Interview with Dick Barwick palaeontologist and explorer

Interview conducted July 2011 at Emeritus Faculty
Producer, Interviewer and Editor - Peter Stewart
Engineer - Nik Fominas

Biographical introduction:Richard Essex Barwick was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1929, took a master’s degree in vertebrate ecology and physiology at Victoria University of Wellington, and was appointed junior lecturer there.  In the 1950s, he took part several times in New Zealand Trans-Antarctic expeditions, initiated by Edmond Hilary.  Dick’s involvement in those expeditions included the discovery and early exploration of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.

In 1960 he joined the Department of Zoology in the newly established School of General Studies at ANU, where he completed a PhD while teaching, and exploring, aspects of ecology and evolutionary biology.  He was promoted Reader in Zoology, and began a highly productive collaboration with Ken Campbell, then Professor of Geology in SGS and expert in the palaeontology of Devonian fishes.

Dick retired in 1994, but he and Ken Campbell still continue their collaboration as Visiting Fellows at ANU.  Dick now divides his time between anatomical work on fossils, and a more artistic application of his skills: as silver worker, wood turner, draughtsman, and photographer.  He continues his Antarctic interests, recently acting as guide-scientist for a cruise ship during the southern summer.

Interview synopsis: Richard Barwick was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1929, one of fraternal twins, plus another brother and a sister.  His parents, though not university educated, saw to it that books rather than money were the currency of the family home.  Dick’s maternal grandmother’s family doctor had been surgeon on Douglas Mawson’s Australian Expedition (1911-14), and in view of Dick’s later explorations as scientist and graphic artist with Trans-Antarctica Expeditions, he surmises that some infection had perhaps invaded him through his grandmother.  Dick’s Antarctic visits, led by Edmund Hillary in their early days, taught Dick many skills – driving snow-tractors, running chain lines and theodolite sightings for surveys, practicing plant taxonomy and ecology, and sampling oceans.  Along the way Dick refined his innate skills as a graphic artist and illustrator: he became a stamp designer for the NZ Post Office.

Dick’s early boyhood memories are of free-wheeling yet self-disciplined roaming and exploring around the outskirts of Christchurch, with a particular interest in the birds, reptiles, amphibia and insects which inhabited that local universe.  Dick went to Christchurch Boys’ High School which would in his graduation year yield a cohort of about 30 classmates one third of whom went on to academic positions around the world – a rare achievement in an era when antipodean secondary schools were struggling to find more than a handful of candidates each year for university entry.

Dick did not proceed directly into university, electing or finding himself in several gap years –  as potato picker, market gardener, knacker, filing-clerk, but inevitably completing  a basic skills apprenticeship.  He finally decided that science was really his trade, and took a bachelor degree at Victoria University College (soon to become Victoria University of Wellington), capped with an MSc (Hons) describing the life cycles and ecology of scinkid lizards.  Soon after, he was appointed junior lecturer at VUW, followed by secondment for three summers to its Transantarctic Expeditions, already noted. 

These expeditions  would take Dick and three of his VUW colleagues (Colin Bull, Barry McKelvey and Peter Webb) into pioneering surveys of the newly discovered McMurdo Dry Valley (so-called because the region, well within the Antarctic Circle, is free of ice and snow even in the winter – Antarctica’s own desert).  Along the way Dick discovered a substantial, if putative, meteorite whose locational coordinates Dick recorded in the hope (not yet realised) that one day he would return there to recover all or some useful part of that chunk of our early solar system.   Dick’s three colleagues would later go on to participate in more than 50 Antarctic expeditions, and make major contributions to Antarctic studies.  But Dick was headed somewhere warmer.

In 1959 Dick applied for a lectureship in zoology at Canberra University College (shortly to become the ANU’s School of General Studies).  Desmond Smyth (professor), together with Warwick Nicholas and Dick (lecturers), and a demonstrator became the Zoology Department in SGS.  Dick sallied forth into his new career, setting up courses, re-starting his research (and publishing back-logged papers) in reptilian and amphibian ecology, and wooing a newly arrived fellow resident of University House at ANU, Canadian graduate student Diane MacEachern.   In 1961, after their marriage, Dick and Diane found themselves in a strategically located flat in Bruce Hall, providing a mentoring divide between male and female students in this novel co-educational student residence – an experiment in gender liberation which was first of its kind on an Australian campus.  In those days the North wings of Bruce Hall were female rooms and those to the South were male. The Barwick’s occupation of the Deputy Warden’s flat was arranged by the Warden Bill Packard, though Bill was himself not yet a resident of the Hall since the warden’s house adjacent had not yet been constructed.  Bill was another member of the small but influential New Zealand mafia which crystallised in Canberra around this time.  Dick and Diane lived in Bruce Hall for two years, moving to the then Northbourne Flats (where they became friends of Noel Dunbar and other ANU and governmental worthies).  In 1969 they bought their own house in Farrer, which remains the Barwick seat to this day.

