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Dr Isobel Bennett (1909-2008)
Marine biologist

Interviewed by Ms Nessy Allen in 2000.

Dr Isobel Bennett is one of Australia's most distinguished marine biologists. She was involved in the first study of plankton to be undertaken in Australian waters; she became an expert on the intertidal zone of the temperate shoes; and her best known area of expertise is the Great Barrier Reef.


Contents

Introduction
Approaching science via business college and a cruise
Participating in plankton studies
Developing as a research assistant
Searching the seashores for certainty
Australian Seashores: an enduring responsibility
The life history of a small prawn
Getting to know the Great Barrier Reef
Extending the seashore record
Writing The Great Barrier Reef: a new record of the corals
Sydney to Melbourne via Adelaide aboard the Galathea
Scientific pioneers on Macquarie Island
A sea-going lecturer
Visits and surprises
'I don't think I ever retired'
Views and visions
An honoured name
Recognition as 'the last of the great naturalists'

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With Nessy Allen Dr Isobel Bennett (right) with interviewer Nessy Allen.

Introduction

Isobel Bennett is one of Australia’s most distinguished and best-known marine biologists. She is unique, in that she achieved this pre-eminence without the benefit of a university degree in her discipline, and in an era when it was very rare for a woman to be a scientist at all. But to counter these drawbacks and to prevail, she was generously endowed with curiosity, tenacity of purpose and high intelligence.

Her earliest work concerned plankton, and she was involved in the first study of it to be undertaken in Australian waters. Another area which she made her own is the intertidal zone of the temperate shores. Her work here spanned nearly a lifetime of meticulous observation.

Her best-known work, though, was concerned with the Great Barrier Reef. As late as 1959 it was said that knowledge of the Reef of a positive kind was far from complete or satisfactory. If this situation has been rectified, it is largely a result of the work of Isobel Bennett.

Approaching science via business college and a cruise

Isobel, could you say something about your family background?

I was born in Brisbane, in 1909. I had a twin brother and sister, and another sister three years younger than myself. We lived in the suburb called Corinda, and walked about a mile and a half each way to go to the local state school.

Baby photo

At about 14, having passed the Scholarship exam, I was enrolled at Somerville House – a Brisbane equivalent of the PLC and MLC in New South Wales. I’m not quite sure why, but I was fascinated by the look of the biology lab and used to look at the girls doing biology. However, I was devastated to be told by my family when I was just 16 that I had to leave school, go to a business college, and then find a job.

So you never actually took science at school?

No, and I didn’t know anything about it, really. After business college I obtained a position with a patent attorney’s office. Then in 1928, at the beginning of the Depression, my family decided to move to Sydney and I lost all my schoolday friends. I was fortunate enough to get a position in the Sydney office of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. But at the end of 1932 the board could no longer afford to send its very high-powered examiners out to Australia from London by ship, and teachers were no longer sending children in for exams. So the board closed and I lost my job.

Then came the turning-point in your life, didn’t it?

Yes, it certainly did. My sister and I were able to get a cabin aboard a brand-new P&O Company ship for a five-day Christmas cruise to Norfolk Island. This is where fate stepped in: the cabin next to ours was occupied by Professor and Mrs Dakin – we would certainly never have met them otherwise, on a ship that size – and they took us under their wing.

The Professor, discovering that I had lost my job, said he needed somebody to look up the logs of some of the old ships’ whaling captains, who had a habit of drawing a little sketch of a whale whenever they sighted them. He thought that by plotting them he would get some idea of the distribution of whales around the Australian and New Zealand coasts, for the book he was writing on the history of whaling in these waters. So I did that at the Mitchell Library for two or three days a week.

In the meantime, of course, I was applying for jobs. I was actually offered a job with the CSIR Division of Entomology, in Canberra, but my father refused point-blank to let me go and live in such a foreign city all by myself, and so I never went. (It turned out to be the kindest thing he ever did to me.) I kept on doing some work for the Professor, and offered to type the manuscript of the book he was writing. And then in May 1933 I received a surprise letter from the university offering me a temporary position in the Department of Zoology, taking my instructions from the Professor. That temporary position lasted for nearly 40 years.

