Ian Murray Mackerras [1898-1980]

By Colin WardMarch 18th, 2011


Ian Murray Mackerras was born on 19 September 1898 at Balclutha in the south-east of the South Island of New Zealand where his father, James Murray Mackerras, and mother, Elizabeth Mary (nee Creagh), were engaged in farming. Shortly after Ian’s birth, his parents moved back to Sydney. The family then returned to New Zealand until, in about 1902, the parents separated, and the mother returned to Sydney with the boys, to the comfort and support of her family. The grandparents, Patrick and Louisa Creagh, played a considerable part in raising the boys, who learned the use and care of tools in their grandfather’s meticulously kept workshop. Living close to Sydney harbour, boats and sailing provided their principal recreation and Ian and his brother Alan became expert yachtsmen.

Ian’s birth certificate bears the given names Murray Ian Creagh, but quite early in his life, his mother’s surname, Creagh, was dropped, and the order of his other two names reversed, so that he became Ian Murray Mackerras for the rest of his life.

He was educated at Sydney Grammar School, matriculating in 1915.

First World War service

Shortly after matriculating (17 December 1915), with the consent of his mother, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, advancing his age considerably to do so. He served as a laboratory attendant in Army Medical Corps, on the IHS Karoola from 19 December 1915 – 12 April 1917. During the period of his service Karoola plied between Australia and the United Kingdom, either via the Cape or Suez, repatriating sick and wounded from the various battle zones.

On 17 May 1917, having applied for a change that would make his participation in the war more adventurous, he was posted to the 8th Reinforcements, 31st Infantry Battalion. He served in France from December 1917 as a gunner in the 51st battery, 13th Field Artillery Brigade, AFA (18 pounders). His army record has the laconic entry: Wounded in action ‘Gassed’ on 28 May 1918

Undergraduate degrees

Mackerras had early evinced an interest in medicine, when, as a schoolboy, a medical student friend draped him in a theatre gown and smuggled him into a theatre to watch an operation. In April 1919, within a fortnight of his return to Australia, and before his final discharge from the army he enrolled at the University of Sydney on an ex-serviceman’s grant to do the medical course. As his studies progressed he realised that he wanted to be a zoologist, but if he switched to science he risked forfeiting, (even refunding), the grant which was so essential for his support. He thus proposed doing both courses simultaneously. His professors were apparently sympathetic, but one of the Deans foretold disaster in both courses, and withheld his approval. Mackerras then took his problem to the Vice-Chancellor, who agreed to the proposal. Anyone would have been justified in having reservations as to the likelihood of any ordinary man being able to perform this feat, but no ordinary man was involved, and in March 1924 Mackerras graduated MB, ChM, BSc, with First-Class Honours in Zoology, the University Medal in Zoology, and the John Coutts Scholarship (shared).

He found the influence of his Professor of Zoology, Launcelot Harrison, a gifted field naturalist, very stimulating. During the 1914-18 war, Harrison served as Advisory Entomologist to the (British) Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, and was credited with greatly reducing the mortality from malaria and typhus. A brilliant teacher, wide in his outlook and interests, he had the capacity of inspiring his students with the research spirit

Research contributions

A more detailed account of his research contributions can be found in the biographical memoir written in 1981 by KR Norris who worked in the CSIRO Division of Entomology from 1937 to 1979 (follow the link in the Source details below).

Linnean Macleay Fellowship in Zoology

In March 1925, Mackerras was awarded the Linnean Macleay Fellowship in Zoology, and continued to enjoy hugely being paid for indulging in a hobby. Some of the fruits of this period are a definitive paper on the Nemestrinidae; the description of new Mydaidae, two families of flies that excite curiosity in most dipterists, and in the first of several papers on the taxonomy of mosquitoes, he continued to contribute to ‘medical zoology’, as he called it, that area of medicine which involves both man and other animals

Bureau of Microbiology, New South Wales Department of Public Health

In 1926, Mackerras’ Linnean Macleay Fellowship was renewed, but he was given leave of absence in January 1927 to carry on work at the Bureau of Microbiology of the New South Wales Department of Public Health that would have been neglected in the absence of Dr EW Ferguson who was on sick leave. Ferguson died in July 1927, and Mackerras was then offered a permanent appointment, which he accepted, resigning his Fellowship on 30 September. From the frequency with which Mackerras referred to him throughout his life there is no doubt that, like Harrison, Ferguson was an important influence in his career. In this post, in addition to performing his heavy load of routine bench-work, Mackerras was able to further his role in medical zoology by participating effectively in a study of the ectoparasites of rodents.

