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Mabel Josephine (Jo) Mackerras (1896–1971)

by Lesley Williams

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Ian Murray Mackerras

Mabel Josephine Mackerras (1896-1971), by Nora Heysen, 1945

Mabel Josephine Mackerras (1896-1971), by Nora Heysen, 1945

Australian War Memorial, ART24395

Ian Murray Mackerras (1898-1980) and Mabel Josephine Mackerras (1896-1971), medical scientists, were husband and wife. Ian was born on 19 September 1898 at Balclutha, Otago, New Zealand, elder son of James Murray Mackerras, a New Zealand-born farmer, and his Sydney-born wife Elizabeth Mary, née Creagh. His parents separated and Elizabeth raised the boys in Sydney. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, Ian overstated his age and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 13 December 1915. He served as a laboratory attendant in the hospital ship, Karoola, before joining (December 1917) the 13th Field Artillery Brigade on the Western Front. He was gassed in May 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux, France, and subsequently admitted to hospital in England. Returning to Australia in February 1919, he entered the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., B.Sc. Hons, 1924); he graduated with the university medal in zoology and shared the John Coutts scholarship.

Josephine was born on 7 August 1896 at Deception Bay, Caboolture District, Queensland, elder child of Thomas Lane Bancroft, an English-born medical practitioner, and his Brisbane-born wife Cecilia Mary, née Jones. Initially educated at home by her mother, Jo enhanced her knowledge of plants, animals and insects by assisting her father in his research projects at their Deception Bay property. She proceeded to Brisbane Girls' Grammar School (where she won prizes in mathematics) and the University of Queensland (B.Sc., 1918; M.Sc., 1930). In 1918-20 she held a Walter and Eliza Hall fellowship in economic biology. During this period she collaborated with her honours supervisor Thomas Johnston in research that led to fourteen joint publications.

While Josephine was at the University of Sydney (M.B., 1924), she met Ian Mackerras. There was an immediate attraction of kindred spirits. Sailing and fishing at weekends, they did not eat their catch until they had examined its blood for haematozoa. The first paper they published together recorded the blood parasites of Australian marine fish. Ian and Jo were married with Anglican rites on 5 April 1924 at Grosvenor Flat, Eidsvold, Queensland; theirs was to prove one of the most productive and distinguished husband-and-wife partnerships in the history of Australian science. Jo completed twelve months residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, then combined a small private practice with a part-time appointment at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children. When her son was born in 1926, she suspended her professional career.

In 1925 Ian had been appointed Linnean Macleay fellow in zoology at the University of Sydney, where he came under the influence of Professor Launcelot Harrison. After two years as assistant-microbiologist in the New South Wales Department of Public Health, Mackerras was offered a position with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's division of economic entomology, Canberra. Starting on 1 December 1928 as senior entomologist (later principal research officer), he was thrust into the fields of veterinary entomology and parasitology. He organized and guided a successful research team, and increased knowledge of the control of sheep blowfly, buffalo fly, tick fever, and ephemeral fever in cattle. In 1930 Josephine joined the unit as assistant-entomologist. Her research on blowfly infestation and ephemeral fever led to nine papers, five of them joint publications with Ian.

On 13 October 1939 Ian was appointed major, Australian Army Medical Corps, A.I.F. In January 1940 he sailed for the Middle East. Employed as pathologist with the 2nd/1st Australian General Hospital, he was sent to North Africa to advise on the prevention of diarrhoeal disease. Josephine joined the A.A.M.C. as captain on 7 February 1942 and was posted to the Sydney area. Ian returned to Australia in May; in October he was appointed director of entomology, Land Headquarters. Promoted lieutenant colonel in May 1943, he made numerous visits to Papua and New Guinea, developing control measures for malaria, dengue fever and scrub typhus.

With 25,000 servicemen suffering from malaria in the South-West Pacific Area by June 1943, Mackerras, Hugh Ward and Bill Keogh proposed an organization 'solely devoted to the scientific investigation' of the disease. That year the L.H.Q. Medical Research Unit was established under (Sir) Neil Fairley at Cairns, Queensland. Josephine was attached to the unit as entomologist from mid-1943 and promoted major in March 1944. She bred and maintained a stock of infected mosquitoes for testing on volunteers. Her work reduced the incidence of infection in the armed forces, and provided a secure scientific basis for studying the effects of drugs on the malarial parasite. After the unit was disbanded in March 1946, she published eight important papers in collaboration with her former colleagues.

While holding office as adviser in parasitology (1944-45), Ian toured Britain and the United States of America. As malariologist (June to December 1945), First Australian Army, he again visited New Guinea. For his wartime services he was twice mentioned in dispatches. In 1953-56 he was to command the 1st Mobile Malaria Control Company in the Citizen Military Forces. Having been demobilized, the Mackerrases resumed their work with the C.S.I.R. in February 1946. They moved in April to the Yeerongpilly laboratories, Brisbane, where Ian was engaged in studies on the control of the cattle tick and Jo began work on the Simuliidae (blackflies). In 1947 Ian was appointed founding director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. His interests focussed on zoonoses (parasitic diseases normally found in animals but able to be transmitted to humans, frequently by arthropods). He achieved a happy balance between his administrative duties and his research.