So, in fact, you came to the university and to science quite by accident?

Absolutely. I even had to look up the word ‘zoology’ in the dictionary.

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Participating in plankton studies

What kind of work did you do for Professor Dakin in the department?

His main research was plankton, the minute floating animals and plants of the sea. He had a small vessel, mainly crewed by university student volunteers, and when he discovered that I loved boats and never got seasick I was signed on as a permanent crew member – even to being hoisted up the mast to scrape it down when it needed revarnishing. On all our trips it was my job to put down the net, time it and make notes of the sea temperature and various other details, preserve the catch and take it back to the university, and then sort out what animals were in it (because neither he nor I knew). This was a rather difficult task, because there were absolutely no books of any kind available apart from details in huge tomes of various expeditions that had travelled round the world, mostly in the last century.

Professor Dakin was English, not Australian, is that right?

Yes. He was very familiar with the plankton of the British seas, but nobody had done any plankton work in Australia and there were no vessels available except this small yacht which the university had purchased for him. We did this for quite a few years, mostly at the weekends because he was working during the week. The work was published by the university in 1940 as a monograph of the Zoology Department, and was used by the Fisher Library in their reprint series for distribution. It was also sold to students and others. This was the very first study of plankton in Australian waters, and quite apart from the actual physical work of preparing the illustrations, the Professor included a very large bibliography. Had it been in a scientific journal, he would not have been able to use nearly so many illustrations. There was a bibliography for each chapter, his whole idea being to publish the book in such a way that it was a stepping-stone for all future plankton workers.

The introduction to the published text acknowledged your work. You actually dissected some of these organisms, I understand.

Yes. But a small crustacean, for example, might only be two or three millimetres in size, sometimes even smaller. In order to be quite sure of the identity, you had to try to dissect off the various appendages – which even under the microscope were minute – and put them onto a slide. The Professor then drew them. It was quite a task, but nobody could teach you; it is all a matter of practice, really. He gave me the microscope and the dissecting needles, and I just had to teach myself about that.

In Sydney, 1935. In Sydney, 1935.

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Developing as a research assistant

In 1935, when Professor Dakin took sabbatical leave for a year, the acting Professor allowed me to do the first year of Zoology – only the practical class, not the lectures. It was rather fun. He made me take the exam at the end of the time, and I was a bit disappointed that because I failed to take off a couple of the mouth parts of a cockroach I got only 98 per cent instead of 100.

Also whilst the Professor was away, I started on trying to put the library – which had masses of reprints and books from various past professors – into some kind of order.

When Professor Dakin came back, did your job change at all?

Well, it was decided that I knew enough about the animals to add demonstrating to first-year students in with all my other duties. I enjoyed it very much, because it gave me a lot more contact with the students. Representatives were needed of the various phyla but there was no actual museum, and very few animals in the class collection, so I made it one of my jobs to collect as much specimen material as I could.

The Professor was very concerned that there was little communication between the scientist and the man in the street, as it were, and he was asked to do a series of lectures for the ABC. His weekly series of talks, Science in the News, involved quite a lot of research on my part. I had a lot to do with the second printing of his book Whalemen Adventurers as well, because he put extra chapters in after having been overseas, and also I worked on getting the plankton monograph ready for publication.

And then, when the war broke out and Professor Dakin went to Canberra as the Technical Director of Camouflage, in the Department of Home Security, you went as his research assistant.

Yes. I was released from the university for the period of the war.

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Searching the seashores for certainty

What did Professor Dakin do after the war, back at the university?

Having succeeded in getting the plankton monograph published, he chose the intertidal region of the seashore as his next subject for special research. A long series of studies was being conducted at that time around the South African coast, and he thought that we should do a similar one on Australia’s temperate shores, beginning with New South Wales. Because we had no idea what was on the shore – there were no Australian books like the seashore books in Britain – I had to spend almost a year on the various low tides, going to the rock platforms, the ocean beaches and the estuarine beaches and bays.

