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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Bryant, Christopher (Chris) (1936–2021)

by Mike Gore, Peter Janssens, Nick Smith, Peter Stewart and Sue Stocklmayer

Professor Chris [Christopher] Bryant, a member of the ANU for almost 60 years, was born in 1936 at Hampstead, North London. He attended schools at Buckingham College, Harrow and Haberdashers’ Aske’s, Hampstead, and in 1955 gained a County Award to King’s College London where he graduated BSc with honours in zoology in 1958. After completing an MSc at University College London, he moved to King’s College Hospital to work for his PhD on the effects of anti-inflammatory drugs on subcellular metabolism in animal tissues, supervised by Mervyn Smith.

While working for his PhD, Chris married Anne Roberts, an Australian nurse, and upon graduation he applied for academic positions in Australia. Chris had several offers from which he chose to accept a lectureship in zoology at ANU.

The Zoology Department at ANU had been established in 1959 under the headship of the noted parasitologist Desmond Smyth, and Chris was quickly impressed with the quality of both staff and students. Desmond, Warwick Nicholas, John Clegg, Mike Howell and Chris soon established the ANU as a highly regarded centre for parasitological research in Australia. With generous funding directly from the Commonwealth Government, Chris established a research laboratory studying the adaptive biochemistry of parasitic cestodes, trematodes and nematodes. He was a pioneer in this field, with some of his early work on intermediary metabolism being published in Nature. He ultimately published over 100 research articles and reviews, and three books. Chris was also a pioneer in translating fundamental research into practical outcomes, linking with industry in the 1980s to develop new treatment strategies for parasitic worm infections. This research resulted in a patent and subsequent commercialisation of a series of new sheep drenches.

Chris led an extremely collegial, happy research team for three decades. His students were often in the laboratory late at night, early in the morning and on weekends, not because they had to be but because they wanted to be. They were driven by a passion they shared with Chris for their research and by the camaraderie they found in Chris’s team.

Chris encouraged his staff and students to be independent and bold and to communicate clearly. He always showed them great trust and provided the support they needed, when they needed it. This gave them security and confidence to succeed and he was always delighted—but never surprised—when they did. One student recalls arriving at Canberra airport on return from a conference, a few minutes ahead of Chris, to be greeted by Chris’s wife, Anne, who asked how the conference had gone. In response to the somewhat noncommittal answer, ‘Good’, Anne probed further, wanting to know, ‘How good?’ With the student’s eventual admission that they had won a prize, Anne said, ‘Oh, I am delighted, Chris phoned me yesterday to say he thought you would win!’

Chris was an influential member of the Australian Society for Parasitology (ASP). He joined the ASP’s Council during its formative years in the mid-1960s, played a major role in the development of that society and served to ‘sow the seed’ that has led to it being the highly successful professional body it is today. Chris was the voice of reason on the ASP Council—not necessarily jumping in with his opinion at the start of an issue but often being the one who grounded a prolonged discussion or controversial issue. He was questioning, critical but constructive, persuasive yet always affable and he never made an issue personal. He led many initiatives on Council and was pivotal in instilling in the ASP its primary role in supporting young scientists. More than a few ASP members, over many years, describe Chris as a fantastic mentor and role model.

Chris also considered that the ASP should help in projecting Australian research internationally and, to this end, upon election as the President of the Society in 1982, he championed the hosting of the International Congress of Parasitological Associations in Brisbane in 1986. Once hosting rights were secured, Chris was instrumental in fundraising and planning for the conference. He was 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.

Chris continued to serve Australian parasitology faithfully and with distinction well after his retirement, as a member of the International Advisory Board for the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council Network for Parasitology 2005–10, bringing the same unselfish thoughtfulness and wisdom to this initiative that had characterised his contributions to the ASP. In 1986, Chris was made a Fellow of the Australian Society for Parasitology, in recognition of his contributions to research, teaching and training, and for his service to the discipline.

Chris was an innovative teacher. He played a large part in the establishment of a multimedia laboratory for teaching first-year zoology classes in which students were able to learn at their own pace, and he was instrumental in incorporating biochemical experiments in undergraduate field courses, notably at Booligal in western NSW. His many honours and PhD students in zoology and in science communication remember him as a wise and sympathetic supervisor who set the bar high.

In 1974, Chris was promoted to Reader in Zoology and became Head of Department, then Professor, in 1983. He remained Professor of Zoology until 1994, including a stint as Dean of Science from 1986 to 1990. From 1983 to 1990, Chris served two terms as a member of Council of ANU.

During his Deanship, with the 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. This included the reorganisation of the three biological departments of the Faculty of Science, Biochemistry, and Botany and Zoology, into two ‘divisions’, whimsically called BAMBI (Biochemistry And Molecular BIology) and BOZO (BOtany and ZOology).

After BAMBI and BOZO were established in 1991, Chris somewhat reluctantly agreed to serve as head of BAMBI, but after only three years he resigned his headship. He had become somewhat disillusioned with the pressure to reduce academic staff and increase student numbers. He had little time for research.

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 (a name coined by Chris) and the associated ANU–Shell Questacon Science Circus. The Circus’ popularity with the public and with the ANU graduate staff who took it to outback Australia was quickly established.

In 1988, great interest in the Circus persuaded Chris to ask the ANU Graduate School to create a graduate program in science communication, not without resistance from senior members of the ANU bureaucracy. Initially, a graduate certificate and later a graduate diploma was agreed; but soon he was inundated by applications for master’s and PhD degrees, which were quickly incorporated into the program. 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 was 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 (CPAS). Chris became the inaugural Director of CPAS until, in 1998, he handed over to Sue. He continued to contribute to the Centre as a Visiting Professor, a PhD adviser and an author and researcher in science communication.

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

Chris Bryant died on 15 August 2021. He is survived by Anne, his wife of nearly 60 years who was a great support for Chris throughout his career; by their two children, Tim and Caroline; and by their five grandchildren in whom Chris took great pleasure and of whom he was very proud.

Chris continued to write until shortly before his death. He last book, written with Val Brown,[1] takes a fresh look at evolution from a cooperative, interconnected perspective. As with everything he wrote, it is innovative and thought-provoking. Chris had wide-ranging interests and was exceptionally knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. A youthful passion for Rupert Bear led to his last whimsical publication, a monograph about Rupert’s influence on Chris’s career in science.[2]

Chris Bryant was a big man, a brave man, a superb scholar, a sympathetic ear, a good colleague and a staunch friend. He was justifiably proud of his own achievements but even prouder of the achievements of his colleagues and students—at a dinner in Australia’s Parliament House in 2007, surrounded by former students, he memorably told them so. He will be missed.

Citation details

Mike Gore, Peter Janssens, Nick Smith, Peter Stewart and Sue Stocklmayer, 'Bryant, Christopher (Chris) (1936–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bryant-christopher-chris-32489/text40313, accessed 5 July 2022.

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