Rosemary Birch: A special interview

18 December 2017

In 1967 the Birch family got on a boat and made the trip from the United Kingdom to Australia. The trip was a momentous one, with the father of the family — Arthur Birch — coming to Australia to found and lead the new Research School of Chemistry and the ANU.

But the move had a huge impact on the entire Birch family. Arthur’s daughter, Rosemary, who now works at the Research School of Biology at the ANU, remembers the trip to Australia very well.

“We came on a P&O liner,” Rosemary explains. “We were supposed to go through Suez, but unfortunately we departed just after the Suez crisis. So we had to go all the way around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, before crossing the Indian Ocean to Fremantle.

“It just happened that there were a lot of teenagers around our age on the boat. We just hung out the whole time, and played table tennis and had discos. And they had entertainment every night, but a lot of the time we were just sort of hanging around doing teen aged stuff, and it really was a great experience.”

When the Birch family arrived they settled in to Canberra very quickly, despite some shocks to the system.

“It was a very interesting experience, especially having grown up in England, even though I was born in Australia, but we left for England when I was very young. We expected to see kangaroos bouncing down the middle of the street, we expected it to be hot; which it was. But then it came to winter and it was really cold, which we didn't expect at all. So it was very interesting to us, life in Australia.”

When they arrived, Rosemary says that her father immediately set to work getting the research school up and running, with his work being the number one focus. But he still always had time for his kids.

“We didn't see a lot of him during that period in particular. He was an academic, so work was his number one focus. He would come home from work and then he'd have dinner with us and talk around the table and then he'd disappear into his office and be writing papers and all that kind of thing.”

“I can remember, when I was having trouble with some of my maths, mum would say ‘Oh just go and ask your dad, he's in the study, go and ask him’. So I'd stand outside the door thinking ‘do I really want to disturb him?’ But then I'd knock and he'd just spend hours explaining things to me. I didn't understand any of it, but he would take hours, he would take his time. He really tried to help.”

Yet even though Rosemary wasn’t good at maths and science at the time, that didn’t bother her parents at all. Instead they encouraged their children to pursue whatever they wished, with Rosemary and her siblings going in to a range of different careers — art, music, teaching, and even banking. Rosemary’s mother was an artist and she says that her father had diverse interests as well, in particular an obsession with Australian native plants.

“He loved his native plants,” she explains. “I think his first chemical experiment, when he was twelve, was to extract resins from plants. And wherever we went, whichever house we lived in, here or in the UK, he would have native plants in the garden. I remember him coming back to Manchester on one occasion with seeds of snow gums, I don’t know how he could have gotten them in. But he had snow gums growing in the front garden in Manchester. Which is great; they loved it there. They absolutely thrived in that environment. He was always in the garden. When he wasn't in his office working, he'd be in the garden.

While it took some time, Rosemary eventually got interested in science as well.

“I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but at that time I had been reading a lot of psychology. It was the era of free education, so you could pretty much go to uni and study whatever you wanted to. So in my first year I completed courses in psychology, botany, and zoology. Psychology was so fascinating, I just loved it. So from then on I did a double major in psychology and then a single major in general science.

“I got a job in the Psychology department here in about 1980. I was married by then and had my first child in 1981. I was lucky enough to be able to take my daughter to work with me. At the time we were working on perception in babies and she was one our test subjects. When my husband got a job in Sydney, we moved there but were divorced shortly after I had my second child in 1984. I came back to Canberra as a single parent and got casual jobs working in the Psychology department. Then in 1992 I got a job at the Research School of Biology with Professor Richard Williamson, who worked on plant cellulose. I loved psychology, but I wanted something a bit more solid and biology seemed to fit that. It was just a lab assistant job but I was promoted within 12 months and have been here ever since.”

Since then Rosemary has had multiple research assistant jobs at RSB, working on a range of different projects. While working as an assistant she’s managed to take on jobs for herself, with her bosses giving her ownership over different research projects.

“I have a lot of independence to work the way I want to work, and I’ve felt really valued through the whole thing. It's been really great. I've had an accidental kind of career, you know, but I’ve just kept on going.”

While she’s enjoyed her career, Rosemary will retire next year, but she’ll do exactly as her father did, sticking around the school to volunteer on research projects that interest her. In doing so the Birch legacy will continue on at the ANU.