Australian Biography

Donald Metcalf - full interview transcript

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It depends who you ask. There are some people who really detest this whole thing, they say, ‘I'm a pure scientist, I don't want to be bothered by such crass matters.’ Um, the rest of us know one important thing: if you make a discovery and you want it to be used in the clinic, you must have a patent on it. Why? Because the people who are going to develop your discovery, the drug companies, are not going to touch that discovery unless they have the protection of a patent because they're going to spend up to a thousand million dollars developing your discovery. So they have to have the protection. So as a scientist, you learn that everything that is possibly able to be used commercially must be covered by a patent. And so, we have a ... actually a little department that handles patent work because now our colleagues might look on us and say, ‘You're very commercial, you are doing this to make money.’ And we say, ‘No, we're being practical because we would like our discovery to be used.’ Now, does it change the sort of experiments that I do, or anyone else does? And the answer is, no. Not at all. Nobody has ever set out to do an experiment thinking, hey, this could be used as a drug and make millions. I've never met anyone who had that as their aim.

You might say somebody like Ian Fraser, who developed the vaccine against the papilloma virus, for cancer of the uterus, didn't he have in mind that one day this would make millions? I don't think so, I think what he had in mind was getting a vaccine that would prevent cancer of the cervix, number one. And maybe way down the line, number 10, and yes, it can be exploited. No, I don't think scientists think that way, they don't ... they don't sit down ... now if you're in an industry, employed as a scientist, maybe you would sit down and think, ‘What are the big needs, what's missing in medicine that could be developed? Is there a tablet that would cure the symptoms of influenza? Let's do it, let's make it.’ But not in academic life.

But sometimes in academic life funding is coming from drug companies and so on for specific research, I mean, if we were in a situation where the ratio of funding moved so that there wasn't any public funding and everything was done ...

Yeah, that would be a real problem. Ah, at the moment, the way it works is that, yes, some of our money comes from industry, let's say at most ... a third, let's say it was a third. What's happened is, we've made discoveries and then gone to industry and say, ‘Listen, this could be of interest to you, will you help us develop it more quickly by giving us some extra money?’ And the answer is, yes, they'll do it. They'll fast track it. But it's a discovery that was made by us, by accident or other ... for other reasons. So yes, you can look at a place like ours and say that there's a lot of industry money coming into this thing, aren't you just employees of industry? And we would do anything to avoid that. We would never do any research for a fee. Then we're just employees and we don't want that.

So you wouldn't like to see a day in which a government moved out of research funding altogether, which could improve the situation?

No, it loses the buffer you have between the freedom to do what you want to do and being an employee. If you were an employee you might as well join the drug company, you'd get a higher salary and a more secure job. That's for sure, because people try to headhunt us and give us bigger salaries working for industry. But it's better to be free and poor, sometimes poor or always feeling tense — where is the money coming from? Nobody's ever discovered anything that I can recall by design. Nobody sat down with a piece of paper and said, ‘We will now figure out a way to cure measles.’ It ... it's done in this sort of haphazardly way by accident, sometimes hopefully by design, but you can't write prescriptions for discovering things.

If your goal is altruistic, that is, wanting to find something to cure people, why does it matter whether you register the patent before somebody else or not, given that the result will be the same for the world at large?

That's a good question. Um, often it's more complicated than that. I mean, somebody else may have made the same discovery but their background is different, and the discovery patented may need to be amplified and extended and you may have the ability to do that, and the other group doesn't. So, a drug company faced with the choice — which one do you go for? — would go for the one that has the will and the ability to do the necessary work in-between development. And that's what happened with the CSFs, that CSFs required a lot of spadework and testing in the development stage rather than the discovery stage, and we were fitted to do that because we'd done the discovery bit. But it was a sort of applied research almost, that all the tests on the patients was, you could say, routine testing, no it wasn't because it made new discoveries, but we were about the only place that was set up to be able to do that. So if somebody in Sydney had made the same discovery, it's possible that they couldn't have helped in the development so there is a difference. It's still nice to be the one that has the patent first. And you're right, in principle it wouldn't matter how the other person might be able to tie up with somebody who developed it. So are you saying that I'm not really altruistic, I'm competitive? Yes, I'm competitive, absolutely.

But altruistic as well?

