Australian Biography

Donald Metcalf - full interview transcript

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What happened for you personally when Gus Nossal took over the Hall Institute?

The first thing I remember him doing, was saying, ‘Look, would you be the assistant director?’ And I said, ‘Sure that's great.’ ‘And would you move your lab back into the main building onto the sixth floor?’ Which hadn't actually been completed and was ... could be fitted out and used. And I said, ‘Yes, please.’ And so my little group, which had about 10 people in it, sort of emerged out of the animal house and it literally did have bars on the lower windows, like the prisoners out of Fidelio did when they flung the grates open. Um, and so we emerged into the sunlight and joined the population. It was great. The people that were there, and the former manager is one of the ones, she still remembers that as being like straight out of Fidelio. Yep. That was ... that was a very dramatic time for us, dramatic change in fortunes for us. From being still visiting and attached ... to belonging ... to running the place, damn it, in the best, newest lab in the whole place.

Okay, a less salubrious tale was ... concerns ... you asked about Burnet and what his mannerisms and manner were and he was modest. But he, when he won the Nobel Prize, he felt rightly that people round the world should acknowledge that he was number one and issue him invitations. So when the Japan Microbiological Association was having their annual meeting, goodness knows who'd want to go to that. Ah, he wrote to the organisers and said, ‘I really think you should invite me there.’ And so this obviously put the Japanese in ... into a fit of terror because it's 1962, they'd had few foreigners there. I happen to have a Japanese post-doc working with me, he was the first or the second in Australia. So, he'd forgotten that he'd told us at morning tea that he'd written to Japan essentially demanding an invitation. So then he came in a few weeks later, shy, and said, ‘Look what the Japanese have offered me.’ And it was a letter of invitation. Furthermore it was to meet the Emperor and to receive an award. And isn't that nice of them? And he'd sort of forgotten that he'd ... he'd spilt the beans by saying he'd written this letter demanding to be ... to be so honoured. Anyway, he went to Japan, duly met the Emperor, came back with this beautifully lacquered box in which was this enormous Japanese decoration that had only, I think, for the first time been awarded to a foreigner — I think it was the Order of the Chrysanthemum, Second Class, or the Rising Sun, Second Class. Anyway, beautiful lacquered box with the traditional Japanese writing on the lid. Which he couldn't read. And so he gave it to my Japanese post-doc who was a high-born, from a famous family, saying, ‘Can you read this inscription on the box?’ And he picked it up and was fumbling and the Japanese don't like to admit they can't do anything. Ah, was fumbling and oohing and aaahhing, and for some reason I said, ‘Give it to me, I think I can read it. Think I can read it. It says, Made in Japan.’ And the sort of stony silence round the dining room and I was dead for the next six months. Because in those days, just like the headline on the newspaper this morning, Made in Japan used to be a ... something that you said for something that's cheap and nasty but what made me say things like that? And cause my slow progress in science? I do not know. But every so often one would pop out and did not help my career at all. And that story is told all around the world, I've heard that story told in Russia. Accurately. How does ... how does it spread, that sort of story? I don't know.

Maybe it's not just Australians but the whole world who love irreverence?

Ah, or else there's not much to laugh about in science. I don't know. I wish I had a smaller mouth sometimes. I mean, that's ... that's insulting, isn't it? Would I have liked somebody to say that to me? I wouldn't have minded. But ...

Do you know what it did say?

I don't, I have no idea. It may have said, Made in Japan. I really don't know, it ... no, it's a nice medal, I have to say that. And nowadays, Made in Japan, is a pretty good advertisement if it's a watch ... [General discussion about questions that may have been missed and conjecture about who took the photograph that went on the postage stamp that Don was on] ...

Was it David Moore?

