so.

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Could dietary elements protect against tuberculosis?

Just as cytophilic antibody was one important but unfinished story, another was our observation that guinea pigs who are infected with tuberculosis are much more resistant to it if they have an excess of ascorbic acid in their diet. We showed that the amount of ascorbic acid necessary to avoid scurvy in a guinea pig is 10 times greater in an animal which is infected with TB than in a normal animal. But at the same time we discovered that there is some active agent in plants of the cabbage family which has an additional, enormously important, protective effect, presumably by boosting the immune system in some way. Ernst Sorkin spent at least a year trying to identify this substance – I remember that the whole laboratory, the whole building, stank of rotting cabbage – but unfortunately he never got to identify the active agent.

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Making the right move at the right time

What caused you to apply for a position at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, at the Australian National University, and therefore to come to live in Australia for the rest of your life?

By about 1959 we began to feel that it was time to move elsewhere. I enjoyed our years in Copenhagen very much indeed – I was extremely lucky with my colleagues and it was a wonderful period – but eventually I decided it was time to move on. One reason was my failure to speak Danish at more than an elementary level. I was offered a permanent position in Denmark but I decided against it in favour of going to an English-speaking country, simply because I am so bad at languages. The other reason was that I had had enough of the long, cold, dark, dreary, foggy winters.

Should I go back to the UK, or go to America? There was a job in Seattle I was interested in, and one in Florida, and the Americans invited me over for interviews and to talk about these jobs so I went to both places. But I knew also of this position in the John Curtin School. I suppose it was advertised; I can’t remember how I came to make the contact with Colin Courtice, the department head, and George Mackaness.

Well, George Mackaness also spent a year with Dubos, who of course knew you were working in Copenhagen.

Anyway, although ANU didn’t invite me out here for an interview I came at my own expense from San Francisco to Canberra to have a look. I met George and Colin, discussed the whole thing and made up my mind. I came out here in the following year. It was the right move at the right time; I have never regretted it.

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A lifestyle in touch with nature

Arriving here in 1960, you had to live somewhere. Where did you first set up house?

I came out as a Senior Fellow and the university kindly provided accommodation in the Rocky Knob area of Narrabundah, ACT, so the family moved there. That was very suitable and I enjoyed those years. But I have always wanted to live in the country, for various reasons. One is personal, that I really need the experience of being in the country, in touch with nature. It is important to my whole state of mind, and I get very peculiar if I can’t get out into the bush fairly frequently. The ideal would be to live in the country, so we actually purchased some land in the Tidbinbilla Valley, and in 1965 we had a house built there.

We had 300 acres of land, including Gibraltar Peak, and some cattle. The site is fantastic, and within commuting distance – 20 or 25 minutes’ drive – of ANU. But eventually, when the government decided to extend the adjacent fauna reserve, leaving us with 40 acres in its centre and the prospect of an enormous amount of passing traffic, we left.

We did get some compensation, so I had a similar, slightly bigger house built on another 300-acre property on the Captains Flat Road, about 10 miles out of Queanbeyan, on the Molonglo River – beautiful, and a wonderful place for the kids. (My daughter was then getting interested in horses and so on.) That was a very good time, but after a few years, when my son was starting to get interested in agriculture, we felt that our property was neither one thing nor the other: not the real wilderness, which I love, but not big enough to be an economically viable farm. So we decided to sell it and to move further out.

We bought another property up in the Tinderrys, fairly high up in the northern part of the Monaro. It’s not the best farming country but it’s really beautiful, and eventually we bought the place next door so we now have 3,000 acres. This was too big for me to manage, so at first I had a paid manager, but now it is run by my son-in-law, John, and he has turned out to be an absolutely fantastic manager. He and my daughter live on the property. Keeping it going, with all the droughts and things, has not been easy. In fact, we’ve had some very bad times indeed. But at least it’s still there and our grandchildren have been born and grown up in that marvellous environment. (They’re both now at university.) We have a lot of real wilderness there, as well as improved pastures and so on.

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Quantifying the migration of cells

Your initial job here was in the Department of Experimental Pathology and you worked, as I remember it, mostly with George Mackaness on immunology, your particular field of interest.

