Australian Biography

Donald Metcalf - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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When you were at school, was there any teacher that particularly inspired you towards science?

No ... there were some good ones, at ... each school had its good teachers and its bad teachers and when you were changing almost once a year it's a bit hard to say, Mr So and So, he was the one. But there was one maths teacher who was pretty electrifying as a Fourth Year student and then he became the headmaster of Tamworth, so he was a teacher in Inverell and a headmaster in Tamworth. He was one I remember, but no, no, there were a lot of good teachers.

What was it about him?

Ah, he sort of had the whole class on their toes. The sort of mental arithmetic [for] fourth year students, what's x plus y ... and you had your hand up in the air quickly and snap it out. Ah, he was the dynamic teacher I think, yeah, I think he was a ... he explained things well and so that's good.

Wasn't there a problem with shifting schools that you would be in a different place in the curriculum or ... ?

No, no, curriculum is absolutely the same in the whole of New South Wales, that didn't matter a jot. And it didn't much matter that your teachers were different because normally if you stay in any one school the teachers are going to be different in second year, third year and fourth year. It doesn't make a heck of a lot of difference. You're in with a class of different people but otherwise things are pretty much the same.

And you only ever moved at the beginning of a school year so you had ... [interruption] ...

Not always, but often we did. Often we did.

If there were gaps, did your parents step in to help make it up? Was it a help to have schoolteacher parents?

There was a time when I was having a lot of trouble with algebra, I think, where my father stepped in but I mean, he was a primary school teacher and if you're having trouble with advanced high school stuff it was difficult; that was the only time I can remember, yeah.

Was there anything else in your life that made you particularly drawn to the scientific subjects, rather than to the other ones?

I don't know. I could read at a very early age and you would think that, at least judging from our kids, who became bookworms — all four of them — that I should've been an avid reader and therefore would probably end up being a lawyer or a teacher or something in that line. I can't remember reading books at the age of six or seven or eight. Ah, I don't know why. Perhaps I did, I can't remember. In all events, I wasn't wedded to ... to novels and to literature so that part of it wasn't comfortable with me and I struggled to write a page of an essay, which is a laugh now, when I'm in the middle of writing my 680th scientific paper, which means that once a month for the last 50 years, I've been writing a paper, so that's a bigger output than a novelist. So how come? Well, it happened gradually, but I can remember in high school, just finding it incredibly difficult to do a one-page essay, so I was not ... not good in that. I was okay in mathematics and mathematics is a chancy subject, you can either do very well in it or you can bomb out. According to what sort of question you get asked, and I liked chemistry, they were the ones, chemistry and two mathematics. Did any of that interest me as a ... to become a scientist? No, and I ... late in high school I was interested in astronomy. Which is a weird sort of interest but when you live in the country, the sky's very bright and it's a bit hard to ignore it.

Did you ever get the chance to look through a telescope?

No. Still haven't. That's one of my big ambitions, to look through a telescope, and for somebody who looks through a microscope, six, eight hours a day, never to have seen through a telescope is just beyond belief. One day I'll do it. Um, so I can't remember when it was implanted in my head that I was going to become a medical student if I worked hard enough. And I ... I don't know. I sort of liked the idea but if you think about it and you live in the country, you've never seen ... I'd never been to a doctor as a patient, in my life. I mean, most places we lived, had no doctor. So, you ... you had your diseases and you got over them. Ah, but apart from having my tonsils out, I'd never seen a doctor until I was about 18, so you had no idea of what being a doctor meant. Because you'd never been in a waiting room. And you had no idea of specialties, you know, the idea of becoming a haematologist — what's that? So you didn't know. And so when we had our single visit from student advisors, big, big excitement, whole final year was advised on what to do, he ended up saying, ‘I think you should go into forestry.’ That was it. Now, how did all that turn out into going to medical school? I can't really remember. I think my parents said, ‘I think we'd like you to be a doctor.’ But I can't remember, can't well ... I know they were annoyed when I didn't become a country doctor and practicing doctor.

At that stage did you have any impulse towards the caring side of doctoring?