I drew up lists for the various phyla, for the crustaceans, the molluscs, the echinoderms and those sorts of things, and in 1946 I started off, with Elizabeth Pope (from the Australian Museum), on a scientific ecological survey of the New South Wales coast. We went from Sydney down to the Victorian border, checking off my lists, and as we went south to the colder waters some animals dropped out and others started to come in. Professor Dakin had been very ill from the end of 1945, but in 1947 he recovered enough to join us for the survey from Sydney to the Queensland border. This work was finally published in a scientific journal, and during his periods of recovering from operations he amused himself by scribbling the basis of a book on the seashore so that people of this maritime nation could know something about the animals round our coast. So that was how Australian Seashores started off.

Didn’t you do a lot of this work by yourself – sometimes in fairly dangerous places?

The Professor had a very good knowledge of the English fauna but not of the Australian fauna (until we finished our survey) and so for each of the animals he used my field notes and descriptions. Also, I collected all the common animals and had them photographed, and arranged the plates for the book.

He was very meticulous. When we discovered, in writing up the scientific report, that one of the very important indicator species was completely missing from our lists north of Cape Byron, he sent me up to make sure we hadn’t missed it. Travelling at that time was still very difficult, and I had to get official permission to get a train to Brisbane. Then I had to get a bus down to Byron Bay. The Cape Byron lighthouse was a rather lonely place some distance out of town, with the rock platform at its base. It was a bit hairy: nobody knew I was there and so I had to be terribly careful that I didn’t slip on the rocks and break my neck. However, the more I searched, the less I could find any barnacles, so we hadn’t made any mistakes in our checking. But that indicates the lengths to which he would go to make certain. This was very good for me: for the rest of my life I never accepted a thing unless I was quite certain about it.

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Australian Seashores: an enduring responsibility

In effect, you edited the whole of Australian Seashores, didn’t you?

The manuscript for the book was given to Angus and Robertson’s before the Professor died, but because of the backlog of publishing after the war it wasn’t published until two years afterwards, in 1952 – which is really very sad. I had to arrange all the plates and the captions, and then there was the proofreading and the index. Elizabeth Pope helped with the proofreading, but I felt responsible and I was determined that the book would be as perfect as possible, because that is the only way Professor Dakin would have liked it. He would have been amazed and very delighted, I’m quite sure, had he known it would go through 11 editions.

Having seen the book through to its publication, you completely revised some of the later editions. In that sense they might be said to be really your work, not his.

Well, yes. They were my responsibility. Angus and Robertson’s, whenever they were running out of stocks, used to ask me if I had any corrections. Unfortunately, they only allowed me to correct names; I wasn’t allowed to alter much of the text because of the expense. For the 1980 edition, however, they approached me saying that they had decided that the book was rather dull and needed uplifting, and how about some colour? I reminded them that in the last three editions they had printed the original six colour plates in black and white (without amending the list of illustrations), but I did provide about 64 colour plates – at my own expense. They didn’t pay me for them.

They turned that 1980 edition into metric, which I did not think was going to make very much change. But also they reprinted the whole book, completely, without telling me. That upset me very much because it meant I had to proof it all. The worst part was that by then there were quite a few differences in the classification, and with a few extra pages I could have brought the book absolutely up to date, instead of just adding footnotes.

Then in 1986 Angus and Robertson’s asked me to bring the book up to date. It was a 1948 text, remember, so I had almost to rewrite it. Worse than that, they wanted it all in colour. I refused point-blank – at the age of 77, I felt it was impossible for me to replace about 900 black-and-whites with colour. However, they kept on badgering me and finally my family persuaded me that I owed it to myself to make sure that the new, colour edition did come out. I had a lot of colour photographs, but I had to get a lot more and all of the work that had been done in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia since the original book, had to be incorporated. So I travelled from the Queensland temperate shores right down to Tasman Island, round the Tasmanian coast, to Western Australia and as far north as Kalbarri. I finished up with more than 500 colour photographs in the new book.

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The life history of a small prawn

Didn’t Professor Dakin get you involved in his work on the breeding of prawns?