It's funny, the people, the Japanese group that beat us to cloning G-CSF and therefore had the patent for G-CSF, wrote ... what you have to do is still write a scientific paper about it and they submitted their paper to Nature, and it was sent to me to referee. Their head competitor had just scooped me by this paper. Now my reaction was, great, I don't mind losing. I mind a bit but I don't really mind losing and I spent the night changing the English of it so that it was acceptable as a publication. But I'm a bit unusual. But that ... that happened twice, happened twice with the same group. One of the smartest scientists in our field is Nagato, who's Japanese, and he just keeps discovering things, he's amazing.

And you admire him?

Oh yes. He's a nice bloke.

Do you learn from him?


Does he learn from you?

No, probably not, I'm sure he doesn't, no, you work on different ends of the earth and how do you know you don't learn from people? I suppose you learn by seeing their success stories and thinking, not consciously but unconsciously, maybe you do. Um, I'm sure that you do learn from others, I don't think anyone knows how to do everything.

You described how sitting at a bench, working long hours every day, is actually physically very demanding. It doesn't look physically demanding so how is it demanding? What strains does it put on you?

Have you tried sitting in a church stall for two hours, or three hours? That's demanding. Um, what happens is that you get back aches and neck aches and stiff and physically it's very tiring. I mean, at the end of a day you are dog-tired, physically. Now you mightn't have moved or done much in the way of running up and down stairs but that's tiring, sitting, holding your muscles absolutely bone still.

Has it taken a toll on you?

Well, I've had a lot of back disease and a lot of back operations. Um, was it caused by what I was doing? I suspect not. I suspect I had the genetic make-up that made for bad discs and they popped out and that's what happened. It's just that when you work at a microscope it doesn't pay to have back problems because you get terrible backaches, stiff backs, you ... I used to spend at least a week in every year with stiff backs, for 20 years, and that probably wouldn't have happened if I'd had some other occupation. I would hate to have been a surgeon because I think I would've been in bed most of the year but, you know, it is physically demanding.

But not even chronic back aches could keep you away from the microscope?

Um, you have to earn your living. And that's the way I earned my living. Oh, no, you have to persist, if you're persistent those things can be lived through.

Now we've talked about the changes that you've seen in your lifetime. One of the major changes that you've lived through are the changes for the position of women in society. And, of course, in science. What have you observed in the time that you've been in science about the changes in ... for women? Were there many about when you started?

Well, there were a fair number of women at work in the institute that I joined 50 years ago. They weren't in positions of power, they weren't heads of units and they weren't the director ... what did happen was when they got married, they had to leave, that was routine, I think that's true. Certainly if they became pregnant they had to leave. And now of course that's changed. So now, there's a bigger percentage of women in the institute and maybe 70 percent, we have a woman director, we have a woman manager, so top positions are women. And if the women get pregnant, they're on maternity leave and they have the expectation of being able to come back to precisely the job they had when they left. Which can be quite disruptive but there it is. So that's changed, I think if you asked a woman what's changed, they'd say, nothing much. Where are the women that are running departments and deciding on research projects and changing the face of science through their discoveries? And there, the numbers are smaller and the reason for that is a bit hard to figure out, because they start with what seemed to be the same advantages as the men but, of course, that's not true, if they're married, they've got to go home at night, they've got their children to look after, they're distracted; it isn't the same for a man. So it isn't a fair competition but having said that, I think there is a sex difference, in ... call it what you like, aggressiveness or determination to have your way even though people disagree, that might make a difference, just speculation. There are plenty of successful women scientists around but in terms of the numbers that start off with equal academic records and are put through what seems to be the same set of hurdles, the differences do come out. That's a very sexist attitude perhaps but I'm just observing a passing scene.

In your teams have you found much difference in people working under you and with your general leadership between the men and the women?

I think you see the same differences. One or two of my people have been extremely aggressive in the nicest possible way of trying new things and rounding up people to help them exploit things. And they're one day going to be the leaders of the pack. Um, did we have any women who were that way inclined? Maybe I chose the wrong sort of people to start with but ... not exhibiting these same qualities of aggression and dominant leadership, I think it's random chance and I ... I just can't think of anyone in our particular staff who would be in that degree of a ... a real up and comer, stop nowhere, scientist. Which you sort of need to succeed.

Yes, why do you need that style of leadership? Could you conceive of other styles of leadership that might result in ... similar success or do you think that you can only have an aggressive style?

