Des Nelson – “Life with CSIRO”

September 29th, 2020

Des Nelson's story begins with his initial meeting with CSIRO in 1951 and goes on to tell tales of his adventures and experiences working with the Division of Entomology in 1955.

My first contact with CSIRO occurred in May, 1951. I was aged fifteen and was a member of a high school army cadet unit in Cowra, NSW. Along with several other cadets I was sent to a military camp at Liverpool, near Sydney. This was an exciting time for lads from the country. We were taught the routine of army life and fired service rifles and machine guns. When we got leave we went to Sydney and wondered at things like lifts, escalators, trams, tall buildings and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

My sister, Margaret, invited me to visit her workplace at the McMaster laboratories where she had commenced work in February of that year. She was an assistant to Doctor Margaret Hardy who was doing research into the nature of wool growth (so important to the economy of Australia then) under the direction of the noted scientist Doctor Helen Newton-Turner. Here, for the first time, I saw white mice used for laboratory research. I saw sheep which had been fitted with fistula apertures, plugged with rubber bungs. This brief episode was my first experience with CSIRO research. I was impressed. I was not to know that, in the future, CSIRO would play a large part in my life.

I matriculated in NSW in 1952 but had no idea what I wanted to do in life, except that I wanted to work in the bush. This ambition was achieved when I gained a position as a jackaroo on Elkedra cattle station, about 300km by road northeast of Alice Springs, in 1953.

One day, three men arrived on foot at the station homestead. They were CSIRO personnel, of the Division of Land Research and Regional Survey. They had walked about twenty kilometres for help as their vehicle, an Austin Champ, had become bogged on the edge of a waterhole. I, all of eighteen years old, very proudly drove off in the station’s 1942 Chevrolet Blitz to tow the CSIRO machine from it’s bog. This was my first contact with CSIRO in the Northern Territory.

Early in 1955 I decided to leave Elkedra and returned, unsure of my future, to Cowra. I had an interest in Entomology so wrote to the Australian Museum in Sydney for advice. I was told to write to the CSIRO Division of Entomology in Canberra. As it happened, my other sister, Judith Duffy, was employed in the division’s Biological Control section assisting a Mr Mills in research into the control of the sheep blowfly. She was able to put in a good word for me.

My request to CSIRO was answered promptly. A Mr Taylor instructed me to present myself for and interview on the 4th April, 1955. At the Black Mountain CSIRO laboratories I was given a tour of the Division of Entomology and told report a week later for a month’s trial as a Technical Assistant in the Biological Control section.

On the 11th April I took up residence in Block F, Room 30, of Reid House hostel in the suburb of Reid. It was a thin-walled, fibro-clad structure; very cold in the winter. Rent was $10.55 per week.

In 1955, Canberra had a population of 31,430. It looked pretty big to me, as my home town of Cowra had 6,230 people. Queanbeyan, right on the NSW side of the ACT border was a town much older than Canberra, with a population of 7,550. It was a pseudo-suburb. Many people went there to shop for groceries and, for some peculiar reason, prices in Queanbeyan were often cheaper than those of the same items in Canberra.

I was sworn in at age nineteen by Mr Ken Prowse on the 12th April. I was given a personnel number: 17. My salary was $43.30 per fortnight. I was introduced to the work being done towards the eradication of the Green Vegetable bug Nezara viridula. I was to do much work on this project. I was handed a long-handled, wide-mouthed butterfly net and told to go to go to the gardens near the hospital to capture and bring back, alive, six Cabbage White butterflies. I thought this was an initiation prank and decided to go along with the joke. I brought back eleven butterflies which, I was surprised to find, were received with much enthusiasm. It was no joke. The Cabbage White butterfly, the much smaller Cabbage Moth and a fly species Hilemyia cilicruris – all parasites of commercial crucifiers – were subjects of biological elimination research. I was to capture more of these insects for use in breeding programs. Other insects of major research were aphids and the bush fly.