Yes. I changed my direction a bit when I came here, in a sense getting broader over the years. One event, which perhaps encouraged me not to remain too narrow, occurred during the early years in Copenhagen when, after the haemagglutination papers and so on, I went to a meeting in Rome and was introduced to a professor from Holland. He out his hands and said, ‘Ah, pleased to meet you, Haemagglutination Boyden.’

Here I found myself getting very interested in the behaviour of cells, especially in the context of resistance to disease, and the behaviour of the polymorphs – polymorphonuclear leucocytes – in particular. The migration of polymorphs is well known; it has been described by Metchnikoff that they will migrate towards bacteria. This was put down to chemotaxis. It was assumed that the cells were responding to a concentration gradient of foreign molecules which are coming from the bacteria: there is a higher concentration on one side than the other, so they move in the direction of the bacterium which is producing these molecules. But it seemed to me that the evidence for this mechanism was very scanty so I wanted to investigate the behaviour in more detail.

The problem was that there was no good technique for quantifying this process. So we tried to devise one. We made a little ‘cell migration chamber’, which basically depended on the fact that it had recently become possible to procure things called Millipore filters, with different pore sizes. My very simple idea was that if we could use a filter in which the pores were just too small for leucocytes to fall through, any polymorphs that we then put above the filter would not fall through it, but could squeeze through to the other side, if they wanted to, by changing their shape.

With the help of the excellent workshop in the John Curtin School we made little chambers and put the polymorphs on one side of the filter, and some substance that might attract them on the other side. We then incubated them for one hour in a solution of serum at 37°. The process is to take the filter out at the end of the hour, fix it with the appropriate alcohol and so on, stain it with the stains you use for polymorphs, and look at it under the microscope. If you put it under the microscope in the appropriate solutions, it is completely clear; you can see right through the filter. So you can focus above the filter and also below it.

To our astonishment, it worked! If you had the polymorphs on one side and nothing to attract them on the other, they would just stay at the top. You’d have a reading of, say, 1000 on that side and a reading of zero underneath. (It was a very all-or-none kind of thing.) But if you had a foreign organism such as bacteria in the bottom part of the chamber, at the end of the hour you would still have some polymorphs on the top but you might have 500 on the bottom. They really do make that effort and come through to the other side. So here was a way of quantifying migration of cells. That was a very exciting time, because it worked so well.

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Understanding the process of chemotaxis

From my point of view it was important that developing this method helped us to understand the process of chemotaxis. We found that the polymorphs were not responding to molecules given off by the bacteria. Even if you put, for example, some kind of entirely insoluble foreign matter in the bottom part of the chamber, they would still go through towards it. But they would not if the serum in which the cells were suspended had been heated to 56° C.

We discovered that the foreign matter in the bottom part of the chamber actually interacts with natural antibodies in the serum. If the serum has not been treated at 56°C, that sets in motion interactions with the complement, or components of complement, which result in a new, changed host substance. It then acts on the leucocytes, attracting them and causing them to go through. In other words, the serum components play a crucial role. If you have foreign antigens in the lower chamber, but you don’t have those serum components there, the cells just don’t move through. If you put antibody–antigen complexes in the bottom chamber, then the polymorphs really come through in a big way, because those complexes activate complements, or complement-like substances.

That was quite an interesting discovery and I am certain those results are valid. They were very clear-cut. I don’t think it has sunk in yet to the scientific literature, however. The latest version I have of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in describing chemotaxis, still has the polymorphs responding to foreign substances coming from the bacterium.

A couple of years ago a John Curtin School email contained an inquiry whether anybody had a ‘Boyden chamber’.

I sat next to an American lady in an aircraft once, going from Papua New Guinea to Sydney. We got talking and when I told her my name she said she knew the name Boyden because in her work she used the Boyden chambers. (I didn’t know at that time they were called that.) They are still used, not only for polymorphs but for analysing any kind of cell migratory behaviour. Yet the idea is so simple – again nothing brilliant, but it worked. I suppose, though, that it was the last finding I made in the immunology area.

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Addressing a gap: academia and the culture–nature interplay

After a few years, and some very distinguished work which led to your election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, you decided you would like to look at a broader picture. You thought that experimental scientists on the whole wore their blinkers too much of the time.