Josephine began work at the Q.I.M.R. as senior parasitologist in September 1947. Among the various projects on which she was engaged, her chief contribution to scientific knowledge came from her study of the parasites of Australian mammals. She elucidated the life history of the rat lung-worm, later shown to be the aetiological agent of eosinophilic meningitis in the people of the Pacific islands. This lung-worm was named Angiostrongylus mackerrasae after her. Husband and wife directed their combined efforts to such endeavours as an examination of the role of cockroaches in the transmission of salmonella (especially to children), a series of studies on the taxonomy and life histories of Australian Simuliidae, and definitive works on the haematozoan parasites of Australian birds, frogs and fishes. They produced 17 joint publications, and 66 under individual authorship or with other colleagues.

In 1961 Ian and Josephine retired from the Q.I.M.R. They returned to Canberra as research fellows in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's division of entomology. Jo began a detailed study of cockroaches, while Ian edited and wrote sections of a monumental volume, The Insects of Australia (Melbourne), to which Josephine contributed a chapter. The book was published in 1970 and a supplement appeared in 1974. Ian also pursued his long-term study of Tabanidae. The Mackerrases continued to share a love of boating, fishing and the sea. They liked company, conversation and classical music, and many young scientists enjoyed cheerful evenings at their home. Foundation members of the Canberra Aero Club, Ian and Jo each held a pilot's licence. Jo's real delight, however, was in collecting specimens on field-trips.

Both Mackerrases were elected (1957) members (later fellows) of the (Royal) College of Pathologists of Australia (Australasia). Both were members of the Royal Society of Queensland, she from 1924 until 1958 when she was made life member; he was president in 1952. They served on the Great Barrier Reef Committee and helped to establish the Marine Research Station on Heron Island. Josephine presided over the Queensland Medical Women's Society and the Women Graduates' Association. Awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1965, she was elected a fellow of the Australian Society of Parasitology in 1966. The University of Queensland conferred an honorary doctorate of science on her in 1967, but she was too ill to attend the ceremony.

Ian served on the faculty of medicine, University of Queensland (1947-61), the medical research advisory committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (1954-57), and the advisory council of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, University of Sydney. He was president (1961-62) of the Australian Society for Microbiology, a foundation member and fellow of the Australian Society for Parasitology, and founder, president (1965-67) and honorary member (1969) of the Australian Entomological Society. In 1950 he had been awarded the Clarke medal. He held fellowships of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1950), the Australian Academy of Science (1954), the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1957) and the Royal Entomological Society, London (1958). A.N.Z.A.A.S. awarded him the Mueller medal in 1961; the University of Sydney conferred on him an honorary doctorate of science in 1971.

Josephine died on 8 October 1971 in her home at Turner, Canberra, and was buried in Canberra cemetery. Ian pressed on with his revision of the Tabanidae of Australia, 'the taxonomy of the old, indigenous and probably predominantly marsupial-feeding tribe, the Diachlorini'. He died on 21 March 1980 in Canberra and was cremated. Their only child, David, a reader in electrical engineering at the University of Queensland, became a noted authority on lightning.

Josephine Mackerras was a dedicated scientist, meticulous in her observations and attentive to detail. Her research—recorded in more than eighty papers—contributed to entomology, veterinary medicine and medical science. Characterized by her wisdom and strength of character, she also possessed a serene charm, a placid smile and a shy, self-effacing manner. Quietly and unobtrusively, she fostered young scientists and won the esteem of her senior colleagues. Her portrait by Nora Heysen is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Known affectionately and respectfully as 'Dr Mac', or simply 'Mac', Ian Mackerras was a sympathetic, stimulating and critical researcher who gave time and often financial support to young scientists. He instilled in his teams the qualities of trust, goodwill, and genuine pleasure in learning and discovery. Mackerras wrote that: 'Research for its own sake fosters, as nothing else can, the urge always to explore, without which initiative is lost and no research institution can live'. He published more than 130 papers. During his tenure the Q.I.M.R. won an international reputation. The institute holds his portrait by Graeme Inson.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Priest, Scholars and Gentlemen (Brisb, 1986)
  • L. M. Williams, 'The Prepared Mind', in J. Pearn and L. Powell (eds), The Bancroft Tradition (Brisb, 1991)
  • Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Second Annual Report, 1947
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 18 Mar 1972, 1, p 604
  • International Journal of Parasitology, 2, 1972, p 181, 10, 1980, p 329
  • News Bulletin of the Australian Entomological Society, May 1980, p 50
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 5, no 2, 1981
  • Canberra Times, 12 Oct 1971
  • I. M. Mackerras (manuscript, Australian Academy of Science Library).

Citation details

Lesley Williams, 'Mackerras, Mabel Josephine (Jo) (1896–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mabel Josephine Mackerras (1896-1971), by Nora Heysen, 1945

Mabel Josephine Mackerras (1896-1971), by Nora Heysen, 1945

Australian War Memorial, ART24395

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bancroft, Mabel

7 August, 1896
Caboolture, Queensland, Australia


8 October, 1971 (aged 75)
Turner, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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