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Smyth, James Desmond (1917–1999)

by C. Bryant and R. E. Barwick

Professor James Desmond Smyth died in January this year. For 12 years (1959-1971), he was the foundation Professor of Zoology at the ANU.

He was the last to arrive of a team of five professors who led the emergent Faculty of Science in an expansionist decade. His contribution to the science of parasitology, and to the development of parasitology in Australia was enormous. He was a founding member and third President of the Australian Society for Parasitology and the founding editor of the Australia-based International Journal for Parasitology.

He was among the first to view parasites as interesting animals, worth studying for their own sake, rather than as agents of human misery or economic loss. He devoted all his efforts to cultivating parasitic worms in the laboratory so that he could better study their developmental biology and physiology. The results of his work are recorded in more than 100 scientific papers and six books. One of these, Animal Parasitology, has been continuously in print since 1962, a remarkable achievement for a scientific textbook.

In a 1996 letter to the American Society of Parasitologists, a former colleague (Professor Chris Arme) tells how, in 1945, a small boy found an unusually fat specimen when fishing for sticklebacks. When he went looking for an explanation, the Zoology Department of the local University passed him down the chain of authority until he came to rest in the laboratory of the most junior member of staff. Desmond Smyth took the small boy seriously and together they went off looking for more fat sticklebacks. On dissection, the little fish proved to be infected with a larval tapeworm. They tried to keep the larvae alive in the laboratory and so began a life-long interest in the cultivation of parasites as a means of understanding their biology. This charming story epitomises Desmond. He was at once the most reserved yet most approachable of men. He always answered a call for assistance but, left to himself, he preferred to remain in his laboratory pursuing a personal grail of which he had been granted an early vision.

Desmond was born in Dublin in 1917. Educated in Ireland, he graduated (BA, BSc) from Trinity College, Dublin in 1940 and was awarded his PhD in 1942. He enjoyed a rapid rise in the academic hierarchy, and after stints as Lecturer in Zoology at Leicester, Leeds and back in Dublin, was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Biology in Dublin in 1955. It is interesting to note that his published output at that time was a modest dozen papers, a testament to quality, as opposed to quantity. His DSc followed in 1958.

It must have represented something of a watershed in his life as, shortly after, he accepted the offer of a Chair at Canberra University College, with the expectation eventually of a transfer to the ANU, to the School of General Studies as the Faculties were then called. It was, as Sir Humphrey might have said, a courageous decision, but what an opportunity. Very few zoologists get the chance to create a new department from the ground up.

Desmond was a modern scientist, then and after. He was quick to embrace new technologies and he determined in 1959 to create a Department appropriate to the second half of the twentieth century. When his estimates went in, there was consternation as they exceeded those of either the chemistry or physics departments which, traditionally, were the more expensive sciences. Everyone expected a bill for a few dozen microscopes and a vat of formaldehyde but Desmond came from a background of experimental biology which required all the paraphernalia of incubators, optical instruments and ultracentrifuges. It says much for the economic spirit of the times that, rather than cutting the zoology estimates, the University simply increased those of physics and chemistry.

Desmond may have been a modern scientist but he was also a child of his time. Team science was almost unheard of, and his view of a department was of a group of gifted scientists working on their own separate projects within the general discipline. With this in mind he created a building which still testifies to this idiosyncracy.

He also built a team of academic staff in the same model. Those were the days when there was fierce competition for staff and a head of department had to find them where he could. He tried at least four times to appoint an entomologist but had to be happy with assurances that the appointees could teach entomology at a pinch!

Almost without exception the staff he appointed admired him for his gentleness of character and the fierce championing of his Department in academic and resources committees. He was further admired by the families of his staff for the support he and his wife, Mim, unstintingly gave them. This had two unfortunate effects. The first was to stiffen opposition in the University to his innovations and the second was to create an intensely loyal department which felt abandoned when he announced that he was moving on in 1971. It certainly made the task of his successor almost impossible.

But Desmond had more mountains to scale. Sensing he had achieved as much as he could at the ANU, and frustrated at being blocked so often, he responded to overtures from Imperial College and moved to a prestigious Chair of Parasitology at Imperial College, London.

The remaining 28 years of his life were his most productive scientifically and were recognised by an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Granada — an award which gave him great personal pleasure—and the Frink Medal of the Zoological Society of London. In his 65th year he relinquished his Chair, retaining the status of Emeritus Professor and transferred to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as Senior Research Fellow. He worked there until his move to Edinburgh, and although latterly he was in considerable pain from an unusual form of arthritis he continued working until almost the very end. He is survived by his wife Mim and his two sons, Christopher and Dermot.

Original publication

Citation details

C. Bryant and R. E. Barwick, 'Smyth, James Desmond (1917–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/smyth-james-desmond-925/text926, accessed 20 September 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1917
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

Death

January 1999

Cultural Heritage
Occupation