I think that sounds ... yeah. And he was hired by Australia Post to come and take the photographs of the people on the stamp. I thought they were going to do drawings but they had used photographs, and he came into the Australia Post headquarters downtown and they were obviously frightened out of their wits by him. He sort of swung in as a prima donna, dropped his bag on the end of the table, sort of lay back at the end of this table talking to me down the other end, with his camera on the table just going, t-t-t-t-t. And then left. And they bowed and scraped their way out and I didn't really know who he was or that he was Mr Big. Ah, and the photograph they chose, I don't think's particularly good, but yeah, that's the one. Ah, that's ... that was a fun occasion. They're actually having a 10th anniversary of a series next Australia Day, when all the distinguished people will reunite in all their glory. That was Australia Post. It's good fun. They gave us a tremendous pile of free stamps and, of course, they used to be 45 cents, now they're 50, so you have to stick another five cent stamp on, but I still use them. Any nasty, overdue bills, I use Gus Nossal's face on them and put them on, any nice letters I'll put mine on. Oh dear. Small things in life ... [interruption] ...

... And you ... you're at a disadvantage because technically you're not a musician so you can't say the right technical expressions, never the less, you have ... there are all sorts of fascinating things about music, for example. What fascinates me is that music written by kids of seven, eight, 10, 12 ... so who have we got? Beethoven, Mozart. We've got the Rossini String Quartets written by a 16-year-old? Over a weekend, larking around with his friends. You've got Mendelssohn — that whole swag of them. That's mind-blowing to me because I was a highly intelligent child and I could no more have done any of that than fly, so I'm sort of just fascinated by that. I have collected all the pieces that are written by young people and they're just astonishing, so there are odd quirky things about it and ... and you find odd records. There's Frederick the Great, was a flautist of note, and he had composers hired to write music for him, his flute concertos are great. Now Frederick the Great, whoever talks about him being a great flautist? Nobody. He built Prussia up but ... so there are all sorts of oddball things about music that aren't talked about too much so it strikes the fancy. Got nothing to do with science in a way. At all.

That's reminded me of something I really would like to ask you. Everybody knows that you have to be intelligent to be a scientist, and that intelligence is very important. What about creativity? What about that thing that allows people to think differently?

Well, that's how you earn your bread and butter, isn't it? If you ... if everyone in this room can think of the same experiments to do, nobody would get paid to do it, I mean, it's an obvious thing to do. Now you're getting paid a salary and given grant money to do something, often it's quite unexpected, it's lateral thinking, it's ... it's a jump, it might be a little jump, but it's a jump. And that's creativity. If you can actually strike out in a new patch and make a new discovery and develop a field that's creativity. Ah, can you express it in some way? Well, no, not ... not naked creativity. Can you make a graph that shows the data in a way that nobody else has ever shown it? Can you make it an artistic presentation? No, that's not the sort of creativity that's welcome. Can you write the prose in a way, in your scientific paper, that's elegant and a joy to read? Yes, you can do that. And some have that capacity. I take a lot of care in the way my figures are drawn because that's to me an important part of it, and the photographs look great and they're saying what they're supposed to say, and that's artistic and creative to me. Um, so that's creativity, discovery.

You've got a daughter who's a visual artist, and you're a very visual person. Do you ever see any connection between practicing the arts and undertaking the sort of things that you do?

It's hard to see an obvious connection because I can't paint and therefore I've ... she's painted portraits of me and I've seen her at work and her tongue out and her concentration and, you know, that's a skill that you just have no ability to feel what's going on in her head. But on the other hand sometimes she'll paint a picture that just has a few traffic barriers and this and that and to ... oh, that looks good. And sometimes you recognise that sort of thing just travelling around somewhere, maybe there is something in common between me being able to see a pattern that's rather nice and funny and she seeing that and making a painting of it. Ah, otherwise it's a bit hard to see connections. I mean, there are artists who painted exact replicas of real-life things, like in the Banks Florilegium, where there's absolutely accuracy in the shape of the leaves and the seeds and the roots and so on. And that you could say is a scientific drawing, it is a scientific experiment, you're accurately representing what's there. Um, so there’s that sort of connection. I thought, I thought you might say, Well, there ... aren't there a lot of doctors who are composers? And there are, and what's the connection there? And I don't know, I think that's just chance probably.

