Jo Mackerras was born on 7 August 1896 at Deception Bay in Queensland. She was educated at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School and the University of Queensland (B.Sc., 1918; M.Sc., 1930). In 1918-20 she held a Walter and Eliza Hall fellowship in economic biology.
Jo met Ian Murray Mackerras (1898-1980) while she was at the University of Sydney (M.B., 1924). The first paper they published together recorded the blood parasites of Australian marine fish. Ian and Jo were married in 1924 and theirs was to prove one of the most productive and distinguished husband-and-wife partnerships in the history of Australian science.
In 1930 Jo joined Ian at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Her research on blowfly infestation and ephemeral fever led to nine papers, five of them joint publications with Ian.
During the war, both Jo and Ian joined the Australian Army Medical Corps, With 25,000 servicemen suffering from malaria in the South-West Pacific Area by June 1943, Ian 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. Josephine was attached to the unit as entomologist from mid-1943 and promoted major in March 1944. She bred and maintained a stock of infected mosquitoes for testing on volunteers. Her work reduced the incidence of infection in the armed forces, and provided a secure scientific basis for studying the effects of drugs on the malarial parasite. After the unit was disbanded in March 1946, she published eight important papers in collaboration with her former colleagues.
Having been demobilized, the Mackerrases returned to the C.S.I.R. in 1946 and Jo began work on the Simuliidae (blackflies). She joined the newly-founded Q.I.M.R. as senior parasitologist in September 1947. Among the various projects on which she was engaged, her chief contribution to scientific knowledge came from her study of the parasites of Australian mammals. She elucidated the life history of the rat lung-worm, later shown to be the aetiological agent of eosinophilic meningitis in the people of the Pacific islands. This lung-worm was named Angiostrongylus mackerrasae after her.
In 1961 Ian and Jo retired from QIMR. They returned to Canberra as research fellows at CSIRO. Both were elected fellows of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia and were members of the Royal Society of Queensland. They served on the Great Barrier Reef Committee and helped to establish the Marine Research Station on Heron Island. Jo presided over the Queensland Medical Women’s Society and the Women Graduates’ Association. Awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1965, she was elected a Fellow of the Australian Society of Parasitology in 1966. Jo died on 8 October 1971 in her home at Turner, Canberra, and was buried in Canberra cemetery.
Josephine Mackerras was a dedicated scientist, meticulous in her observations and attentive to detail. Her research—recorded in more than eighty papers—contributed to entomology, veterinary medicine and medical science. Characterized by her wisdom and strength of character, she also possessed a serene charm, a placid smile and a shy, self-effacing manner. Quietly and unobtrusively, she fostered young scientists and won the esteem of her senior colleagues. Her portrait by Nora Heysen is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
The text on this page is an edited version of the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
Lesley Williams, ‘Mackerras, Mabel Josephine (Jo) (1896–1971)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackerras-mabel-josephine-jo-11411/text19545, This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000. Accessed online 29 December 2016.
Image from the Entomological Society of Queensland