The scientist leading the Green Vegetable bug research was Principal Research Officer Frank Wilson. I met other prominent scientists. Ian Common was Australia’s foremost expert on moths and butterflies. Doctor Sergei Paramanov specialised in fly research. One of the nicest people to have become friends with was Doctor George Bornemissza, and his equally charming wife. George conducted relentless and ultimately successful research into the reduction of bush flies, due to his introduction of the right species of dung beetles. He was a tall man who drove to work in a Volkswagen, from which he emerged like an extending tape measure. I was to do work with a charming lady scientist, Margaret (Molly) Fielding, who specialised in the control of aphids. I found that these top-of–the-range professionals were a friendly lot. Among the technical staff I recall were a young girl named Josephine, Leslie Woolcock, Olga Kuusik and a Technical Officer, Garton Wearne, with whom I did more work than any other. I was used to referring to people by their Christian, or first names. Olga Kuusik asked me one day, “Why do you not call Mr Wilson ‘sir’?” I replied, “Because his name’s Frank!”

At Biological Control, tiny parasitic insects – usually wasps – were bred. The larvae of some would invade caterpillars, living inside them and preventing them from pupating. Some minute wasps parasitised the eggs of such species as the Green Vegetable bug. Some passed their life cycle inside aphids, so destroying those host insects.

On the 13th April I was given a driving test in Biological Control’s handsome black 1948 model Chevrolet utility and was issued with my first Commonwealth driver’s licence, without having been informed of certain obligations. This neglect eventually caused me some trouble. The section also had a recent model Holden ute of which I was to make much use, a Vanguard van that was seldom used, and a funny little chain-driven, three-wheeled Wigley brand tractor that was used for towing trailors around the grounds. It was good fun to drive – and I did as much as possible.

The breeding of parasitic insects took place in large glasshouses or insectaries. All being heated, they were pleasant work places during cold weather. When sufficient numbers of particular species of parasite were produced, they would be placed in tubes and taken to target areas for release.

The collection of Green Vegetable bugs was a task of major importance. Their eggs were needed in which to breed a tiny parasitic wasp. As an outdoors person, I enjoyed the bug collecting. Thousands of them were collected. Canberra school children were invited to capture bugs for CSIRO for a bounty of a halfpenny each, or one cent for two bugs. Sometimes children would bring insects in to us, and there were also occasions when schools would be visited for the collection of a bug harvest. For instance, on the 19th April I went to Ainslie School to collect 1,100 bugs. A few days before, Olga Kuusik and I collected over 600 bugs from the hospital gardens. On another day, school children brought over 900 bugs to CSIRO which were counted by hand. As with some other bug species, Green Vegetable bugs defend themselves by emitting an odoriferous fluid to deter attackers. After handling a large number of bugs, my bare hands had absorbed a lot of this defensive liquid. It was difficult to remove.

Some of the places in which bugs could be found were under loose bark on trees, but the best localities were at or near market gardens where the insects could be found in hiding places such as under bags or among stacks of wooden crates and boxes. Various locations in Canberra were visited, and often trips were made to Queanbeyan, Josephine’s home town. Sometimes we went further afield. On the 19th May a trip was made to Goulburn. I had often wondered if there might be somewhere that was colder than Canberra. That freezing, windy day lead me to believe that I had found it! On three occasions, Garton Wearne and I went bug-collecting in Cowra. Two were three-day trips and one was a four-day event. These were happy occasions for me as I would stay the night with my Mum and Dad. Garton would stay at a favourite pub. The Chevrolet ute was usually used on these longer trips, but on the last Cowra trips the Holden ute was taken. On that trip, my mother presented me with ten bugs she had collected.

Another task that took some time was work at the experiment farm in a wide open area known as Dickson, today a suburb. Here I was involved with the development of a big cabbage patch. The cabbages were used for the breeding of the aforementioned crucifier predators, again for the purpose of using them to build a population of their parasites. Sometimes a visit to Dickson was in order to switch on the irrigation lines, but in early August there were several days spent establishing a new planting. String lines were used to mark out bays. The marked area was then covered with a mixture prepared from bran, molasses, water and lead arsenate. This was to discourage herbivores from attacking the numerous cabbage seedlings which were planted the following day. There was a replanting of cabbages in late September, along with much shifting of irrigation pipes. Staff were given spare cabbage seedlings to take away for their home gardens.

One day in September I drove the Holden ute to Queanbeyan with Josephine, on a bug-collecting trip. We saw Josephine’s sister and a friend walking home from school. I told the girls to get in the back of the ute and drove them to their homes. One week later, Leslie Woolcock quietly delivered a message to me to say that I had been struck off the CSIRO drivers’ list for allowing unauthorised persons to travel in a Commonwealth vehicle. I mulled over this for a day. How would I perform the duties I’d become used to without being able to drive? The next day I discussed the problem with Ken Prowse and a meeting was arranged with him and Frank Wilson. Having had regulations explained to me for the first time, not only was I reinstated onto the drivers’ list, but I had the much admired Chevrolet ute placed in my charge.