Some people say that there's a big connection between mathematical ability and musical ability but there are a lot of exceptions to that as well.

I imagine that Bach must have been a fabulous mathematician. Never put to the test to see what he could actually do because there was no formal, I think, algebra then. But to be able to write his style of music, with its complexities and interwoven variations and so on, that has to be mathematical. And that was just instinctive, I mean, that was impossibly complex. I've heard it explained and analysed and that ... that's real smart ... smart creativity, isn't it?

Would you say you loved your work?

Yes. I trust that everyone loves their work. I mean, it's really ... it's horrible to think of doing something that you don't really enjoy. Now what's the difference between enjoying and loving? I don't think there is a difference, it's just words. Are you passionate enough to fight for the right to keep doing what you're doing? It's ... that's something else again. It's not love, that's passion, isn't it? No. I ... yeah, I love what I'm doing, what the hell. That's what I do, if you didn't love it, it's going to be a hard day's work. I like the sort of people I work with, I like the ... the whole bit that we've been talking about — competition, discovery, excitement, disappointments, major disappointment — the whole bit.

Would you describe for us what a typical day at the office is like for you?

Well, it looks, it could well look very boring, I mean, what has happened in the last 30 years for me is that there are techniques that you start that last one week. So if you start an experiment today, being Wednesday, you know next Wednesday you're going to have those cultures and you have to analyse them, count them, do something with them. So most days, you've set up something a week before so it's waiting for you to do. And it's a bad day if you haven't got something to do because I like to get started at 7am and, before too many people are around, get stuck into the physical part of actually analysing what's happened, what was started a week before. Um, that might go on until morning tea, stop for 10 minutes, morning tea, then you start again and go through to lunchtime, you have a seminar often, might be giving a seminar, more likely listening to one, or if you're not then you have a 10-minute break for a sandwich, and then you start again and you work through. Now in the interim, there might be half a dozen people have come into your room, your office where you're working, discussing projects that we have got going in common. What should we do next? What's happened here? What's ... what do we have to do? Um, somebody might come in with a grizzle and saying, ‘Look we've run out of mice, have you got any to give me’ or ‘the machine's broken and I don't know how to fix it, who should we call?’ Ah, the airconditioning may have broken down, might have people clambering over your head, fixing something. Um, a high-tech institute always has things breaking down, that's why they have a big engineering department. Um, there probably are a few visitors in the place from overseas that you may or may not get to meet. And then you might decide it's time you start to collate all the data that you got last week that's sitting around in bundles before you forget what you did. And spend the time number crunching and drawing up tables, planning figures. Going down to the art department, grovelling and trying to get them to draw them for you, and you spend a lot of time grovelling, getting people to agree to do something. Then it's time to go home. You go home with a bag full of work that you hope you're going to do, which would be papers to read, things to referee, papers to write yourself. And if you don't sit listening to music and you're wafting off into dreamland, you might actually do some of it before bedtime. Before bed you will start reading whatever book it is you're reading. Ah, that's an average day. Terribly exciting.

So even the god professor has to grovel?

Oh yes, there's a lot of grovelling in life. Grovelling means being extremely polite to colleagues who have special skills that you need.

What happens if they come in while you're counting?

They know to stand in the doorway looking forlorn and lost until I lift my head up because I can sort of see them out the corner of my eye but I will not stop in the middle of counting, not when you're up to 183. There's just no way I'm going to stop and most of them are pretty savvy about that.

Is there any mistake that you remember making that can still make you jump with horror to think about it?