No, I think even as a young medical student you don't ... well you didn't get to see patients, you went to medical school in the old medical school building and then three years later you went to the new medical school and that's when you began to see patients. And so your contact with patients was minimal until the quite advanced stage. Ours was minimal particularly because there were 650 students in the class and it meant that on ward rounds there were 40 students around one bed. So all the small girls got the inner ring, all the smaller people got the next and you were out three rows back. I never heard a heart murmur, all the time I was a student. And we spent a lot of time talking to the patients in the bed next door, but that was about the extent of the contact. Now, in retrospect, I suspect it's ... it goes a lot better now, I mean, students have contact with patients from quite an early age on.

Before we get you properly to medical school, I want to go back and just finish at your high school education. Do you ... what year did you finish and do the leaving certificate for the second time?

Second time? 1945. So that was ...

Right, so you were quite young going to university anyway?

I was 16 when I enrolled and my birthday's in February so I was quite soon 17. That's ... it was sort of not atypical, there were others, but the particular class I was in had mostly ex-servicemen so ... and a few migrants from Europe who were having to repeat their medical school.

So you weren't sure why you were doing medicine but you decided to do it, and there you were and did you need a scholarship to go?

I needed one and that's why, in part why, I had to repeat the leaving because you had to win a bursary at Sydney University and you had to be in the top hundred in the state to get one. But I did.

What subjects did you do for the leaving?

I did English, French, chemistry, 2 mathematics, honours chemistry, honours mathematics, that made eight.

No physics?

No physics, no, which was a pity.

So and ... and but it was a very science-oriented course? No history and no ...

Yeah, I suppose, so we'd had history until the leaving. I think we had a much broader education than kids do at present. Kids start specialising now at a very early age. So we'd had European history until the year before.

Now you said that classes at Sydney University at that time were very large, why was that?

There was no quota system. As long as you passed the leaving — you could have five Bs and you could get into medical school. I know because the queue for enrolment had people in it who had five Bs and I thought, ‘Gee, that's not much.’

Their parents could pay the fees?

Or the government was paying them, because they were servicemen. Ex-servicemen.

So what was the situation that made so many ex-servicemen there at the university?

Well, it was the first year after the war and so there were all sorts of people who for some reason or other decided to become medical students. My best friend was a newspaper man before the war. He rejoiced in having an IQ of 80. But he also had a photographic memory so he topped the year in physics because the examiners set the questions from the back of the textbook, which he memorised, just by looking at them; he was a strange guy. So what made him a medic ... become a medical student, goodness knows, he'd just come out of Changi as a prisoner of war for four years, some of them, goodness knows. They were a great collection of strange people. There was one fellow who thought that the only way to learn anything was to hit yourself on the head. And he studied anatomy you know, and, ‘This is the femur,’ whack, whack. ‘This is the attachment of the gluteus maximus’, whack, whack. We had an Empire weightlifting champion. We had thieves and rogues, scallywags used to work Randwick as bookies’ clerks, there were ex-fighter pilots, goodness knows — great collection.

Was there a government scheme for these guys after the war?

Ah, yes, I forget what it was called but essentially any ex-servicemen could go to university, there were ... there were no limits, so we had a class of 650 and for some lectures there were 650 in the class, they had to build a special lecture theatre for them. Ah, and for a lot of ones it got split up, so you only ever knew the Ms and Ns and Os in the class because you were split alphabetically. So all my friends have names starting with M or K, something. Ah, and that went right through and it was sudden death; if you failed one subject at any one year, you were out. So there was no quota to get in, but then it was take no prisoners. So 30 percent failed every year. So you could be there for five years and fail in one subject of about 20 in the final exam and you were just chucked out. No repeats, no nothing. It was scary stuff if ... when I have nightmares, that's another one of the nightmares. Doing final year medicine exams. Um, and as a consequence everything was crowded. The teaching was really minimal. No bones, so in anatomy you couldn't ... they had a set of bones chained to a post so you had to sit round in the ring, around the posts, and take a femur or a radius and learn the textbooks ... latest were about late 1930s, no textbooks had been printed during the war. And the teachers were tired, the classes were big.

Did you get to carve up bodies?

