Skip to main content

Hedley Ralph Marston [1900-1965]

Hedley Ralph Marston was born on 26 August 1900 at Bordertown, South Australia, on the eastern edge of the Ninety Mile Desert. This area was later to flourish under the name of Coonalpyn Downs, primarily as a result of the scientific work of Marston and his colleagues. He was the third son of Septimus Herbert, a telegraphist, and Mary Frances Ann Marston (nee Bishop), a librarian, each of whose parents had emigrated to South Australia from England in the mid-nineteenth century. Hedley Marston was therefore a second generation South Australian, destined to spend virtually the whole of his working life in that state.

Within a year of Hedley’s birth, the Marston family moved to Adelaide where Septimus continued his career as telegraphist and supervisor until his retirement. He was reputed to be a rather austere man, contrasting with the warm and open-hearted nature of his wife to whom the young Hedley was devoted. Hedley attended the Unley Primary School and later the Unley District High School where at the age of 14 he passed the Primary Public Examination. He does not appear to have taken any of the higher public examinations but Sir Mark Oliphant (Encyclopedia of Australian Science) [external link] , one of his fellow pupils at Finley, who remained his life-long friend, recalls him as a studious boy, with a special liking for chemistry

Early Career

On leaving school Marston obtained a temporary post as laboratory assistant to the Director of the South Australian Government Laboratory for Pathology and Bacteriology, Dr LB Bull. He then won a scholarship with which he undertook the first year of the Associateship Diploma course of the South Australian School of Mines. His results in chemistry were outstandingly good and during the years of 1918-20 he attended further classes in chemistry as a ‘non-graduating student’ of the University of Adelaide.

In 1919, Hedley Marston was an honours degree student in chemistry at the University of Adelaide when a chance encounter with Professor T Brailsford Robertson, Professor of Biochemistry and General Physiology, redirected his interest towards experimental physiology. He became Professor Robertson’s Demonstrator of Biochemistry, and for ten years was closely associated with and profoundly influenced by his teaching and research activities.

In 1923, while working as a Demonstrator in the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry under Professor T Brailsford Robertson, still as a non-graduating student, Marston passed the final honours class in Physiology and Biochemistry with First-Class Honours. Due to difficulties with Matriculation Mathematics, required by the University of Adelaide, he never completed his BSc and remained without a University degree for over 30 years until the Australian National University awarded him the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa in 1957.

The University of Adelaide, which has no power to award honorary degrees, conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Science ad eundem gradum in 1959. It is difficult to assess the influence of the failure to obtain a first degree upon Marston’s personality and his attitudes to other scientists. There is no doubt that it produced some bitterness towards certain individuals in the University of Adelaide. Perhaps, also, the somewhat Olympian air of superiority which Marston assumed with many of his colleagues and his continual desire to impress them can be viewed in part as a compensatory reaction to this lack of a conventional qualification.


In 1927, the newly formed CSIR asked Professor Robertson to form a Division of Animal Nutrition to investigate nutritional problems associated with merino sheep. Dr Marston transferred to the Division and acted as its Chief in the interval between Professor Robertson’s untimely death in 1930 and the appointment later that year of Sir Charles Martin, FRS, who had just retired from the Directorship of the Lister Institute in London.

In 1932, Sir Charles returned to London and the CSIR Division of Animal Nutrition was amalgamated with the CSIR Division of Animal Health under one Chief, Lionel Bull. Hedley was appointed Chief Nutrition Officer and Officer-in-Charge of the Animal Nutrition Laboratory.

During 1936-37, he worked at the Biochemical Laboratory, Cambridge, at the invitation of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, FRS, on the energetics of the fermentative reactions that take place within the ruminant’s paunch.

In 1944, the Animal Nutrition Laboratory was again accorded the status of an independent Division, the CSIR Division of Biochemistry and General Nutrition, and Dr Marston was appointed Chief.

The Division developed into an outstanding research institute for the study of physiology, biochemistry, and nutrition of ruminants, and of the sheep in particular.

Trace elements and cobalt deficiency

The most publicised research of Marston’s Division dealt with deficiencies of trace elements in the soils of South Australia and had led to the discovery that ‘coast disease’ ‘ a wasting malady of sheep pastured in the south-east coastal region and other areas ‘ was caused by a lack of cobalt in their diet. Marston claimed this breakthrough as his own. His dramatic announcement at the meeting in 1935 of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science made his reputation. There is overwhelming evidence, however, that the work originally belonged to Dick Thomas and EWL Lines. At first, Marston dismissed their efforts. It was not until he saw ailing sheep dramatically recover through the administration of cobalt salts that he assumed control of the project, probably in mid-1934. Thomas and Lines never gained the credit due to them, and were thereafter excluded from the investigations carried out at the Division’s research station at Robe.

