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Hedley Ralph Marston (1900–1965)

by Roger Cross

This article was published:

Hedley Ralph Marston (1900-1965), by Arthur Murch, 1931

Hedley Ralph Marston (1900-1965), by Arthur Murch, 1931

National Library of Australia

Hedley Ralph Marston (1900-1965), biochemist, was born on 26 August 1900 at Bordertown, South Australia, third and youngest son of South Australian-born parents Septimus Herbert Marston, telegraph clerk, and his wife Mary Frances Ann, née Bishop, librarian. Hedley attended Unley District High School, Adelaide, where he met (Sir) Mark Oliphant, a fellow pupil; the two later became close friends. Having entered the South Australian School of Mines and Industries at the age of 16, Marston attended the University of Adelaide as a non-graduating student. He attained a standard equivalent to first-class honours in physiology and biochemistry. In 1927 he attempted to matriculate in order to qualify for a B.Sc., but failed Mathematics I. He was to have the distinction of receiving some of science's highest accolades without completing a degree.

A chance meeting with Professor T. B. Robertson had led to Marston's appointment in 1922 as a demonstrator in the university's department of physiology and biochemistry. On 1 March 1928 he joined Robertson's staff in the division of animal nutrition, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Adelaide. He greatly impressed Robertson, and became the division's acting-chief on Robertson's death in 1930. Following Sir Charles Martin's term as head of the division, Marston again served (1933-35) as acting-chief.

In 1936 the divisions of animal health and animal nutrition were combined under Lionel Bull. Marston was designated officer-in-charge of the animal nutrition laboratory. He did not accept the downgrading of his section and gave Bull a very difficult time. With the help of Sir David Rivett, C.S.I.R.'s chief executive officer, Marston eventually gained autonomy. On 14 August 1944 he was appointed chief, division of biochemistry and general nutrition; the inclusion of biochemistry in the division's title reflected Marston's views on the subject's importance.

Robertson, Martin and Professor Archibald Watson were lasting influences on Marston's life. Over the years he formed a wide and eclectic circle of friends. In the arts they included Elioth Gruner, Arthur Murch, Clive Turnbull, and (Sir) William Dobell whose portrait of Marston is held by the Queensland Art Gallery. Among scientists, he was close to Rivett and R. G. (Dick) Thomas, as well as Oliphant. The companionship of industrialists, such as J. L. Pratt of General Motors Corporation and W. S. Robinson, was important to him. His generosity towards his friends was renowned, and his flattery and gift-giving knew no bounds.

On 17 September 1934 at the Church of the Epiphany, Crafers, Marston married with Anglican rites Kathleen Nellie Spooner; they were to remain childless. She rarely accompanied her husband in public, but did go with him to England when he spent a year (1937-38) at Sir Gowland Hopkins's biochemical laboratory, University of Cambridge. While in England he developed friendships useful to his career.

The most publicized research of Marston's division dealt with deficiencies of trace elements in the soils of South Australia and had led to the discovery that 'coast disease'—a wasting malady of sheep pastured in the south-east coastal region and other areas—was caused by a lack of cobalt in their diet. Marston claimed this breakthrough as his own. His dramatic announcement at the meeting in 1935 of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science made his reputation. There is overwhelming evidence, however, that the work originally belonged to Dick Thomas and E. W. L. Lines. At first, Marston dismissed their efforts. It was not until he saw ailing sheep dramatically recover through the administration of cobalt salts that he assumed control of the project, probably in mid-1934. Thomas and Lines never gained the credit due to them, and were thereafter excluded from the investigations carried out at the division's research station at Robe.

In Adelaide that year Marston met Eric Underwood, who was working in Western Australia on the same problem and was close to obtaining the same result. No collaboration between the two teams eventuated and Marston seems to have conducted a vitriolic campaign against Underwood for many years without provoking any apparent retaliation. Indeed, at Marston's death, Underwood wrote a memoir for the Australian Academy of Science which was considered and fair.

Another important project to bring prestige to Marston and his division was the research, spearheaded by D. S. Riceman and others, into the soils of South Australia's Ninety Mile Desert. Despite having an adequate rainfall, the region only supported poor scrub. The desert's deficiency of trace elements (copper and zinc) was overcome, and an area of some 2 million acres (809,380 ha)—now called Coonalpyn Downs—was brought into productive mixed farming. To illustrate the impact of the research, Marston wrote to Oliphant in 1957 about a farmer who had recently settled in the area: 'He is sowing 8,000 acres [3238 ha] more this year to practically complete the 75,000 acres [30,352 ha]. Last year he shore 30,000 sheep which was all the stock he could acquire, and ''they made no impression as the area would hold easily and well five times this number'''.

In 1948 Marston delivered a lecture on the work of his division to the Royal Society, London, which elected him a fellow in the following year. The C.S.I.R. press release announcing his fellowship boasted that the division had brought the desert to bloom. Marston was involved in other projects, the most important of which were his investigation of the metabolic role of vitamin B12 in sheep and the study which he had carried out with Mary Dawbarn in World War II on the nutritional needs of troops. The effort Marston spent in determining the rate of growth of sheep's wool opened the way to further research. He greatly disliked publishing anything until he could announce the whole story, much to the chagrin of some of his staff who felt that this policy impeded their careers. Then he delighted in making a grand announcement in 'the Marstonian style'.