We did, it was big excitement. If you know the old medical school in Sydney University, it's a stone building and it has a spiral staircase down to the basement and in the basement are these big tanks of formalin in which there were bodies wrapped up like mummies in cloth. And at the start of every year you would carry a body up the spiral stairs to the dissecting room. So it was a crowd scene out of a B movie, passing the bodies up over your head to the dissecting room. Once you got there, then there were 40 people descending on one body. So there ... there were eight on one leg and eight on the other leg, eight on one arm, eight on the other arm, eight on the head and neck. So you got to know those 40 people pretty closely. We had 40 ex-servicewomen on the left arm, they were a tough lot and so it went. A whole room, full, it was a crowd scene, could have made a great movie.

Which bit did you get to cut up?

Oh, in sequence, the next body would be moved to the abdomen, or the chest. You eventually over three years cut up a whole body. I gather they don't teach anatomy much any more, but it was three years of hell trying to remember this because I have a very bad memory for details.

And so how did you do it? How did you remember it? You weren't hitting your head, what ... what did you do?

Oh, just reading it over and over and over and trying to keep it in your head long enough to get through the exam. Exams were pretty stressful.

So as you were going through this time, where were you living?

I was boarding, I boarded at a private house in Neutral Bay, one in Croydon, I was acting as a housemaster of Sydney Grammar School in Clovelly. I was houseminding a house at the back of Randwick Racecourse. I think that was my place as a student. A varied lot.

But you were a boarder? What, you were given a room and ... ?

Boarding, yeah. Had a room. We were fed ... best place was in Croydon because the people there had two dogs and they were fed at the table before we were — the boarders. The dogs got chops and the boarders got sausages. Turns out that I'm allergic to every animal in the animal kingdom with one exception and that's dogs. I say I'm not allergic to dogs because at night, for retaliation, we used to dropkick these two little dogs off the back landing, but we always had our shoes on, so that was no contact. That was boarding, boarding was pretty ... pretty ordinary.

And what were you thinking that you'd do at the end of the degree, what was in your head at that time?

It's hard to know whether you make up stories when you get asked about what made you do this or that. I think, I think for some reason I was always interested in research. But I think also that I was getting a bit dissatisfied with the number of times I was told, ‘We don't understand this disease, we don't have a cure for it. We just don't know.’ And I thought, ‘Well, if we don't know, it's about time somebody found out.’ So when the university introduced a new degree, which was a research degree, Bachelor of Medical Science, where you could break off from being a medical student and do a year in a research laboratory, I thought, that's for me. So I was the first one to do it in senior medical school. And I thought this was great. So I'd had some experience of research and I quite liked being a doctor and quite liked being a resident, probably would've become quite good at it, but I was never in any doubt as to what I wanted to do and when I got a chance to be a research worker, I took it.

That year that you spent in research, did ... was that significant in terms of the people that took that year, and did you have any particular experiences in that year that shaped you later?

It was an interesting department and ... and the medical school was on hard times so it was badly equipped, there was no research equipment, the professor, Pat de Burgh, was eccentric and collected odd bits of equipment and rubbish and the whole room was full of junk. The lab. We had to clear the junk before we could do an experiment. And mice were kept in boxes in the corridor ... was up to us to think of an experiment with them. There were just two of ... two of us. This fellow who had the IQ of 80 and was a ... had a photographic memory and I were the two students. But both the professors would sit and talk to us as adults and discuss what was latest in the journals they'd read and that was quite novel — once you'd grown up in a class of 600 — to actually be spoken to by a professor. And the professors, the two of them were ... had both been at Harvard University so one was the predecessor of the other. And they were both students of the most famous American bacteriologist, Hans Zinsser, who wrote a book called Rats, Lice and History you might have seen. So there was a sort of genealogy of research and ...

Was the other one Hugh Ward?

Hugh Ward. Hugh Ward was also eccentric. He'd been in the Balkans War in 1912 and a prisoner of war, so he could never stand to be in a room with a closed door. So all his lectures he walked across the front of the students, out the door into the corridor, back again. So you got the first part of the sentence, then pshht, second part of the sentence. And he's ... he had a capacity to sort of make a précis of every subject, so by the end of your hour, you knew everything there was to know about diphtheria or whooping cough or measles or whatever it was. So an excellent teacher but a very eccentric sort of charming, old world, no nonsense, as you could imagine with a background like that. But he'd been Zinsser's student at Harvard with [John] Enders who developed the polio vaccine so the two of them were Zinsser's students. De Burgh was his student, I was de Burgh’s student.

