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Beating the tyrant distance

By Peter Doherty - posted Monday, 10 January 2005

Although Australians may be increasingly conscious of our unique, ancient, indigenous culture, the national psyche is very much attuned to the reality that most were either born elsewhere or are descended from people who arrived from Europe, Asia or the Americas less than 220 years ago. We have traditionally thought of ourselves as being a long way from anywhere.

Prior to the 1950s, relatively few Australians ever made the journey back across the equator. While my English grandparents always spoke of the green fields and villages of rural Essex as "home", they had neither the resources nor the inclination to return, either permanently or for a visit. Regular overseas trips were the province of the wealthy, or for those with business or political reasons. The only "mass travel" prior to the 1950s was by military personnel, firstly to fight in the wars of the British Empire then, more regionally, to defend this country against attack. Australian professionals in the creative arts, theatre and academia migrated routinely to the northern hemisphere, many never to return.

Prior to 1950 and into the 1960s, many who were to become leaders in Australian science and medicine earned their postgraduate, professional qualifications from the various universities and specialist colleges in Britain and Ireland. The eminent virologist, then immunologist, Macfarlane Burnet, worked his northern passage as a ships’ doctor. His speculations on the nature of immune tolerance led to his sharing the 1960 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, the first such recognition for an Australian who made a career in this country.


Howard Florey completed his medical training in Adelaide but ended his days more than four decades later at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University. He shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for the discovery and use of penicillin. The 1963 Nobel Prize went to the Melbourne-born neurophysiologist Jack Eccles, who trained early on in Britain but worked mostly in Sydney, Dunedin and Canberra.

John Cornforth graduated from the University of Sydney, but has spent the remainder of his career in various British research institutions. Cornforth shared the 1975 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work on "the stereochemistry on enzyme catalysed reactions". He was recognised as the 1975 Australian of the Year, following Burnet, Eccles and Patrick White. White, who won the 1973 Nobel Prize for literature, was born in London to Australian parents from established pastoral families and, though he had part of his education in Britain, passed most of his life in or near Sydney and wrote with great insight about the Australian experience. Many of our leading authors have lived for a time in the northern hemisphere though, like Peter Carey who lives in New York City, their work retains a substantially Australian character

A few university and scientific luminaries, such as the Adelaide-born nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant, gave up established, safe careers in the United Kingdom to found the ANU research schools, the first Australian institution designed specifically to award the PhD degree. Many Australian professionals still spend a few years in the northern hemisphere. This is, no longer considered to be essential, though it is still necessary for scientists to develop an international reputation.

The problem is that there are still too few high-quality jobs and many of the best do not return after leaving for what was to be a two- to four-year postdoctoral fellowship. This is unlikely to change. At the highest level, the world of basic science and ideas is not constrained by politics or national boundaries. Talent flows to islands of opportunity and excellence, wherever they may be.

The loss is more at the level of training in our universities, where the young are no longer exposed to these bright minds, and in the clarifying input that very able people with diverse, sophisticated expertise can provide in a variety of areas. More disturbing to the politicians is the current emigration of large numbers of trained people who don’t necessarily live by their wits, but have the high levels of technical competence required by the global labour market.
The "populate or perish" movement that gathered momentum after World War II led to an increase in the number of passenger liners travelling to Australia, which in turn meant that there were relatively cheap fares on ships going north. It became part of the experience for well-educated young Australian women to spend a season, or a year or two, in Britain and Europe. This was much less common for their male counterparts, unless they were in academia or the professions. Working Australians of both sexes also travelled and took what were then plentiful, short-term jobs. Earls Court in London became known as an Australian ghetto.

I had a very junior position in the Queensland Department of Primary Industries when, in response to an advertisement in the leading scientific journal, Nature, I applied for a job as a research pathologist in Scotland. Then, as now, the market for scientific talent was global.


We lived in central Edinburgh for five years and were always aware when the Women’s Weekly Tour was in town. This was the start of the "overseas trip" as a rite of passage for many older Australians. Suddenly, Princes Street would be full of colourfully dressed, tanned people who were obviously enjoying themselves.
When we returned to Australia in 1971, we flew back. After Scotland, Brisbane in December seemed an incredibly lush, colourful and exotic place.

The essential experience of those who have been away for a substantial time is to see once familiar things through a very different prism. It is best, though, to keep such thoughts private, at least for a time. People who have been there all along may not understand what you are talking about, and can take your comments as criticism rather than affectionate observation. Keeping your mouth shut is Lesson Number One for the returning expatriate.

In general, Australians did not begin to look seriously to North America as a place to live until well after World War II. The increasing movement (from the 1960s) of Australian scientists to the US reflected the massive, federal investment in physical sciences during the Cold War, and the rapid, continuous expansion of both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The distribution of these federal research dollars to both private and state universities via highly competitive, peer-reviewed mechanisms led to the continuing, incredible dynamism of the leading US institutions of higher education.

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This is an edited version of an article first published in The Griffith Review

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About the Author

Professor Peter C. Doherty won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine. He is the Michael F. Tamer Chair of Biomedical Research at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

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