In 1955 Marston agreed, with alacrity, to assist the British in their research into the biological effects of radiation caused by atomic-bomb testing in Australia. His task was to study the radioactive iodine uptake in sheep and cattle. From monitoring the fall-out due to the tests in 1956 on the Monte Bello Islands and at Maralinga, South Australia, he quickly realized that the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee was under-reporting the extent of the contamination of Australia, and dismissing the associated risks. Marston claimed that the third test (11 October) at Maralinga had contaminated Adelaide. When the A.W.T.S.C. did not acknowledge such contamination in its press release, he mounted a bitter attack on Sir Leslie Martin and (Sir) Ernest Titterton, the two principal physicists on the committee.

The major thrust of Marston's argument was that radioactive iodine found in the thyroids of animals indicated the presence in the food chain of radioactive strontium which would endanger the health of humans, particularly children. His anger led him, uncharacteristically, to make this claim without recourse to empirical evidence. At that time he was the only senior Australian scientist who adopted a hostile attitude towards the British tests. In many private letters on this subject, and in official reports, he claimed that his countrymen were being hoodwinked, and that the A.W.T.S.C. lacked competence and integrity. The controversy went close to ruining his health, threatened his position of influence in the Australian scientific community, and converted him from an Anglophile to an Anglophobe.

The Australian National University awarded Marston a D.Sc., honoris causa, in 1957; he was A.N.Z.A.A.S.'s Mueller medallist in 1958; and the University of Adelaide conferred a D.Sc., ad eundem gradum, on him in 1959. As one who had strenuously supported Oliphant and D. F. Martyn in their plan to form an Australian Academy of Science, he revelled in the pomp and ceremony surrounding its inauguration in 1954. Elected founding treasurer of the academy, he was largely responsible for the adoption of the design for its building in Canberra. His considerable fund-raising ability and association with the arts made his a powerful voice, but the period he spent helping to administer the academy was marred by acrimony with certain university scientists.

Marston's standing enabled him to run his division as if it were an independent entity. He took little notice of directions from the executive of C.S.I.R. (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization from 1949) and protected his staff, while expecting herculean efforts and total loyalty in return. The awards and respect which went to Marston were in large measure due to the work of the division as a whole. Its research substantially changed Australian agriculture, and had a significant impact on many hitherto marginal lands throughout the world.

South Australia's farming community revered Marston. The Robe Hotel flew the Australian flag whenever he brought visitors to the local research-station. Perry Stout, an American, wrote of Marston and his colleagues: 'I have wondered, in paraphrase, if Australians shall ever know ''how much they owe to so few"?' Early explorers, he went on, 'so highly thought of in Australia, travelled over the land . . . [R]ecent ones have looked underneath its surface to bring forth great new wealth in the form of plants and animals'.

Marston had a complex personality. He was widely read, a polished writer and quick-witted; his lectures were replete with Churchillian prose; and he was wonderful company at social events. Yet few of his surviving colleagues believe that he possessed the essential qualities of a chief of division, as Martin had recognized. Some of his staff remain strongly antagonistic towards him—and in a few cases are still distressed by memories of him—even though many in his division were enabled to travel abroad, and several obtained their doctorates. Whenever possible Marston used his colleagues as his laboratory-assistants. Despite his vision of a scientific ethos providing a model for society and his image of the 'scientific man' as the pinnacle of perfection, he frequently failed to live up to these ideals.

Thomas called Marston a 'bon viveur', and likened him to James Thurber's Walter Mitty and to Alphonse Daudet's Tartarin de Tarascon. Loving to dramatize his life, Marston took on the personae of people he admired, particularly Watson. He suffered numerous illnesses, but as a talking point they seemed to be a source of pleasure. He was a splendid cook, a lover of the arts and a gifted raconteur. Physically, too, he was impressive—he was very large and used his commanding presence to great effect. R. L. M. Synge said of him that, on occasions, 'a kind of euphoria would liberate him from the real world'. Even on his deathbed he played to the audience, claiming that his life was a 'grand story'. Survived by his wife, he died of uraemia on 25 August 1965 at Toorak Gardens, Adelaide, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. McClelland, Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia (Canb, 1985)
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 13, 1967, p 267
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol 1, no 2, Dec 1967, p 73
  • R. T. Cross, 'Falling Out Over Adelaide' (manuscript, privately held)
  • Marston papers (National Archives of Australia and National Library of Australia and Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • Oliphant papers (University of Adelaide Library)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Roger Cross, 'Marston, Hedley Ralph (1900–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 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

Hedley Ralph Marston (1900-1965), by Arthur Murch, 1931

Hedley Ralph Marston (1900-1965), by Arthur Murch, 1931

National Library of Australia