So how did you ... in a room that was full of junk, what kind of junk?

Well, bits of old equipment, he never threw anything away, found bits of dynamos, bits of junk.


You could say it was useless.

And so in this place, without any equipment, trying to learn about how to be experimental scientists and a few mice in the corridor ...

It's not a problem ... no problem.

Well what did ... what made this such an important year for you? What was the essence?

Because you could design an experiment. We were working with a virus that strikes absolute terror into every research institute in the world — it's mouse smallpox virus, ectromelia, because [if] it gets loose in an institute you lose all your mice, but we were studying it and of course liver disease and the liver was ... is a great organ to work with. And we were asking some pretty simple questions about why patches of the liver were losing their glycogen and doing this or that, so it was a bit of biochemistry, bit of biology and a bit of virology. And nobody knew the answers and we were breaking new territory and it was great fun. We had a thesis to write at the end of it, we didn't publish any papers about it but you could see how the day would go when you were actually doing it for a living. And a lot of people would just retreat from that ... it's like there's no way ... ‘I need to be with patients, I need the excitement, the buzz, the interaction.’ But that appealed to me too, but this was ... this was fun. So it was important that we had done that year.

How would you describe what that buzz was, what was that thing that you really knew that you wanted to do in research?

What is it that drives you every day? Still drives me every day? Um, it's sort of selfish in a way, it's the thought that today I'm going to discover something that nobody in the whole world has ever known before. So it's sort of like being a ... an explorer, like Columbus. And tomorrow he's going to see China. Whatever China was, well if he didn't see China, it'd be ... but it was something that no ... he thought nobody had ever seen before. So there's that part of it ... having seen it, and thinking this is something new, then the practicalities cut in and say, ‘Can I find it again tomorrow when I do exactly the same experiment?’ That's the first big worry — a long way down the track is what does it all mean? Am I going to be able to put this to any practical use? So, it's a bit of a mixture, things tend to often start by accident. Something just happens and you notice it and you think, that's strange. And you do it again and whoops, it happened again. And that's pointing you off — now is that curiosity? Is it just being awake to odd things that happen? A bit of everything I think. Now I'm sure when I was young, I went into research thinking I'm going to cure cancer and save the world. I'm sure I did, I can't remember actually thinking that, but I'm sure all young research workers do. And then slowly you get those silly ideas beaten out of you by hard facts of life, which is that it's pretty tricky and your chances of discovering anything are minimal and discovering anything important are even more minimal. And you tailor your ambitions to what it looks like you're going to be able to achieve, so starting out ... why do you start out? Yeah, altruistically but a ... there's a bit of competitiveness there, saying, I want to discover something first. I think that ... we're talking 50 years ago and you can't really remember what motivated you.

Do you remember what it was in the approach that Professor de Burgh and Ward took that was particularly useful in setting the fire going?

They asked your opinion. When was the last time a university lecturer asked your opinion? Well that was pretty novel. And they would consider it, say, ‘Well, it's not bad, but ...’ But, but, but. And you would argue and I think that's all it is. All it takes. Now having known that, do I treat my students the same way? No. No, I don't. I don't like talking to the students and I would rather teach them by example. You want to be like me, copy me. Get out there at the bench and start working. Ah, so it's interesting, isn't it? You realise that what you had as a student, that fired you up, isn't what you're able to give your students to fire them up. Now they mightn't agree with what I'm saying, but I get the feeling that I'm not behaving as well to them as people behaved to me. It's a very powerful thing when you're young, for somebody to take notice of you and say, ‘What do you think?’ It's an interesting question. I never ask my kids that too often.

So they were remarkable listeners, these guys that taught you?

I think they were. They each had a ratty old leather armchair, they had a gas fire, they sat in an empty room and read their journals, because they had no ... no equipment to work with and, I suspect, no great desire to do any work and were ready and available at any time, you could sit in on the circle and say, ‘Well, what do you think about this?’ And off you'd go. It's ...

A remarkable number of the Hall Institute [Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research] luminaries went through that system.

They did. They did and it makes you wonder about the need to have high-tech, highly equipped universities. If I think in our ... in that department, you're right, there are three fellows of the Royal Society. Yeah.

