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Bull, Lionel Batley (1889–1978)

by Eric L. French

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Lionel Batley Bull (1889-1978), by unknown photographer

Lionel Batley Bull (1889-1978), by unknown photographer

CSIRO Science Image, AR1377

Lionel Batley Bull (1889-1978), veterinary scientist and administrator, was born on 27 April 1889 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, second of four children of Thomas William Bull, a herbalist from England, and his Victorian-born wife Kate Marina, née Harris. The family enjoyed a leisurely and comfortable life on their property at Ormond. Educated at University High School, Lionel was a student at W. T. Kendall's Melbourne Veterinary College when that institution was absorbed by the University of Melbourne in 1908. Bull became a licentiate in veterinary science in 1911 and next year graduated B.V.Sc. In September 1912 he accepted an appointment as first assistant to (Sir) Trent de Crespigny, director of the laboratory of bacteriology and pathology at Adelaide Hospital. On 17 November 1913 Bull married Beatrice Johannah Reay at the Methodist manse, Pirie Street, Adelaide.

Responsible for most of the laboratory's bacteriological work, he encouraged veterinary colleagues to submit material and promptly initiated research, both in human and animal bacteriology and in infectious diseases. In 1917 Bull identified the pathogenic yeast Torula histolytica in a fatal case of Torula meningitis; clinical pathologists still use his Indian-ink method of demonstrating the presence of the organism in the patient's cerebrospinal fluid. The University of Melbourne awarded him a D.V.Sc. in 1919 and in 1925 he was made director of his laboratory. In 1929 he isolated, named and described the causal organism of 'lumpy wool' in sheep and in 1935 set up an investigation into bovine mastitis. His most significant work in bacteriology dated from about 1930: he studied the natural history of caseous lymphadenitis of sheep and showed that wounding the animals during shearing was the main cause of the condition. At the University of Adelaide in 1930-33 he lectured on bacteriology to medical and dental students.

On 13 January 1934 Bull was appointed deputy-chief of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's division of animal health and immediately went on a tour of veterinary establishments in Britain, Europe and the United States of America. Returning to Australia, in July 1935 he succeeded J. A. Gilruth as chief of the division. Bull set up a new laboratory at the Veterinary Research Institute, University of Melbourne. Next year his organization absorbed C.S.I.R.'s division of animal nutrition and was renamed the division of animal health and nutrition. Almost from the outset, there was friction between Bull and H. R. Marston, officer-in-charge of the Adelaide Nutrition Laboratory. Marston wanted to concentrate on fundamental research; Bull required him to relate his work to problems in the field. The antagonism continued until 1944, culminating in the creation of a division of biochemistry and general nutrition under Marston; Bull's truncated domain was then titled animal health and production.

Over the next ten years Bull established sections to investigate animal breeding and genetics, as well as animal physiology, and studied ecto- and endo-parasites of cattle in tropical Australia. In 1937 he had conducted field-trials to determine whether the myxoma virus could be used to control the rabbit plague in Australia. Forced by quarantine authorities to make his observations in unsuitable environments, away from mosquito-breeding sites, he concluded in 1944 that the virus was ineffective. His findings embroiled him in a public controversy with Dame Jean Macnamara. From 1938 he had chaired a co-operative investigation into the origins in sheep of 'yellows'—haemolytic jaundice with intense anaemia. Bull's vigorous leadership and authority engendered confidence among the members of his team who made fundamental advances in understanding the complex interactions of minerals in the nutrition of sheep. They concluded that 'yellows' resulted from three main types of chronic copper poisoning.

During his career Bull published eighty-eight scientific works, including papers on enterotoxaemia of sheep, 'swell head' of rams and botulism in horses. He retired as chief on 30 June 1954, but continued to work as a senior research fellow with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Concentrating on hepatoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids affecting livestock, with C. C. J. Culvenor and A. T. Dick he published The Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (No.9 in the series, 'Frontiers of Biology') (Amsterdam, 1968). The book stressed the importance of such alkaloids among plant poisons in Australia, as well as summarizing recent knowledge of their chemistry, toxicology and pathogenesis, and the pathology produced by them. Bull finally left C.S.I.R.O. in 1968.

He had been made an honorary member of the comparative medicine section of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, in 1945, and an honorary associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1949. That year he was elected a fellow of the Australian Veterinary Association. Bull was appointed C.B.E. in 1952. A fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, he served as councillor (1959-61) and vice-president (1960-61). In 1955 the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science awarded him the Mueller medal and he received the Gilruth prize from the Australian Veterinary Association. Awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Melbourne in 1967, he also won the A.N.Z.A.A.S. medal that year. He was elected a foundation fellow of the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists in 1971.

Bull was fiercely proud of the veterinary profession. He appreciated the need for it to be seen and heard in relation to Australia's livestock industries. Yet, he was essentially a scientist, with a keen, critical faculty. Early in his career he had developed confidence in his ability to plan investigations. Although he assumed the role of leader when working with others, he was ready to acknowledge the contributions of his colleagues and his competitors. He worked hard and expected his associates to do likewise. While willing to listen to differing opinions and to weigh them against his own, he made the final decision in matters for which he was accountable and accepted full responsibility. On occasions he could be intimidating to his juniors. No one took liberties with him in conversation; few called him by his Christian name; for most of his life he addressed his associates by their surnames. A good lecturer, he readily participated in scientific discussions, and eschewed cant and hypocrisy. He had a fine mind and an artist's perception of beauty in nature. Bull left a mark on many facets of veterinary science, particularly the health and production aspects of animal industries.

He and his wife belonged to the Musica Viva Society and frequently attended its performances. After studying art as a young man, he returned to painting in retirement and joined the Victorian Artists Society. His work was successfully exhibited and sold; he presented paintings to the Wallaby Club, of which he was a member, and to the Australian Academy of Science. Tennis was another of his recreations. Survived by his son and daughter, Bull died on 5 May 1978 at Fitzroy; his body was given to the anatomy department at the University of Melbourne. Murray Griffin's portrait of Bull is in the Parkville laboratory of C.S.I.R.O.'s division of animal health.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 5, no 4, Dec 1983, p 51, and for list of publications
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 June 1954
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 July 1954
  • CSIRO Archives, Canberra.

Citation details

Eric L. French, 'Bull, Lionel Batley (1889–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bull-lionel-batley-9620/text16963, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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