Another important project to bring prestige to Marston and his Division was the research, spearheaded by DS Riceman and others, into the soils of South Australia’s Ninety Mile Desert. Despite having an adequate rainfall, the region only supported poor scrub. The desert’s deficiency of trace elements (copper and zinc) was overcome, and an area of some 2 million acres (809 380 ha) ‘ now called Coonalpyn Downs ‘ was brought into productive mixed farming. To illustrate the impact of the research, Marston wrote to Oliphant in 1957 about a farmer who had recently settled in the area:

He is sowing 8 000 acres (3 238 ha) more this year to practically complete the 75 000 acres (30 352 ha). Last year he shore 30 000 sheep which was all the stock he could acquire, and they made no impression as the area would hold easily and well five times this number.

In 1948, Marston delivered a lecture on the work of his Division to the Royal Society, London, which elected him a fellow in the following year. The CSIR press release announcing his Fellowship stated that the Division had brought the desert to bloom.

The nutritional physiology and metabolic role of the cobalt-containing Vitamin B12

Marston was involved in other projects, the most important of which were his investigation of the metabolic role of vitamin B12 in sheep and the study which he had carried out with Mary Dawbarn in World War II on the nutritional needs of troops. The effort Marston spent in determining the rate of growth of sheep’s wool opened the way to further research. He greatly disliked publishing anything until he could announce the whole story, much to the chagrin of some of his staff who felt that this policy impeded their careers. Then he delighted in making a grand announcement in ‘the Marstonian style’.

The biological effects of radiation caused by atomic-bomb testing

In 1955, Marston agreed, with alacrity, to assist the British in their research into the biological effects of radiation caused by atomic-bomb testing in Australia. His task was to study the radioactive iodine uptake in sheep and cattle. From monitoring the fall-out due to the tests in 1956 on the Monte Bello Islands and at Maralinga, South Australia, he quickly realised that the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee (AWTSC) was under-reporting the extent of the contamination of Australia, and dismissing the associated risks. Marston claimed that the third test (11 October) at Maralinga had contaminated Adelaide. When the AWTSC did not acknowledge such contamination in its press release, he mounted a bitter attack on Sir Leslie Martin and Sir Ernest Titterton, the two principal physicists on the committee.

The major thrust of Marston’s argument was that radioactive iodine found in the thyroids of animals indicated the presence in the food chain of radioactive strontium which would endanger the health of humans, particularly children. His anger led him, uncharacteristically, to make this claim without recourse to empirical evidence. At that time he was the only senior Australian scientist who adopted a hostile attitude towards the British tests. In many private letters on this subject, and in official reports, he claimed that his countrymen were being hoodwinked, and that the AWTSC lacked competence and integrity. The controversy went close to ruining his health, threatened his position of influence in the Australian scientific community, and converted him from an Anglophile to an Anglophobe.


Throughout the early years of Marston’s working life he was greatly influenced by several outstanding individuals, of whom Thorburn Brailsford Robertson was the first and, in a scientific sense, the foremost. Robertson returned to Adelaide in 1919 to take up the Chair of Physiology and Biochemistry. Nine years later he became the first Chief of the Division of Animal Nutrition of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. How soon or in what manner Marston met Robertson after his arrival in South Australia is not entirely clear but it is certain that Marston acted as Demonstrator in his Department at the University of Adelaide from 1922 to 1928 and that he moved to the Division of Animal Nutrition in the latter year as Robertson’s personal assistant. Marston always looked back upon this humble position with pride and satisfaction. His laboratory skills were greatly appreciated by Robertson whose strengths were more of the mind than the hand and several papers on aspects of the nucleic acids, a major interest of Robertson, appeared under Marston’s name at this early stage of his career. During this time he also turned his attention to two technical enterprises, involving the treatment of oranges with paraffin to improve storage and transport and a patent for casein preparation, neither of which stood the test of time.

It is clear that Marston’s remarkable personality was being moulded and developed during this early period through his association with a wide range of people. RG Thomas has provided a particularly vivid picture of this aspect of Marston’s life. He mentions his

quite extraordinary tendency and capacity to find, develop and maintain close friendships with a wide variety of usually older people who, for one reason or another, he considered distinguished or interesting. This flair was, of course, not unrelated to his capacity for vicarious personal-substitution, but it undoubtedly led to a very great and wide enrichment of his own qualities and the general outcome of this was the reason why some of us found him such very congenial company over many years. He had a most extraordinarily retentive and vivid memory and could and did absorb much of the anecdotes and philosophies of those persons whom he selected for his salon. Over the years the persons selected by H.R.M. for his intimate attention comprised a very wide range of interests. They were by no means restricted to academic and research personnel. Hoteliers, restaurateurs, gourmets, scholars, artists, literary men, industrialists, medicos and dilettanti in various fields were all grist to Hedley’s mill. He was rather apt to drop those from whom he had apparently absorbed what they had to offer and he then passed to others. This seemed to occasion no ill-will in those temporarily dropped! In this way, as I have stressed, his extraordinarily retentive memory, a certain sense of mime and a very keen sense of humour and delicate satire contrived to present unending facets of interest to those of us who felt privileged to be his intimate friends.

