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Alan John (Jock) Marshall (1911–1967)

by James W. Warren

This article was published:

Jock Marshall, by Jim Warren, 1962?

Jock Marshall, by Jim Warren, 1962?

Monash University Archives, 55

Alan John (Jock) Marshall (1911-1967), professor of zoology, was born on 17 February 1911 at Redfern, Sydney, youngest of four children of native-born parents Robert Duncan Marshall, tramway fettler, and his wife Violet Ada, née Crowe. As a boy he was given the nickname 'Jock' because of his ambition to become a jockey, though he was soon too tall for such a career. He grew up at Penshurst on the outskirts of Sydney, riding his horse through paddocks, shooting rabbits and becoming imbued with a sense of nature. Educated at Dumbleton Public School, he later impressed English acquaintances by referring to himself as an 'old Dumbletonian'. He was an avid reader of such books as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, given to him by his father, but at Kogarah High School he declared himself bored; academically lazy and given to excessive practical jokes, he was expelled without sitting the Intermediate examinations. Marshall was then apprenticed to a motor mechanic.

Careless handling of a shotgun shortly before his sixteenth birthday resulted in the amputation of his left arm, just below the shoulder. He overcame this disability and could, with one hand, achieve what would normally be delicate, two-handed manipulations. Undeterred by the accident, he continued his investigations of bush fauna. His self-gained knowledge of the natural history around Sydney came to the notice of Alec Chisholm, who put him in touch with the Australian Museum (honorary fellow, 1934). Through its good offices, he was invited (1930) to join a Harvard University expedition to northern New South Wales and Queensland. He was a member of University of Oxford expeditions—to Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), in 1934, and to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and Dutch New Guinea (Irian Jaya) in 1936. Next year he worked at Oxford with his fellow explorers, and joined an Austrian expedition to Spitsbergen, in the Arctic Circle.

Marshall's ambition focused on a career in biology. Entering the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1940) as an unmatriculated student, he was ineligible to undertake an honours degree, but he was appointed a demonstrator in zoology at the university and a resident tutor at St Paul's College. He wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph and fulfilled a weekly broadcasting commitment with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, subsequently becoming 'Jock the Backyard Naturalist' for its Argonauts' Club. At the college chapel on 8 March 1941 he married Joy Lyall Wood with Anglican rites.

That year Marshall applied to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force; he was rejected because he only had one arm. Mobilized in the Militia on 13 October 1941, he was commissioned and promoted temporary captain in November. Initially he performed education duties. In July 1942 he was accepted in the A.I.F. and in April 1943 joined the intelligence unit at headquarters, New Guinea Force, Port Moresby. Despite his disability, Marshall was able to obtain a posting in November to a fighting unit, the 2nd/2nd Battalion. During the Wewak campaign he led a patrol, known as 'Jockforce', deep into enemy territory in January-February 1945. Shortly before World War II ended, he was posted to 'Z' Special Unit in Brisbane.

Transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 17 October 1945, Marshall applied to enter the University of Oxford (D.Phil., 1949; D.Sc., 1956). He sailed for England in July 1946, leaving his wife and child in Sydney. The couple had agreed to a divorce, which was granted in 1948. Marshall had formed a relationship with Janet (Jane) Graham, whom he had met in 1945 while they were both in military service. She travelled to England in 1946 and they were married on 13 May 1950 at the register office, London. They had three children in what proved a devoted partnership.

At Oxford, Marshall suffered severe bouts of malaria, but applied himself single-mindedly to a research programme on the breeding cycles of birds. This research complemented his desire to explore, and in 1947 he led an Arctic expedition to Jan Mayen island. In 1949 he was appointed reader in zoology and comparative anatomy at Saint Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, University of London, a position he held for ten years. While he continued an association with journalism through regular contributions to several newspapers, his principal activity was research into the physiology of reproduction, primarily in birds. Although he was based in London, his field-work took him to Africa, Indonesia, Australia and North America, where he held a visiting lecturership at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, in 1958 and at the University of California in 1959.

Anxious to 'retribalize' his children in Australia, in 1959 Marshall applied for and was appointed to the foundation chair of biology at Monash University, Melbourne. The name of his department was later changed to zoology and comparative physiology, which better accorded with his interests. In 1961 he was appointed dean of the faculty of science. He influenced university policies in regard to building and landscaping, insisting on the planting of native vegetation.

Marshall wrote one scholarly monograph, Bower Birds (Oxford, 1954), and more than eighty articles in scientific journals. He contributed to encyclopedias and edited three scientific compendia—Biology and Comparative Physiology of Birds (2 vols, London, 1960-61), A Textbook of Zoology (vol 2, London, 1962), and The Great Extermination (Sydney, 1966). The last, a record of the extinction of animal species in Australia from the time of European settlement, formed part of a campaign to encourage the conservation of biological diversity. Marshall's scientific expeditions and collateral scholarship provided him with material for books of a popular nature, The Black Musketeers (London, 1937), The Men and Birds of Paradise (London, 1938), Australia Limited (Sydney, 1942), Journey Among Men, with (Sir) Russell Drysdale (London, 1962), and Darwin and Huxley in Australia (Sydney, 1970).

Powerfully built, 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall and about 13 stone (83 kg) in weight, Marshall was fair haired and blue eyed, with 'skin permanently ruddy from outdoor living, and a combative nose and jaw'. He was outspoken and at times aggressive, according to one journalist 'a rude rugged improbable academic' and a 'literate, latter-day version of the Wild Colonial Boy'. Yet he loved the visual arts, collected antiquarian books, antique furniture and eighteenth-century glass, and attracted artists and writers as friends.

In 1965 Marshall's chest pains were traced to a malignant growth pressing on his aorta. His health deteriorated, and in 1966 the university relieved him of administrative duties by appointing him research professor of zoology. Though mostly bedridden, he continued to write articles and once attended a professorial board-meeting on a stretcher. His devotion to writing and his sense of history generated an extensive archive of photographs, correspondence and diaries which recorded the life of an intelligent, humorous, kind and occasionally difficult individual.

Jock Marshall died of cancer on 20 July 1967 at Heidelberg and was cremated; his wife and their son and two daughters survived him, as did the daughter of his first marriage. In keeping with his agnosticism, his funeral ceremony was presided over by the president of the Rationalist Society of Australia. A portrait of Marshall by Lina Bryans is held by the family, two sketches by Louis Kahan by Monash University, and another by Drysdale by the National Library of Australia. At Monash University a ten-acre (4 ha) nature reserve, which Marshall had fought to preserve, was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Uncommon Men (Melb, 1965)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey (Canb, 1973)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1967
  • Marshall papers (National Library of Australia and Monash University Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

James W. Warren, 'Marshall, Alan John (Jock) (1911–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 July 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

Jock Marshall, by Jim Warren, 1962?

Jock Marshall, by Jim Warren, 1962?

Monash University Archives, 55

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Jock the Backyard Naturalist

17 February, 1911
Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


20 July, 1967 (aged 56)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations