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Bickel, Leonard (Lennard) Herbert (1913–2002)

by John Farquharson

When Len Bickel turned from journalism to writing books he was on a ‘rescue mission’, but not the sort that plucked people from peril. His concern was to tell the stories of Australian heroes, who had slipped into the limbo of the forgotten.

He focused on Australians who had striven against great odds, had overcome them, yet had remained neglected in their homeland. And to some degree Bickel, who died at Milton, on the New South Wales South Coast, on February 16, aged 88, also had to battle the odds in his quest for authorship. Like some of his heroes, in his latter years he also dropped out of the literary limelight as he battled a heart condition.

As his output of books grew he ranged beyond his Australian heroes for biographical subjects and into various spheres of science and scientific endeavour. An irrepressibly exuberant man, he invested all he did with tremendous enthusiasm, traits that stood him in good stead both as a journalist and author. Once he was on to the makings of a good news story or a hot research trail, he was relentless in seeing the fruits of his efforts broadcast or into print.

Born in London on April 7, 1913, Bickel emigrated to Australia in 1952, after having served for five years of World War II with the Royal Navy as a gun captain in armed merchantmen carrying troops to the European, Middle East and Pacific theatres of conflict. He had a background in newspaper journalism before coming to Australia, where he worked initially for Macquarie Broadcasting Service in Wollongong before joining the ABC. At the ABC he worked in general news as a reporter until being appointed science correspondent. He did stints for the ABC in Sydney, Melbourne and in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, Canberra.

From the ABC, he went to the Australian as science correspondent. In that capacity, he was the only writer from Australia invited by the US Government to witness the Apollo ll first moon-landing mission in July 1969. For a time, he also edited the Australian Atomic Energy Commission’s in-house magazine.

In 1970, with a modest $6000 Commonwealth Literary Fellowship, Bickel set about writing the biography of the first of his outstanding heroes – Lord (Howard) Florey, the Australian of penicillin fame. Entitled Rise Up To Life, the book, which was an instant success, defined beyond doubt that Florey had been responsible for the core work leading to the discovery of penicillin. Until then Englishman Alexander Fleming had been given the major credit. Published in Australia by Angus & Robertson, it was picked up US publisher Dutton for Digest Press.

With this book and others that followed, Bickel showed he was a writer who could explain matters of some scientific intricacy in a way that readers could grasp, while vividly portraying the people involved. It was not surprising that the acclaim afforded the Florey book meant that Bickel, who always wrote as ‘Lennard’ Bickel, did not have to return to daily journalism. His next Australian hero was Sir Douglas Mawson, geologist and Antarctic explorer. The idea for this biography, published under the title This Accursed Land, came out of the 1975 ANZAAS conference in Canberra, as a result of a conversation between Frank Devine (then editor-in-chief of Readers’ Digest and later editor of the Australian) and Philip Law (best known as the noted director of the External Affairs Department’s Antarctic Division). When Bickel began to research this ‘character idea’, he found himself with a ‘hero beyond quibble’, whose 500km trek across King George V Land in 1914, has been called the ‘greatest story of lone survival in polar exploration’. Bickel lost himself utterly in this extraordinary adventure tale, as he struggled to do justice to Mawson’s feat of ‘endurance and self-sacrifice’.

Another Antarctic explorer to capture Bickel’s imagination was Sir Ernest Shackleton. In Shackleton’s Argonauts, he told the story of the forgotten and neglected heroism of a group of men, half of them Australians, who went to Antarctica to place a line of supply depots across the deadly Great Ross Ice Shelf for Shackleton’s attempt to walk across the continent. Before becoming involved with Antarctic exploration, Bickel got high praise for Facing Starvation, a biography of Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning agronomist responsible for the Green Revolution. For this, a quaint award came his way. He was made a ‘Knight of Mark Twain’ for ‘the outstanding contribution Facing Starvation has made to history’. Though unusual, it would seem that the ‘title’, conferred by the editor of the Mark Twain Journal, Cyril Clemens (a kinsman of the great man), had some merit as the previous holder had been the distinguished American historian, the late Allan Nevins.

The photographer, Frank Hurley, not lacking in the art of self-promotion, could hardly be rated a forgotten Australian, but Bickel also brought him into focus in a biography entitled, In Search of Frank Hurley. Turning to the scientific field, Bickel ran into a bit of controversy with his story of uranium, published as The Deadly Element. Some reviewers were critical of references relating to the development of nuclear bombs and nuclear power. However, he survived this to go on to publish The Southern Universe, tracing the growing role of Australian scientists in the discovery of the origins of the universe and its space exploration overtones.

For his last book, he turned to early Australian history with a biography of Elizabeth Macarthur. Unfortunately this did not come up to the quality of his earlier output. Reviewers gave it a lukewarm reception. His Florey and Borlaug biographies, along with those of Antarctic explorers, were probably among his best. It is for them that he is most likely to be remembered. Fulltime science correspondents were still a relatively rare breed in Australian journalism when Bickel filled this role for the ABC and the Australian. With those early few, he made a valuable contribution towards scientific topics becoming regular features in newspapers and on radio and television. After living in Canberra for some years, Bickel moved to Mollymook in 1987 and later into a retirement village in nearby Milton. Len Bickel’s wife, Pauline, whom he married in Australia in the early 1950s, survives him.

Leonard Herbert Bickel, born London, 7 April 1913; died Milton, New South Wales, 16 February 2002.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Bickel, Leonard (Lennard) Herbert (1913–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bickel-leonard-lennard-herbert-106/text107, accessed 30 November 2021.

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