Marston’s artistic interests and gifts were also being fostered in these early years. It was then that he met Elioth Gruner who later became a close friend. Through Gruner and probably the Birks, at whose cultured home the young Marston was a frequent visitor, Marston became acquainted with Hans Heysen, the Lindsays, Arthur Murch, Donald Friend, William Dobell and many other distinguished artists. A charcoal drawing of Marston by Murch (1930) in the possession of Mrs Marston, and the controversial oil-painting by Dobell (1953) now in the Brisbane Art Gallery, emerged from these associations.

A further facet of Marston’s many-sided life, his interest in cooking, developed during this period. Of this RG Thomas writes:

Hedley was a keen connoisseur of food and wine, a good cook skilled in all forms of protocol associated with gastronomy. He never ate or drank to excess and was in fact an abstemious eater-contrary to what his physique suggested.

Many of Marston’s friends recall with pleasure excellent meals prepared and served by him in his home and the delight and satisfaction that he derived from acting as host in this very personal way.

On 17 September 1934, Hedley married (Kathleen) Nellie Spooner, daughter of William and Hannah Spooner of Adelaide. Mrs Marston, who was of a rather retiring disposition, provided a warm and restful home for her husband which became increasingly important as Hedley’s health deteriorated in later years. There were no children of the marriage.

During the latter half of his life Marston suffered a great deal of ill-health. In 1946, while in England attending the Empire Scientific Conference, he had his first coronary attack and was again seriously ill during his last visit to that country in 1964. Previously he had lost his appendix at the hands of the surgeons, and about 1959 he discovered signs of diabetes in himself and prescribed his own medication. Marston’s medical history became for him an absorbing topic of conversation ‘ so much so that many people became disbelieving and unsympathetic. There is no doubt, however, that he suffered great pain for prolonged periods with character and with fortitude.

During 1965, his last year in office, he was ill at home for three months and was taken to hospital a few days before he was due to retire. There he received a deputation from the staff of his Division with his retirement presentation ‘ an authentic Song Tenmoku bowl and a finely glazed piece by a young Australian potter. Although by this time very weak he roused himself and, in character to the end, delivered a short and impressive dissertation to the gathering on the qualities of Chinese glazing. Two days later, on 25 August 1965, Hedley Ralph Marston died.


Marston’s standing enabled him to run his Division as if it were an independent entity. He took little notice of directions from the executive of CSIR/CSIRO and protected his staff, while expecting herculean efforts and total loyalty in return. The awards and respect which went to Marston were in large measure due to the work of the Division as a whole. Its research substantially changed Australian agriculture, and had a significant impact on many hitherto marginal lands throughout the world.

South Australia’s farming community revered Marston. The Robe Hotel flew the Australian flag whenever he brought visitors to the local research-station. Perry Stout, an American, wrote of Marston and his colleagues:

I have wondered, in paraphrase, if Australians shall ever know how much they owe to so few? Early explorers, so highly thought of in Australia, travelled over the land … Recent ones have looked underneath its surface to bring forth great new wealth in the form of plants and animals.

In his memoir of Hedley Marston, Professor Eric Underwood (Encyclopedia of Australian Science)[external link] , CBE, Professor of Agriculture and Director of the Institute of Agriculture, University of Western Australia wrote:

It is clear from what is written above that Marston contributed richly to the scientific life of this country and particularly to the land and people of his own state, South Australia, where he lived out his life. He was an unusual person in every sense of the term. Everything about Marston was larger than life. He was not a notably rich source of original scientific ideas but had great astuteness in selecting the most promising ideas to follow. He had also the capacity to stimulate colleagues and others to pursue these ideas critically and in depth, with understanding rather than superficial knowledge as the goal. Above all he had a feeling for and a belief in the rewards that science could bring.

It is more difficult to write of Marston’s complex character and colourful personality. With some people he developed deep and lasting friendships and loyalties and a real sense of humility which engendered respect, affection, even devotion. With others he maintained bitter animosities and assumed irritating airs of superiority and omniscience, which naturally provoked impatience, dislike and even open hostility. In his social life he could be quite exceptionally charming, generous and hospitable. Diverse and contending characteristics of this nature occur to some extent in almost everyone but in Marston they were abnormally exaggerated.

His practice of ‘non-publication’, which was so unfair to many of his staff, is an example of this dichotomy in his character. It could be argued with justification that Marston’s disappointing record of original scientific publications is an expression of his perfectionism, of his desire to delay publication until a full and complete scientific story could be told in the fine, if somewhat pontifical, Marstonian prose for which he was noted. On the other hand, it could equally be argued that the delays were motivated by a wish to impress others and by a desire to produce something superior, definitive and beyond the capacity of lesser mortals. Whatever the motives were in this phase of his life’s work, whatever the strengths and the weaknesses of his character, Marston will remain in the minds and hearts of those who knew him as a remarkable and impressive figure to whom the people of this country owe a great and lasting debt.

Honours and awards


1962 Fellow of the Australian Society of Animal Production
1954 Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and was its first Treasurer (1954-55)
1949 Fellow of the Royal Society of London
1938 Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute


1959 The Annie Cunning Lecturer of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians
1959 The ANZAAS Mueller Medal
1959 Admitted to the degree of Doctor of Science of the University of Adelaide
1957 The Australian National University conferred upon him its first degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa