Trevor Clifford

Harold (Trevor) Clifford was born in 1927 in Melbourne, Australia.  He and his family endured the Depression.  Trevor studied at Melbourne University and travelled to England to do his PhD.  Trevor is a renowned botanist whose last employment was at University of Queensland where he lectured.  This is his story: 

“In about 1929 my father became insolvent.  He had a furniture shop in Chapel Street, Prahran and from then on, work was almost impossible to get.  And so we mostly moved around looking for work.

Our family was one of hundreds.  There was a little bit of unemployment relief.  Dad got unemployment relief in Perth from the Council, but my understanding was you got thirty shillings or something which you could only spend at the local grocers because if you didn’t, people think you’re buying grog.  And I learned a lot about that when Dad had a fruit shop and they used to go in to the Victoria Market in Melbourne.  The great thing about it was that you grew close to your parents.  And if one thinks about this in terms of my ultimate career, perhaps moving round stimulated my mind.  And sometimes you had to make big leaps.  I remember learning 12 months Latin in six weeks.

I remember the start of World War II.  I was walking down South Road in Glandorf and I probably was 12.  I can remember Menzies’ speech standing outside a house listening to it coming on the radio.  A few months after that my parents moved back to Melbourne.  Again, Dad had no job but we were used to that and I assume that my parents moved back to Melbourne because if my father got called up my mother was in the home town with her family.  We moved in to a duplex house, that was a little single storey house, three rooms a common room, then a kitchen off the back of it.  That was 84 Ruskin Street and we lived there for 13 years.

Someone’s picked up from somewhere that my nickname was Skull.  However, “Skull” was John Hennessy’s nickname.  He lived just round the street.  Skull went off to the university with me and I stayed in university, he went to the weather bureau and in next to no time was Principal of the School for teaching meteorology in the weather bureau.  The other was Ken Mackay and he went off to university and did a degree and stopped there indefinitely until he became Associate Professor.  And another thing about the school that I went to.  It was an ordinary state school, bit like Ironside.  There were two other boys in the class that I’ve come across in Brisbane and one is a Bill Halliday who is Professor of Microbiology and the other is Eric Mackay who is Professor of Obstetrics and of course there was me.  So there were three boys out of that class with professorships in Brisbane.  [Note:  If we were not all in the same year, it was about the same time.]

The first reason I went to Melbourne University would be if you wanted to go to a University, that was the only one.  I was keen to be a secondary school teacher, a permanent job, given my Dad’s background.  And so I joined the Education Department.  The Education Department offered me a scholarship to go to university and I also had applied for the Dafydd Lewis scholarship.  I took the Dafydd Lewis one because it had no strings attached. 

I was interested in studying geology because I’d done it at high school and found it quite interesting.  The interest would probably have been deeper than that, may have come with this travelling that my parents did.  When we lived in Stawell, I remember reading a newspaper article and by way of diversion here, our house had two books only.  My mother had a book of poems by Ella Wheeler Wilcox and my Dad had The Last of the Mohicans which he hadn’t read.  My mother hadn’t read hers either because she was illiterate.  So that was the home background.  But there was a newspaper article that talked about a man Edwin Sherborne Hills who’d been flying round Victoria looking at the land forms and there’d been some discussion in the newspaper article about the Grampians Mountains.  Were they due to faulting or differential erosion?  Well that struck me as interesting and that set me thinking about some of these things.  So I thought I’d like to go to the university and if I’m going to be a high school teacher, I’d like to teach geology.  I never did become geologist.  I do now practise geology but that was just in the timing.  And of course I started with the background and got honours in geology.

I started studying at Melbourne University in 1945.  It was 1945 when World War II ended.  It ended half way through first term.  I finished in ’47.  The third year exams would be ’47 but didn’t get the degree until ’48.  You got it in the following year, usually about Easter.  The only people who got their degrees at the end of the year that they finished their studies were the doctors.  That was so they could go in to hospitals.  You know, if you had your doctors and they had their degrees, they needed to be at the hospitals.  The rest of us, it wasn’t a handicap particularly because everyone knew you were going to get the degree.  But it would be the legal requirement that you had to qualify.  I majored in geology and botany.  It was too much.  I had to go to the exams not having read all the books.

