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John Wilcox Stocker AO, FRACP, FTSE

Biography

John Wilcox Stocker was born in London on 23 April 1945. His father, William Reginald Stocker, was a mechanical engineer and graduate of Glasgow University and his mother, an Australian, was very keen to bring the family from ravaged London back to the land of her birth. This occurred in 1948, with the appointment of his father as works manager for the Melbourne structural steel company, Johns and Waygood Engineering. His father went on to build the largest structural steel works in the Southern Hemisphere at Sandringham, near Melbourne.

John’s schooling was at Wesley College, Melbourne where he was greatly influenced by a splendid chemistry teacher, Mr Guess, who was of course nicknamed, “havva”. He received colours for hockey from the school, edited the school magazine, “The Wesley Chronicle” and was President of the school Modern Languages Society. His interest in German, fostered at the school, persisted through his Medical studies and was instrumental later in the choice of Switzerland for his post-doctoral studies.

He commenced his medical degree in 1964 and topped the medical course graduating Bachelor of Medical Science in 1969 and Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in 1970 from the University of Melbourne, Australia. He was placed first in his graduation year of Medicine and used the cash prizes in Medicine and Surgery to fund his first hi-fi system. In his interview with Diana Giese in 2000 (see Sources below) he recalled that even then he realized he was unlikely to want to be a mainstream medical practitioner as his MBBS year studying human organ transplantation was his main interest. He recalled being in awe of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the people in it (such as Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Sir Gustav Nossal) and deciding to plot a course into mainstream Australian science after qualifying as a clinical doctor (as a fall back position if the science career did not work out). He was a Resident Medical Officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital from 1970-72 and during 1974-76 completed his PhD at the Walter and Eliza Institute of Medical Research under the Director Sir Gustav Nossal. Using bone marrow lymphocytes he confirmed Nossal’s hypothesis of ‘immunological tolerance through clonal abortion. As John recalled:

‘Gus had done some wonderful work on trying to ask the very difficult question of why the immune system can sometimes turn nasty and cause auto-immunity. He took one of Burnet’s notions, namely, that the mechanisms of immunological tolerance …….needed explaining. …..The theme of my PhD thesis was how all that might work; how the body might distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘not self’. I saw in that work a very direct link with the work of Burnet on the one hand and the theories of Nossal on the other. I didn’t in the end solve all of the issues of course, but made a little contribution to it of which I am still quite proud.’

At Hoffman-La Roche

After completing his PhD, he moved to Switzerland in 1976 where he joined the Basel Institute for Immunology as a Research Scientist. As John recalled they chose Switzerland because : ‘..firstly I was very interested in European culture and was already fluent in German having been interested in it as a school kid, …. secondly, Joanne my wife really tended to feel that Europe was our next natural stop rather than the US, the other alternative; finally Gus Nossal was on the scientific advisory board of the recently founded institute and wrote to Niels Jerne, a Nobel laureate, who was Director of the Institute and they offered me a job.’

The Institute had been founded by Hoffman-La Roche to do pure research and was not constrained by the needs or desires of the company. During his 3 year term he worked and published the first paper on the use of monoclonal antibodies to define human cell surface antigens. At the end of his term he was offered four interesting and exciting positions: at Stanford University, California, at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, at Ciba Geigy and at Hoffman-La Roche. He chose the last and from 1979-84 was a Scientist at the Central Research Unit of the Basel headquarters of the company. His first position involved working on monoclonal antibodies and leading an international task force into the scientific and commercial opportunities offered by biotechnology-based vaccines. He made the monoclonal antibody that is still used today in the hepatitis B diagnostic test in the Roche kit and was part of the team that made the antibodies that allowed human interferon to be first purified. By 1981 he had risen through the ranks to be in charge of an immunology group of around 20-30 people, at which time his personal research ceased, a situation that he found very painful. He rapidly moved into being in charge of chemotherapy discovery, the brief being to develop commercially attractive products for the company. It covered bacterial diseases, parasitic diseases, virus diseases and cancer. During that time the Roche group discovered the important cephalosporin antibiotic Rocephin, which became a very successful product. From 1986-87 he was the company’s Director of Pharmaceutical Research overseeing a department of 850 people and joined Hoffmann-LaRoche and Co’s International Research Board.

