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Martin, Peter Gordon (1923–1994)

by Oliver Mayo

This article was published online in 2018

Peter Gordon Martin (1923–1994), botanist and geneticist, was born on 20 June 1923 in North Adelaide, only son of locally born parents Stanley Gordon Martin, bank clerk, and his wife Annie Violet, née De Rose. Peter was educated at Prince Alfred College (1936–40). Following the outbreak of World War II, on 1 September 1940 he joined the Permanent Naval Forces as a special-entry cadet midshipman. He completed a shortened course at the Royal Australian Naval College, HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria, and then, promoted to midshipman, trained at sea in the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia in 1941 and 1942. The ship operated in the Indian and Pacific oceans and fought in the battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942).

As an acting and substantive sub-lieutenant, Martin undertook professional courses and combined operations training in Britain (1942–43), before being sent to the landing ship, infantry, HMS Keren, which took part in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. That month he was promoted to lieutenant. Aboard the destroyer HMAS Napier (1943–45), he served in the South Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. He was second-in-command of the frigate HMAS Barwon (1946–47) and the corvette HMAS Gladstone (1947–48). Resigning to pursue a career in science, he was transferred to the Retired List on 22 July 1948.

On 13 July 1946 at St Columba’s Anglican Church, in the Adelaide suburb of Hawthorn, Martin had married Beryl Laura Maud Thomas, an artist who had served in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force. Resuming his education, he studied botany and genetics at the University of Adelaide (BSc, 1953; PhD, 1957). He won the John Bagot (1949) and Ernest Ayers (1951) scholarships, a Gowrie Scholarship Trust Fund award (1950), and the Elsie Marion Cornish (1951) and William Culross (1955) prizes. Appointed lecturer in 1956, he spent his entire academic career at the university. His encouragement of others was exceptional and for many years he taught first-year biology, insisting that only the ‘best lectures’ can properly introduce students to the subject (University of Adelaide Library MS0092). Rising through the academic hierarchy, he was made professor of botany in 1969.

Officer training and wartime service had marked Martin. He was decisive, impatient with shilly-shallying, and always trying to make up for lost time as a scientist. Consequently, while many colleagues, students, and friends described him as adventurous and generous-spirited, he was not without academic adversaries. His research focused on evolution in plants and animals, and utilised quantitative as well as qualitative methodologies. In 1958 he was awarded a Nuffield Foundation travelling fellowship to conduct research on cellular differentiation in England at the John Innes Institute, Hertford, and King’s College, University of London. After a seminal sabbatical at Durham, England, with the biologist Donald Boulter in the mid-1970s, he pioneered studies of amino acid substitution in proteins, and DNA base changes as molecular clocks in plants.

As a scientist Martin was receptive to new ideas, a good conceiver of experiments, and an amenable collaborator. He was an enthusiastic proponent of the geophysicist Alfred Wegener’s hypothesis of continental drift. His interest in its biogeographical consequences led to a collaboration with the geneticist David Hayman on the chromosomes and chromosomal evolution in marsupials. Their book, Mammalia I: Monotremata and Marsupialia (1974), was a fine combination of courage and caution, action and reflection. It provided a clear account of changes in chromosomal morphology and number over evolutionary time, and indicated that Australian and South American marsupials had a common Gondwanan origin. Many of the scholars who subsequently helped to make Australia pre-eminent in the field of marsupial evolution were either taught or influenced by Martin or Hayman.

An early member of the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, Martin was a keen gardener and an enthusiast for native plants. He always encouraged his family’s interests, and his most-cited paper remains one in which he assisted his son, a geneticist, in a study of intellectual ability in human twins. At sixty-one, he retired so that he could devote more time to research. With work still in progress, he died of cancer on 15 December 1994. His wife, and their son and daughter survived him. A prize for excellence in scientific communication was established in his name at the University of Adelaide. His last joint paper was published posthumously in 2000.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Conran, John. ‘A Pioneer in Evolutionary Studies.’ Adelaidean, 8 May 1995, 8
  • Crisp, Mike. ‘Professor Peter Gordon Martin (1923–1994).’ Australasian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter, no. 82 (March 1995): 14–15
  • Martin, Beryl, and Nick Martin. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. A6797, MARTIN P G
  • University of Adelaide Library. ‘Biographical Note.’ MS0092, Peter Martin (1923–1994). Papers 1954–1996

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Citation details

Oliver Mayo, 'Martin, Peter Gordon (1923–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/martin-peter-gordon-18995/text30598, published online 2018, accessed online 24 June 2019.

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