Interview with Professor Christopher Bryant AM

Interviews conducted May 2014, at Emeritus Faculty
Producer, Interviewer and Editor - Peter Stewart
Engineer - Nik Fominas

Interview Synopsis: Christopher Bryant was born in 1936 at Hampstead, North London.  His father was a classically trained pianist who had, during the Great Depression, formed a small band, The Paragon Players, which performed at various venues in North London.  His daytime job was demonstrating pianos for Maples and Co, Tottenham Court Road, London.  As World War Two approached, however, he joined the London Fire Brigade and, by the end of the war, rose to be a Senior Fire Controller for North London. After the war, his father rejoined Maples as an Estimator and Interior Designer.  He never played professionally again.  Belatedly, but happily, Chris's sister Jocelyn arrived in the family in 1953.

Chris attended private schools at Buckingham College, Harrow, and Haberdashers' Aske's, Hampstead.  In later life, he wondered how his parents, of modest means, could afford the fees.  Later, his father's memoirs made it clear.  Maples, one of the old family companies set up in the early 19th century, had a policy of educating its employees' children to encourage staff loyalty.  If the child could win a place in a school, the company would pay the fees, together with a small allowance for uniforms.

Despite Chris's considerable talents as a scholar in secondary school, failure in Latin precluded him from seeking entry to Cambridge or Oxford.  Happily, his later career appears not to have been disadvantaged by this.  In 1955 Chris gained a County Award to Kings College London, where he graduated BSc with Honours in Zoology in 1958.  In the same year, with a DSIR studentship, he enrolled for a PhD with Jim Danielli, the noted membrane biochemist. As a preliminary, Chris completed an MSc at University College London.  He returned to King's but was so disenchanted with his research topic and conditions that in 1960 he transferred to King's College Hospital to work on the effects of anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin) on subcellular metabolism in animal tissues, supervised by Mervyn Smith.

While working as a post-graduate student in King's College Hospital, Chris met and soon married Annie Roberts, an Australian nurse then exploring the wider world.  Annie's superior income was a boon to the couple, as Chris battled financially through his PhD years.  In 1962, as Chris completed his PhD, Annie persuaded him to widen his horizons and consider Australia as an option for the further development of his career.  Chris soon had six offers, five for university lectureships and one CSIRO research officer position.  In the end, Chris chose ANU as representing the right combination of opportunities, although Canberra was on the wrong side of the continent for Annie, who came from Perth.

In 1963, the couple sailed into Fremantle on the Arcadia, then, after visiting Annie's family, took the long and complicated train ride to Canberra, one that in those days involved five changes of rail gauge, in cold carriages, warmed only by ‘foot-warmers', steel water-bottles spaced irregularly along the floor of the passenger compartment.  Their arrival on a freezing Canberra morning was not unanticipated, but the ANU driver expected to find them at the airport rather than the railway station!

In 1963, ANU's undergraduate teaching faculties (the School of General Studies, as it was then known, to distinguish it from the Institute of Advanced Studies) had been established only a few years.  The SGS approximated to a modern multi-disciplinary university, teaching both graduates and undergraduates, as distinct from the research focused IAS.  This curious duality in ANU generated clear differences of standing and precedence between the IAS and the SGS, as Chris and Annie would quickly become aware.

The Zoology Department had been established in 1959.  As its newest member, Chris was more than pleased with the quality of the staff and students he found around him, and the potential that the nascent Zoology Department offered. The fact that ANU was funded directly by the Commonwealth Government was then an important aspect of ANU life. 
Professor Desmond Smyth (parasitology) was the Department Head.  Warwick Nicholas (nematology), Alan Weatherley (limnology), John Clegg (parasitology), Dick Hughes (entomology), Dick Barwick (herpetology), Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe and Pat Woolley (both in marsupial ecology) were Chris's other academic colleagues.  He found the department friendly and informal, a pleasant surprise after the rather stiff formality at King's in London.  The Botany Department at ANU, headed by Lindsay Pryor, had been launched about the same time as Zoology, and the offerings of the two departments were the only biological courses available to undergraduates until the arrival of Michael Birt, who established the Biochemistry Department in 1967.