Yes. That would have been in the mid-’60s. I had a broad interest in nature and initially I wasn’t terribly interested in humans. But as time went on I got more interested in the interplay between the natural world and human society. And it seemed to me that there was a serious gap in the structure of the academic world. We had biologists of different kinds, physicists, chemists, social scientists, students of the humanities and so on, all studying different aspects of reality. In real life there is a constant interplay between those different aspects of reality, but there were very few people thinking and talking about that interplay in its own right. I believe that this interplay must be understood if we are to have the kind of understanding of human situations that we need for making wise policy decisions at a personal or a governmental level.

No academic in ANU, for example, was carrying out any studies in that direction. I suppose Rene Dubos in his writings, which I always enjoyed, is one of the few people who thought in terms of such interactions. There were others, such as Zinsser in his Rats, Lice and History – but by and large very few people were thinking in those terms. And certainly they were not reflected in the structure of academia, the courses given or the research programs. So I made a decision to try to do something in that area.

It was a bit unconventional to change direction in mid-career like that, but there were a couple of local factors which made the transition possible. One was the Vice-Chancellor at that time, Len Huxley. Realising that I had been employed to do something different from what I had in mind, I went to see him and asked whether I could continue on the staff at ANU. He was cautious, but amazingly supportive in principle, suggesting that I could have 18 months in which to prove that I could come up with something useful, meaningful, academically sound, appropriate. I think many other Vice-Chancellors would have taken a different view, so I am very appreciative of his decision.

Also, your support in those early years was enormously important to me, both in terms of my state of mind and confidence and from a practical point of view – in relation, for example, to the Hong Kong study which I will describe later.

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Aspects of reality: a conceptual framework for studying human situations

You occupied ANU premises in Liversidge Street, didn’t you?

Well, at first the university didn’t know quite what to do with me. Initially I was put in the Sociology Department of the Research School of Social Sciences for a while. But sociologists had had their fingers burnt with Social Darwinism and that sort of thing, and I felt there wasn’t all that much sympathy for what I was on about. (Perhaps I didn’t describe it properly.) It was a very interesting year for me, however, and I learned a lot about the social sciences.

Then we moved to that little cottage in Liversidge Street for a couple of years. Again I was blessed with very enthusiastic and hard-working colleagues, and also our proximity to the Staff Centre enabled people to drop in on their way to or from there – so we had a lot of good interaction then with people from different parts of the university. That was a good period.

We were trying to put together a conceptual framework for studying human situations, recognising the fact of what we have since called 'biohistory'. (We called it 'biology and human affairs' at first, and gave it various other names over the years.)

In essence, in the history of life on Earth there came into existence living organisms which evolved over time, and over thousands of millions of years, leading to tremendous biodiversity.

Secondly, the biosphere – these processes of nature and of evolution – gave rise to humans. The human organism is a part of the biosphere, arising out of it and interacting with it. We separate the humans because we are specially interested in them, but they are still part of the biosphere.

Thirdly, humans have the special biological characteristic – that is a capacity for culture, a capacity to invent language for communicating, with all that follows in terms of what is learned and passed on from one generation to another. So, as a result of biological evolution, humans come into existence, and humans have a capacity for culture, and human culture itself comes into existence. Every human population has its culture and subcultures – a set of beliefs, ideas, assumptions, priorities, language and so on.

We found it useful to recognise these three aspects of reality: the biosphere, humans and then human culture. But as soon as human culture comes into existence it begins to have impact on human behaviour, human activities. This affects humans in one way or another, but it also affects the biosphere. There is constant interplay between these three aspects of reality – between humans and the biosphere, humans and culture.

What I am saying is very simplistic but it is a useful starting point, I think, for trying to construct a conceptual framework to facilitate thinking and talking about those interrelationships.

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Unquantifiable variables are important too

I think you used diagrams to explain your conceptual model.

Yes. In all human situations, including the one we find ourselves in now, there is an interplay going on all the time between biological, physical, chemical, and cultural components of the situation. When one is trying, especially with a background of science, to develop a conceptual approach to studying human situations in this sort of way, one is faced with a problem arising from the fact that some very important influences in the total system, cultural influences, are not easily quantifiable in a scientifically satisfactory way.