Oh yes. That was very interesting. It came about when one of his former radio fans, the wife of a professional fisherman on Tuggerah Lakes, wrote offering to get specimens of things for him, and mentioned that the lake had been closed off from the ocean for a couple of years. The Professor was very interested in the very complicated life history of the commercial prawns, which migrate to sea to spawn. The eggs and the larval stages get wafted back into the estuaries, where they grow up as adults which, after a certain time, go back to the sea. He was anxious to find out whether, if the lake had been closed for at least two years, the prawns were breeding within it. And so for a couple of years we used to go up to Toukley and with the aid of one of the fishermen go out and make plankton catches. We did eventually find that one species was capable of breeding in the lake, but the others definitely went to sea. After his unfortunate death I finished that work, with one of the students, and we published a paper on the life history of this particular small prawn.

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Getting to know the Great Barrier Reef

You are probably best known, Isobel, for your work on the Great Barrier Reef. How did that begin?

In 1946 Professor Dakin was doing a series of articles on the Reef for Walkabout, and he asked me to go up to the Whitsundays to get some further information and some photographs. That was my first experience of the reefs – which really, being mainland islands, were hardly the Great Barrier Reef. But in 1950 I went with a group from Sydney University Zoology Department to Heron Island, and that was absolutely wonderful.

Then in 1954 the Queensland University and the Great Barrier Reef Committee sent an expedition to Low Isles, to which in 1929–30 there had been a year-long expedition composed mainly of people from the northern hemisphere. Their long series of papers covering all the various disciplines was published by the British Museum of Natural History, in London. That was the first time ever that anybody had done such a life history of a coral cay and its reef. When the Queenslanders decided that it would be interesting to go and look at what had happened in the intervening years, the fact that I had been to Heron Island and the Whitsundays was a great help to me and I really got to know something about the Reef. I was working with Professor Stephenson and Dr Robert Endean, and our ecological survey of the intertidal Reef was published.

Also, I think, you took students to Heron Island.

In 1958 the Great Barrier Reef Committee had erected a small research station on Heron Island. I was approached by some of the zoology students belonging to the university’s Biological Society who wanted to go there but had to have a member of staff with them. As the only member of the Zoology Department staff with any knowledge of the reefs, I went with groups of students for quite a number of years after that – paying my own way, of course. I was very relieved that I had some knowledge, because I felt I just had to keep a step ahead of them.

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Extending the seashore record

You mentioned following up the New South Wales work for the original Australian Seashores by going to Victoria and Tasmania. Would you tell me about that?

Professor Murray came as the new professor after Professor Dakin, and his research was completely different. He was interested in the development from cartilage into bone, and all he wanted me to do was to use a microtome and make microscope slides of tissues from the embryos of chicks, turtles and things like that. (Again I was fortunate, because Professor Dakin had taught me the mystique of such things.) Professor Murray said that so long as the marine work I had been doing with Professor Dakin didn’t take up too much of my time, I could go on doing it.

The Professor had envisaged the whole of south-eastern Australia, so Elizabeth Pope and I, with help from Miss Macpherson (from the Victorian Museum), did the same kind of survey along the coasts of Victoria and Tasmania as for New South Wales. Quite a lot of the Tasmanian coast we had to do with the aid of the Commonwealth lighthouse ship, because in those days there were no roads and no means of access to many of the rock platforms. We did trips in the lighthouse ship right down to Maatsuyker Island in the south-west and along the north-west coast as well.

Having more or less written the book which you called W. J. Dakin’s Classic Study, you then wrote your own first book. How did that come about?

In the early 1960s I had a request from Rigby, in Adelaide, to write another book on the seashore. I pointed out that I was already committed to Australian Seashores but they said there was plenty of room for another book. So, using photographs that I had taken with assistance from a friend, and photographs that I had used in the department, I wrote The Fringe of the Sea, which was published in about 1966.

How did you manage to write that while you were working at the university?

I used to write it at home, between about 9 at night and 3 in the morning. Fortunately, my bedroom was away from the rest of the family and so I was able to bash away at the typewriter. By this time Professor Murray had left and had been replaced by Professor Birch. When I just casually handed him a copy of the book, he got rather a shock because nobody knew that I was doing it.

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Writing The Great Barrier Reef: a new record of the corals

How did you come to write your next and probably best-known book, The Great Barrier Reef?

I was approached by the publishers Lansdowne Press, in Melbourne, who had been very impressed on seeing a copy of The Fringe of the Sea, to do a book on the Barrier Reef. I felt that I wasn’t really competent to write a book on the subject: although I had some knowledge of the Reef, I knew nothing of chemistry, botany or physics, and as far as I could see, there was absolutely nothing known of the corals. However, they were quite insistent. Unfortunately, when the photographer who had helped me with The Fringe of the Sea was asked to cooperate, he decided that he couldn’t spare the time. So I asked Lansdowne Press to give me a year to see what I could get in the way of photographs and what sort of a manuscript I could produce. When I sent it to them, they were delighted, and it was published in 1971.

To write that overview of the Reef you really had to start from scratch, didn’t you?

Well, yes. I realised that I had to write this so that it covered the extent of the Reef – people talk about the Great Barrier ‘Reef’ but there are two or three thousand reefs and it’s about 2,000 kilometres long. There were no books of any kind. I did find a publication which covered a trip by Professor Wells (from Cornell University) and Professor Stephenson in the lighthouse ship. They were supposed to have a named collection in the Queensland University, but when I asked about this they [the university?] couldn’t find it. They thought it had gone to the Queensland Museum, but the Museum Director said to me rather apologetically, ‘Well, we have no curator who covers this, but here’s the collection. Make yourself at home.’ I never found the named collection, and most of the corals had names which went back to the last century rather than this. So it was with great trepidation and fear that I attacked the corals at all.

I had different chapters on the coral cays as such and their associated features – the birds, the vegetation and the turtles – and the continental islands, and then I had separate chapters for each of the different faunal groups. Long afterwards Dr Veron (who works now at AIMS, the Australian Institute of Marine Science) and his associates published a series of scientific monographs, and then, 15 years after that first book of mine, he produced a magnificent, very beautiful big tome of taxonomic studies which has in colour practically all the known corals of the Great Barrier Reef. But when I began there was absolutely nothing.

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Sydney to Melbourne via Adelaide aboard the Galathea

You have been invited to accompany scientists on various voyages, one being to Low Isles. What were some of the others?

I went on part of the Danish ship Galathea’s around-the-world cruise in 1951–52. The idea for the cruise had come from the young zoologist and the young naval lieutenant who knew about the voyage of original Galathea 100 years before, but the Danes were unable to carry it out until a few years after the war. They purchased an old British ship – HMS Leith, I think – and manned her mainly with students doing their National Service. She was run as a naval ship. All the young scientists were also doing National Service, and the leader of the expedition was that young scientist who until his death was Denmark’s leading oceanographer – Dr Anton Bruun.

Because of the expense, at the various places they visited they would take on a scientist or two to experience the life on board. For example, they picked up a scientist in New Guinea and brought him to Brisbane, and then brought another one to Sydney. When Professor Murray showed me the information about this, I handed it back to him rather disgusted, saying it was very mean of him to show it to me. He said, ‘Why? You wouldn’t really want to go, would you?’ I said I would give anything to go, to which he replied, ‘Well, the Danes are very much more civilised people than we are, and they just might take you.’ And so he submitted my name, and I sailed with 113 Danish sailors down to Melbourne.

A strike in Melbourne caused the ship which was to have taken all their collection to date, to be held up in Adelaide, and so we went on to there. I had the rather amusing and yet terrifying experience of trawling in Bass Strait, where the Galathea lost a great deal of her equipment. When we went in to Adelaide, I thought I would have to come straight back but they said, ‘Oh no, we’re putting you off in Melbourne.’ So I benefited from the strike: I went to Adelaide and had the extra trip back to Melbourne.

That experience was all very interesting. I learnt a lot about what they had done previously and I was able to observe all their methods. And I did a little bit of work for them on board as well.

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Scientific pioneers on Macquarie Island

A few years later there were the Macquarie Island trips.