I’d gone to the geology side because I was interested in fossils.  When I was studying botany, I found that you could do experiments, which you can’t do with fossils.  And it was in my first year, 1945, that a big glasshouse was built in California in which you could control the temperature and the humidity and control just about everything and so it was now possible to grow plants in an environment that you could control.  And that struck me as very exciting thing.  And so I just drifted in to it.  The Professor lectured very well.

When I finished my degree, it wasn’t an honours degree but if you wanted to know how you were going, you could ask to be examined as an Honours student or as a past student.  So I said I’d do both an Honours.  I did get Honours in both but pretty bad, Geology was third class which is just the bottom, it was better than a Pass.  But I got second class in Botany and they must have been short of teachers or something because they offered me a job.  So I started teaching part-time in the Botany Department, tutoring to the night-class.  When you start, you’re always at the bottom of the heap.  So I started there.

And then, because I’d done geology the Professor of Botany was keen to get someone to have a look at the distribution of eucalypts on the nearby mountain range.  So I looked at the distribution of eucalypts in the Dandenong Ranges where there was a diversity of rock types.  Really it was to see whether the soils and the eucalypts corresponded in any way.  And so that was my Master’s Degree.  In order to reduce the cost to the Botany Department, he also thoughtfully found me a scholarship to work at the Herbarium, which is a kind of plant museum in the Botanic Gardens.  So I used to work down there four days a week, go back to the university and do the tutoring at night and Friday go out and walk round the Dandenongs, drawing maps of where the trees were.  And as part of this deal I made a very nice three-dimensional model of the Dandenongs about the size of this table all with contours and things.  I got some large balsa blocks.  They were not cubes, they were timber bits.  Having decided on the vertical scale, I then cut them in to the right height for every 100 feet and glued one on top of the other and then smoothed it off with plastering, so I then had the mountain range.  Now I could mark on it the distribution of all the things studied.  In the course of that I also did a bit of tutoring in agriculture where they seemed to be short of people who knew about soils and so I used to go and tutor on soils.  So I did a fair bit of tutoring in botany and outside botany in other departments.

With the Dandenong Ranges project I did something quite original there actually.  I worked out the amount of radiant energy, not hours of sunshine but the amount of actual energy falling per square metre on slopes of different angles and facing different directions and that was the first time in Australia, and there were no computers.  I did it all by hand.  The only place that you could get radiation data for that latitude was Brazil.  There were no records at all for Australia so I had to use the solar radiation in Brazil and then I did all the calculations.

I was drawing maps showing where the eucalypts grew, but there were two of them in which I found that the morphology overlapped.  So that at the foot of the range you had a eucalypt and the top of the range you had a eucalypt that looked quite different and on the slope, you got every intermediate between them.  I suggested that that was due them interbreeding.  And that was a source for a fair bit of angst.  The person in the botany department who for a while nominally was responsible for my research didn’t believe this could happen, so she said to me – it’s impossible.  So I really had to think of some way of proving that what I had was meaningful.  The way I did this was to take the seeds from the single parent tree and grow them and look at the seedlings and I did make measurements, hence the statistics and you found that if the tree looked intermediate, the offspring varied.  If the tree looked like one of the parents, the offspring were pretty uniform.  And now came the genetics.  I won’t go in to the details of this, but you can show that if this is true, and you plot the size of the seedling character against its variability, it has to lie in a triangular area and that was pure theory and you can confirm that by having a look at what had been found out from agriculture.

And there was had a piece of good fortune.  A Professor of Genetics from Cambridge was visiting and I was asked if I’d like to tell him what I was doing and so after afternoon tea one day I told him what I was doing.  He said – yeh, that’s interesting.  It won’t be a triangle, it’ll be a parabola.  But he couldn’t prove it.  Years later I did prove it, but I can’t remember how.  No, but he was right, instinctively, but the triangle or parabola at that level don’t differ very much and I remember saying to him afterwards, was my work of any interest.  He said – if you write it up I’ll publish it for you.  So I did and I think that may have been probably the basis of me getting a scholarship to go to England and I got that from the ANU.