Who were they? Who were your colleagues at the Hall Institute then?

Well, years later there was [Jacques] Miller and [Gustav] Nossal, they were a couple of years younger, they were the three I had in mind. It's extraordinary that any one small department would generate three fellows of the Royal Society. All US academicians too. Good record, can't be equalled by high-tech places. So one wonders whether you need all the equipment to train students. Whether you don't need some smart old cookies.

It's possible that you're better off with both.

Um, no, I think you'd be dissatisfied with listening to this old faggot and want to go back to your new toy and generate some more data. I don't think the young like to spend all that much time talking to old folk.

Does it suggest that, in fact, real science is a matter of the mind and not of the equipment, and that what this did was focus you at a young age on the fact that the mind was what mattered?

Did I say that? Did I say the mind mattered? If you talk to the young, they're besotted by high-tech machines and equipment that generate bucketloads of data. Often almost on a random basis, out of which they will pull out patterns and make discoveries. That's the way it's going at the moment, it's just sort of, what I call, shotgun science. And then you say, well, is that all they're thinking about? And ah, then you ... to get further into their minds you've got to sit and talk about it with them and some will have obviously lateral thinking, put things together, and others will be just giant technicians who are slicker, I mean, there aren't many people you meet who you really are quite astonished with their inner intelligence or perception or it's not a ... not a common thing.

Now after you finished this year and you went back to finish off your full clinical medical degree, the practice then was to go and do some clinical practice. Where did you go?

Oh, you had to by law. To be registered as a doctor, you had to do a minimum of one year and it was at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. As a ... as a resident. Perfectly conventional year. Five terms, one of orthopaedics medicine, one of surgery, one of gynaecology and emergency. I used to like the emergency ward best of all.

Why did you like the emergency ward?

Oh, things happened. I mean, you can imagine Prince Alfred Hospital, I'm sure it hasn't changed, and Saturday night, Sunday night, you get the world traipsing through. It's great fun. Ah, I don't think we handed out too much effective medicine but you certainly see life in the raw.

Is there any particular memory you have of a night?

Yeah, I remember one night, sleeping through the most dramatic night we had. Big black car pulled up at the front door of Prince Alfred, body got shoved out, staggered up the stairs to the front desk, said, ‘Put a bandaid on it.’ And promptly collapsed on the floor. Ah, taken down to casualty, my fellow night surgeon was on duty, I was asleep in one of the examination couches, slept through the whole thing. He'd been shot in the chest and dumped by his gangster friends and he opened the shirt to look at the wound and the bullet dropped out so in the papers next morning, there was a dramatic operation and a bullet was removed from the chest of this guy. He was a nice bloke, they had him in hospital for one day, I think, and then they sent him home. But he always used to come in to casualty and have his dressing checked and he would always leave money in the poor box. Yeah, he was a character. God knows what ... what he was professionally but he was shot and they patched him up and I missed the whole thing, they wrote it in the paper: ‘Drama at Prince Alfred. Gangster shot. Emergency operation, bullet removed.’

Was there anything less dramatic that you did take place ... part in?

Oh, we ... one of the other fun things was that was the year that ... Bobby Lulham, football star, had carried on with his mother-in-law and somebody slipped Bobby Lulham a dose of thallium (thallium was rat poison), a rat poison doesn't taste at all, but ... and it used to be used by dermatologists to get rid of your hair, so that you could get rid of scabies and things out of your scalp. So thallium, Bobby Lulham had a dose of thallium, and he was in the ward that I was resident of. And my wife, who was the nurse in an adjacent ward had, in sequence, Bobby Ludlum's mother-in-law, Bobby Ludlum's wife as I recall and numerous others. We had the collection together of the world's only cases of thallium poisoning. Now, that got spread in the newspapers, and everyone started to come in with what they thought might have been thallium poisoning. So by the time I was a ... down in the emergency ward, every night you had a line-up of people who thought they might have had thallium poisoning, been given rat poison. And the two main symptoms of rat poison are, first of all, that your hair comes out in handfuls and, second, that you have severe gastroenteritis. So we'd stand them up, go along the row, pulling their hair. If it came out, you were in, you were another case, if it stayed you'd go home. They were the days. I'm sure there are the same things happening.

[end of tape]

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