The nurse who loved dingoes

By Vanessa Witton

Ann Macintosh was a unique character in the Medical School, assisting her husband to run the anatomy department and research the origins of the dingo. She was also a generous benefactor.
Image of Ann Macintosh with dingoes

Ann Macintosh with dingoes at Long Reef beach. Credit: Shellshear Museum

I met Ann Macintosh only once; a small, quiet, almost regal figure perched on the edge of a chair in the Anderson Stuart Common Room. It was a spring afternoon in 2008 and she was waiting to be summoned to the opening of the refurbished JT Wilson Museum of Human Anatomy upstairs.

The white-haired woman before me was not exactly as I had imagined. Had this elegant woman really spent the entire Second World War living in a tent? Was this really the granddaughter of Sir Edmund Barton and Dr Robert Scot Skirving who’d taken dingo pups for walks around campus in the 1950s? And was she still passionate about bones?

Born Ann Margaret Scot Skirving on General Election Day, Sydney, 1922, she grew up on a country property in Queensland and received a ladies’ education at Frensham, Mittagong, NSW in the 1930s. When war loomed she was too young, so she lied about her age, took a crash course in Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing, entered the AIF, and sailed straight to Palestine.

She dealt with gunshot wounds and soldiers with shellshock, and remembered big baskets of Jaffa grapefruit, so sweet she ate them like oranges. Ann later served in a POW role in muddy-floored tent wards in British North Borneo, caring for soldiers from the camps in Changi. Many had tropical ulcers on shins eaten right down to the bone, and some who’d been in death marches were so emaciated that Ann could actually lift them up.

Was this really the granddaughter of Sir Edmund Barton and Dr Robert Scot Skirving who’d taken dingo pups for walks around campus in the 1950s?

It’s little wonder then that this strong-minded 25-year-old woman told them she had no qualms dealing with cadavers when she fronted up to Sydney Medical School after the war. She said she could start immediately, and in 1947 was appointed to the Department of Anatomy as secretary to Dr Neil William George Macintosh (later Challis Professor of Anatomy 1955-73).

Macintosh, affectionately dubbed ‘Black Mac’, the anatomist and anthropologist was in his undergraduate days “a handsome, dashing fellow with a careless disregard for unnecessary conventions” and drove a sporty blue Triumph around campus. She met him on her first day and there began a love story which would not come to light for another 18 years.

Devoting herself to the department, Ann frequently worked back late each night. With no photocopy machines or electric typewriters, she typed cadaver letters, cadaver interviews, examination papers and correspondence for academic staff on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. In her meticulous papers Ann left a note revealing one day of sick leave in 18 years, claiming: “I spoiled the staff rotten!”

Ann's dingoes

Image of Ann and Neil Macintosh

Ann with her husband in Prague. Credit: Shellshear Museum

Ann was passionate about anatomy and evolution and supported one of Mac’s major research interests to discover the ancestry and origins of the Australian dingo. Mac became interested in the dingo whilst studying the origins and variation of Aboriginal Australians.

He was intrigued that so little scientific investigation had been undertaken considering the dingo was the only placental mammal native to Australia. Canvassing farmers, graziers, vermin boards, and reading newspaper abstracts and stock and station journals revealed hundreds of contradictions. So he decided to find out for himself.

Mac set up an animal house in the basement of the Anderson Stuart building, and bred four generations of dingoes over seven years in the 1950s. From four pups collected on a field trip came a colony of 42 dingoes. It was Ann’s job to exercise the puppies on campus before starting work each morning and on weekends, and she and Mac gave each dingo a name. They measured them weekly for growth studies, and drove them to Long Reef to measure their tracks on the wet sand.

When Mac threw the dingoes in the water they didn’t like it, but proved to be powerful swimmers. Data was collected including sound recordings on an electronic wave recorder, and speed photography documenting movements in slow motion.

