Australian Biography

Charles Birch - full interview transcript

Tape of 7

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Today we're beginning our study of Charles Birch and as a biologist, I want you to advise me, what weighting would you put to the various factors that we should look at to understand him? Should we be looking at his genetic inheritance, at the environment that he grew up in, or should we be looking at his beliefs?

The environment I grew up in, I think. That's the most influential, as far as I'm concerned, including the people that I met on the way, you know. I can think of relatively few people who would be important in determining what happened to me.

And what about your inheritance. Did that play any part at all?

Not really. I don't know much about my inheritance. You mean my genetic inheritance?

Your genetic inheritance?

Not really, because I know my mother came from Ireland and there's Irish background there, and that my father's side was also Irish. But I don't know to what extent that's influenced me. I don't think genes are that important in terms of the differences between us. I think the genes are less important than the whole environment in which we are brought up in.

But they have some very minimal importance do you think?

Well, they mean that we're human beings instead of chimpanzees or something. Yes.

And that's about all?

Oh, no. It means more than that, it means that I have blue eyes because my mother had blue eyes, that sort of thing. And I'm not bald at the moment, whereas I would have been if my father had been bald, but he wasn't. I mean those things, they're trivial.

Physical things?


What kind of a person was your father?

Oh, he was a banker and pretty matter-of-fact. And I think that I would know less about him than I do about my mother because he was more restrained, reserved; very reserved person. And he had business friends and I wasn't interested in business friends. I wasn't interested in business. And when I went, decided, to become a biologist, well his business friends said, 'What on earth is he doing that for? He'll never earn a salary doing that.' I mean our differences were enormous in terms of interests in life.

Was his world view entirely materialistic?

Not entirely, no. Because he appreciated his family very much and was a very kind person in that respect. And very early in the piece, when he was left a small inheritance from his Irish forebears, he was very pleased because he said that that will enable us, enable him and my mother, to send us to a private school. We were in a public school until then, so then the three of us went to Scotch College as a result of that. He could have spent it on other things than our education.

He had an Irish background too?

Yes, his grandparents would have been Irish.

But he was born in . . .

Oh, no, his parents were Irish, yep.

Was he born in Australia?

He was born in New Zealand.

And your mother, what was she like?

She was a very gentle, kind, loving person, whom I learned a great deal from because she was very interested in her children. I mean, so much so that she used to subscribe to different organisations that told you how to bring up children, and she wanted to do the right thing. I think she very often did. But she was a very kind person. And I suppose the biggest influence was that she encouraged me in the peculiar interests I was beginning to have, that's to say in plants and animals, collecting beetles, that sort of thing. And, to the extent that she would put books in my hand that I would never otherwise come across. And one in particular that really had a tremendous influence on me was [JBS] Haldane's book called Possible Worlds. And Possible Worlds is still a wonderful book to read. I mean, a great, a very, very famous biologist. And I said, 'I want to become a biologist. To become like Haldane.' And that was because of her. And so she kept abreast of the sorts of things that she thought would be of interest to me. And I remember on one birthday she gave me a book which is now extremely valuable because it's very rare, Bullard's Insects of Australia and New Zealand. 'Course that was tremendously important to help me identify things I found in the field. I became a bug hunter.

What was her own background?

Oh, she was a nurse. She came out to Australia as a trained sister from a hospital in Dublin. She'd been brought up in a school, in a convent, Loreto Convent, in Dublin, and her parents died very young. And she knew her parents but she had been at boarding school pretty well all her life. And then she went and became a nurse in Dublin. And because of curious friendships she eventually came to Australia. It was very odd really because she had two brothers who were in the merchant navy. And the navy, this merchant navy, used to visit Melbourne. And they got to know people in Melbourne who were very evangelical. And they wanted to save my mother, you see, from the perdition of being brought up in a Catholic Ireland. And they were very, very kind and generous people. And they went over to Ireland and literally collected my mother and brought her out. Saw that she got a job in the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. And ...

And did they convert her to low-church Protestantism?

It must have had a big influence because she must have become a Protestant, I suppose, by the time she married my father, I don't know about that. But, she was certainly shown what was supposed to be the inequities of her upbringing.

And that meant that you weren't brought up Catholic?