At CSIR/CSIRO 1928-39

In 1928, Mackerras made a move that was crucial to the development of his career. CSIR had been founded by the Commonwealth Government as a statutory authority to provide a better environment for creative research than was usually found in government departments. The function of CSIR was to undertake research for the benefit of Australia’s primary and secondary industries, but the Executive concentrated the efforts of the Council at first principally on primary industry. Mackerras was approached by the CSIR executive to join the Division of Economic Entomology, (one of the four founding Divisions of CSIR), whose aim was to investigate entomological problems of national importance for which remedies had not been readily forthcoming. Unlike the overseas applicants also being sought, Mackerras, one of the two Australians approached, was willing to accept a lower starting salary than he was receiving at the Bureau of Microbiology, so eager was he to join this young and promising research institution.

His instructions were to develop and direct a program of research in veterinary entomology, including the problems of sheep blowfly, buffalo fly and arthropod-borne viral and protozoal diseases of cattle, a big enough task without technical burdens as well. He moved to Canberra early in 1929. Wisely, the period before the laboratory became available was used in travelling extensively to make acquaintances among entomologists and primary producers, and to appraise the problems. In June 1929. Mackerras also attended a Pacific Science Congress at Bandoeng (now Bandung) in Java. During this visit he installed JL Windred at a laboratory in Buitenzorg (now Bogor) to carry out research on the buffalo fly. Mackerras returned via the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where he made enquiries into the buffalo fly and sheep blowfly problems.

During the next decade he undertook many arduous field trips throughout Australia, in the process establishing first-hand knowledge of the buffalo fly and sheep blowfly problems, and building up among graziers a tremendous fund of goodwill towards research. A happy touch of showmanship, which he possessed in those days, and the infectious nature of his enthusiasm played no small part in this exercise in public relations.

Substantial studies were made of the biology, phenology, ecology and ethology of the buffalo fly, and Handschin made attempts to bring about its biological control by liberating in North Australia Javanese parasitoids of muscoid flies and also their hybrids with related Australian forms (‘hybrid vigour’ was then enjoying a vogue). This biological control program had no detectable effect on the pest status of the insect, but other studies laid a valuable basis of knowledge for future investigations. In addition to planning and supervising the program, Mackerras studied the taxonomy of the buffalo fly, and the flies associated with it in dung.

In blowfly research Mackerras headed a team which comprised, for varying periods, AJ Nicholson, M Josephine Mackerras (Ian’s wife), MR Freney, Mary E Fuller, CR Mulhearn, JH Riches (seconded from the Division of Animal Health and Nutrition), FG Holdaway, DF Waterhouse and DJ Lee. Nicholson had been appointed to the Division as Deputy Chief, but, later, as Senior Entomologist, he transferred voluntarily to Mackerras’ section, and spent some time on blowfly research. FG Lennox, working on insect toxicology, used the larvae of Lucilia cuprina as test insect and thereby contributed substantially to the blowfly program. Josephine Mackerras joined the staff in October 1930, as soon as a kindergarten had been started in Canberra, where their four-and-half-year-old David could be looked after during the day. In those times legislation forebade the employment by government of both man and wife. It is not known how Josephine survived a challenge which is in the records, but it is fortunate for Australian science that she did, as, for the next nine years her own papers and joint ones with Mackerras and others greatly expanded the knowledge on general and veterinary entomology.

Over the years 1928-39, Mackerras’ direction of research and his personal contributions brought a new perspective to the problems of buffalo fly and sheep blowfly control, and provided much new knowledge on two important cattle diseases:

  • ephemeral fever of cattle, with his wife Josephine and FM (later Sir Macfarlane) Burnet then of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne
  • the transmission of anaplasmosis of cattle, with Josephine and CR Mulhearn.

In Mackerras’ own words the paper on ephemeral fever left no loose ends and recent studies have served to consolidate its findings

Mackerras also advanced the development of ‘medical zoology’, and made contributions to the advancement of zoology in general. With Mary E Fuller he produced a classical study on the family Pelecorhynchidae, which they established.

Second World War duties 1939-45

At the outbreak of the war Mackerras was appointed a Provisional Captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps on 12 October 1939, and the following day was appointed Major in the Australian Imperial Force. He was posted as Pathologist at the 2/1 Australian General Hospital at Gaza Ridge near Gaza, as it then was. All reports of his activities in the Mediterranean Theatre are warm with praise. In January 1941 he was despatched, with special transport, to investigate flies and fly-breeding in the Western Desert, where diarrhoea was expected to take its toll of the troops as the weather warmed up. In recaptured Tobruk his recommendations for sanitary precautions, and for the quartering of troops in relation to the disposition of endemic peoples went far towards solving the problem of enteric infections. His services in sanitary entomology were also most valuable during the advance to Benghazi. Characteristically, his recommendations emphasised the need for research into the types of flies involved in the problems, and also the importance of selecting personnel well qualified for this approach. During the assault on Tobruk, Mackerras demonstrated his great versatility by participating in organising a highly effective blood transfusion service to meet the needs of the wounded who had to receive surgery.