I will admit to seeing Gill, when she was 16, on the tram.  I don’t remember that very well though I claim to.  I used to be fairly active and still fairly active in the church and I was tidying up I suppose after one of the services, which is a job the sacristan does, tidying up.  Gill just turned up and wanted to know if there was anything she could do, because she was also interested in it.  So she was told to go down the vestry and see if she could help the young guy down there.  That was it.  We got engaged on 31st May 1952.  We were not engaged quite 12 months.  It was a day off 12 months.  Both sets of parents and our siblings attended our wedding [at St. Bedes Church of England, Elwood, Vic].  And nine weeks later we were going off to England.  I mean these were really big issues to set off on married life with.  I had a scholarship for two years.  That paid my fare to England, but not Gill’s.  It was in fact quite a generous scholarship.  We were better off than people of our age in the English university system.  That’s because we weren’t paying superannuation or tax.

Gill and I went to England in August 1953 aboard the SS Straithard.   I went there because there was a professor in Durham in the north of England who worked very much on the kind of things that I had developed in Australia.  In Australia there was no one interested in what I was doing.  I gave a final lecture and the Professor of Botany, I remember him saying quite clearly that whilst it was commendable that I had achieved this, these results and so on in a department where no one understood what I was doing. 

When we got to England, we had the hospitality of Gill’s aunt and uncle Nash.  They had no children.  They made us extremely welcome.  I went off to the north of England to make contact with the University of Durham.  I also wanted to have a look at the unit, the little flat the Professor had found for me.  If I’d been at Oxford or Cambridge or London, there’d be hundreds of post graduate students, you’d be one of a crowd, but up in Durham it was lovely.  You’re friendly with everybody and it was easy to get accommodation.

Professor David Valentine was my PhD supervisor.  In crude terms this work was important to me because it was a meal ticket.  I couldn’t get a job without it.  And in those days the PhD had only recently been introduced in Australia in a formal sense.  It had always been available but through the University of London and you had to go to London for the oral exam and it was difficult.  There were a few people who did a PhD, but most of them would have waited till they were about 45 and taken out a more senior doctorate, a Doctor of Science.  I went there because Valentine worked on much the same sort of things as myself.  But he had a real problem.

In England, two flowers – primroses and cowslips are known to hybridise but unlike the eucalypts, where you got everything in between, you only ever get the two parents and what’s called the F1 generation but it was known that the F1 generation was fertile.  It had seeds.  You could grow them in the glasshouse and you had perfectly healthy seedlings.  Why weren’t they in the field?  And with my statistical interests, I thought it might be possible to detect that the intermediate one, the F1, occasionally bred back with one of the parents and if it did that the parent would be a little bit altered.  You mightn’t notice it but it might, the environment might choose something just very like the parent, but if you made some measurements it would be a little bit different.  And so I set to work and I measured some floral characters of primroses and cowslips growing where they were the only ones growing.  And we had some primroses and cowslips growing where there were some hybrids and then I compared the primroses and the cowslips and in those, that comparison and that was the basis.  It turned out that I didn’t get any answer that I got the degree, so that was all right.  The title for my thesis was “Introgressive Hybridisation.”  The Introgression means the flow of genetic material from one thing to another.”

When Trevor completed his PhD he was appointed as Lecturer in Agricultural Botany at the University College in Ibadan in Nigeria.

“Oh, we thought it was great that I got this appointment.  We’d always had in mind that it’s useful to give back something to society and while we were young, it was the only time we could do it.  So we headed off and spent some years there.  I now had a baby daughter and she was born just a week before I left Durham.  She was about six weeks old when we got there and we were there three years and in the course of that we managed to generate Kate who was born there.  And then the children were growing up.  We’d been away from home five years and I knew the professor here [Brisbane].  He was a Melbourne graduate and I saw him in England on one occasion and said to him we’d be going home soon, likely to be any jobs?  And he said – write and tell me when you want to come.