Oh, certainly not. No. In fact I think by the time I came into the world my parents probably had no connection with churches. But, when the family arrived I think that they began to feel, oh, well, one of the things that children probably acquire in this day, day and age, is to be brought up, is to know what a church is about. So we used to go to — every Sunday we went to church. Now my mother was basically concerned and interested. My father did it as a duty. And we went along because we had to, I suppose.

What kind of a church?

An Anglican church. A rather evangelical Anglican church in Melbourne.

And who were your brothers and sisters?

Well, I had a twin brother. And then I had another brother who was two years older than I am.

Was your twin brother an identical twin?


And what did they become?

Well, they had different interests. My twin brother became a personnel officer in the Shell Company. He did a degree in the University of Melbourne and then he spent most of the war in New Guinea. And so he was in a sort of business scene. My elder brother was a flier from the day he left school. Before the war started, Second World War started. He wanted to go to Point Cook, which was a training ground for pilots. And he became a very enthusiastic flier. So as soon as the war broke out he went to England with a squadron. In fact, a flying boat squadron. And their job was to check all the ... at least to help the convoys to get through. And he had some funny distinctions, in a sense. He was the first person to shoot down a Heinkel Bomber over the Channel. You know, I wouldn't want to be, wouldn't be proud of that. And he got the distinguished Flying Cross during the war. So they, he, had very different interests. And then when the war ended he joined Qantas and became a pilot and he remained in Qantas then as an executive until he retired. So their interests are very different.

But were you close to them when you were growing up?

I was not very close to my older brother, I was close to my twin brother because we did everything together.


Just about everything, yes.

And was he keen on bugs as well?

Not the slightest bit interested, no. I was very different.

But you still did things together?

Well, we played, I mean we were the same age so we were in the same football team. We went to school together. We came home together, all that sort of stuff. We went to parties together. Until, pretty much I suppose, until I graduated from the University of Melbourne.

And what did he think of your interest in biology?

Well, I haven't got a clue. I suppose he thought it was a bit odd. Still, the school I went to in Scotch College in Melbourne, we had a field naturalist club so that I think he probably joined some of those expeditions.

Now, let's put this all into its sort of ecological setting. Where were you actually born?

Oh, I was born in Melbourne.

And what kind of a suburb did you grow up in?

Oh, I was immediately brought up in a rather depressed suburb because my father was a bank manager and I think the first home we went to was in Collingwood which, you know, famous football team and that sort of stuff. I don't remember much about that.

You don't remember much about the house you grew up in?

Oh, vaguely, only very vaguely.

Why do you think that is that you don't remember it?

I think I might have wanted to blot out a good deal of that. I mean, I don't think I ever really enjoyed school. I worked terribly hard. I thought the thing to do was to pass examinations and every weekend I'd struggle. Oh, my brother was the same, my twin brother was the same. And I didn't like it much. I thought it was such a transformation to go to the university after this discipline. I mean, Scotch College was a good Presbyterian school. Every morning we had an assembly, had to sing these funny hymns, you know. Very ancient hymns they were. And hear a prayer and all this sort of stuff. And that didn't go down very well with me. But it was a very disciplined school.

Apart from school, at home — in this household with your father, the bank manager, and your mother a nice gentle woman — was that a happy household?

Oh, yes it was. It was a disciplined household. My father had a little whip hanging up on the corner of a cupboard and the whip would come out if need be on certain occasions.

Do you remember what you got it for?

Oh, I think I could be quite nasty. I remember on one occasions, I must have been in a bit of a rage, but I ripped out a lot of pages from a very important book. I can remember sitting on the floor pulling these pages out much to the distress of my parents. They didn't know what got me into that state.

You did it because you were angry?

I was angry, yes. Maybe I'd been punished, I don't know. Anyway I was so glad when the school days were over. It's a pity not to appreciate a very good school, isn't it.

Still at home in the household, what was it like? Did you live above the bank?

Yes, we did. And did for many years until the time came in which I went to Scotch College. Then we lived in a private home because there was no accommodation in the bank. So we lived a lot of the time above a bank, yeah. It was a rather odd thing in a way.

Why did you have to live above the bank?

Oh, I think the requirement in those days was that the bank managers had to look after the banks after hours. We had revolvers all over the place. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, I knew where the revolver was in my father's desk, both downstairs and upstairs. And when he went away one weekend I remember, oh, they must have all been out of the house and I was alone and I thought I heard something going on down at the bank and I thought it was my responsibility to investigate. So I pulled the revolver out of this drawer and went around the bank chamber with it, with this thing in my hand. And I had to sort of cock the thing and then I couldn't uncock it. So I had to confess what I'd done the next morning when one of the clerks came in. I said, 'Could you please uncock this and put this back in my father's drawer.' I don't know where he was.

You were quite lucky you didn't do yourself some sort of injury with it?

Yes, I was told that I shouldn't have done it, and what I should have done is simply take two bricks and drop them from a height onto the floor and that would sound like an explosion.

Was the bank ever robbed?

No. I don't remember hearing anything like that in those days. But we were better behaved in those times, you know, the '20s and '30s. I don't know.

And Scotch College was for you a grim place where you were a swot?

I wouldn't say it was a grim place. It was not ... it didn't make life enjoyable for me. And I'm really not too sure of the reason for that. Part of the reason was I think that I worked so hard.

Why do you think you felt it necessary to work so hard?

Oh, because I thought that if I didn't really work hard I'd never get places. I mean, I didn't think I was that bright and that I really could make up that by working hard.

What made you think that you weren't bright?

Oh, how would I know that? I didn't know. I suppose, one reason might be that there were very bright people in my class. Zelman Cowen, and a number of others. Nearly all the people in that class became professors. Isn't that odd? Including myself. And I once, many years afterwards when I revisited the school, I mentioned this to the headmaster [and] he said it was a very unusual class. So I had some pretty bright people that made me feel pretty unbright I suppose.

And you were very competitive?

Very competitive. There was one person in particular that I was extremely competitive with because he was also interested in biology. And I wanted to be sure that in fact I got to the top of the biological ladder before he did. I think he was probably brighter.

Did you get to the top of the ladder before he did?

Well, in the sense that, when we graduated from the University of Melbourne in Agricultural Science, there were only two possible jobs available, and we both wanted the one which was much better than the other. And I got it, to his disappointment. He became a plant pathologist, I became an entomologist at that stage. I studied insects, he studied plant diseases. That was a matter of chance I think.

And you both wanted that job?

We both wanted that job, yes.

When you got it over him, did it give you the satisfaction that you were expecting?

Oh, yes. I was very competitive.

Where do you think that came from? Did your parents encourage you?

No, I don't think so. I don't know where it came from. I'm not very good at analysing why I am, why I am, at all.

Were you competitive with your twin brother?

Oh, in a sense, yes.

And did he feel the same way that you did in that class? Were you in the same class as him?

Oh, no. He was in a different class. Same year but a different class. So we had different friends.

Was it a less academic class that he was in?

Well, they were A, B, Cs and Ds. I was in an A and I think he was in a B.

So, did you have a certain sense that you were destined to be academic?

No. No, I didn't really at all. All I knew was that I wanted to be a biologist. And, that was encouraged by the fact that we had a very, very good biology teacher at the school, which was a bit unusual in those days, a woman who was the first MSc, first Master of Science from the University of Melbourne. Her name was Mrs a'Beckett [Ada Mary]. She was well-known because she was the mother of a famous Victorian cricketer and of course that put her up in the estimation of the kids in the class as well. But she was wonderful. She was the best biology teacher I ever had.

What was so good about her?

Oh, what was so good was she told you, gave you, detailed instructions on how to dissect a rabbit or a frog or whatever it was, so you knew exactly what the next step was. You wouldn't be fiddling around making mistakes. And she also inspired you to be interested, she inspired me to be interested, for example, in my own physiology. I knew nothing about my own physiology. All those sorts of things. Oh, very practical things. I remember she'd say, 'Now when you're drying your face after a shower in the morning, don't press the towel heavily into your eyes because that might make your eyes go flat.' Well, I suppose it was nonsense, but, anyway, it did mean I took notice of her and, looked after certain things like that. Now, she always had some very practical little suggestions.

And so this was an enjoyable and agreeable part of the school?

Oh, that was great. That was great.

So it wasn't all bleak?

Oh, no, it wasn't. But I think what I'm trying to give the impression of is that the overall feeling was not one of great excitement as a school boy. And I also had, you know, I had emotional problems in my adolescence which were never resolved by my school, never. This is a touchy sort of subject.

What were they?

Oh, simply the awareness of sexual activities and so on. You know, you become such a different sort of person from the age of 14 or whatever it is onwards. Whereas school didn't regard you as different at all.