At AMRAD

In 1987 John Stocker was head-hunted by the Victorian Government and returned to Australia to become the founding Managing Director of AMRAD Corporation Ltd (Australian Medical Research and Development Corporation), a company established to commercialise Australian biomedical discoveries and held that position until 1990. In his interview with Diana Giese Stocker recalled those early days:

‘Again the common thread was Gus Nossal. He strategically leaked some of the thinking that he and other people in the Melbourne medical community had been doing with the Victorian Government to set up something really big and important in Australian biotechnology. He pointed out something which was obvious to me from afar, that Australia had a huge disjunct between, on the one hand, the great sciences and, on the other hand, the lack of industrial application and industrial commercial gain for Australia. And that this AMRAD was an attempt to do something about that. He enquired in the second or third of the letters, when I just expressed mild interest, whether I would be prepared to talk in my Roche capacity to some people from the Victorian Government about their vision, or listen to them about their vision. I actually, at that stage, innocently didn’t know that that was code for, you know, ‘Would you be interested?’ As that developed, the more I looked at it the more I really thought it was a very exciting concept.’

Stocker built the company from scratch. On his arrival there was no structure and no other employees. As he recalled, once he had got a core team of four or five really good people around him and good secretarial support and help, it just grew and fell into place. The strategy from the outset was to do both research development and marketing from the start to bring in a cash flow. There was a lucrative co-marketing arrangement with Merck, Sharp and Dohme. Additionally the Victorian Government had signed agreements with nine major research institutes which provided access to their intellectual property in return for shares in AMRAD. As Stocker recalled: ‘The dual strategy seemed to work pretty well for the company in its early years. We focused pretty sharply on just a very few of these opportunities from the institutes on the one hand, and on the other hand we watched very carefully over the growth of a national marketing capability for the company.’

At CSIRO

In 1990 he was offered and accepted what he described as the most important job in Australia, the position of Chief Executive Officer of CSIRO. He was the first person appointed to that position from outside the organization and the appointment process was controversial. As he reflected in his interview with Diana Giese:

‘I’ll never forget some of the first meetings I had with Barry Jones [Minister for Science] and Neville Wran [former Premier of New South Wales and at the time Chairman of the CSIRO Board] when it was all very secret and they were sort of sounding me out…..Both knew me and had obviously discussed a field of candidates for this job and had narrowed their gaze down to two…..I was invited in writing by Neville Wran, after an interview process, to assume the job of Chief Executive with terms and conditions in the letter that I accepted. A few days after this I got a phone call from Barry Jones, the Minister, saying the Government was considering appointing me as Chief Executive of CSIRO. I stopped for a minute at the end of the phone. He asked what would be my attitude? I said, ‘Well, actually Minister, I’ve accepted’. He said. ‘Well, you can’t have accepted because you haven’t been offered the job’. I said ‘But I have. I’ve actually got a letter to that effect’. And he asked would I mind faxing him the letter, which I did, from the Chairman of CSIRO. I understand the consequence of that was very nearly fisticuffs between the two proponents because the appointment in fact was the province of the Minister. I believe from eyewitnesses at the time that it led to a very major falling out for a while between those two.’

Stocker held the position of Chief Executive at CSIRO from 1990 to 1995. At the time of his appointment he found CSIRO to be

‘a very proud group of, in fact, highly motivated people that I found myself among, and that was really very stimulating…What it’s got, and something that I didn’t realize for a while but then pushed very hard , is it’s got brand recognition. CSIRO is one of the few great Australian brands that’s well known off shore.’

During his period as CEO Stocker set about improving the teamwork across CSIRO through the Institute structure. People who were his executive committee had some authority from the CEO and exercised it with increasing effectiveness. He recalled that at his first meeting with the Chiefs of CSIRO’s divisions he told them that Neville Wran had informed him that there was this group, called the College of Chiefs, and to get rid of it. He did not do this but did improve the spirit of cooperation throughout CSIRO. Stocker felt that the national priorities exercise was one of the most important things achieved during his 5 years as CEO. As he recalled:

‘We were able to state in a very succinct way, I think, a clear and brief strategic plan, where we argued that moving resources within CSIRO could give the best outcomes for the nation, both in terms of industrial commercial outcomes but also in terms of public good outcomes. The statement was generally regarded with some favour within government circles in Australia and also internationally. And so suddenly CSIRO became a bit of a model in terms of those management experiences for how to do it. The [CSIRO] Board was very supportive under Neville Wran, and Gus Nossal was still on the Board in those days ‘ still a figure very strongly looming in my life. And Ralph Ward-Ambler, who’d been the Chairman of AMRAD, was on the CSIRO Board. So it was a pretty small world and they were a group of people that I found I could work with very well. I really enjoyed those first few years where we did this blueprint for how to run the organization. I felt it was really humming.”

Other initiatives were:

  • Identification of the mining and minerals industry as one where there was a very large payback for research dollars spent and an ability to bring in new techniques such as remote sensing and new mineral processing techniques.
  • Sustainability of agriculture
  • Irrigation policy and water use initiatives
  • The closure of Sirotech Limited and the transfer of commercialization responsibilities to the CSIRO Divisions
  • The establishment of a leadership development course within CSIRO described by John Stocker as ‘one of the best things we did.’
  • The development of the CSIRO education program through (i) the Double Helix Club where scientific information is presented in an interesting format for school students and (ii) the establishment of the BHP science teacher awards.