Yes. They followed on from our work in Victoria and Tasmania, where the fauna was classified as cool temperate rather than cold. We wondered what would happen in much colder seas, and we decided the only place where we might be able to find this out was Macquarie Island. That was very difficult, because the Antarctic Division’s station there was a case of men only – they’d never had a woman. It took us quite a long time to get permission to go.

In 1959, as the Danish ship which was used happened to have four-berth cabins, they allowed four women to go down. Miss Macpherson, who had worked with me in Victoria and Tasmania, came as my co-worker. We four were the first women scientists ever to visit Macquarie Island. There had been a couple of women in the last century with the whalers and sealers who went there, but no women had ever been there officially with the Antarctic Division. We were warned – rather unnecessarily, we felt – that on our behaviour depended the future of women in the Antarctic.

Then, in early 1960, I happened to meet Dr Law in Sydney and mentioned that we had had very little time to do what we wanted to do and would like to go again if possible. So I went in 1960 and again in 1964. And in 1968 I went again, at the request of the Antarctic Division. The biologist they were sending down was going to work on the seashore and also had to assist with a lot of other projects, and they thought that he would have a head start if I accompanied him and showed him all that I could.

You published a book on this, didn’t you?

Yes. Miss Macpherson and I had decided that we would write this up as a scientific paper. But two young scientists from at least 10 or 15 years before, had done some work which was not published. Professor Stephenson told them that if they didn’t get it published, somebody else would do it before them. When their paper came out, although we found quite a number of differences we felt that our few days' trips didn’t warrant another scientific paper. Then Rigby asked me to write it up as a book, which I did: Shores of Macquarie Island.

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A sea-going lecturer

And then in 1963 you were invited to go on the Stanford University Indian Ocean expedition.

The university had a marine station at Pacific Grove, near Monterey, and had acquired a small vessel to do three-monthly cruises off the Californian coast so that the students could experience the conditions under which their materials were taken. At that time it was the only American ship with equipment for deep-sea work, so the university decided to use it for students on the first leg of a cruise from San Diego to Singapore to join the International Indian Ocean expedition. I was invited to join the cruise because they were going to be doing plankton work and visiting coral reefs, and because, having women students on board, they required a woman as Dean. Dr Bolin, the chief scientist, happened to know me and my work and he wrote to Professor Birch to invite me to be Dean of Women.

Also, I had to give a whole series of lectures. Although Professor Birch said, ‘You can’t possibly give those,’ I knew that if I accepted the invitation, I would have to. They were completely outside my own subject, but fortunately I had six months to prepare them. And from the practical point of view, at least, the plankton work was very important. These were all postgraduate students, who knew far more than I did. Professor Bolin assured me that they’d have forgotten all their original, basic work, but it turned out that most of them were already at marine stations doing work which was far above anything I had ever done. However, I survived.

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Visits and surprises

You have visited scientific centres in many countries, including Britain, the US and Scandinavia.

Yes. In 1956 I took all my long service leave on half pay, so that my six months extended to 12 months away. I visited as many countries and as many universities and marine stations as I could.

I had to give some lectures, a few of which were rather terrifying. In particular, at Columbia University, in New York, I discovered that just down in front of me I had one of the world’s leading professors of genetics and a few other people like that. Also, one of the professors had to go home and bring back his projector for my slides, because the university’s machine did not work. And at Yale University nobody could produce a projector that worked. When finally they brought one in from the Botany Department, nobody knew how to work it except one of the students. But he was very shortsighted and I had to keep on saying, ‘Please focus that.’

You attended scientific congresses in Japan, Canada, Edinburgh, New Zealand, Australia, everywhere. Tell me about some of them.

I attended a Pacific Science Congress in Tokyo and another one in Vancouver, and also a very big meeting held in 1972 by the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Edinburgh to celebrate the centenary of the HMS Challenger’s trip around the world – one of the most outstanding scientific exploration trips ever done. I was very fortunate in meeting there quite a number of friends that I had made overseas.

And those activities took you back to Low Isles, in the Barrier Reef.

