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Cameron, Ann Macaulay (1939–1998)

by Roger Bradbury

This article was published online in 2022

This is a shared entry with Robert Endean

Ann Cameron and Bob Endean, 1989

Ann Cameron and Bob Endean, 1989

University of Queensland Archives, S909 p5585.6

Robert Endean (1925–1997) and Ann Macaulay Cameron (1939–1998), toxinologists and environmentalists, were partners in life and science. Bob was born on 27 December 1925 at Abermain, near Cessnock, New South Wales, son of English-born parents Robert Endean, mine surveyor, and his wife Annie, née Peers. At Abernethy Public School, he qualified for entrance to Cessnock High School (1938–43), from which he matriculated, with a scholarship, at the New England University College of the University of Sydney (BSc, 1948; MSc, 1950), Armidale. There, after noticing that the rabbits he hunted in bracken country had tanned guts and high levels of intestinal cancer, he began his lifelong interest in toxinology. He graduated with first-class honours and the university medal in zoology, impressing the renowned Professor William Dakin with his ability. In World War II he had been a cadet in the Air Training Corps, before serving part time (1944–45) in the 3rd Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps. He represented NEUC in rugby union and was a good cricketer.

In 1950 Endean was appointed as an assistant-lecturer in zoology at the University of Queensland, where he wrote a thesis on fibrous tissues in selected marine invertebrates (PhD, 1957). On 9 January 1958 at the General Registry Office, Brisbane, he married Louie Deen, formerly Letton, a high school teacher and later university lecturer in education; they were to have a daughter before being divorced in 1973.

From his early years in Queensland, Endean had been captivated by coral reefs. He was one of the first scientists to dive on them, as scuba became available in the early 1950s, enabling him to see reef organisms in their natural environment. In addition, he was among the first to understand that the astonishing variety of life in tropical waters is sustained by complex interactions involving exotic chemicals, such as the venoms, growth inhibitors, and attractants evolved to project an organism’s power over neighbouring species. Indeed, nature provides the world’s greatest pharmacological storehouse on coral reefs.

Rising through the academic ranks, Endean was promoted to reader in 1964. He worked industriously, building a brilliant academic career in the new sphere of drugs from the sea, founded on the discovery of cardio-active and other compounds in reef organisms. His research included notable work on the toxins of the box jellyfish, stonefish, and blue-ringed octopus, and the tumour-inhibiting chemicals in some reef creatures. With a Nuffield Foundation travelling fellowship in 1958, he had studied in England at the University of Bristol. He advised medical practitioners on human envenomations and was an authority on ciguatera. The World Health Organization appointed him as a member (1970–75) of its expert advisory panel on food additives.

Before it became commonplace for Australian universities to seek sponsorship from commercial sources, in 1969 Endean had begun obtaining funds from the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG. With this money and numerous government and institutional grants, and through his offices as secretary (1957–68) and president (1969–75) of the Great Barrier Reef Committee, he transformed the Heron Island Research Station into the world centre for laboratory-based study into coral reefs. He also created an intellectually free, somewhat bohemian, environment on the island, where he and other free spirits—his partner, Ann Cameron, among them—could enjoy their work.

Annie had been born on 22 September 1939 in Brisbane, younger daughter of Queensland-born parents Ewen Colclough Beauchamp Cameron, grazier, and his wife Mary Cecilia, née Macaulay. The family lived on Moombidary station, Hungerford. She attended Cunnamulla State School (1945–49), before boarding at Fairholme Presbyterian Girls’ College, Toowoomba (1950–57), where she excelled. Matriculating at the University of Queensland (BSc Hons, 1963; PhD, 1969), she gained first-class honours in zoology and, for her doctorate, wrote a thesis on the histochemistry and evolution of fish venom glands; Endean was her supervisor. In the zoology department, she was appointed as a senior tutor in 1967 and promoted to lecturer in 1974 and to senior lecturer in 1983.

As a senior tutor, Cameron had supervised postgraduate students who supported themselves by tutoring, and had impressed on them her views about the meaning of science and what it entails to be a scientist. She rejected the idea that, because science may be value free, scientists were themselves excused from cultivating and exercising a sense of values. To be a scientist, she insisted, involved a moral dimension that was as important as the science itself.

Cameron developed what was effectively a salon and continued it throughout her career, emulating earlier remarkable women who had struggled to establish authority and find acceptance in a misogynous world. There, she instructed, challenged, and cajoled the young scientists she called her ‘babies’ (Bradbury 1998, 16), counselling them to think for themselves and to reflect on the proper role and responsibility of the educated person in civil society. She encouraged them to analyse critically not only monumental scientific problems—the way evolution is manifested in biodiverse regions, such as rainforests and coral reefs, and how such regions are to be conserved—but also great contemporary political and ethical questions, including the Vietnam War and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

As the modern environmental movement advanced in the 1960s, Endean and Cameron took strong positions, often unwelcome to commercial and industrial interests and the political supporters of those interests. He became a public figure, a reliable source of media comment on the wonders and problems of the Great Barrier Reef. She played a more subtle role, exhorting her ‘babies’ to action. The young scientists were among the founders of the Queensland Littoral Society (1965), which, with the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, launched Australia’s first mass environmental campaign, to save the reef from destructive exploitation through limestone mining and oil drilling. Later, they presented a ‘Statement of Disenchantment’ to the 1970 annual conference of the Australian Marine Sciences Association, objecting to a by-invitation-only symposium on marine pollution sponsored by oil companies.