Post CSIRO

John Stocker was offered a second five-tear term and encouraged to accept it but decided not to. As he recalled: ‘I was ready actually to go back to an industry environment, which for me was a more normal one, and felt that it was probably healthy. Five years seemed to me to be a reasonable term and I was ready to do something else.’

From 1996-99 Stocker was the Chief Scientist to the Australian Government and a foundation member of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. When the job was offered to Stocker he agreed to take it provided that it was only on a part-time basis. As he recalled in his interview with Diana Giese:

‘When Minister Peter McGauran approached me to do it, I said I wouldn’t. And that, anyway, I didn’t think the model was right because I thought that a full-time bureaucrat as a Chief Scientist might be less relevant to providing impartial, external advice to the Government than someone who was actually earning his or her bread as a practicing scientist and knew the real issues first-hand.’

Stocker found that the Chief Scientist role provided a particularly good strategic framework in which to think about national science issues and be adviser to the Prime Minister, John Howard. Of the various tasks dealt with during his term, two stood out. The first arose from a vitriolic opinion expressed by the Commission on Audit on Science in Australia which said science funding was wasting money, overlapping in its objectives and that there were gaps in Australian science. Stocker was asked to do an inquiry and wrote a report called ‘Priority Matters’, which defined a way ahead, including upgrading the Prime Minister’s Science Council, a more systematic look at national priorities through that body and perhaps disbanding ASTEC, all of which were done. The revamped Prime Ministers Science Council became a high-level think-tank about science and technology issues, personally chaired by the Prime Minister, which contributed a lot to the profile of science and technology in the country . The second memorable task was to conduct a review , with Don Mercer who had just stepped down as Chief Executive of the ANZ bank, of the Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) program. As Stocker recalled : ‘We saved it, I think, from the razors of the Department of Finance, which in those days were flashing dangerouslyâ€.

For a while he worked at Pratt Industries, Richard Pratt’s company devising research and development strategies and became involved as a non-executive director in a number of innovative companies.

Positions held include:

  • 1988 Director of the Victorian Government Strategic Research Foundation
  • 1992 Director of Gene Shears Pty Ltd
  • 1995 Director of Research and Innovation at Pratt Industries
  • 1996 Founding partner of Foursight Associates Limited with Sir Gustav Nossal, Professor David Pennington and Dr Graeme Mitchell.
  • 2007-10 Chairman of the CSIRO Board
  • Chairman, Sigma Pharmaceuticals Limited
  • Chairman, Grape and Wine Research Development Corporation
  • Chairman, Australian Wine Research Institute
  • Board member, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
  • Director and Chairman, Sigma Company Limited
  • Director, Cambridge Antibody Technology Plc.
  • a Director of Telstra Corporation Limited
  • a Director of Nufarm Limited
  • a member of the Australian Research Council
  • a member of the Australia China Council

Thinking back on the two periods of his life with CSIRO (as CEO and as Chairman of the Board) John commented:

“The greatest risk which I took in my CSIRO career was supporting the Wireless LANs project on two occasions, separated by 17 years. In 1991, I found the funding to support the brilliant Dr John O’Sullivan in his project, then called “PLANS” which aimed to utilize technology involving the fast Fourier transformation chips developed for radio astronomy, in the propagation of radio signals in enclosed spaces. Much later, as Chairman of the CSIRO Board, we had to decide whether to risk scarce research funds in legal proceedings to prosecute Wireless -Lans patent infringers in the USA. Had we lost these costly proceedings, strident, public criticism was inevitable, but CSIRO’s success in the Courts of Texas secured a great financial return for Australian science. I was thrilled to be honoured through the inauguration of the John Stocker post-graduate scholarship program within CSIRO, which is partly funded by these proceeds.”

Honours and Awards

Fellowships

1989

Fellow, Royal Australasian College of Physicians (FRACP)

1990

Fellow, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (FTSE)

Awards

2001

Centenary Medal

1999

Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) ‘ for service to the advancement of Australian scientific and technological research and its applications for economic, social and environmental benefit.

1992

Named Australian of the Year by The Australian newspaper in February 1992

Sources

  • Stocker J, 2012, Personal communication
  • CSIRO Board Office 2012
  • Walker R, 2006, Stocker, John Wilcox (1945 – ), Medical scientist, Encyclopedia of Australian Science
  • Trove – John Stocker interviewed by Diana Giese in the Australians of the year oral history project (sound recording).