In 1973 an International Coral Reef Symposium was held in the Marco Polo and we travelled from Brisbane up to Lizard Island, calling in at Low Isles. That trip included two members of the original British 1929–30 expedition, Professor Steers (from Cambridge) and Professor C M Young (from Glasgow), and I don’t think that any of the Queensland people had been back since our first trip in 1954. They were all shattered by what they found there in 1973.

I had some idea of what to expect, however. In 1969, while I was doing the Barrier Reef book, I finally managed to get permission from the Navigation Department to do a trip in the lighthouse ship Cape Moreton – the only means by which I could get to some of the northern reefs. I was quite shattered when I saw Low Isles, because the areas that I had worked were completely covered with sand and silt, and the corals were dead. I could only assume that in the intervening years since 1954 the tremendous increase in the agriculture of that whole area had led to soil erosion and the washing down of silt by the rivers, so that the currents brought this down.

Then, last year, I happened to be invited up to Cairns for a book launch and I was taken by the Quicksilver people out to Low Isles as their guest. I was able to look at the particular area in which I was very interested, and again I found a tremendous difference. The corals that I had seen covered with silt were now all uncovered and any of them that had been living were completely dead, but the silt had built up to the eastern side and had mangroves growing on it. It was very interesting to see the changes that had taken place.

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‘I don’t think I ever retired’

You’ve always had a strong social conscience, which manifested itself when you were young and helping to form the University Women’s Land Army during the war.

That was started by my friend Dr Helen Turner, who was working in the McMaster Laboratory. We took students up to Penrith in the cold of the August vacations and camped in the boatshed by the river. They worked on dairy and fruit farms, which were very short of labour because of the war. On one weekend Helen and I ran the dairy, dead scared that we wouldn’t get the milk finished in time for it to be collected.

In the Women's Land Army

And right from the beginning of your work you have drawn attention to that complex and fragile interconnection of living forms which is the urgent concern of environmentalists today. In fact, you speak about this in the preface to The Great Barrier Reef.

Yes. That was a great concern of mine.

Have these social and environmental concerns influenced your retirement projects?

I don’t think I ever retired. I have written a couple of books on my own, I have been co-author of two books and I was co-editor of A Coral Reef Handbook, which went through three editions.

Also, from about 1973 to 1979, I was asked by the Fisheries Department to take part in a survey on rock platforms at Plantation Point, in Jervis Bay, and at Ulladulla, where a sewer outfall was going to be put in, in order to see afterwards what effect it had had. I made about 20 different trips down there in a completely voluntary capacity, just with transport provided. But in 1979 I suggested that this kind of survey should really cover a very much longer period than they were prepared for – we found that overnight a heavy storm could cause incredible destruction on the reef, but unless you knew this, it could be misconstrued later on. And on one occasion we found a very extensive settlement of barnacles but the next time we went down, they were all dead. A whole week of searing westerly winds coinciding with midday low tides had killed them all. We knew what had happened, but in another survey it might be assumed that the sewerage had something to do with it, and so I persuaded the department to call it off and stop wasting money.

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Views and visions

Have you found a way for others to use your magnificent collection of colour slides?

Someone suggested to me that the National Library in Canberra had a pictorial section which could look after my slides properly, and so I donated to the Library all the 500-odd slides covering the last edition of Australian Seashores. Then I gave them all my Shores of Macquarie Island slides; and my field notes, manuscripts and all that sort of thing have gone into another section of the Library, where they’ve all been catalogued so that anybody could use them. And the best of my couple of thousand slides of the Barrier Reef have been given to the Queensland Museum, which has constant-temperature rooms for storing them.

And I think you gave some to the Pittwater Council, as well as being involved recently in a program which furthers your concerns.

Yes. The Pittwater Council have a very good Coastal Environmental Centre and some very active people. They’ve been using me as an honorary consultant. I was able to give them some help with their project ‘Foreshores’, which was sent out with a lot of detailed information to all primary schools around the State. Then about four years ago they started another project, ‘Project AWARE on the Rocks’, training volunteers to take people out on the rock platforms. This has been very, very successful, and they have got a grant to carry on the work. This is the sort of thing I have always wanted to happen, and I have been very happy to do all I can to help them make it happen.