With the entry of Japan into the war (8 December 1941), Australian attention was, of necessity, focused on the Pacific. Mackerras was recalled, reaching Melbourne on 23 May 1942. In August he rapidly settled the nature of a problem that had arisen among troops in the Northern Territory, identifying the disease as infectious hepatitis, rather than leptospirosis, as local investigators had suggested. His summary disposal of this problem reflected his extensive experience of hepatitis in the Middle East, and re-affirmed his long-established mastery of microscopy and histology.

Mackerras was now about to begin his activities in relation to organising the study and control of malaria, dengue and scrub typhus, which stand out as a great wartime achievement, and a remarkable contribution to human welfare in the long-term. The details of this work are provided in the memoir of Ian Mackerras written by KR Norris (follow the link in the Source details below).

On 25 October 1942, Mackerras was given the title of Director of Entomology at Land Headquarters and instructed to get on with the job. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on 26 May 1943. He and his Assistant Director, Major FN Ratcliffe encountered tremendous problems in getting well-equipped and well-trained malaria control units into the field, and in solving these, Mackerras had ample opportunity to demonstrate his prowess for overcoming administrative inertia.

Similar problems were encountered in convincing the establishment that research on vector-borne diseases in New Guinea was necessary. Even when, by June 1943, there were some 25 000 servicemen already with malaria in the south-west Pacific theatre, it was difficult to convince non-scientific people in the army of the need for research. Eventually the Director General of Medical Services, Major General SR Burston, convinced General Sir Thomas Blamey of the need to establish the unit, and the Land Headquarters Medical Research Unit was set up at Cairns. Mackerras was responsible for the detailed planning of the entomological aspects of the program.

Under Mackerras’ direction of the entomological services, the armed forces of Australia were relieved of much of the threat of mosquito-borne diseases and scrub typhus. By contrast the Japanese neglected prophylactic measures, and they paid dearly for it.

In February and March 1944, Mackerras planned and participated in experiments to establish the vector status for dengue of a number of species of New Guinea mosquitoes that occurred in infected areas where the classical vector, Aedes aegypti, was scarce or absent. In the final, critical experiments, mosquitoes were collected at Lae and Finschhafen, fed on dengue patients, and flown to Sydney, where they were later fed on healthy volunteers. The experiments showed conclusively that Aedes scutellaris was an important vector, and so the way was cleared for counteractive measures to be planned.

From the beginning of his activities in the Pacific theatre, Mackerras also directed and personally contributed to research to establish the vector status for malaria of Australian and New Guinea anophelines, which pointed to the overwhelming importance of mosquitoes of the Anopheles punctulatus complex. This information was crucial in the orientation of control measures.

Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, but needless to say, this did not immediately free Mackerras of his military obligations. His transfer to the Reserve of Officers was effected on 21 February 1946, and on the same day he recommenced duty with CSIR Division of Economic Entomology. Thus ended more than six years of intensive and inspired activity on behalf of the Australian war effort, during which his personal efforts and direction of the research of others contributed to outstanding advances in the knowledge and prophylaxis of malaria, dengue and scrub typhus.

He was awarded the 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, War Medal and Australia Service Medal. His military career did not cease on 21 February, however, as on 2 September 1953 he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel in the Citizen Military Forces and Commander of the 1st Mobile Malaria Control Company, posts which he held until 19 September 1956, when he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers (Retired List).

CSIR Veterinary Parasitology Laboratory 1946-47

Soon after demobilisation, the Mackerrases moved to Brisbane, where at the CSIR Veterinary Parasitology Laboratory at Yeerongpilly, Mackerras assumed the leadership of a team investigating problems in veterinary entomology. From the outset of his short period there (22 March 1946 – 2 June 1947) he displayed all his old vigour and enthusiasm. Within a short time he had prepared for publication a paper based on work carried out by the unit before his return, plus experiments in which he had since participated. His co-author wanted to delay while the inevitable few loose ends were tied up, but Mackerras firmly drew his attention to CSIR’s obligation to make its results available to cattle owners, who, in some places, were in dire straits because of arsenic resistance in their tick populations. There was no detectable lag in his readjustment to research and administration in civil life!

Director of Queensland Institute of Medical Research 1947-74

On 2 June 1947, Mackerras took up an appointment as the first Director of the newly established Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) in Brisbane. It seems likely that his exemplary performance and unfailing willingness to be of service while in the Mediterranean theatre were remembered by people influential in the selection, and his activities in the Pacific theatre were a further demonstration of his suitability for the post. His achievements in the QIMR have been well documented [Doherty RL, 1978, ‘The Bancroft tradition in infectious disease research in Queensland’, Med. J. Aust., 2: 560-563, 591-594].