What do you remember of that aspect of things at that time?

I just felt I was probably very abnormal, very wicked, and all that sort of thing.

Because you had sexual feelings?

Yes, that's right.

You didn't talk to the other boys about it ever?

Never. It was a lonesome venture. I think it was for many of us. The only light on the subject, and there wasn't any light at all, was from the chaplain at the school who was supposed to enlighten us on this. And he approached the subject with fear and trembling which made the situation worse.

Do you remember what sort of things he told you?

Oh, he'd draw very hopeless diagrams on the board, you see, instead of getting us really nice proper pictures. But, you know, I think that's all changed. I mean, that was a bad thing about schools in those days. It really didn't understand, I don't think the people understand, what human life is about. What it was to grow up. It's very odd isn't it?

Do you think your parents had an idea of what you were going through at the time?

Only my mother. My father was sort of aloof, 'You'll get over that. That'd be a passing phase,' or something. It took a long time to pass though.

Did he ever have a father-and-son talk to you?

No, they were hopeless. I had mother-and-son talks.

And she tried to ...

Oh, yes. She tried very hard. She had lots of books and things and approached it as best she could.

And so at this time, with your emerging sexuality, and with no very good way of understanding it and feeling guilty and bad about it, did this mean it was hard for you to evolve and develop relationships that might have lead to a satisfactory relationship for you?

I find that hard to answer that question. I don't really know. I think it meant that there were barriers in that area. Yeah, I would admit that. Also, see, the thing that reinforced the barriers, I discovered in school around about that time a very evangelical religion. And that had a very black and white view of the world and a black and white view of human behaviour. So I felt very sinful, very wicked, because of the religion I was being introduced to. And so, that was not just the absence of any enlightenment in the school, but was the absence, was a very negative sort of aspect to a very evangelical religion, which was unhelpful.

Did you have much social activity that involved say girls at that time?

Not much, because it was a unisex school. It was a male school, still is. And I can't remember, we ... my parents used to try and introduce us to girls on vacations and so on.

And at church?

I don't remember much about that?

You didn't belong to a youth fellowship or anything like that which ...

No. I taught in the Sunday School. I was supposed to be a leader. The blind leading the blind. You know, one of the things that does come back to me in memory was the sense of, of concern really, and that is that I taught right from an early age, you know, 16, 17, or something, I was teaching kids in Sunday School. And all the wrong things I must have told them. I mean, my views were so immature. I shouldn't have been a teacher, I don't think so. And I wonder what happened to these people because of the false views I was putting in front of them, you know, miracles and all that sort of stuff. God is sort of descending and performing sorts of miracles and stuff like that I no longer believe in.

Maybe what happened to them was the same thing that happened to you?

Well, I hope so. In other words they discovered some light along the path.

What did this narrow religion, this evangelical form of religion, mean to you at that time?

Oh, it was tremendously important. It was a resource, a tremendous resource. And one of the positive things that came out of it, I suppose, is that it did emphasise that there was a thing called forgiveness, see. So I remember the day in which I actually said, 'I'm going to believe that. I'm not going to feel that there's great weight in my life, and on my shoulder.' You know, I had pictures of The Pilgrim's Progress by Bunyan and there are pictures in the body of the pilgrim wandering around with a great big sack on his back. You know, tremendous burden. And then there comes a time I think in the actual pictures in the book, he's at the foot of the cross. The load falls of his back and he's free. I actually had that experience. And that was a wonderful positive experience which has never left me.

And what precipitated that? You just decided?

No, I think I got to a point of no return.

You were so burdened?

I was so burdened, that this was just a great wonderful relief. Tremendous relief. That it's never left me I think is tremendously important.

Was the guilt that you felt — and I think it's a guilt that's often been described in literature and it's a very common experience, especially from the period where people were given a lot of religious reasons to really feel guilty — did you feel that that guilt was mostly associated with your emerging sexuality?

Oh, absolutely, yes.

Not with anything else?

No, absolutely. Clear as a pike staff.

Do you remember feeling attracted to any other individuals at that time?

Oh, I had lots of friends at the university. Didn't have many friends at school. I think I had great respect for some of the senior students and wondered why I wasn't as good as they were. You know, they were leaders in various respects. They became leaders in the community.

But at school you didn't have any friends?

Oh, yes, I had friends.