Einstein said, ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’ That famous saying is very true. As a scientist, with a scientific background, I am used to being able to measure things. But here we come face to face with variables, like value systems of individuals – values which are in an abstract aspect of reality and cannot be quantified. Yet they are extremely important forces in the system, and I argue that it is unscientific to ignore them when you are trying to understand what is going on, because they play such a crucial role. If you do ignore them, you come up with an incomplete picture.

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Applying the concept to a real situation

You have mentioned the Hong Kong project. What was that, and how did you get involved in it?

Towards the end of our time at Liversidge Street, developing this conceptual model, we felt we needed to apply it to a real situation. While we were talking about various ways of doing this, it happened – again pure serendipity – that I was invited to a meeting in Hong Kong on human ecology, arranged by that wonderful organisation in London, the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council. There I came to appreciate that Hong Kong offered an extraordinary opportunity for doing a study of the ecology, in its broadest sense, of a human settlement. As a British Crown colony, it had fantastic records of all the inputs and outputs of materials and energy, of humans and so on, and also of uses of materials, fuels and so on, in the system. A proper study of the ecology of the city had never been done, so at this meeting I threw out the idea that it was about time somebody, perhaps the University of Hong Kong or the Chinese University of Hong Kong, did something about it.

The University of Hong Kong people were very interested. But after about eight months they had to admit that they couldn’t find the means or enough interested people to do it. That was a bit of a disappointment, but then it was suggested that we ourselves might direct a study of the ecology of Hong Kong, and we put this rather ambitious proposal forward at seminars in which we invited people to become involved if they were interested.

We were interested in looking at Hong Kong from the ecological or biological point of view, in terms of synecology – the ecology of the whole system and the interactions within it – and of autecology, the ecology of the human species or population. That is, we would be looking at the actual conditions of people’s life, but also at the system as a whole. In order to do a study of that sort you need the involvement of quite a large number of people, in different areas of specialism.

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Generating the Hong Kong Human Ecology Programme

So it was that the Hong Kong Human Ecology Programme came into existence. We got some funding from the Nuffield Foundation, in London, for the human aspect of the study, and then some funds were made available by ANU. (I had discussed the idea of this study with you, and your support and effort were of vital importance.) Quite a few people from CSIRO took part, for example in the analysis of water and of energy flows. The University of Hong Kong became involved, particularly in the study of flows of materials in the system, and the social science department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong became involved in our biosocial survey – a big survey of 5000 people in Hong Kong which we couldn’t have done without their help. It was a very nice team.

I must emphasise that any comprehensive interrelational, ecological study of human systems of that kind has to be based on a conceptual model or framework, so all the team can see how their findings relate to the program as a whole.

By the time the program was getting under way, we were back in the John Curtin School, and we had students going back and forth between here and Hong Kong. It was a very exciting period. But one day I heard that a UNESCO man from Paris had been saying in Canberra that UNESCO also had a study on human ecology going on in Hong Kong. I couldn’t understand why this fellow would have come to Canberra without contacting us, as it seemed ridiculous to have two studies going on at the same time without being in contact with each other. Anyway, I couldn’t find the man himself so I wrote to ask UNESCO about their study.

I got a letter, very apologetic, ‘We had meant to get in touch, and we would have shortly: in fact we have adopted your study, as the first study in the ecology of an urban system, as part of our Man and the Biosphere Programme, project area No. 11’ – which focused on energy and cities and so on. So basically UNESCO must have decided to adopt us, but without actually getting round to telling us about it. Becoming involved with UNESCO was very good in terms of the whole project. It resulted in extra funding and a lot of international contacts, and for years afterwards, right up to my retirement, UNESCO would ask me, and sometimes other members of our group, to go to places where similar projects were being planned.

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Outcomes: harvesting synecology and autecology information

You said that the Hong Kong project had both synecology and autecology aspects.

Yes. The end result of the synecology aspect was that we brought together information on patterns of flow, within the system, of energy, materials – especially foodstuffs – and, of course, waste products. That involved analysis of the use of energy in the system (not only inputs and outputs but the different uses), in transportation, for example, and in industrial activities, domestic use and so on. No-one had done this before. It really was a first.