That was absolutely wrong? That took years to unravel and get straight? Ah, not really, nothing, nothing major, I mean most things you do end up having a different twist to what you think of, so the discussions of scientific papers do not make pleasant reading years later, because they're just witless and silly. I mean, silly things that aren't your fault. Like, until 1970 ... oh let's say 1980, people did not know that on the surface of a cell there were special molecules called receptors that allowed things like CSFs to lock onto the cell and tell the cell what to do. So all the discussion of what CSFs were doing before then, reads like stone age stuff, because you had no way, you had no idea maybe the ... these molecules got inside the cell somehow and went somewhere and did something. So discussions and ideas change very markedly over a decade. So — is that wrong? No, it's not wrong, as long as the observations are correct and the context is the same, you'll make the same observation in a hundred years time. Ah, that's okay. So in that sense, there haven't been any complete disasters but most often things happen for a reason that you don't understand and that later events, more information, will say why it was happening. So if you're smart enough and observant enough, you describe what happened and that's right. So do the same set of experiments in 20 years’ time, exactly the same thing will happen, but now you know the reason why it's happening, it's different.

Um, there aren't ... I can't think of many bad mistakes in science where absolutely wrong ideas, completely ... there probably are examples, there might be examples. In the years before we got started, some German got a Nobel Prize for claiming that he'd discovered a worm in the stomach that caused stomach cancer. He got a Nobel Prize, almost, just for saying that. It was a bit political in the mid '30s, that was totally wrong. Totally wrong. That sort of big, big mistake, there are the occasional, once every five years, major fakers that are caught out and are just telling lies and manufacturing all their data. Ah, they're spectacular and make great reading in Nature but pretty rare.

Is there ... at the time that you decided that you would take up the Carden Fellowship, there were people who said that coming to Melbourne would destroy their international careers ...

Their careers, yes.

Now you had the potential and I'm sure you would have been offered opportunities to work in places other than Melbourne. Is that a decision you've ever regretted?

I don't think so, look, as a first-year resident you are the lowest of the low. You are so low you're invisible. And you are untrained, non-entity. To be offered something, a paid research job, was a rarity and that ... that didn't happen. Now, could I have ended up working in Sydney University? I suppose so. Eventually or ...

Later in life, for example, you know, you went to Boston and you've had stints ...

Oh you ... you got invited to positions in Boston and I got invited ... I got begged to take a job as a professor in North Carolina when in Buffalo, they're the ones I remember. And I'm thoroughly glad I didn't do it, because I would have hated to have had a family grow up in the US but I haven't made a career decision that I regretted, no. Which mostly meant doing nothing: not accepting the blandishments of some promises.

You didn't think you could do better anywhere else?

Ah, I knew that I had what I needed and one way or another we'd succeed in what we were trying to do. I didn't want to be running 500 people and getting half a million a year, I mean, gee, no.

What does money mean to you?

Not a ... not a great deal. I mean, you need a certain amount of money to live but not in a grand style. I mean, you don't have enough time if you're working five and a half days a week, when are you getting the time to spend all this money? Do you want an enormous house that's too big to manage? Do you need luxurious furniture? You don't. Um, do you have enough money to buy the books you want, if you're a bookaholic? Yes, now that's important. You go down to JB Records which has got cut price CDs and you take your luck down there. And, what else do you need money for? Look it's ... the answer is, when you're working you don't need to get dressed up in finery, you don’t ...

It also sounds as if ... when you made a decision not to accept offers of jobs in the States, you were putting your family before work.

Ah, I think, no. Well I figured ... I would never have been afraid to work alone or to build up a little group to work independently. I value being independent and being able to do what I want to do and I knew I could do that in Australia. When you've worked in the States, and I've worked there for two places, you realise that life's a bit of a delusion. Yes, you've got these grand titles, you've got the large salary and you've got an awful lot of people interacting, telling you what to do and pressuring you this way and that. And it's not a great life. It's not. And the quality of life isn't a patch on the quality of life in Australia. It's not a patch. I sometimes wish we'd lived in Europe because you've got access to all the ... the splendours of Europe but then you say, well, which country would you like to live in? And you can think of 50 reasons why you didn't want to live in places. You couldn't speak the language and that the UK was for one reason or another not very satisfactory, so stay home.

What does it mean to you to be Australian?

All of the things we've just mentioned. To have the tolerant society, to have freedom to do what you want, to have ... to still have people that are not all that fussed about earning large sums of money, I think. Certain simplicity in life. They're some of the things, there are a million things.