Regarding the position I had at Ibadan.  Firstly the students we had were excellent.  They were nearly all of them on government scholarships.  So that universities in England, like Exeter, who had lots of Nigerian students got those that couldn’t get in to Ibadan.  So that it was really a high, it isn’t now, but it was a high quality university.  The staff, certainly two thirds were European but the Registrar was a Nigerian.

I came away from Nigeria with a great respect for the peasant farmer.  There were a couple of times, you know, I’ve commented that I don’t think about whether people are bright or not.  Education’s a very complex issue.  But if you talk to a Nigerian farmer, he’s got a block of land about the third the size this house is on.  He feeds a whole family off that.  He can’t read or write, but he can tell you what the weather was like for the past 20 years.  They’ve got plenty of memory, plenty of ability.  But the same range of abilities as round here, some able, some aren’t.  But I certainly came away with the idea that we often underestimate the people, we want to help the farmers in East Africa or West Africa.  I just think there’s no future in that.  I think the farmers have been there for hundreds of years.  They’re quite good at it.  And for instance you would easily push up the yields say of maize two or three fold, but what are you going to do with it when you’ve pushed it up.  Where do you sell it?  The market’s already saturated and the people used to eat cassava which is a root crop.  So that the economics is very important.  Agriculture can’t be divorced from economics.

We’re still in contact with people from the Nigerian days.  All a complete mixture from anywhere in Europe, but also from places like Ceylon because it was part of the British colonies and so people tended to transfer.  They weren’t English people.  I mean they were people from Ceylon, but they were used to the British Civil Service sort of stuff and so they fitted in quite easily.

It wasn’t difficult to leave Nigeria, but we were not particularly looking forward to it.  It was just that we were going to come back to Australia.  We’d been away five years so that it wasn’t “goodness I’m glad to be out of this place” or “so sorry you know I’ll miss it”.  In life you just have to accept.  Gill, you see, her parents moved to Melbourne when she was seven and she was 22 when she married, so she’d been there a long time.  I was used to moving.  It didn’t cause me any trouble at all.  It was 1958 when we left.

I applied for jobs from Nigeria and I wrote to Brisbane.  The Professor said that there was a job going and I applied for it.  And I got a letter appointing me and then I got a letter saying unfortunately they had to withdraw the appointment.  There was a big feud going on over the appointment of a Professor of Mathematics and the staff association and the University of Queensland administration were involved with, very politicised and it had been the custom in this university, as in the education department that people who’d been round senior for many years, if the Head went away you stepped in to their shoes.  J.D. Story was Vice-Chancellor then, he had been Director of Education and head of the civil service, so that was the way that he thought.  And, so that was just how the university worked.  It wasn’t particularly political, but the system had grown up that the university was in fact part of the Education Department and it was growing out of that.  At least we’re not in a position that’s in France where it’s completely dominated.  I mean the universities are part of the education system.  The position was re-advertised and I didn’t have to apply the second time.  They just took the letter from the first one.  But then I got a letter offering me the position again.

So we moved into this house round about the end of January or early February ’59.  I came to Brisbane round about Cup day in 1958, leaving Gill with the children at that stage in Melbourne at my parents’ house.  My son Daryl was born in June and he’s exactly 30 years younger than his mother.  We returned to Australia by ship.  I tell you there’s a big difference between coming back First Class and going in the bowels of the one I went to England on.  Coming back was much better. 

I was appointed to the University of Queensland in 1958.  I became part of the staff here half way between Colombo and Perth.  I remember thinking, when I woke up that morning I was no longer employed by Ibadan.  I was employed by Brisbane.  I’d have to look up when my promotions round here, but they went fairly steadily, until the readership.  There might have been a gap between senior lecturer and reader and then the professorship in those days was a very different thing.  It was a personal chair just awarded to a particular person.  So I then cost the Botany Department a lot more money but didn’t do anything extra.