In the mid-1960s Endean had sounded the alarm about the appearance of increasing numbers of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) in the Great Barrier Reef system. Commissioned by the Queensland government to investigate, he reported in 1969 that plagues of the creatures had destroyed many reefs in the Cairns region and that the outbreaks were continuing to spread. Controversially, he postulated that human agency was a major cause. The Queensland and Commonwealth governments ordered an inquiry which reported in 1971 that the problem was greatly exaggerated. Endean retaliated in the media, highlighting the report’s shortcomings.

Although the starfish outbreaks appeared to be dying away, the Federal government responded to growing pressure from environmentalists by establishing the Australian Institute of Marine Science (1972) and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (1975) at Townsville. In 1979 the starfish returned and proceeded, once more, to destroy numerous reefs, including those just recovering from the previous infestations. Again the issue flared in the media, and again Endean was pitted against business operators, politicians, government agencies, and some scientists; sober pronouncements by his adversaries were no match for his laconic one-liners. Another official inquiry was convened, which carefully reported in 1985 that there might be a problem. Subsequently, as Endean feared, the outbreaks became chronic. The often-bitter struggle he waged against the Establishment over the starfish’s depredations ensured that he was never given a personal chair—recognised by most of his peers as a case of politics trumping merit—and would continue until his death.

The 1960s and 1970s had seen momentous changes in the science of coral reefs, as the traditional natural history approach was challenged by a more evolutionary-based ecology. Time-honoured ‘how,’ ‘what,’ and ‘where’ questions—how many spines on this fish, what does this coral eat, where is this starfish found—were supplemented by ‘why’ questions—why this many spines, why this food, why found there—which required evolutionary answers. Cameron’s bibliography mirrored this development, as she first questioned and then embraced the new science. Her early publications, particularly in toxinology, were in the best natural history tradition, while in her later works she struggled to understand the evolutionary significance of venoms and toxicity in the context of coral reef ecosystems, where diversity, longevity, stability, and stationariness (a favourite word of hers) are paramount.

Endean was no less socially committed than Cameron and was as much devoted to nurturing young scholars. He focused more on practising science than on contemplating its essence, however, and his bibliography—although reflecting remarkable discoveries—remained rooted in the principles of natural history. In 1982, for example, he wrote Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a fine, modern natural history for the general reader, which followed the precedent of Great Barrier Reef (1950), a famous and much-loved book by his mentor, Dakin.

More broadly, the couple helped force the pace of coral reef research in Australia and internationally. There had been a first, very small, international meeting of coral reef scientists in India in 1969 and Endean undertook to organise a second in Australia in 1973, thus establishing a quadrennial tradition. He led the Second International Coral Reef Symposium, cruising the waters of the Great Barrier Reef aboard the cruise ship Marco Polo; Cameron was the chief editor of the proceedings. With his colleague the geologist Owen A. Jones, Endean edited the four-volume series Biology and Geology of Coral Reefs (1973–77). These efforts created an international community of coral reef scientists and propelled them into the scientific mainstream.

In December 1990 Endean retired from the University of Queensland. After collapsing at Heron Island, he died on 6 October 1997 at Rockhampton and was buried in Cessnock cemetery. His partner and his daughter survived him. Cameron, suffering from cancer, resigned from the university later in the month of Endean’s death. She died on 17 October 1998 in her home at Brookfield, Brisbane, and was cremated.

Endean and Cameron had each been unconventional and single-minded and had come from strong-willed families, imbued with social consciences. His father, descended from Basque, Cornish, and Yorkshire miners, had battled mine owners over safety in the pits. Her father, as secretary of the Cunnamulla sub-branch of the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia after the war, scandalised locals by locking the bar until members agreed to allow Aboriginal returned servicemen to drink there. Ann Cameron chose career and partnership with the equally freethinking Bob Endean over marriage and family at a time when such a choice raised eyebrows. He, through his struggles to protect the Great Barrier Reef, became ‘the stormy petrel’ (Pearn 2002, 1073) of Australian marine science. Together, they left a legacy beyond their contributions in toxinology. The historian of science Jan Sapp argued that the crown-of-thorns starfish crisis was one of the earliest global environmental controversies. The forceful activism of Endean and Cameron hastened the formation of institutional and legal measures to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef. In 2015 Endean’s old antagonist, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, honoured him by naming Bob Endean Reef, east of Mission Beach, in Far North Queensland.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Bradbury, Roger. ‘Ann Macaulay Cameron—an Appreciation.’ Reef Encounter 24 (December 1998): 15–16
  • Bradbury, Roger. ‘Eco-warrior of the Great Barrier Reef.’ Australian, 29 October 1997, 14
  • Brown, Theo, with Keith Willey. Crown of Thorns: Death of the Great Barrier Reef? Cremorne, NSW: Angus and Robertson (Publishers), 1972
  • Hawgood, Barbara J. ‘The Marine Biologist—Bob Endean.’ Toxicon 48 (2006): 768–79
  • James, Peter. Requiem for the Reef: The Story of Official Distortion about the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish. Toowong, Qld: Foundation Press, 1976
  • Pearn, John. ‘Obituary: Dr Ann Cameron (1939–1998).’ Toxicon 40 (2002): 1073–74
  • Pearn, John. ‘Professor [sic] Bob Endean—Friend of Australian Doctors.’ Excolatur 1, no. 12 (April 1998): 4
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subjects
  • Sapp, Jan. What Is Natural?: Coral Reef Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999
  • University of Queensland Archives. UQA S135 Staff Files (mediated access)
  • Wright, Judith. The Coral Battleground. West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson (Australia), 1977

Additional Resources

Citation details

Roger Bradbury, 'Cameron, Ann Macaulay (1939–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cameron-ann-macaulay-31622/text39104, published online 2022, accessed online 29 November 2022.

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