If push had come to shove and you'd had a choice between things that would help your scientific work and issues about your family, and this is a very hypothetical situation, because it never happened to you, but how would you choose?

I'd choose what almost everyone else does, family. There are very few people who would, for example, choose to go and work in America for the sake of a very plush job. One or two. They have often come back after a few years. And glad to get back I think. And never heard of anyone retiring ... the answer's different. If you spoke to a Greek of my age, he might well say, ‘Look, I would like to retire now and go back home to Greece.’ Which is quite common. Go back home to Italy. Less common to go back home to the UK. But if you're born in Australia, home is here.

When you talked about counting, you mentioned counting four things at once and you had a sing-song thing, could you do that aloud for about 30 seconds or does it happen in your head?

There are three types of colony that are the most common, so if you're counting one, two three. One, three, four, one, five, four, it’s automatically counting the number of each of those three categories. Now there are two that are more rare so that gives you five and I can't ... I can't always cope with five. So the problem I have is the problem most people have, they've got to put their glasses on to write it down and be able to read it, so it's a ... you end up with a hybrid system where you're counting four things and then quickly jotting down with your hand the fifth and sixth. Okay, so counting colonies you do in your head, now, other people use mechanical counters but I count in my head. So and you will lose count unless you somehow emphasise the different colonies so there are three common types of colony. And you count them as you come to them, you're moving up and down in a fixed pattern, up and down, up and down. Up and down. So let's say you go, one, zero, zero, one, zero, one, one, two, one, three, four, one, and you find that if you sing that in your head, it's easier to remember, because you've got a rhythm, because it's quite easy to forget which was the one. Was it the first type or the second type. So you need a rhythm and then you can add one extra, whatever that is in music, one extra instrument for the last colonies and, whoops, there's an eosinophil colony, got to write it down and megakaryocyte colony, that's worth writing down too. So you've got, you've got six categories.

Is the rhythm Bach or ... what ?

Is the rhythm Bach? It is not in a waltz, I wish it was a waltz and it depends, sometimes the going is pretty fast because there aren't many to go, and you can rip along and they're easy to count and it's well-stained and it goes quickly. Sometimes it's a real swine and you're sitting there having to make decisions — are these two overlapping? Are they — what, what, what? Are they sitting on top of one another? And it helps then to have a semi-musical rhythm in your head. I think other people do this by having a keyboard that they have a different key for each different type of colony. But the problem is, that you've got to focus up and down with one hand and move the stage backwards and forwards with the other, so it's a two-handed job at the microscope. And you don't have a hand to play the key. So you're taking your hand off the focusing knob, to play the keyboard. Now I do that if I'm working with blood films or smears of cells where you have to count eight or nine types, you really do need to be able to play the piano. But, for counting colonies, it's a head job. Which is why when the telephone rings and it's not good, when somebody comes in the door and you have to stop, you've got to do the whole damn thing over again. Or if you see them coming you can put the last down count and an arrow to tell you which direction you're going. Because microscopes are so good they won't slip out of place if you stand up and walk away, and you can keep going down the same track. But the trick is not to let it slip over so you're double counting ones. It's good fun. Three dimensional and you've got to go up and down, up and down, up and down, counting, one, two, three, one, two, three.

Sounds like an addiction.

I'm afraid that I'm running out of neurones because the way I figure it, the way you remember is that you've got one nerve cell remembering, one. And another nerve cell remembering, two. And if you use them up, you've got none left, which is why I have no memory because I'm ... don't remember names, I'm saving neurones that way, I don't remember places, I don't remember where I left my car. What I read last week. Now I think that's all rubbish, I think every time you go to bed and go to sleep you wipe the slate clean but if we don't, I'm about to run out of neurones because I think at last count I had counted something like three million cultures and each one had about a hundred on, so that's three hundred million counted and I think that's about as many neurones as I've got left so I'm getting a little bit worried.

Well, Count Don, that's all I've got to ask.

[end of interview]