There were a lot of young people living in Reid House. I quickly made friends and joined a prayer group that had regular Rosary meetings. There were some fire places in the building but the rooms were very cold. At first, my means of transport to work was by bicycle. One cold and wet day my bike slipped sideways while I was crossing a narrow pathway bridging a small creek. I was suddenly immersed to my neck in icy water. I caught a very heavy cold. I was most grateful to my sister when, after a month at Reid House, she invited me to shift my residence to her house at 74 Limestone Avenue. I was allowed to take a CSIRO vehicle home after a while. Often I would do work at weekends. As winter progressed I would put hessian bags or other thick material over a vehicle’s engine, radiator, bonnet and windscreen to combat frost.

Outside of work, life was busy. Letter writing was a popular pastime, as was listening to the radio, or wireless, as it was more commonly known. My brother-in-law, Peter, Duffy worked at Mildren’s Garage. He was an expert mechanic, from whom I learned to fine-tune car engines. He was a member of the Motorcycle Club, an event of which I watched on one occasion at Narrabundah circuit. The Duffys owned an Austin A40 Sedan. We often went for weekend drives to various localities – sometimes for fun, sometimes to gather firewood. We would visit places such as Cotter Dam, Lake George, Mount Kosciuszko, the Murrumbidgee and local hillside areas and forests. Overnight trips were made to Cowra to visit my Mum and Dad, and to Sydney to visit Peter’s parents and sisters. We attended Saint Christopher’s Church at which Mass was often said by Father Eddie Bourke who had been a classmate of my elder brother (also Peter) in Cowra. Visits to the war museum were also popular. The Molonglo River was a pleasant stream to visit. Lake Burley Griffin did not exist. Goint to the pictures was a popular pastime; attending plays also happened occasionally. Some of the movies I recall are: “The Last Time I Saw Paris”, “Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, “Doctor in the House”, and “Blackboard Jungle”. A private showing by the Shell Company included the splendid documentary “Back of Beyond”.

At Turner Oval, in August, I played in the second half of a Rugby League match, in second row, for Canberra CSIRO. We played a visiting Sydney CSIRO team who won 9-6, three tries to two. Tries were scored at three points in those days. All conversion attempts failed.

There were a number of interesting outdoor events to which I went. On the 16th April we went to the annual Show at Hall. Hall was quite a distance from Canberra. To go there was almost like going bush.

The next day I attended part of the Canberra Autumn Festival. Brass bands from various districts performed, as did five teams of marching girls – a pleasant sight to a nineteen year-old male!

I went to Mildren’s Garage on the 11th September to watch Redex Around Australia trial competitors checking in. Among the vehicles I recorded were Holdens, Volkswagens, Spacemasters, Customlines, a Peugot and Jack Murray’s 1948 Ford V8. On the 18th November I went to Wirth’s Circus. At Northbourne Oval I watched entertainers called “Hollywood Hell Drivers” performing stunts ion Ford Customlines.

Apart from the cold I caught after the soaking in the creek, my health was good during my stay in the ACT. I had a couple of sessions with a dentist, Mr Dupree.

One day at work I was making a solution of Chloral hydrate when a drop splashed into my right eye. Les Woolcock rushed me in a ute to Canberra Hospital where my eye was irrigated and I was given ointment for it. I returned some days later for a check-up. I was grateful to find no damage was done.

In 1955 a haircut cost me $0.38 (thirty eight cents).

I celebrated my twentieth birthday quietly on the 5th July.