He defined the special area of work for the Institute as that group of infections the study of which lies on the borderline between medicine and zoology

Mackerras remained Director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research until 6 August 1961, when Josephine, whose 65th birthday was on the 7th, retired. He then retired also, leaving the Institute with a well-established world reputation for research of the first rank.

Research Fellow, CSIRO Division of Entomology 1961-74

In August 1961, both Ian and Josephine Mackerras were appointed as Research Fellows in the CSIRO Division of Entomology. Mackerras was to edit a text-book on the insects of Australia to succeed Tillyard’s Insects of Australia and New Zealand, which was outdated and long out of print, and Josephine was to carry out research on the taxonomy of Australian cockroaches, the need for which had become evident during her studies on the vector status of domestic cockroaches in the dissemination of salmonellosis in Brisbane.

Mackerras retired on 31 December 1974, not long after the appearance of The Insects of Australia: Supplement 1974, which he had processed as meticulously as he had done the parent volume. His colleagues will long remember, with affection, his image over the years of his Research Fellowship in Canberra: at his desk, wearing a home-made cardboard eyeshield, writing deliberately and perspicuously in his impeccable script, or poring in total absorption over draft or proof.

After surviving a mild cerebral haemorrhage earlier in the year, Mackerras succumbed to a massive one on 21 March 1980. Like Josephine, he had left instructions for a secular funeral ceremony.


As KR Norris wrote in his biographical memoir:

Mackerras was a man of great physical courage, as his wartime activities testify. It is a sobering thought that, with a little less luck, his combatant role in the 1914-18 War might well have robbed us of the fruits of his activities in the South-West Pacific in the 1939-45 War. In the latter theatre he seemed to think nothing of flying into places near Japanese-occupied areas, and this at a time when hazards of air travel were high enough, even without the enemy. He used to advocate ‘the old Mackerras principle of having a “look-see” for oneself’. He was equally fearless in any necessary confrontations in civil life. He never abandoned his dedication to truth around a conference table, or in arguments with scientific colleagues. Even the warm loyalty he accorded his friends in other matters never extended to his breaching this principle, which is also reflected in obituary notices he wrote: he gave his full measure of praise, but if there were critical things to say, his principles obliged him to say them, but he found gentle ways of doing so. Not for one of his mettle to add to the world’s store of insipid stained glass saints!

Mackerras’ humanitarian and intellectual achievements rate him as one of the really great Australians of the century.

Honours and awards


1970 Honorary Fellow, Royal Entomological Society of London
1957 Fellow, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS)
1954 Foundation Fellow, Australian Academy of Science
1950 Fellow, Royal Australasian College of Physicians


1961 35th Bancroft Oration, Queensland Branch, Australian Medical Association
1961 Mueller Medal, ANZAAS
1957 Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science, University of Sydney
1950 Clarke Medal, Royal Society of New South Wales


1969 Honorary Life Member, Great Barrier Reef Committee
1969 First Honorary Member, Australian Entomological Society
1965 – 67 President, Australian Entomological Society
1959 Chairman, Committee of Review of the entire program of the Division of Entomology
1957 Chairman of a CSIRO Committee of Review of the Cattle Tick Research carried out by the Division of Entomology
1956 – 57 Chairman, Committee set up by the Commonwealth Government and the Government of NSW – to investigate the reasons for the failure of the Cattle Tick Eradication Campaign conducted in New South Wales
1955 – 57 Council Member, Australian Academy of Science
1955 – 56 Chairman, Great Barrier Reef Committee
1947 – 61 Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland

Mackerras acted as secretary to the Joint Blowfly Committee, comprised of representatives of the CSIR Divisions of Animal Health (later Animal Health and Nutrition) and Economic Entomology, and of the New South Wales Department of Agriculture.

He served on the Research Advisory Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Advisory Council of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, University of Sydney (now the Commonwealth Institute of Health). He was at various times a Member of Council of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, Member of the College of Pathologists of Australia, Member of the Great Barrier Reef Committee, President of the Naturalists’ Society of New South Wales, and President of the Royal Society of Queensland. Having been a Foundation Member, he was also elected an Honorary Life Member of the ephemeral, Canberra-based, Royal Society of Australia.

Mackerras was the patriarch and prime mover of major entomological associations in Australia. He was a member of the Entomological Society of Queensland for many years, and twice its President, and will always be remembered for his potent influence in the establishment of the Australian Entomological Society. He was elected its first Honorary Member in August 1969.

Mackerras then served for some years as Chairman of the Research Advisory Committee for the Research Station that was set up at Wollongbar in New South Wales, in response to his Committee’s recommendations.