Annabelle Duncan, interviewed by Tom Spurling and Terry Healy, 6 February 2019

By March 5th, 2019

Annabelle Duncan was the Chief of the Division of Molecular Science (1999-2005)

Edited transcript (PDF – 436 KB)

Interview summary

Annabelle Duncan was born in Nelson, New Zealand on 31 May 1953, the younger daughter of two children. Her parents met in England after her father, a New Zealander, had been demobilised from being a prisoner for most of the war.

In the first part of the interview Annabelle talks about growing up in a small town in New Zealand, the daughter of a small businessman in the building industry. She recalls how some of her father’s prison experiences affected her upbringing. ‘One of the comments that he made to me on a number of occasions that has coloured much of what I have done – and excuse my language but I will use it exactly as he did. He said, “Never judge anybody by where they come from, what race they are, what nationality they are. Some of the biggest bastards I ever met were on the inside of the wire with me, and some of the nicest people I met were on the other side pushing food through the wire, or fireboard or whatever, to help us as we walked up.”’

Annabelle did well at secondary school and won a scholarship to study pharmacy at Otago University. She talks in depth about her experiences as a country lass going to a big city and how this has influenced her later career as a Vice-Chancellor of a regional university. She talks about the influence of mentor (now) Emeritus Professor Margaret Loutit. It was during this time that she was married and supported her husband while he was doing his PhD.

The couple moved to Melbourne in 1981 and Annabelle enrolled in her PhD at La Trobe University. It was during this time that she commenced working with the water treatment group at the CSIRO Division of Chemicals and Polymers and this led to her appointment as a Research Scientist in the Division. She talks briefly about her experiences juggling work and family.

In 1990 Annabelle was asked to advise the Australian Government on biological weapons control. This opportunity changed the course of her career and she discusses this period in some detail.

Annabelle became a Program Manager in the Division of Chemicals and Polymers in 1995 and then the Chief of the Division Molecular Science in 1999. There is a discussion of the changes that took place in the Organisation under Dr Geoff Garrett and some of her immediate post-CSIRO experiences.

In the last part of the interview, Annabelle talks about her time as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and then Vice-Chancellor at the University of New England and gives her views on future directions for the national innovation system.


Interview conducted by Tom Spurling and Terry Healy. Recorded at CSIRO Black Mountain (Canberra) on 6 February 2019 as part of the CSIRO History Project.


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