Retiree's Lunch Update September 2021

Written by  Dr Richard Thwaites, FRACI CChem

Published 1 October 2021

Peter Cockrum entertained the Vic Branch retirees at their September virtual lunch with a fascinating presentation about his long and illustrious career with CSIRO from the early 1960s to 1999.  He mentioned the names of many distinguished chemists who had held senior positions in CSIRO over the period and gave (mostly) flattering accounts of their achievements and idiosyncrasies.  He talked about the move of the Animal Health Laboratories from Parkville to Geelong, and how he managed to secure a generous relocation allowance for the move, although after the move, his new house was further away from Geelong than before.  (Great negotiating skills, Peter!)

In summary, Peter talked about the three phases of his career, the first at the CSIRO Division of Organic Chemistry at Fishermen’s Bend, the second at the Animal Health Division in Parkville, and the third, the Animal Health Laboratories in Geelong.  He also talked about possibly the most taxing time of his career, organising the transition from Parkville to Geelong.  Peter referred to the numerous changes in CSIRO culture over the period of his career, as the government’s attitude to funding CSIRO changed. 

To start at the beginning, Peter became employed by the CSIRO as a Technical Assistant in June 1963, and in July received a Group Certificate for a halfpenny (being the tax he had paid for a fortnight’s work in the preceding financial year).  He joined the Division of Organic Chemistry and started studying for a Diploma of Applied Chemistry at RMIT – except that as he hadn’t matriculated, he had to study for his matriculation certificate at Taylor’s College first.

To say that his period at Fishermen’s Bend was relatively uneventful was not quite true.  Peter recounted the time when he ruined the flooring in one of the laboratories as a result of a chloroform spill, but because the workshops were so well equipped, the maintenance staff were able to effect repairs in a matter of hours (a task which would take several days now).  Peter recalled the stern looks he got from Jerry Price (later Sir James Robert Price, Head of the Division) when he came to inspect the damage.  Peter also mentioned security.  Next door to the CSIRO buildings were the Aeronautical Research Laboratory (ARL) facilities, surrounded by cyclone wire fencing with a security guard at the front entrance, except there was a gap in the fence and an open gate between CSIRO and ARL which allowed staff to go backwards and forwards to the CSIRO canteen, particularly on paydays, when a hot roast lunch was available.

After several years at Fishermen’s Bend, Peter moved to Parkville to take up a position in the Division of Animal Health in the newly formed Plant Toxins Unit with John Edgar, Les Smith and Claude Culvenor.  During his time in Parkville, Peter rose to the position of Principal Experimental Scientist, which was as far up the CSIRO ladder he could go without a PhD.  Peter noted that the Division of Animal Health was one of the earliest CSIRO Divisions to be formed, and it tended to be run like a fiefdom under its earlier Chiefs.  Peter recounted fond memories of Parkville personnel like the Chief, Alan Pierce, whom Peter described as competent and approachable, the Officer in Charge, Eric French, one of nature’s gentlemen, and Cyril Curtain, the only person (other than Claude Culvenor) with three doctoral degrees that Peter had come across.  Peter told stories about the introduction of the revolutionary golf-ball typewriters which significantly upped the productivity of the typing pools in the Division (what is a typing pool you may ask?)  and young Monash electrical engineering graduate, Leo Wursthorn, who took on running the IT department at Parkville singlehanded, including the maintenance and operation of electronic gear associated with analytical equipment.

In 1978, work started on the AAHL (Australian Animal Health Laboratory) in Geelong, and in 1984 the facility opened.  Virtually all of the virological research in Parkville transferred to Geelong.

Mike Rickard, the chief of the Division of Animal Health in the 1990s , had the unenviable task of overseeing enormous changes in the Division, mainly due to funding cuts, including retrenchments and redundancies, culminating in the closure of the Parkville Laboratories and transfer of remaining staff and equipment to Geelong.  Peter was given the job of chairing the Laboratory Design Committee, and had the unenviable task of fitting the 50 or so remaining staff, equipment and other facilities into the top floor (“Level 6”) of an unutilised building on the AAHL site.  “Level 6” was essentially a large rectangular concrete box with the only natural light coming in from windows along one side.   Peter’s diplomatic skills were brought to the fore as he tried to satisfy the competing demands of staff members but no blood was spilt.  No doubt many bruised egos required a fair amount of massaging to enable a smooth transfer.

Eventually the transfer happened, and within one week of moving in, the molecular biologists were producing results in their new surroundings.  However, life at the AAHL was not always smooth sailing:  there wasn’t quite the same spirit of independence as there had been at Parkville, and there was a divide of staff between those who worked in the sterile or “clean” areas (which required changing clothes and showering entering and leaving the laboratories) and those who worked outside the secure facilities.

During his last few years in Geelong, Peter was the Scientific Safety Officer, which involved Chairing a Safety Committee having responsibility for biological, chemical, electrical, mechanical…and every other aspect of safety on the site:  a significant responsibility!

Peter told us that he took early retirement in 1999 because, doing the sums, he found it was economically more beneficial to retire just before his 55th birthday than to stay working until at least 63, the result of some archaic pension rules.

Everyone enjoyed Peter’s story, and on behalf of all attendees, I’d like to put on record our thanks to Peter for preparing his talk at relatively short notice.

Next month (October 5th) we shall meet via zoom register here to attend.


Hope to see you soon!

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