What sort of things did you do with your friends?

Well, I had a particular one who was interested in biology, the same one as I. And then we went and did the same course at the University of Melbourne where we were competing with each other all along. And in the end I got the job that he wanted, that we both wanted.

But he was your closest friend during university?

He was, I think, yes.

And did he remain a friend after you got the job?

No, because we went to ... I mean, only in a casual sort of way because we went to different parts of the world. He eventually became a Professor of Agriculture. And I went over to Adelaide.

Was there ever any doubt that you would go and do biology at university? Did you have any other ideas?

Yeah, well, my first preference really was to study medicine. But, my parents were against that. My father thought that was a terrible job, to be a doctor.


Oh, up all hours. Weekends not free, that sort of thing. And in any case it was a very expensive sort of course, I think. So, I thought the next best was some other form of biology, and agriculture seemed to be the one. Now that was probably a good choice because in agriculture I learnt an awful lot of things that I wouldn't have done in a science course.

What kind of things?

Things about soil, about domestic plants and animals, about climatology. A lot of stuff which eventually was going to become very important to me when I decided I was really interested in ecology. So I got an ecological background way back in the '30s. Now, I realised that I was missing out on something in biology and that was a detailed study of the animal kingdom, say if I had done that in the zoology department. So I did slip in some extra courses, you know, just attending them because I was very interested in that. But that to some extent professionally didn't count because eventually when I changed my career pretty substantially, from studying insects to going into the zoology department at the University of Sydney a long time later, I was not regarded as somebody who really understood animals. I could garden and tell you any insect or — nobody else in the department could pretty well do that. But if I walked down to the beach, the rocky shore, I wouldn't know one barnacle from another, and was regarded as pretty dreadful, to live in Sydney and not know that detail of biology. But these were the days in which the important thing was to be able to recognise the animals and feel, and to know something about their anatomy. It was pretty old-fashioned stuff, but it clinged on.

Fairly classic classifications?

Very classical biology, yeah.

Now in this agriculture course, you did this at the University of Melbourne?


Do you remember what it felt like to be going up to university at that time ...

It was your parents who dissuaded you from doing medicine?


Were you easily dissuaded? Did you really want to do it?

Oh, yeah, I think so. And I think what I would have liked to have done [was] research. Because in those days, in Melbourne anyway, the big top thing in biology was the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. You know, the research institute that Sir Macfarlane Burnet eventually became the director of. And some members of my class did medicine and went into that. And I thought that was, you know, you'd be doing research that was going to help humanity. That was a very important component of my thinking, and I think one of the reasons why I didn't say, 'Well, I'll do zoology,' What use would that be to the world? So agriculture, I thought, 'Yeah. That could be very helpful.' See I was very evangelical still. 'That could be very helpful to the world.' And I wanted to go to South-East Asia or somewhere and use agriculture as the vehicle for my bringing light to the darkness of the world. See, I really felt that way. And I remember talking to, very early in the piece, the Professor of Agriculture who eventually became Sir Samuel McMahon Waltham, a very wonderful person, very, very tactful person ...

When your parents weren't keen on you doing medicine, were you very disappointed?

Um, partly disappointed, but then when I began to think of the other ways in which I might be able to help humanity, see that was very important, I thought [about] agriculture. My father actually helped me there because he'd used some people who in fact had gone through agriculture and he said, 'That's the place for you.' And, so, I felt, 'Yeah, that's probably good, that's probably a good line.' And I'm glad I did that actually.

Had you done medicine, what kind of a doctor do you think you would have been?

I would have liked to have gone into research because my ideal was the famous institute in Melbourne, the Walter and Eliza Hall Medical Research Institute, which Sir Macfarlane Burnet eventually became the director of. And some of my school friends actually became, did medicine, and were members of the staff there. So, that's what I would have wanted to do. I had the feeling that investigation into medicine would mean I would be helping people. That appealed to me more I think than being a bedside sort of physician.

Why do you think that helping people was so important?

Oh, because everything in my background, from the school, the Presbyterian school, from the church I went to, was your job in the world is to help people. Be of, be of use. So the world is different because you've lived in it. That was very, very strong. It was a sort of puritanical thing in a way, you know. It was associated with the puritan work ethic too I think.

Is it still with you?

Oh, yes, you know, very strongly with me in the sense that I feel I want to be doing something useful all the time.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 2