Back to Birch

Emeritus Professor Louis Charles Birch (1918 – 2009) - memories from the Biological Sciences

Professor Charles Birch – a giant in the field of ecology and the man who created the Biological Sciences in 1962 by amalgamating the departments of Botany and Zoology.

In his 36 years working at the University of Sydney, Professor Birch’s influence has reached generations of biology students and members of staff. Are you one of them?

Do you have memories of Professor Charles Birch?

If so, we would like biology alumni and members of staff, old and new, to share stories and photographs of Professor Birch.

Was he your supervisor? Was he a colleague? Do you have stories from the tea room? Did he ask a question after your seminar? What was the department like when Professor Birch was around?

The aim of Back to Birch is to gain a better understanding of the influence Professor Birch has had on the Biological Sciences and its people, and to record this history before it is lost.

This project is a dynamic historical resource that can be easily viewed and added to by biology alumni, staff and students.

Contributions will be made into a movie and presented at our 2010 Biology Alumni Cocktail Reception, on October 29. Click here for more information or to get your invitation.

This is an opportunity for you to record your memory of Professor Charles Birch.


Your Memories

29 September, 2010

"Paul Ehrlich called him the greatest ecologist of the twentieth century, but then, like other admirers, he didn't have to work with him. Some people in the Faculty treated him with wry detachment (or worse) and some of this attitude would filter through to any biologist who served on Faculty committees.

But I have come across people in many walks of life who remembered him with fondness and admiration. This was because he also had a good side. He wanted everyone to hear his stories and discuss his concerns about science and the way of the world. He was an ardent networker and brought back tales of the great and the good (and a few charlatans) from around the world.

His networking extended to community leaders, journalists, broadcasters and senior politicians. It is difficult today to think of a professor with so many potentially influential contacts."

Excerpt from story by Alan Meats "What ever happened to Andrewartha and Birch?" - Read more here

Dr Alan Meats, Honorary Reader, Biological Sciences

29 September, 2010

"My first encounter with Charles Birch was as a first year biology student in 1981. We were sitting in a lecture theatre waiting for our usual lecturer to arrive, when Charles strolled into the room. Our usual lecturer was away and Charles was to replace them for this session. The first thing he did was to ask us to name Charles Darwin’s first postulate. People started to throw back responses such as 'Survival of the fittest', but none of these answers were correct. Charles just stood there getting angrier and angrier, waiting for somebody to come up with the right answer. For the entire length of the lecture – about one hour – he didn’t move on from this point while we in the audience sat there feeling so awkward and embarrassed. Finally at the end of the lecture period, he gave us the answer – 'More individuals are born that can survive.' I’ll never forget that postulate!"

Dr Stuart Gilchrist, PhD Research Fellow, Biological Sciences

28 September, 2010

"Nothing beats Charles Birch's television lectures in biology during the 1970's. The image of sperm 'swimming' to the tune of 'Onward Christian Soldiers', is (I think) down to Charles. Maybe someone should try to dig this out of the archives to verify it.

There is also the memory of Charles making an unscheduled and unannounced visit to the 'cool rooms' in the basement of the Zoology building (which, at one time were used to keep fruit flies at constant temperature). On opening the door of one of the rooms he was confronted, much to his surprise, by the sight of at a dressed deer carcass which was 'resting' before being consumed at a Zoology grad students function.

Charles ended up being my primary supervisor for a few months before I submitted PhD (after the Departure of Dr Allin Hodson from the Biological Sciences). He was always entirely helpful and constructivley critical. I still rely on the intellectual rigor of 'The Distribution and Abundance of Animals' in dicussing ecology."

AJ (Tony) Press, CEO, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre

19 September, 2010

"I was one of 8 Honours students in 1967 when Professor Birch was Head of School. There was a separate tea times - am & pm for academic staff (as opposed to technical staff I suppose) and we were expected to attend. Professor Birch would initiate intellectual conversations on various topics and one was meant to contribute, terrifying.

At the end of the year he took us all out to dinner and then back to his apartment at Double Bay for coffee. He challenged Brother Graham Rossiter, the top student in the group, on his religious convictions. A lively debate ensued but the Catholic brother gave no ground. Stuck to party lines as I recall. It got to be very late and my friend Anne Russell swears she went to sleep with her eyes open, as she would not have dared to be seen to doze off!

I loved my honours year as after undergraduate studies it was the first time our opinions were considered. We also had to do a major essay on The Physical basis of Memory."

Angela Low (nee Frecker), B.Sc. (hons.) 1968

17 September, 2010

"I had Prof Birch as a first year lecturer in Zoology in 1963. He was lecturing on ecology in his inimitable way when he rather summed-up the whole course for us in a a sentence. (For those times....a sentence with slightly risque overtones...which appealed immensely to undergraduates). "You stick your finger in here....and something happens over there............something that you had never even thought about". It still seems to sum up ecology rather succinctly for me and has fixed itself in my mind for nearly 50 years."

Lloyd Downey MSc. Agr.