Ian Murray Mackerras was born on 19 September 1898 at Balclutha, Otago, New Zealand and was raised in Sydney. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, Ian overstated his age and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 13 December 1915. He served as a laboratory attendant in the hospital ship, Karoola, before joining the 13th Field Artillery Brigade on the Western Front. He was gassed in May 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux, France, and admitted to hospital in England. Returning to Australia in February 1919, he entered the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., B.Sc. Hons, 1924); he graduated with the university medal in zoology and shared the John Coutts scholarship.
While Ian was at the University of Sydney he met Jospehine Bacncroft. There was an immediate attraction of kindred spirits. Sailing and fishing at weekends, they did not eat their catch until they had examined its blood for haematozoa. The first paper they published together recorded the blood parasites of Australian marine fish. Ian and Jo were married with Anglican rites on 5 April 1924 at Grosvenor Flat, Eidsvold, Queensland; theirs was to prove one of the most productive and distinguished husband-and-wife partnerships in the history of Australian science.
In 1925 Ian had been appointed Linnean Macleay fellow in zoology at the University of Sydney, where he came under the influence of Professor Launcelot Harrison. After two years as assistant-microbiologist in the New South Wales Department of Public Health, Mackerras was offered a position with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s division of economic entomology, Canberra. Starting on 1 December 1928 as senior entomologist (later principal research officer), he was thrust into the fields of veterinary entomology and parasitology. He organized and guided a successful research team, and increased knowledge of the control of sheep blowfly, buffalo fly, tick fever, and ephemeral fever in cattle. In 1930 Josephine joined the unit as assistant-entomologist. Her research on blowfly infestation and ephemeral fever led to nine papers, five of them joint publications with Ian.
On 13 October 1939 Ian was appointed major, Australian Army Medical Corps, A.I.F. In January 1940 he sailed for the Middle East. Employed as pathologist with the 2nd/1st Australian General Hospital, he was sent to North Africa to advise on the prevention of diarrhoeal disease. Ian returned to Australia in May 1942; in October he was appointed director of entomology, Land Headquarters. Promoted lieutenant colonel in May 1943, he made numerous visits to Papua and New Guinea, developing control measures for malaria, dengue fever and scrub typhus.
With 25,000 servicemen suffering from malaria in the South-West Pacific Area by June 1943, Mackerras, Hugh Ward and Bill Keogh proposed an organization ‘solely devoted to the scientific investigation’ of the disease. That year the L.H.Q. Medical Research Unit was established under (Sir) Neil Fairley at Cairns, Queensland.
While holding office as adviser in parasitology (1944-45), Ian toured Britain and the United States of America. As malariologist (June to December 1945), First Australian Army, he again visited New Guinea. For his wartime services he was twice mentioned in dispatches. In 1953-56 he was to command the 1st Mobile Malaria Control Company in the Citizen Military Forces. Having been demobilized, the Mackerrases resumed their work with the C.S.I.R. in February 1946. They moved in April to the Yeerongpilly laboratories, Brisbane, where Ian was engaged in studies on the control of the cattle tick and Jo began work on the Simuliidae (blackflies). In 1947 Ian was appointed founding director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, where he was joined by Jo. His interests focussed on zoonoses (parasitic diseases normally found in animals but able to be transmitted to humans, frequently by arthropods). He achieved a happy balance between his administrative duties and his research.
Husband and wife directed their combined efforts to such endeavours as an examination of the role of cockroaches in the transmission of salmonella (especially to children), a series of studies on the taxonomy and life histories of Australian Simuliidae, and definitive works on the haematozoan parasites of Australian birds, frogs and fishes. They produced 17 joint publications, and 66 under individual authorship or with other colleagues.
In 1961 Ian and Josephine retired from the Q.I.M.R. They returned to Canberra as research fellows in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s division of entomology. Jo began a detailed study of cockroaches, while Ian edited and wrote sections of a monumental volume, The Insects of Australia (Melbourne), to which Josephine contributed a chapter. The book was published in 1970 and a supplement appeared in 1974. Ian also pursued his long-term study of Tabanidae. The Mackerrases continued to share a love of boating, fishing and the sea. They liked company, conversation and classical music, and many young scientists enjoyed cheerful evenings at their home. Foundation members of the Canberra Aero Club, Ian and Jo each held a pilot’s licence.
Both Mackerrases were elected (1957) members (later fellows) of the (Royal) College of Pathologists of Australia (Australasia). Both were members of the Royal Society of Queensland, she from 1924 until 1958 when she was made life member; he was president in 1952. They served on the Great Barrier Reef Committee and helped to establish the Marine Research Station on Heron Island.
Ian served on the faculty of medicine, University of Queensland (1947-61), the medical research advisory committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (1954-57), and the advisory council of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, University of Sydney. He was president (1961-62) of the Australian Society for Microbiology, a foundation member and fellow of the Australian Society for Parasitology, and founder, president (1965-67) and honorary member (1969) of the Australian Entomological Society. In 1950 he had been awarded the Clarke medal. He held fellowships of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1950), the Australian Academy of Science (1954), the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1957) and the Royal Entomological Society, London (1958). A.N.Z.A.A.S. awarded him the Mueller medal in 1961; the University of Sydney conferred on him an honorary doctorate of science in 1971.
Josephine died on 8 October 1971 and Ian on 21 March 1980. Known affectionately and respectfully as ‘Dr Mac’, or simply ‘Mac’, Ian Mackerras was a sympathetic, stimulating and critical researcher who gave time and often financial support to young scientists. He instilled in his teams the qualities of trust, goodwill, and genuine pleasure in learning and discovery. Mackerras wrote that: ‘Research for its own sake fosters, as nothing else can, the urge always to explore, without which initiative is lost and no research institution can live’. He published more than 130 papers. During his tenure the Q.I.M.R. won an international reputation. The institute holds his portrait by Graeme Inson.
The text on this page is an edited version of the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
Lesley Williams, ‘Mackerras, Ian Murray (1898–1980)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackerras-ian-murray-10992/text19545, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 March 2017. This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000