I think if you were a mathematician or a physicist, you could afford to be introverted, preferring solo work, thinking with your head and then the chances are they have to be equal, that a woman and a man would be equally likely to be smart and hit on this idea and be successful. But the sort of biology we do does need teamwork and it is a lot of hard yakka and a lot of it boringly repetitious. In other words it requires that determination and the aggression, if you like, to push it through and that's where I think you end up needing different qualities. I can't think of somebody ... I keep thinking of our staff, as an example, 600 people, who should be a fair sample. Is there anyone in that building who single-handedly thought of something that was so outstandingly good that it created a new field and made a new discovery? And the answer is, no. There are ... there are groups that have done this but not just a single person doing it. It's interesting because you look back in the 19th century and you say, ‘What about Pasteur, he must have just been a single person thinking of this?’ Well, we're not sure whether he had a whole lot of people working with him and he was just ruling the roost or whether, in those days, that was good enough, one good person, one set of ideas. Doesn't seem to work that way now, it's too complicated.

At a personal level you've spent your life surrounded by women. You were the only boy with two sisters, and then when you married you had four daughters. What part have women played in your life, as a person?

Surrounded by women, I'm dominated by women. I have women bosses, my goodness. Um, our children were always, what would now be called, women's libbers. They were always ... I think the school taught them to be free thinking and stand up for themselves. So, there was never any question of dominating them and saying, do this or do that. Choose this career, choose that. They decided what they wanted to do. Um, I think you learn, I hope you learn, to be more tolerant of the differences between men and women and ... and there are lots of differences. Lots of strengths that women have that men don't have. And networking ability in times of trouble, I think women are much better equipped for that than men. Um, and you are protective of women in the sense that you don't like to see them exposed to footballing hoboes and ... I think you do. For all I know, parents of boys are equally protective and don't like to see them being led astray, I have no experience.

Were you disappointed that you didn't have a son?

Sort of, after about the third one, I gave up. And thought I must not have a Y chromosome, there's no point. No, they're all very different children. Some are ... some have natural aggression, some have high spirits and high wits, and some are stable, and none of them particularly normal.

Did you ever feel any kind of conflict between the amount of work you did and the demands of home?

I'm sure there was — did I feel the conflict? I'm sure the conflict existed, I'm sure that nobody can work long hours, six days a week and not be accused of ignoring their families. Um, I used to feed all the children breakfast, I'd take them to school when they were small children and later on those sort of chores fell to my wife completely, so that their love of literature probably came through her, and it's very hard to avoid parents having an influence on children in a passive sort of way. Um, no, we always went on holidays together and I don't ... how do you ... how do you know whether you're ignoring your family? You need to ask the family.

But ... [interruption] ...

As the family.

Have you ever had complaints from them?

No. No, I don't think so. I don't think so, I think doctors are in a different kettle of category aren't they? I don't ... I can't believe that children of doctors complain and say, ‘My father's never home, he's always busy’. Whereas they might if you were a banker or somebody. Hope they would.

Do you have much to do with your grandchildren?

Ah, not much. They all live in Melbourne and I see them. I figure that I spent a lot of man-hours raising my children, it's somebody else's job to raise the next lot. It is said that grandchildren and grandparents are natural allies but, no, we don't see much of them.

You've said that you and Jo have a lot of differences in your outlook on the world, that you've had a good marriage. Has Jo been interested in your work?

Um, in as much as she was a nurse and therefore and her father was doctor and therefore was a sort of medical background, yes. But in the day to day work she doesn't understand what's at issue and doesn't enquire soulfully every night, ‘How did it go today?’ No, no.

Do you prefer that?

I think it's a reasonable way to go on. She has her priorities, she would much rather be figuring out what the grandchildren were doing than ... than worrying about whether I've got the right formula.

You've been married for a good many years, what's the secret of a long marriage like that, do you think?

Habit, I think, isn't it? Ah, look, if you can't figure out how to live together after 50 years, you might as well give up. What's the secret? I think tolerance is the secret and everyone's different and we're all bound to have lots of differences from your spouse and you just recognise it and figure out a way to get around it. Develop it, share it, change your ways. I'm sure she's changed her ways.

And so, in looking back, you know, over the sweep of your life, what part has the family played in that, in your life, and what significance has it had for you?

It's been ever present, hasn't it? We had our first child within a year of getting married so we had no ... as is common now, a married life in the absence of children for long periods, so we didn't have that, so they've always been there. So how do I know whether it had an influence? You ... one doesn't know. Ah, I suppose, having families is a stimulus for work and making sure they get fed but did they change the way I did an experiment? No. Did they stop me from doing an experiment? No. No, we managed to do everything that needed to be done.