Chris and Annie Bryant were the beneficiaries of ANU's generous welcome to new staff.  After a couple of difficult weeks living in rooms at Havelock House in Turner (an upmarket ‘boarding house'), the Bryants were installed in a house in Hackett, soon to become home for their son Tim (born 1964) and daughter Caroline (1966).  As was often the case for new SGS staff, and especially for accompanying spouses, social loneliness and a petty snobbery were common.  Annie in particular felt the isolation keenly, but soon constructed her own social milieu.  She remained a full-time mother until Caroline turned 14, and then returned to the work force as a team-leader interviewing with the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

For Chris, the resources and collegiality he encountered were beyond anything that he had experienced in Britain.  He soon created the laboratory that he needed, which together with animal-house facilities and technical assistance, and students both undergraduate and postgraduate, permitted him comfortably to explore his ideas in adaptive biochemistry.  He took a year of sabbatical leave with his family in 1970, but soon felt homesick for ANU in his host organisation, the Nuffield Institute in London.

By 1974, Chris was promoted to Reader in Zoology.  In 1982, following the departure of Professor Tony Barnett who had succeeded Desmond Smyth in 1970, Chris became Head of Department, then Professor in 1983.  At 47 years he was unusually young.  He remained Professor of Zoology until 1994, including a stint as Dean of Science from 1986 to 1990.  From 1983 to 1990, Chris also served two terms as a Member of Council of ANU.  During his Deanship, with the indispensible and creative help of Peter Scardoni, he oversaw the rationalisation of the Science Faculty's underused building stock, allowing the release of stalled Government funding for new building projects. Inter alia, this permitted the rationalisation of the biological departments of the Faculty of Science.  Biochemistry, Botany and Zoology were merged, then divided into two larger ‘schools', whimsically called BAMBI (biochemistry and molecular biology) and BOZO (botany and zoology).  Chris then served as head of BAMBI for two years until he relinquished the headship in 1994, disillusioned by the administrative burden that seemed to place fiscal matters above scholarship.

Throughout a long friendship with Dr Michael Gore (Founding Director of Questacon) whom he had met on arrival in Canberra in 1963, he had been involved at the periphery of planning Questacon. In 1988, they set up the ANU-Shell Questacon Science Circus, not without resistance from senior members of the ANU bureaucracy.  Its popularity with the public and with the ANU graduate staff who took it to Outback Australia was quickly established.

The great educational interest in the Circus persuaded Chris to request the ANU Graduate School to create a graduate program in Science Communication.  This was agreed, and soon he was inundated by applications for Masters and PhD degrees.  When, in 1994 with few regrets he resigned his Chair, he was able as Emeritus Professor to maintain his research laboratory on external funding, at the same time continuing to work on a contract basis for ANU, supervising the Graduate Program.  The following years proved to be among the best of his career and he is grateful to the ANU for allowing him that opportunity.

By 1996 it was clear that further academic expertise was needed in the Graduate Program. Dr Sue Stocklmayer was appointed as the first Lecturer in Science Communication in Australia.  She and Chris immediately set about establishing the ANU Centre for Public Awareness of Science.  Chris became the inaugural Director of CPAS until, in 1998, he handed over to Sue.  Since then he has continued to contribute to the Centre as a Visiting Professor.

In 1999, the Federal Government recognised Chris Bryant's scientific and educational contributions in both parasitology and science communication by award of the Order of Australia (AM).

Internationally, Chris has been a member and editorial advisor to the International Journal for Parasitology, the Journal of Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology, and the annual series Advances in Parasitology, and has written more than a hundred research papers, major reviews, and books in these fields, as well as (more recently) in science communication.  In 1982 he was elected President of the Australian Society for Parasitology, and played a major role in fund-raising and planning for the Sixth International Congress of Parasitology, held in Brisbane in 1985.

In 2001, Chris and Annie moved from their first, much extended, Hackett home to Isaacs and something more appropriate to their time of life.  Annie retired in 1994, at the same time as Chris, and is now a volunteer with the National Capital Authority.  Their son Tim is now Director of Research in the Senate and daughter Caroline is Manager, Equity and Engagement, with a non-government public utility. They are fortunate to meet with children and grandchildren on a regular basis.  Chris believes that his and Annie's move from London to Australia and ANU in 1963 was, despite the early challenges of life in the “Bush Capital”, one of the best things that happened to them, both as a married couple, and professionally.