In 1965 I was awarded a fellowship of the Linnean Society which is a group of people in England interested in natural history.  One advantage of being a Fellow of the Linnean Society is they’ve got a very large library.  And if you’re in England, you can borrow the books by mail.  But I was going to England to study on study leave and I thought it would be nice to have access to their library.  And so I wrote to Professor Valentine and said, you know, how about nominating me for the Linnean Society and he said yes.  It’s just a general natural history society but it is true all of the more senior people are in fact quite senior botanists and zoologists.

I worked with Professor Bill Stephenson.  That was a fascinating story.  I’d got interested in using computers for making classifications.  This was in the very early days and there was a man in the CSIRO called Bill Williams.  Now Bill Williams was a real expert on this subject.  I consulted him in England in 1965 when I went on study leave and I’d asked him about doing some calculations and he said, No he wouldn’t do them, and so my heart sank but, I will in a few weeks’ time because I’m going to live in Australia.  He was a Noel Coward gentleman who’d wave his hands round, cigarette and all, just like Noel Coward.  He turned up in Australia and turned up here at CSIRO and he helped me with quite a lot with these things.  I used to have lunch with him, two or three times a week.  He kept whingeing that people were actually using up his time.  He really liked this, but it reached the stage where the CSIRO noticed he was spending two thirds of his time talking to the university people, a third of his time talking to their people and it was about this stage I said to Bill, look I’ll give a series of lectures on this subject at 5 o’clock.  I’ll just put a note in the university newspaper, saying that I’ll give it.  But the discipline was growing in interest, but I’ll only do it if you’ll come.  So that if there are awkward questions, you can answer them and not me.  Well he accepted this deal and so I prepared three or four lectures in which I reviewed the subject and went over and showed him.

To my surprise, Bill Stephenson came to the lectures and he was a well-known antagonist to this whole concept and so I was very much surprised.  A month later, Bill rings me up and he said, oh look, he says, I’ve been writing a review about the numerical classifications stuff, he said, it’s got a bit out of hand, he says, I think it’s a book.  Would you care to write, now there’s a technical thing, about multivariate analysis.  I said, oh, let me see it.  So he trots up with a sheath of manuscripts.  It was my lectures.  He’d taken my lectures and turned them beautifully in to book chapters.  I couldn’t have been happier.  It had all been done and so I decided that I’d write the other bit.  And we struck a nice deal here, and the deal was that we wouldn’t bother to correct anything that the other corrected.  So if he gave me his manuscript, and I just wrote out the things I didn’t like and put my version and he did the same with mine and the students tell me they can’t tell who wrote which bit.  But it’s a composite book but the two of us just accepted if it was badly expressed, we wouldn’t do it for an idea of course, but if the expression was bad, you wouldn’t bother to check the other person expressed it more clearly, because they didn’t understand it and they tidied it up, you’d accept that it was right.  So we sent the manuscript off and often books were away for months and months.  Anyway, within, certainly within less than three months, we got a letter from Academic Press in New York, saying they’d accepted the book.  And at this stage, I thought, poor old Bill Williams, he’d written half this book because I’d quiz him over lunch time and every time I had a problem I’d talk to him, I’d write it down you see.  I said to him, Bill why don’t you be an author with this.  He said, oh no no no, I’m writing a book on this subject myself.  So that was that.  And within six months, the book was published.  It’s a fascinating story.  To carry it on a little bit further, in due course, Bill Williams died as happens to all of us, and it fell my lot to write a rather extended biography, about 35 pages.  And so I wrote this and I discovered in talking to a number of people that Bill had told them he couldn’t ever write anything more than seven pages, so what made him think he’d ever write a book, I’ve no idea.  My book was called “An Introduction to Numerical Classification.”  I think it was all innovative but I don’t think it entirely original.  When you’ve got a system like this, there were people all around the world doing this.  It was probably the best of the undergraduate text books.  The others were complex mathematical books, that dealt with it much more seriously.”

