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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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Richard Freeman Mark (1934–2003)

by P. M. E. Waite and L. J. Rogers

Richard Mark, 1991

Richard Mark, 1991

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-827

Richard Freeman Mark was born in New Zealand on 11 August 1934, and died in Canberra, Australia, on 13 August 2003. He married Gerda Fischel in 1958 and they were together until 1975. They had two children, Bettina (born 22 April 1966) and David (born 3 August 1967). For the past three decades he shared his life and conducted research with his partner Dr Lauren Marotte.

Richard’s paternal grandfather emigrated from Northern Ireland to New Zealand and settled in Kati Kati on Tauranga harbour. The maternal side of Richard’s family came from Britain and France and they settled in the Chatham Islands about 500 kilometres to the east of New Zealand. Richard was the eldest of three children born to Dr John Mark, a highly respected surgeon in Tauranga, and Kate Fougere Wishart.

After attending the local Tauranga primary school until he was nine years old, Richard was sent to boarding school, first to St Peters Primary School in Cambridge, New Zealand, and then, when he reached secondary school, to Wanganui Collegiate, New Zealand, until he was 16 years old. At St Peters, he enjoyed singing in the choir and he took up rowing at Wanganui, winning a ‘Blue’. However, he found the years of boarding school, in his own words, ‘unbearably miserable’ because he suffered a good deal of bullying. As a consequence of this austere schooling, he had no indication that he was intelligent until he went to the University of Auckland at the young age of 17. Here he lived in O’Rourke Hall, made many friends and became interested in science. He topped the examinations at the end of his first year and gained entry to medical school. Competition was fierce, and only 17 of a total class of around 130 gained the necessary qualifying grades. Richard transferred to the University of Otago in Dunedin and enrolled in medical school, initially at Selwyn College, thus following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a medical student at the same college.

At 18 years of age, Richard was conscripted into the Navy, in which he served during university holidays. He was pleasantly surprised by life in the Navy, finding it much more caring, sharing, mutually supportive and gentle than his earlier experiences in boarding school. In fact, he described his time in basic training camp on an island in Auckland harbour as blissful.

Richard’s medical studies, including two additional years doing research, were completed in 1959, when he also received a prize in clinical surgery. So passionate did he become about research from his very first exposure to it that he extended the usual single year away from his medical course for a further year and completed a master’s in medical science in 1956. The topic was synaptic transmission in the cat spinal cord. This degree was undertaken in the Physiology Department of the Medical School, under the supervision of Archie McIntyre. The work followed on from earlier investigations begun by Professor (later Sir) John Eccles during his time at the Otago Medical School (1944–52).

Richard was awarded MB ChB and MMedSci by the University of Otago. While in Dunedin he met Gerda Fischel, a microbiology student, and they married in 1958 in Auckland, where Richard was working in obstetrics and gynaecology at the National Women’s Hospital.

Professor Archie McIntyre was his mentor in New Zealand and later Richard would join him at Monash University. Richard’s early research was in the field of neurophysiology and his career began spectacularly with a paper in Nature on multiple firing at central synapses. He also published papers on afferent cutaneous nerve fibres in the cat and contraction of uterine muscle. These excellent early papers made a very promising beginning to a career that was to continue at the forefront of neuroscience research.

In 1959 Richard was awarded a Wellcome Trust travel grant to undertake postgraduate research in medicine, and he decided to study in France. He prepared for this venture by learning the French language—listening to gramophone records in the evenings and attending tutorials taught by one of the very few French people in Auckland at that time.

As a young couple, Richard and Gerda left New Zealand for France in 1960. Richard recalled the sea voyage to Europe as great fun. They disembarked in Naples, where Richard visited the Stazione Zoologica and met the famous English professor of anatomy J.Z. Young, who became his lifelong supporter.

In France, he conducted research at the Université d’Aix-Marseille with Jacques Paillard on the effect of muscle stretch on the modulation of spinal excitability in humans. His thesis on this topic, written in French, gained him a Doctorat de Troisième Cycle, and it is a work that is still quoted frequently.

From 1962 to 1966, Richard held a research fellowship in biology at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, where he worked with R.W. Sperry on hemispheric specialisation, studying split-brain monkeys, and on regeneration of neuromuscular connections. It was here that he began to develop his interests in neuroembryology and mechanisms of behaviour. He valued this time enormously and it laid the basis for his life’s work in research in developmental biology.

While Richard was working in Sperry’s laboratory in California, Archie McIntyre visited and persuaded Richard to come to Australia to join him at the new Monash University, where he had become Foundation Professor of Physiology.

In 1966, Richard accepted a Senior Lectureship in Physiology at Monash University. He was promoted to Reader in Physiology in 1970 and remained at Monash until 1974. There he established a laboratory with excellence in electrophysiological techniques as well as neuroanatomy and the study of animal behaviour.