I enjoyed life in Canberra. The work was most interesting and I felt it to be very worthwhile. However, I had a great yearning to return to the Northern Territory and to get back into the bush there. One day a CSIRO Land Rover was blocking the driveway near the insectaries. The key was in the ignition so I got into the cabin and soon worked out the starting system and gears. I drove the vehicle a few metres – my first experience in a Land Rover. In the future I would drive thousands of kilometres in Land Rovers in the Northern Territory, many of them while employed by CSIRO. That particular vehicle probably belonged to the Land Research and Regional Survey Division. Another Land Rover I saw being serviced certainly did belong to the LRRS. It had returned from survey work in Central Australia. Among plant fragments on its floor were species I recognised from my time on a Centre cattle station. The nostalgia generated by this event was further inducement for me to return to the north. I wrote letters to various people in the Northern Territory. Eventually I secured the promise of a job in the stock camp on Victoria River Downs Station. Another reminder of Entomology in the Northern Territory was seeing a colony of the large tropical termite Mastotermes darwiniensis. Its effect on various building materials was being assessed. On Elkedra station I had seen these voracious insects hollow out a large wooden bench. They ate their way through a pneumatic rubber tyre in the workshop, as I discovered when I was asked to see why the tyre had deflated.

Before leaving CSIRO I was to have a final, enjoyable work experience. I was to drive Molly Fielding on a long trip around parts of New South Wales, collecting insects. The main purpose of the journey was to collect aphids for Molly’s research but we were also to collect Green Vegetable bugs when available.

The black Chevrolet ute, to which I had become very attached, was prepared on Monday 3rd October. Molly’s aphid collecting gear was loaded on, plus boxes, labels, brown paper, sticky tape and thumb tacks for fastening green beans to the insides of the boxes to feed the bugs that would then be dispatched to Frank Wilson, P.R.O. Box 109, CSIRO, Canberra. The next day I picked Molly up from University house and we were away, towards Goulburn.

Our first stop was to examine a stand of poplars, but no aphids were present. We went through Goulburn, Marulan, and Moss Vale, and just north of Mitagong we found a clear area where we made a fire on which to boil the billy and fry steak for lunch. We had not collected a single insect so far. We carried on through Picton and further to Camden, where we filled the petrol tank and tried again at a local park. We found an aphis bonanza. We collected them from roses, stocks, grass roots and pansies. Late in the afternoon we carried on to Sydney. This was the first time I had driven in a big city. It became apparent that our vehicle always seemed to be given lots of room by other traffic. It appeared that our big black Chevrolet ute with its Commonwealth number plates and their red “C” attracted respect from other drivers. This was not the case in Canberra (nor in the Northern Territory) where “C” plates were common.

In Sydney we stayed at the Hotel Metropole. My room was on the sixth floor. Residing so high up in a building was another new experience for me. The ute was housed in a lock-up garage, for $0.80 (eighty cents). An amusing aside to this episode was that a lady from Cowra, the wife of a bank manager, also staying at the hotel, had seen Molly and me entering the building. She reported this event to my mother shortly after. Shock! Little did she realise that those intent on research were not liable to engage in shenanigans – especially in Molly’s case as she was a happily married person. My mother had a good laugh, anyway.

On Wednesday the 5th we called at Sydney Botanic Gardens where we met Geoff Snowball and some others. We had a successful collecting session there, as we did later at the garden at Government House. Molly went off to do some shopping while I bought a new radiator cap for the ute for $0.30 (thirty cents) and had a meal at a café for $0.80 (eighty cents).

Thursday the 6th was another Sydney day, which began with more collecting at the Botanic Gardens. I then followed Geoff Snowball over the Harbour Bridge to a small CSIRO orchard at North Ryde. Here we collected aphids from various plants including stinging nettles, which needed to be treated with care. We did more collections from a house garden and from hospital gardens

The following day, Friday, we went to Gosford, but had little luck there. After lunch (or dinner as it was usually called then) we carried on the Newcastle. Here I visited my Aunt Rene and Uncle Walter O’Shea and stayed the night at their house in Adamstown. A letter awaited me there from Victoria Downs, telling me to go there for a job whenever I could make it.

I collected aphids and syrphids from my relatives’ yard on the morning of Saturday the 8th . In the afternoon we collected insects in Waratah Park. We drove on, through Maitland and on to Singleton to check into the Royal Hotel for the night. It rained. We went for a walk and had a meal for $0.50 (fifty cents) in a café. Damage to shops and roads from recent flooding of the hunter river could be seen.

On Sunday the 9th we attended Mass at the local church. It was not a good day for hunting for insects. Light rain began in the morning and kept up as we drove on. We got petrol at Muswellbrook then carried on through Scone, Wingen, Murrurundi, and Willow Tree. The rain eased so that just outside Wallabadah we got a campfire going and fried some eggs. That afternoon, after we had driven through Tamworth, pelting, heavy rain began again. It kept up as we went through Moonbi, Bendemeer and Uralla. At Armidale we gratefully took shelter in the Imperial Hotel. The rain continued until after 8pm.