The autecology aspect focused on people. We had a lot of good collaboration from the government of Hong Kong; we had research officers going into government departments and coming out with bundles of paper. We collected information on human health and disease from health authorities, hospitals and so on, and then we did our big survey of 5000 people in which we tried to get information on the actual local environments of people, their living conditions and such things as their diet, their psychological health and wellbeing, time budgets et cetera. From that we tried to consider the important interrelationships between patterns of energy use in the system and then the actual health of people.

The whole thing was a fantastic learning experience for all of us. We had an excellent team involved – not only postgraduate students, but some wonderful research assistants and so on – both in Hong Kong and here in Australia.

And what about publications arising from it?

We produced a book, The Ecology of a City and its People: The Case of Hong Kong, and then a large number of scientific papers – probably about 50 – on specific aspects of the study. I don’t know of any other studies which have been quite so comprehensive. (I had hoped to do more such studies with my colleagues here in Australia, but we didn’t get the necessary support so I did other things instead.)

In recent years quite a lot of studies, especially in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe, have applied the same approach – but more on the synecology side – patterns of energy flow in the systems and so on. That urban metabolism approach has become very important for decision making at the societal level, in terms of the whole issue of ecological sustainability and so on.

Incidentally, at the end of the Hong Kong book we discussed, in essence, the extent to which this pattern of energy use and so on is ecologically sustainable. We came to the conclusion that it is not sustainable. In the long run, significant changes will have to be made to restore ecological sustainability in urban systems.

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Awakening undergraduates to cultural reform

At about this time you got involved in setting up the undergraduate Human Sciences Program at ANU.

That’s right. It was about the same time as the Hong Kong project was getting going. As I have mentioned, I realised that the structure of the academic world didn’t acknowledge that human situations involve continual interplay of the different aspects of reality. The courses offered to the students at the undergraduate level contained nothing which focused on the interplay between cultural aspects and biophysical aspects of human situations. And so, although I was in the Institute of Advanced Studies at the time and therefore had no direct undergraduate responsibilities, I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor proposing a course – actually, a whole degree course, but I didn’t get it – looking at the interplay between the cultural and the biophysical aspects of the system in human history and also the present day. A committee was set up to discuss it, but there was a lot of opposition to the idea. It was seen by some people as a soft option, though it isn’t if you do it properly. It is much easier to be a good specialist than a good integrator.

Anyway, some people began to understand what I had in mind and we won the day: the Human Sciences Program came into existence. It was not a full degree program in its own right, but people could ‘major’ in human sciences. We had a second-year unit where the focus was on the ecology of the human species in the past and the present, but in terms of relationships – not only patterns of energy use and so on but also the cultural influences on those patterns. And then the third-year unit, on human adaptability, looked at the capacity for humans to adapt to new situations, both biologically and culturally.

We recognise the capacity of human culture to sometimes embrace quite nonsensical assumptions which lead in turn to nonsensical behaviours which can have very adverse effects on living systems, either around or within us. There are countless examples in history of this ‘cultural maladaptation’, where a culture develops a world view containing assumptions which result in maladaptive behaviour which then results in undesirable consequences in living systems. That is occurring even at the present time.

Fortunately, however, we have the potential, through our capacity for culture, to overcome these maladaptations. We used to call the exercise of this potential ‘cultural adaptation’, but that term has been used by anthropologists in a slightly different way. So we now talk about ‘cultural reform’. If society wakes up to the fact that there are undesirable consequences of certain human activities in the system, it can make use of improved understanding of the situation to introduce measures aimed at overcoming those undesirable consequences.

The pattern of cultural maladaptation followed by cultural reform is a very important area of study. We have put a lot of effort into it over the years, and it is extremely relevant to the understanding of our present, ecologically unsustainable, situation in society, and also of the inequities in human populations and so on. In other words, there are undesirable things happening now as a result of human activities, and the future wellbeing of humanity depends upon effective cultural reform. And we can learn a lot from those patterns in the past, in relation to the present.

The Human Sciences Program has attracted a lot of criticism over the years, but it survived until the last year or two, and now its programs have been taken over by other departments, so – surprisingly enough – it still survives. That is rather pleasing.

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Birth of the Human Ecology Program

After being Director of the John Curtin School from 1967 to ’73, I moved over as the foundation Director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. You were still in the human biology unit of the John Curtin School, but in 1976 you and your staff were transferred to the CRES by mutual agreement between Professor Courtice (the Director of the John Curtin School), yourself and myself, and you spent the rest of your university career in CRES.

That’s right. That is where I set up the Human Ecology Program. CRES was the right place for our activities, although I would emphasise that we have always been interested in the interplay between culture and the biophysical world as it affects not only the environment – where CRES’s interest lies – but also human health and wellbeing. And we still have that interest in the interplay, as it affects the health of the living systems around us and also of humans.

One could have argued that the John Curtin was appropriate, in the sense that we were interested in humans, but I believe the move was right. It was certainly very important. The move to CRES occurred at a time when I had run the Human Sciences Program (for its first three years) and had just about finished my involvement with it, coming back full-time to the Institute of Advanced Studies.

The Hong Kong program was still going on when we moved over to CRES; we had a big room there which we called the Hong Kong Room, where many of my colleagues were working, and we were writing up the final results in the book, which was published in 1981. When we couldn’t get the support we needed to apply the Hong Kong approach to any Australian cities, some of my colleagues did a study on the ecology of the city of Lae, in Papua New Guinea.

I should emphasise the sheer good luck I had in terms of colleagues over those years. The research students and, particularly, the postgraduate students had tremendous enthusiasm and made the whole thing happen. I was only peripherally involved in the study in Papua New Guinea – I went there a few times, but basically Ken Newcombe was running that study. It had some very interesting outcomes. Funded largely by UNESCO, it produced a lot of important UNESCO publications on patterns of use of energy in the system, and also food consumption and life conditions of people.

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Biohistory, realities and challenges: communicating the need for understanding

After those early years in CRES I decided it was time I wrote a book myself on the approach that we had been taking, looking at the theory of it all and the relevant information. So I produced Western Civilization in the Biohistorical Perspective: Patterns in Bio-history, published by Oxford University Press, as an attempt to bring together what we had learned over the years before, during and after the Hong Kong program, and in the Human Sciences Program. That took a lot of time. I’m a very slow writer.

Then I did another book for UNESCO, simply called Biohistory, which was based on the same ideas. But it was broader. It started by discussing the history of life on earth, evolution and basic ecological principles, and went on to discuss the emergence of humankind in evolution, human biology and ultimately the impacts of civilisation on living systems. That book was published in 1992, and most of my effort in that time was devoted to writing, literature research and so on.

In about 1988, towards the end of my time in CRES, I proposed the Fundamental Questions Program, which had an unusual purpose.

One outcome of this was a book called Our Biosphere under Threat: Ecological Realities and Australia’s Challenges. I think the title was too negative, but the publishers insisted on it. The subtitle was better. The information in this book was used as a starting point for a series of conferences with social scientists and other people interested in society, gathering their responses on its implications for social change.

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Community outreach: the Nature and Society Forum

In 1990 you reached 65, the then statutory age of retirement. You remained a visiting fellow in CRES, but you undertook a new life in setting up the Nature and Society Forum.

Well, not quite a new life – I’ve still been doing a bit of writing – but it was a different kind of experience for me. I was asked to give a talk on World Environment Day 1991 at the National Science and Technology Centre, and as an outcome a group of us decided there was a need for a new kind of organisation in society. So we formed the Nature and Society Forum, which has kept me pretty busy over the last 10 years. We haven’t completely achieved what we originally had in mind, but we are still heading in that direction and hope one day to achieve it all.

The Forum is based on the view that our society is not going to make the quite drastic changes which are necessary to achieve ecological sustainability until there is a vastly improved understanding throughout society of the processes of life, the human place in nature, and – with that understanding and probably as a consequence of it – a deep respect for life and the processes of life, for nature. That is a prerequisite for the achievement in future of an ecologically sustainable, healthy, equitable society (Personally, I like to use the word ‘biosensitivity’. I talk about a biosensitive society: a society which is sensitive to the biological needs of the living systems around us on which we depend, and also our own biological needs. But for the moment let’s call it an ecologically sustainable society.)

I am a moderate optimist, believing that humans have considerable ingenuity, given the motivation. We are faced with some difficult problems in making the transition to ecological sustainability, but I am convinced that our society can make that transition, and the adjustments necessary, if it has a much better understanding of the need for it, and of the nature of our situation in the living world.