Would you describe yourself as a workaholic?

Probably. Others would. Is it a workaholic if you're having fun doing it? I don't know. I suppose you're a workaholic.

Now, turning away from work a little to your interests, you've talked about your interest in military matters, stemming from your childhood, you were a cadet at school. Did you do anything more with the army after you left school?

No. I joined the navy when I was a resident for a short-term appointment, which somehow lasted five years before I could figure out how to get out of it ...

How do you join the navy as a resident? How did that work?

They went recruiting, they were desperate. It was towards the end of the Korean War and they were desperately short of doctors and they went to Prince Alfred and said, ‘Does anyone want to volunteer to join the navy as a doctor on a short-term appointment?’ So I put my hand up and ...


Why? Because I wanted to be near my beloved, who was a nurse at Prince Alfred. It's a strange reason to join the navy, isn't it? It was true because I was working at the naval hospital at Balmoral and knew I'd be there so it was a way to stay in Sydney and get paid and there it was. And so it was an aberration. What I thought you were going to ask me, what ... what reading I was up to and do I spend a lot of ...

No, I wanted to ask, did you ever find yourself doing naval ... naval-related work?

In later life? Not really. No. I ... when I was in Boston I was sent down to Washington for a little while, representing the Australian Navy, but it was for medical work ... it was pretty much.

What do you do to relax?

Relax. I can't do any sport now because of all my back operations, I just can't do a sausage, so I've been essentially crippled for 40 years. So what do I do? I read books. I read other detective stories or war history, military history. Strange combination. And I listen to music, I can't play music, there's no tradition of music in the family, but for whatever reason I like classical music mostly and I have it on most times of the day when I'm home, never have it at work, it ... some people have headphones on at work and I just dismiss this, they're not paying attention to what they're doing. But at home, when I'm writing and there's a lot of writing to do, I'll have music on all the time. And then you discover they're very interesting differences between composers. You can have Mozart on in your background and it doesn't interfere with your thought processes and what you're writing. You can have Haydn on. You can't have Beethoven. Beethoven's very demanding. If you listen, the volume of the music goes up and down, you've got to pay attention all the time, you find yourself just stopping and listening to it. So you have favourites you can ... you can get by with Vivaldi quite nicely. Um, so that goes on as the constant ... go to concerts, we go to opera, we've been going for 40 years but so ... passive musicians, not ... my wife plays the piano but I don't. So I can't play and I can't tell you, I can't read the music and I can tell you when they're playing the wrong notes and whether I don't like it or not but it's as an amateur music listener. Can I tell a good book when I'm reading it? I'm a little more skilled at writing and, yes, there are some authors who have a superlative way of writing a sentence and a half that says everything — beautiful. And you sort of look at them, you dribble, and you say, I wish I could write like that.

And the visual arts? You're a very visual person, you said.

Um, yeah, we go through all the museums when we're travelling and we had a competition whether we could see every painting that Vermeer had ever painted, I think there are only 28, and living in Holland we saw about six of them and we ... we slowly got up to 27, I think, but there's one the Queen has that she doesn't often show to people, we ... we've never seen that one. Does that make us an art lover? No, we ... we have our likes and the Dutch painting school is one of our likes.

Talking of the Queen, in the course of your life, you've met quite a lot of famous people through your work ...

Haven't met the Queen.

Is there anybody, you know, you've met various prime ministers and ... and so on, is there any of the people that have been there when you've got prizes or have been there to congratulate you that really stand out in your memory?

As exceptional? Ah, I have to say that Hillary Clinton is a very impressive woman. We had lunch with her when I was getting the Lasker Prize in New York. She was impressive. Some of them impress you with their stupidity and their arrogance, and they shall remain nameless. We all can imagine who they might be.

No, we can't.

Oh yes, you can. Um, it ... it's interesting when an institute like ours becomes famous, it gets on the VIP shortlist for visitors that get sent ... President of Indonesia will drop in. Well, what he knew about medical research you could put on the back of a stamp. But he seemed to be enthusiastic and ... and so it went. So you have a lot of strange visitors come but Margaret Thatcher would be there, Duke of Edinburgh would come. And simply because it's somewhere to send them that will fill in a half-day for them, we think. Um, so you see a few and it's interesting to see them in real life and talk a little bit with them and see the ... a glimpse of the real person behind the publicity but most of them are pretty much as you would have expected from their public visage. Occasionally you meet, there was a German woman, Minister of Health, who seemed particularly smart and with it, I can remember. No, it ... they're a mixed bag, like the rest of us.