We went to Mass again early on the morning of Monday the 10th . We drove to a CSIRO experiment site at Chiswick, sixteen kilometres out of town. Here we met Ted Waterhouse. Rain began again but the weather was fine enough in for collecting in the afternoon, when we visited the University of New England. In the grounds of the university we gathered aphids from several plant species, among which were pine trees. In a park there I saw free ranging deer for the first time. We had tea and a pleasant yarn with Ted Waterhouse and his wife at their house. We had to move out of the Imperial Hotel due to booking arrangements, but were able to shift to the Saint Kilda Hotel that night.

We were away along the New England Highway on Tuesday the 11th . We watched spur winged plovers attacking a dog. We stopped beside a creek to have lunch, and shortly after we stopped by a paddock of wheat in which tall thistles were growing. From these we collected aphids. We went back to Tamworth and filled the petrol tank. Then we went west to Gunnedah, the town where I was born in 1935. I knew little Gunnedah as my family moved to Cowra in 1936, but I had a number of relations there. I stayed at the home of a second cousin that night.

The next day we had a talk with Mr Reilly, the local district Agronomist, and visited a Soil Conservation experiment site, six or seven kilometres from town, and a Sydney University experiment station about thirteen kilometres from town. These sites didn’t yield many aphids. In the afternoon we went along a dirt road for Coonabarabran. At the entrance to the town, I pulled up. As a native of New South Wales I was familiar with the place names. I was much amused by Molly’s attempts to pronounce the name – she came from elsewhere. We fuelled up at Coonabarabran, then travelled along a badly pot-holed, wet road. It was a relief to reach Gilgandra. Gilgandra was known as the “City of Windmills”, notable for its large number of backyard windmills for water supplies. Not such a relief was our discovery that the local hotel had no vacant rooms. We had tea in a café and then went out of town to park on a bank of the Castlereagh River. I slept in the back of the ute while Molly stretched out on the bench seat in the cabin. The weather was warm, so we slept well.

We woke on Tuesday the 13th to find we were being closely examined by some horses. There was an active nest of honey bees in a nearby tree. It was decided that enough collecting had been done, so we set off for Canberra. We went through Dubbo and on to Wellington to fill with petrol. Here we saw an old, white-bearded Aborigine, King Mudgee. Then it was on, through Orange, Blayney, Carcoar, and to Cowra where we stopped at my parents’ home -my Dad was at work, and Mum was away. I got the wood stove going and we cooked some sausages. My parents turned up and we had a great get-together. And Molly and I were off again. Down another badly pot-holed road we drove, to Booroowa and from there to Yass, and then along the relief of a bitumen road to Canberra, which we reached by 8:30pm.

The journey had covered 2,200 kilometres.

I had nine days remaining with CSIRO. During that time I was involved with more Green Vegetable bug and aphid collecting, and I visited Dickson to water the cabbages and apply ammonium sulphate fertiliser.

On a rainy Friday October the 21st , I took the Holden ute, for the last time, to Ainslie School to collect bugs from the students. That afternoon, Biological Control section put on a little farewell party for me. Frank Wilson and Garton Wearne later gave me very nice written references.

As it happened, I did not go to Victoria River Downs. In November 1955 I began work at a research laboratory in Alice Springs. Late in 1957 I joined the Microclimatology section of the Division of Land Research and Regional

Survey, led by Ralph Slatyer, also in Alice Springs. This work involved a great deal of camping at research sites, which suited me very much. In 1959 I transferred to the Herbarium of the Northern Territory. I worked there and also in chemistry research until 1973 when I returned to CSIRO in Alice Springs to work in the fields of botany and ecology with the Division of Land Resource Management. The Division went through various metamorphoses to become today’s Division of Sustainable Ecosystems, as it was when I retired.

I had the opportunity to visit Canberra a number of times over the years. I saw it develop and expand to become the beautiful, big, vibrant city of today.

I love Canberra, except for one attribute: in Winter it is bloody cold!

This story has been reconstructed from diary notes made at the time. Some details are missing. Somewhere along the way during the ten-day insect collecting trip, Green Vegetable bugs were dispatched to Canberra, but I omitted to record that occasion.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics supplied population figures for 1955.

Des Nelson, September 2007