Let us accept, however, that existing institutions are not achieving that understanding in the community. I find that among some of the community groups that I am working with at the moment – really very interesting groups of individuals, some of student age, some in the University of the Third Age, people who are interested and care about the future of society – there is an incredible ignorance of very basic facts of the situation.

The first aim of the Nature and Society Forum, then, is to create a vehicle for improving our own understanding of the human situation in these terms, and for communicating this to other members of the community. Its second aim is to try to stir up informed discussion and debate on what it all means in terms of social change and of changes at a governmental level, and to communicate the outcome of these activities, too, as widely as possible in society. We have never had a membership drive; we just have a little bunch of 100 or so very keen people, mostly in the ACT, but a few in other states and a few overseas, including some in Washington DC, who are interested and support this approach.

No other institution in our society does quite what we are trying to do. There is overlap with other institutions like the Environment Centre, and a bit of an overlap with ANU, I suppose, in the sense that we run courses and so on. But we aim to create a two-way bridge between the scientists, on the one hand, and the interested members of the community, our focus being on health of people and of the biosphere.

Our journal, edited by Jenny Wanless, comes out every couple of months and is very successful. We hold conferences and working groups, and we have publications and various programs – such as the one I am involved in at the moment, the People and Nature Program.

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Recovering momentum after a fiery setback

Didn’t the Nature and Society Forum suffer something of a catastrophe last year?

Yes. By way of background I should say that all the way along, from the early years, you and the ANU have been extraordinarily supportive. Without that support I don’t think we would still be going. For example, ANU provided us accommodation free of charge, initially at the old hospital – where there had been an ANU department of Clinical Science – and then, when that was pulled down, at the Weston campus of ANU, which is controlled by the Research School of Biological Sciences. We had plenty of space there.

We did have a bit of a setback when that campus went up in smoke in the bushfire of January 2003. We lost everything – all our equipment, our records, our copies of publications, everything. But we are recovering from that. The Canberra Institute of Technology provided us with temporary accommodation, which wasn’t really adequate. But was very much better than nothing. We much appreciated it. And just last week we moved into a wing of Weston Primary School. That is a fantastic place to be, and we are getting back on track.

We had a number of publications. One was a booklet called Bad Bugs, which was the outcome of a conference on infectious disease. Another was Good Grub, also edited by Bryan Furnass. It was the outcome of an internet conference which we organised on food production as it relates not only to human health but also to the health of the ecosystems around us. We are having to reprint those first two booklets to replace the copies that were burnt. And we have another couple of booklets in preparation.

A booklet called Ecological Issues in a Nutshell is coming out in the next couple of months. And another one which I have done, People in Nature: The Big Picture, is actually being used at present by community groups in the process which I was describing: assessment of a situation; learning; discussing and debating the significance of that; and then communicating the outcome more widely.

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Meanwhile, back on the farm…

Might I mention, just as a footnote to your retirement, that you have maintained your scientific experimentation by introducing ‘beefalos’.

Well yes, it is certainly an experiment, and so far it seems to be going fairly well. It is actually my son-in-law’s idea.

We have introduced beefalo, which is a cross between bovines and American bison. (It doesn’t involve buffalos at all but I think Americans call bison ‘buffalo’.) It is an unusual, unexpected sort of animal, in that it is fertile, even though bovines and bison are regarded as belonging to different genera. I think a pure-bred beefalo has to be 47 per cent bison. It has such bison characteristics as a very low fat content in the meat, and it is said to inherit the bison’s digestive system, enabling it to do considerably better on roughage and tussock than the ordinary bovine. And various other characteristics make it an interesting animal.

Certainly we are the only people in this part of Australia that have beefalos. There are some, though not many, in northern Queensland, and a chap in WA has a few. We bought some beefalo cows in America and they live over there; they have been inseminated with semen from beefalo bulls, and the resulting embryos are washed out and sent to us here to go into our Angus cows. So our Angus cows are giving birth to pure-bred beefalo calves. They are lovely animals, very gentle, and the meat not only has a low fat content but is delicious, very tasty. We won’t know the outcome of the experiment for a while, but it is going well.

Thank you very much, Stephen, for talking today about your ideas and activities, which have such significance for the future of our world.

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