Also, I donated the slides I had left – about 400 – to the council. Those have been made into a very beautiful CD ROM which is available through the Environment Centre. In addition, the council have had interpretive books made of aluminium, bolted down onto huge rocks which were put at Mona Vale, Newport and Palm Beach. I believe that other councils are very interested in putting them on too, to explain about the rock platform and the animals that are there.

Interpretive book

This seems to be part of education beginning at the grassroots level, which I think you have always believed in.

I have. And I was delighted, only yesterday, to be taken to Long Reef, where the Fisheries Department in conjunction with Warringah Council have built a small shedlike building with a large panel, on one side of which there is a map of Long Reef and another map showing where the aquatic reserves and marine parks of the New South Wales coasts are situated. Then on the other side many of the common animals of Long Reef have been illustrated, using all my slides. It was wonderful to see that, because it had been a long haul getting this sort of thing going. Long Reef is an outstanding rock platform, but it was heavily used and today is even more so, with enormous groups of schoolchildren going there.

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An honoured name

What else have you done to inform schoolchildren?

I get invited from time to time to give talks to various school groups. I am rather proud, especially, that the Mary MacKillop College at Wakeley asked me to open their science centre in 1972 and named their new biology lab after me, and that later, when the Nazareth Senior College at Bankstown asked me to come along and talk to them, to my amazement they also named a new biology lab after me. That was nice.

And a coral reef, a genus and five species of marine animals have been named in your honour, haven’t they?

They have, yes – two of them named by visiting English scientists and the rest by local people. I was actually taken by the New England University people up to the Swain Reefs, where I flew and sailed over ‘my reef’.

Not surprisingly, you have been showered with honours. Before we look at your academic honours, what are some others that you are particularly pleased about?

At the ANZAAS meeting in 1982 I was given the Mueller Medal. That floored me. I really felt it was something to find my name among those of such august previous recipients. Dr Dorothy Hill, a geologist from Queensland, was the only other woman on the list. It included names like Sir Edgeworth David, Mawson, Florey and Fleming, so I felt that I was truly in among the immortals.

Also, I was rather delighted when two of my books were given the Royal Zoological Society’s Whitley Award – The Great Barrier Reef, for natural history photographs, and The Australian Seashores, for the best text. And the third edition of A Coral Reef Handbook got the Whitley Award for the best handbook. I was co-editor, with Dr Mather (from Brisbane), of the original handbook, which was put out by the Australian Coral Reef Society. This edition was very much enlarged and I was a contributor to it.

To have three Whitley Awards, as you have, would be very unusual.

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Recognition as ‘the last of the great naturalists’

Sydney University honoured you with its first Honorary Master of Science degree.

Yes! That was in 1962. It was rather a shock: I never expected anything like that to happen to me.

When you retired in 1971, however, even though you had this degree and you had lectured all over the place and written all these books, you were classified as a Professional Officer, not as an academic. Why was that?

Until I was appointed, no professor had a secretary at the university. I was in a category all by myself, and I only ever got a salary rise when Professor Dakin went and badgered the Vice-Chancellor. Professor Murray, however, thought that this was rather beneath his dignity, so when the university formed a new group – between the laboratory attendants and the lecture staff – called Technical Officers, he asked me whether I would be interested. He said it would save him from having to worry about my salary but I would lose academic status. I said, ‘Well, Professor, I’ve never had any academic status. It would just give me about another ₤100 a year.’ A little bit later, the Technical Officers decided they wanted to be called Professional Officers instead, and I remained in that category for the rest of my time at the university. I suppose that because I wasn’t a lecturer, neither Professor Murray nor Professor Birch thought there was a place to fit me into for academic status.

In 1984 you received the Order of Australia.

Yes, that’s right. I’m not sure who was responsible for that, but it was for my services to marine biology. And the latest honour – which really left me speechless – has been the award by the University of New South Wales of an Honorary Doctorate of Science.

Isobel, your contributions to marine biology have been enormous, and it is not surprising that you have been called ‘the last of the great naturalists’. Thank you very much indeed for participating in this interview.

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