Richard was appointed to the Foundation Chair in the Department of Behavioural Biology within the Research School of Biological Sciences (RSBS) at the ANU in 1975. The new department joined several others in RSBS conducting research on topics as diverse as molecular biology, genetics, protein biochemistry, neurobiology, taxonomy and bioenergetics, as well as developmental, environmental and population biology.

Richard retired in 1999 but stayed on as Emeritus Professor, continuing with his research collaborations with both students and staff. During Richard’s association with RSBS for over a quarter of a century, he produced 69 papers and was associated with 20 postgraduate theses.

It would be incomplete to discuss only Richard’s scientific achievements since, although he was foremost a scientist, his exceptional imagination extended to the arts—in word and music. He was convinced of continuity between the sciences and the arts and had the rare talent and perception to practise science with accuracy and precision, and as an art. In doing so, he brought breadth, creativity and brilliance to the many areas of research to which he contributed so much. Richard had a way of seeing well beyond the ordinary and he reached out to understand the ‘big’ questions, believing that it was better to address the important questions in science rather than to ask only small questions of lesser importance that can be solved more easily. By tackling some of the essential relationships between brain and behaviour, he put that philosophy into practice.

At Monash University he set up his own laboratory working on such wide-ranging issues as nerve regeneration, visual perception, developmental plasticity and the mechanisms underpinning memory. A key feature of Richard’s approach was to maximise the opportunities offered by unusual animal models; species he studied at that time included axolotls, fish, frogs and chicks, as well as humans. Projects included competitive reinnervation of muscle in fish and axolotl and drug inhibition of memory formation in young chicks. All of this work was at the forefront of the field internationally with publications in both Nature and Science. These studies led to the idea that competitive interactions between nerve terminals could result in synaptic repression, without necessarily having recognisable changes in ultrastructure. Such ideas were radical at that time but have now become mainstream.

In 1975 Richard was invited to take up a foundation chair to establish the Department of Behavioural Biology at The Australian National University. This became the Developmental Neurobiology group in 1988, and Richard headed this group from 1992 until his retirement in 1999. Under his guidance, a lively department was established in the Research School of Biological Sciences. Richard’s own work involved establishing a breeding colony of tammar wallabies and using them as a model species, initially to study development of the visual pathways. Later this was extended to developmental studies of the auditory and somatosensory systems. Aided by the accessibility of the developing pouched young, he was able to use techniques impossible in eutherian mammals. Hence, he was able to conduct a series of fundamental experiments that took advantage of the marsupial model, and thereby to extend his important research on development of the nervous system. Much of this research was conducted in collaboration with other ANU researchers, as well as scientists from other universities in Australia and overseas.

In 1976 Richard was invited to deliver the G.E. Rennie Memorial Lecture and was awarded the G.E. Rennie Medal by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He received the Peter Aitken Medal from the South Australian Museum in 1992. He was elected to the fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science in 1974 and served on its council from 1984 to 1987. From 1998 to 1999 he was President of the Australian Neuroscience Society, in which capacity he fostered links between basic science and clinical medicine and recognised the public need for scientists to explain their work to non-specialists. In addition to being an excellent researcher, Richard was a stimulating and much respected teacher. He received the Centenary Medal in 2003 for service to Australian society and science in developmental neurobiology.

Richard’s talents extended beyond scientific writing into creative writing of poetry and also into music. He so moulded these broad talents together that he was often described as a Renaissance man. Richard was open to ideas and his view of the world was far-reaching. As well as science, music and poetry, Richard shared a great love of sailing. He played the violin well and, in his later years, developed his passion for writing poetry. In 2000 a collection of his poetry, entitled Sting in the Tail, was published by Ginninderra Press (ACT, Australia).

His violin playing began when he was in primary school and the enthusiasm and skill lasted throughout his life. His summer holidays were, for many years, spent at New Zealand’s summer music school at Cambridge, near Hamilton.

Richard had a lifelong interest in boats and sailing. Tauranga, where Richard grew up, is a coastal town on a beautiful sheltered harbour in the Bay of Plenty, and it was here that Richard’s passion for the sea and his love of sailing began. While in Canberra, he owned an ocean-going wooden boat that he sailed as often as possible off the New South Wales South Coast. Sailing was more than just a pleasant pastime to Richard, it was an integral part of his love and experience of the sea in its many and ever-changing moods.

Richard’s scientific vision was broad and far-reaching. It encompassed a wide range of ‘big’ questions, many different experimental approaches and a large variety of vertebrate species. His vision in proposing establishment of the wallaby colony nearly 30 years ago has provided Australia with an unparalleled resource for studying mammalian neural development, the potential of which is still being realised today. His leadership in bringing a multidisciplinary approach to neuroscience, in teaching as well as in research, was enlightened and progressive and ensured that the discipline was provided with well-trained young researchers.

*  This edited and abridged obituary has been drawn from the Australian Academy of Science memoir, ‘Richard Freeman Mark 1934–2003’: This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science 17(1) (2006): 91–114.

Additional Resources

Citation details

P. M. E. Waite and L. J. Rogers, 'Mark, Richard Freeman (1934–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 April 2024.

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