The many battles of Jock Marshall

In January 1945, a small Australian Army reconnaissance unit pushed through the jungles of New Guinea, narrowly avoiding the enemy Japanese forces. With the assistance of the local inhabitants, the unit gathered vital information on Japanese movements, relaying it back to headquarters using carrier pigeons. This was “Jockforce”, named after its commander, zoologist Jock Marshall.

Jock was familiar with the harsh New Guinea terrain, having spent nearly a year exploring it in preparation for a large-scale scientific expedition. His first taste of field work in the tropics had been ten years earlier in the New Hebrides, where for seven months he collected data on the breeding cycles of local animals. Jock had been bored by school and never matriculated, but through these expeditions he developed a passion for science. It was a passion that was to lead him into many battles.

Despite his experience in the tropics, Jock had a difficult time convincing the military authorities that he should see active service in New Guinea. His impatience with military procedures didn’t help, but the main concern was physical – Jock had shot his left arm off when he was 16!

Jock’s attitude to this accident was indicative of the way he approached life – he always willing to take on a fight. He refused to wear an artificial limb, and instead taught himself to ride and shoot one-armed. Later he amazed colleagues with his ability to dissect birds with one hand and an assortment of pins. Jock later said that the accident was the best thing that had ever happened to him, he was forced to focus on the future, to make something of his life. A natural bushman, Jock began collecting bird specimens for the Australian Museum, earning the respect of Alec Chisholm, the museum’s renowned ornithologist. It was the museum staff who recommended Jock for the New Hebrides expedition.

While in the New Hebrides, Jock became fascinated with the breeding cycles of birds, and this was to remain one of his major research interests. But to pursue his research he had to undertake formal study, first at the University of Sydney and later at Oxford. To bring in extra money, he often worked as a journalist, indeed, his passion for science was perhaps matched by his love of language. He wrote many books, some chronicling his expeditions, others attacking the short-sightedness and hypocrisy he saw in Australian society. One of these books, The Great Extermination, was an early attempt to draw attention to our devastating loss of native species.

After some years in England, Jock was drawn back to Australia by the prospect of helping to establish a new university – Monash, where Jock was appointed Foundation Professor of Zoology. He sallied forth into battle once more, fighting for standards of research excellence, fighting for the use of native trees within the university grounds. When it was planned to build over a piece of remnant bushland, Jock moved in under cover of darkness and simply removed all the builder’s survey pegs. The area remains a nature reserve today.

The one battle Jock could not win was against cancer, and he died in 1967 at the age of 56. But Jock Marshall’s life remains a lesson in determination. He wrote to a friend in 1937: “I’ve come to believe that you can do pretty near anything in this world with a moderate amount of brain, gut & personality – & Christ knows I’ve tried to develop all three”.


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Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

One Comment

  1. barry hayes
    January 29, 2009

    I believe I’m related to Jock through my maternal side…mother Gladys Marshall, grandfather Charles Edgar Marshall, and the photo of Jock is almost identical to that of myself in my 1963 book ‘Home Brewing’. Family are still present in WA but so far I’m unabble to contact them. I would appreciate any help.

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