Diane built a notable career in Australian urban anthropology, abetted by Dick when they took up the causes of Australian Aboriginal legal and land rights.  Diane was instrumental in establishing the journal Aboriginal History, and was a member of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee in the 1970s, a body well in advance of its time. Her special interests centred on the Corranderrk Aboriginal community, centred near Healesville in Victoria.  Diane died tragically in 1986, and over the next few years Dick and his daughter Laura (born in 1972 and herself an ANU science /arts graduate) wrote up, edited, and published a number of Diane’s unfinished manuscripts, including the major work Rebellion at Corranderrk (1996).  A street in the Canberra suburb of Franklin, adjacent to an Aboriginal Reserve, now carries her name.

Dick had enrolled for a PhD soon after he was appointed to the Zoology department at ANU.  Since his candidature was necessarily part-time, Dick did not graduate for some years, his thesis describing the life cycle and ecology of Cunningham’s rock skink, which inhabits granite rock outcrops around Canberra.  The Zoology Department meanwhile had expanded, with Dick’s interests in vertebrate biology invaluably supporting both teaching and research in this core area of animal biology.  During a sabbatical leave at the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1965-66 (then a hothouse of political and social radicalism, sparked by antagonism to the Vietnam War and by support for the American civil rights movement, both with Australian counterparts back in ANU), Dick was introduced to animal radio-telemetry, then an important new tool in zoology for animal tracking and metabolic monitoring. 

Soon after Dick’s return, his Berkeley colleague Stuart McKay visited and conducted an intensive telemetry workshop for 100 participants in Canberra.  Many would soon use adopt these techniques, which have become highly sophisticated and often made more powerful by coupling with satellite technology.  Dick introduced and helped develop radio-telemetry to ecological and physiological studies in the Australian bush.  

But Dick’s most productive phase as a scientist was still to come.  In the mid-1980s, he began collaborating with Ken Campbell from ANU, and Phillip Whiting (visiting from Bristol), both palaeontologists expert in fish evolution.  Increasingly, Dick’s skills as a graphic artist and as an expert in vertebrate anatomy and ecology complemented nicely those of Professor Campbell, yielding a refined and productive synergism.  Their studies of the evolution and functional anatomy of the Lower Devonian (400 million year old) lungfishes of Lake Burrinjuck, and the Mid-Upper Devonian (385 million year old) fishes of the Gogo area of the Kimberley brought them international recognition. 

More recently Dick and Ken have been joined by Tim Senden, an ANU chemist, to apply 3D X-ray tomographic analysis to their fossils, confirming without the need for dissection the remarkable quality of the Mogo fossils, and extending their findings into the fossil remains of sharks, armoured fishes, and the ancestors of present day lungfish.  The detail that can now be revealed in these fossils is remarkable, meeting an important criterion for Dick: “Fossil animals always must work successfully as animals whatever their geological age and stage in the evolutionary sequence”.

The X-ray tomographic  work also points up another important element of experimental science, in Dick’s view: the technical skills of ANU support staff in departments such as Geology and Zoology have been essential elements of the success of both research and teaching in these departments.  Unfortunately, this skills base has steadily eroded, as jobs for such technically skilled scientists become less common and less likely to lead to secure career pathways for scientists, young or old.  Mainstream scientists of the future will not have the same access to the technical expertise that Dick and Ken and their colleagues had in the past.

Dick expresses great pride in the quality of his many honours and graduate students, now active throughout the world of zoology and palaeontology, and many of whom remain in active contact with him.

Since his formal “retirement” in 1994, Dick has continued his collaboration with Ken Campbell (who “retired” about the same time), even if the paths between their offices are less worn than once they were.  Dick has taken some of his graphic and manipulative skills into new, more aesthetic realms – wood working, silver smithing, recreational photography, and sketching.  In 2009, Dick was invited to accompany a commercial tour ship to Antarctica, which he did with great enthusiasm.  The tourists were delighted to have a guide with first-hand knowledge of the exploration of this vast wilderness area, one with a sound historical grasp of the lives of the original explorers who ventured into Antarctica a century ago.  One of Dick’s colleagues from the McMurdo Dry Valley Expedition of the late 1950s commented, on hearing of Dick’s proposed tutoring duties on the cruise ship: Don’t you wish some people would grow old gracefully?  Dick’s emeritus colleagues at ANU, and undoubtedly across the Tasman too, will be hoping not.  He remains an ever-green scientist and artist, delighting his many friends and past colleagues with his stories and images.