Trevor spent the remainder of his career as a lecturer in the Department of Botany at UQ.

“They were all very pleasant times.  People said to me when I retired, do you miss the university and I said No and they said well, didn’t you like it.  I said – No I enjoyed it very well.  I mean every job’s got its problems, but I’ve no complaints about it.  I can’t think of any particular highlights.  The university was certainly in turmoil towards the end of the Vietnam War with Senator Georges racing round the compound.  I was in the Great Hall, the night there was some suggestion of giving Joh Bjelke-Petersen a doctorate.  And the rebels were beating on the glass windows and we thought they might get pushed in.  That was quite exciting, but I’ve been on the campus with batons from riot police and so on.  It was just another experience.”

I’m doing a retirement project with Mary Dettmann.  It’s a purely accidental arrangement.  Mary Dettmann was a geologist, not quite a contemporary of mine from Melbourne.  I taught her big sister.  I know she’s eight years younger than me.  But when she retired, she came to the Museum and it wasn’t surprising that we ended up sharing a room.  Because we’re both from Melbourne, we’ve got the same friends and interest in much the same things.  We’ve done a fair amount of research together over the last 20 years.  But it didn’t start off with a project or anything.  It’s just, I guess both of us just do whatever the Museum wants done.

We’re interested in what the vegetation of Australia was like, (350 million to present) years ago.  One or other of us has taken responsibility of writing an account of it and the other one’s been the co-author and there’s been a lot of them, shifting round.  You see museums end up with large collections that they haven’t got the staff to study them and it’s not only this museum, it’s world-wide and it’s not anything new.  It’s always gone on.  Museums are just big repositories of many of the people retired are financially secure, latch on and work on the collections.

We’ve looked at a whole variety of things.  We’ve described new conifers, new Araucaria like things, Bunya pines sort of things.  And new ferns and well before she came to the Museum, I described a really old fern, 350 million years old and I’ve described a fossil flower.  And since the two of us sit and chat, we might as well put our names on it.  It saves solving who did what.  And recently, yes, we have had a look at a fruit that’s related to the Burdekin plum.  And we were caught up with that essentially because the director of the geology section, had the fruit and wanted to describe it.  So we were happy enough to do that.

I guess the only thing I’d really reflect on and the problem is irresolvable, as to whether starting off in a tiny school with just a handful of children and three or four teachers.  I mean I guess they were little more than teenagers.  I remember the very first day I started to read, was taught to read “R-A-T rat” that’s how it went.  I may have over-exaggerated this, but certainly within a few weeks I could read.  It certainly wasn’t months.  And this move from school to school was traumatic, but it had two things.  One that you had to be pretty nifty on your feet to keep up with what was going on and the second thing is that it left you a lot of time to be by yourself and doing things because you didn’t have anyone else to mix with, hence off to the library and that sort of thing.  So it would be just quite impossible, I think, to resolve all of this, why my parents managed to send me, or chose to send me to Melbourne High School, I’ve no idea.  I’m so thick I didn’t even know it was a selective high school until I’d left.  We did an exam to start but I’m told it was an intelligence test or something.  But it didn’t, it never even impinged on me.  Because all the other lads there, we’d all done this and I don’t think it impinged on any of us particularly.  But certainly the school has got a magnificent record of achievers.

I think that one of the things that I must be extremely grateful for was my parents never losing hope during the Depression.  I lived in 21 houses before I was 13, went to eight primary and four secondary schools.  In the course of this, my parents moving so much, you moved with them, you had to always adapt.  You were learning new things, it was a completely different education.  So when confronted with a problem, you don’t give up you just wade in and see what you can do.  So you know your total life is reflected in this and you can’t pick any particular bit out of it.  I think my parents moving round so much and often in very poor circumstances I’ve described earlier, influenced me greatly.  So it’s the sum total of all those things that determine your life. 

(Trevor Clifford was interviewed in November 2014 and March 2015).

Trevor Clifford died 4 May 2019.