Unsung heroes

On Sunday I was listening to the local ABC station, 2CN, when a bloke came on talking about “unsung heroes” of Australian history. Apparently it’s a regular spot, and it so happened that the two heroes being sung on Sunday were scientists – Ferdinand von Mueller the botanist, and John Tebbutt, the astronomer. However, my initial pleasure at having scientists included in such a forum, quickly turned to frustration.

Many, perhaps most, of you would have heard of Mueller. He was probably Australia’s greatest nineteenth century scientist: Victorian Government botanist for 40 years, an explorer who collected and classified thousands of specimens, a prolific correspondent who maintained a vast network of collectors throughout Australia, an international figure whose unequalled knowledge of Australian flora was widely recognised in the scientific centres of Europe.

But what were the two key achievements proclaimed by this radio commentator to justify Mueller’s inclusion in the pantheon of “unsung heroes”. First, that he sent eucalyptus seeds around the world, so that we can now see gum trees in California; and second, that he planted marrum grass on Australian beaches to prevent erosion. That was it. There was no indication of Mueller’s broader scientific achievements, no understanding of the development of science in Australia – indeed, I doubt whether the words science or scientist were used at all. It seemed rather that Mueller and Tebbutt were being included almost apologetically – ‘well, you know they were scientists, but they did some interesting stuff as well’. Instead of being introduced as active contributors to our knowledge of the natural world and to Australian culture, they were presented as oddities – mere trinkets on the sideboard of Australian history.

Perhaps this is not surprising, despite Australia’s strong record of scientific achievement, the scientist does not really fit our myths of national identity. The closest we come is probably the ingenious ‘make-do’ bushman, able to cobble together all manner of useful gadgets from a roll of barbed wire and a jam tin. But this is ultimately a conservative image, it is simply pragmatism, not a passion for knowledge, that is assumed to be the driving force. What is celebrated by such myths is not creativity, inspiration or genius, but simply a capacity to respond to circumstances. Consequently, we have had several generations of schoolkids believing that the heights of Australian scientific and technological achievement can be summed up in three words – STUMP JUMP PLOUGH.

At this point I must make a confession. I recently prepared an article for the Oxford Companion to Australian History on the history of Australian science, or rather the historiography of Australian science. In it, I argued that one of the problems with the field is that too much of the history of Australian science has been written by scientists. This seems a rather unfriendly thing to say on an occasion such as this, but let me explain. The point of my argument was not to denigrate the many thorough and detailed historical studies of scientific institutions, personalities and disciplines conducted by scientists, but rather to highlight the failure of the broader historical community to incorporate science into their studies of Australian life and culture. The historians aren’t pulling their weight. Where is science in the various survey histories of Australia? – if you’re lucky you may find a reference to William Farrer, or perhaps myxomatosis, but not much else. This separation between Australian history and Australian science continues, I believe, to the detriment of both.

But instead of just complaining, as I seem to do quite often, let’s chart a plan of action, inspired by Murray Upton’s fine example. After all, if the historians aren’t yet ready to take up the challenge, then the burden lies even more heavily with you – it is up to the scientific community to ensure that its own achievements, activities, culture and development are adequately documented, that its stories are told. But where to start? I foresee a battle waged on three fronts:

  1. the records
  2. the people
  3. the history

the records

In the preface to his book, Murray makes some insightful comments about changing recordkeeping practices in science, and the likely impact of this on the work of future historians. As Murray mentions, perhaps the most frightening prospect is that presented by electronic documents – email, databases, notes – all those things you create on your computer on a day to day basis. We can still read Joseph Banks’s journal of the Endeavour voyage more than 200 years after it was written. In 200 years time will it be possible for a historian to read your records? This is not simply a job for archivists. The way such records are created and disposed of means that archivists and scientists need to be working together to develop strategies and procedures. In the past, institutions could put off any action on archives until the retirement of a long-serving staff member. But scientists now are often on short-term contracts, each time they move, change jobs, change institutions, records are lost. Institutions can no longer rely on archivists being able to come in and clean-up after the science has been done, if they do so, they risk losing a substantial chunk of their corporate memory – our scientific memory.

Why does this matter? Well, I’ve already gestured towards the cultural and historical arguments for preserving our scientific heritage, but there are also some important practical considerations. As you all know science is practised within an ever-growing regulatory framework. There are a raft of legal obligations, issues of intellectual property, patent rights, concerns about scientific fraud, all of which can only be dealt with by instituting adequate recordkeeping processes.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as organisations such as Australian Archives (now National Archives) are beginning to recognise the special requirements of scientific recordkeeping, and of course the Australian Science Archives Project, is always willing to provide advice and assistance.

the people

I’ve always believed that one of the most important ways of getting the general public interested in the history of Australian science is through stories about scientists themselves. By exploring their achievements, their hopes, their failures, their passions, you break down the barriers of fear and intimidation that tend to alienate the public from science, encouraging instead the realisation that scientists are people too. Having met on the common ground of our own humanity, it is then possible to carry the audience beyond, to open up areas of science that had previously seemed remote and forbidding.

And so with a work like Murray’s we find that it is the characters that emerge most clearly – the tragic, the foolish, the heroic and the inspired. We recognise in these figures elements of ourselves, our friends, our colleagues and we make a connection. From there we begin to perceive the context, to assemble the pieces in our own minds and grasp the broader significance – entomology, CSIRO, Australian science, Australian culture. Murray comments that he found few documents recording ‘social history’ and yet within the lives of his characters we find many clues to the changing nature of Australian society: restrictions on the employment of women, for example, highlighted by the tragic suicide of Mary Fuller; or the Cold War hysteria surrounding the employment of Sergei Paramonov.

I’m not advocating wholesale hagiography. The establishment of a gallery of scientific heroes doesn’t really interest me as either a consumer or creator of history. I’m talking about revealing scientists as people, not about turning them into icons. In pursuing this task there are many lives left to be documented, many stories to be told. Record your memories, write down your anecdotes, pass on your stories.

As an indication both of what can be done, and what remains to be done, you might like to go away and explore Bright Sparcs. Bright Sparcs is a resource on the WWW that contains information on over 3,000 Australian scientists from the 18th century to the present – it includes biographical, archival and bibliographical details, with links to some memoirs, obituaries and historical articles. Contributions are always welcome.

the history

When faced with such a thorough piece of work as Murray Upton’s history of the ANIC, it is perhaps tempting to cross the topic off the list and think ‘Well, that bit of history’s been done’. But, of course, history doesn’t work like that – there is no end, there is no final product. There will always be new perspectives, new interpretations, people and events will be examined in different contexts. By this constant ravelling and unravelling our insights and understandings develop.

I’m sure that Murray would join with me in urging you not to see this book as the final word on the subject. Murray’s meticulous research has provided us with a new baseline in the history of entomology in Australia – a new starting point, not an endpoint. In coming together today to congratulate Murray and the Australian National Insect Collection, we must also be aware that this book confronts us with a challenge – a challenge to continue this work.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

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

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