The puppies attracted attention whenever they’d scamper away over Long Reef golf course, and passers-by asked after their breed with great curiosity. Mac decided the dingo was not a pest, claiming it was not as savage and predatory as popularly thought. He observed its affectionate nature but confirmed its resistance to domestication. After many decades of research he was able to show that a 3000-year-old dingo skeleton was no different from a modern skeleton.

The puppies attracted attention whenever they’d scamper away over Long Reef golf course

Ann resigned from the department when she quietly married the charismatic Mac in 1965. By this time he had taught generations of medical students and was known for never wearing a singlet and “legendary threats of world-wide castigation for any acts of improbity in the dissecting rooms”. He was considered the leading physical anthropologist in Australia, and world renowned.

Ann supported his long hours of intensive work, field trips, and their many anthropological friendships; they encouraged Czech anthropologists to visit Sydney at a time when it was difficult to engage cultural exchange with communist countries. Their married life was one of immense activity, travelling widely, but it was not to be long. Ann nursed him through pancreatic cancer which finally claimed him at home in Bellevue Hill in 1977. They had no children.

After losing her companion, Ann was alone for the next 35 years. In that time she dedicated herself to the Department of Anatomy, edited and published the memoirs of her grandfather Dr Robert Scot Skirving, and worked with Mac’s papers. Ann had a strong personality, and even in her older years was known for her ‘salty tongue’.

Although formally recognised in 1993 as an Honorary Fellow and Foremost Benefactor for her family’s long association with the University and her own generous efforts as a volunteer and advocate, she shunned publicity and did not give ostentatiously. An appraisal such as this may very well have gotten her hackles up.

'An important and happy part of my life'

Ann Macintosh passed away on 1 July 2011. Throughout her life she was a munificent benefactor to the University and particularly loyal to Sydney Medical School and its discipline of anatomy, donating more than $1.5 million.

She left the residue of her estate for the purposes of the NWG Macintosh Memorial Fund, and so far $5 million has been received. Her hope was that the fund named in memory of her husband would help graduate and postgraduate students “for the support of research work in the Department of Anatomy and Histology, including the JL Shellshear Museum, preferably, when applicable for the support of young investigators”.

Image of a young Ann Macintosh

Credit: Shellshear Museum

Ann recognised the ever-increasing difficulties young students experienced accessing funding for research projects. It is now expected that more PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and junior academic staff will be able to join this active, progressive department which will be able to embrace in the long term all aspects of anatomical sciences from dissection through to anthropology.

In the last decades of her life, Ann tirelessly supported all the things her husband had been passionate about. She was responsible for funding the refurbishment of the Macintosh Dissecting rooms to make them safe and modern, and reinstate the teaching of anatomy through dissection – the classical approach Mac had always favoured. She was also involved in every aspect of the renovation of the JT Wilson Museum of Human Anatomy, now considered the greatest student anatomy museum in the southern hemisphere.

Her support helped to refurbish the Shellshear Museum of Physical Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy, and her diary entries for 1993 record 96 visits. She catalogued skeletal human remains, casts of human ancestors, animal bones, and in her 70s was taught computer skills by the museum’s curator so she could catalogue all the books bequeathed by anatomist Professor Joseph Lexden Shellshear.

Her attention to detail was enviable and she helped to ensure the fabric of the department was maintained. The museum has since been used extensively as a teaching resource for undergraduate and postgraduate students, attracting visiting researchers and forensic scientists.

Ann was responsible for establishing the NWG Macintosh Centre for Quaternary Dating to help the University maintain its progressive work in anthropology. She made donations to Sydney Medical School Foundation, and also created Centenary fellowships for medical technicians in view of the complexity and volume of their work.

She believed they deserved more acknowledgement for their contributions to research and recognised that few opportunities existed for them to travel for professional development.

She was the largest donor to the expensive heritage restoration of the Anderson Stuart building in the 1990s, and had some reservations about the appropriateness of the commissioned portrait of herself. At its unveiling, she claimed Sydney Medical School “has been a most important and happy part of my life, and I have such affection for the old building.” She called it her second home.