What was it that impressed you about Hillary Clinton?

Her intelligence, she is one very bright, perceptive person. It was very interesting. Mary Lasker — and the Lasker Prize is about the two Laskers — was about 80 at the time and she was frail and she was seated in a low armchair in the room with her relatives and hangers-on waiting for Hillary Clinton to arrive so that the luncheon could begin. And I can remember them all saying, ‘How will we arrange this? How will we arrange ... how do you bring in the First Lady and greet the grand lady?’ As it were. She came in the door, just plonked down on her knees and said, ‘Hi, I'm Hillary.’ So there was that side to her and then there was the smart side, picking up on snippets of conversation and welding them into a talk that she thought ... developed on top of her head to an audience of a thousand top New Yorkers, and that — that's being smart, I think. Seemed a sensible woman. I think she might become the next president.

Would you like to see that?

Yeah, it'd be great.

Do you think she's got the aggression that's needed, for doing it?

I think she does. Yeah. I think she's a tough lady, probably.

Now, there are a couple of things that I ... I need to pick up on that Rod's pointed out, for example, one of the things that I asked you about this morning we sort of spoke over each other a bit. And so we didn't sort of get the story quite clean, and that was the story of your receiving the news that you'd got the Carden Fellowship when you were in the surgeon's theatre. So I'm going to ask you a question about that because we ... that's such a good story, we want it.

I tend to exaggerate, that story, who knows what actually happened.

A bit of licence is okay, just a little.

The characters are all dead so I can say what I like, can't I?

You can say what you like, yeah. So I'll just ask you ... I'll just ask you about that again.

How did I find out about the Carden Fellowship? My memory, and it could be wrong, is that it ... that the telegram inviting me to come ... no the telegram telling me that I had been awarded the fellowship came when I was in the operating theatre and it, being a Thursday afternoon, it was chest operation day and that was a horrendous day physically because keeping your ribs separated, apart on a patient and working down a hole and being terrorised by the surgeon was ... was never pleasant and not when it went on hour after hour. And she came in the middle of that and said, ‘You've been awarded this fellowship.’ And I said, ‘Great. And you can get stuffed too.’ To my boss. Or words to that effect, I can't remember whether I actually said that but I said, ‘I'm free of you lot.’ Everyone backed back in horror and the operation went on but that was great. Because I really did think, standing there, this is a way out, this is what I want to do, this is the escape from this sort of hellish occupation here, being mistreated and there's got to be something in cancer research.

Why did you dislike this surgeon so much?

He was incredibly demanding and when you're working as an assistant you are holding forceps that are tying off blood vessels and if you use a diathermy, you touch the forceps with what's a live electrical wire and it just sst! ... burns the vessel and burns it together. But if you were slow at releasing the artery forceps, he would just jab the diathermy needle into your hand. Now, he was wearing thick rubber gloves — the residents have ones that have been used 20 times over and very thin — and the electric current would just go into your arm and it would go out of control, was like having an electrocution. Well, you didn't have to do that. You could tell your assistant to get a move on or do something. But surgeons in those days were inclined to be very arbitrary and bullying and he was the worst one in the hospital. So much so that they had to pick particular residents who they thought could stand this sort of mistreatment and not break down and go off sick. So it was not a happy time. What I find very hard to believe is that same surgeon, working in a private hospital in Sydney, Lewisham, was sweetness and light, they used to love him. But he for some reason in Prince Alfred just chose to be a bully. Was he a good surgeon? Yeah, I think he was a good surgeon. Did it matter that he burnt my hands to hurry it along? Possibly it made the operation a bit better but one doesn't know.

And how did he react when you told him to get stuffed?

He looked a bit surprised, I think. Because it's the first time anyone had actually, I think, told him that he wasn't up to speed.

Did this piece of larrikinism make you popular among your fellow ... ?

I think I was a hero for the night. Hero. Heroes last a very short time as residents; by the next morning you're dead. But I was happy I had a fellowship.

The other lovely story that I'd like you to tell us sort of clean is picked up from when you described Gus Nossal, that you walked out of the animal house and you were emerging like Fidelio.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 11