Geoff Shellam interview, 18 March 2014, 8 April 2014 and 15 April 2014

Dublin Core


Geoff Shellam interview, 18 March 2014, 8 April 2014 and 15 April 2014


Medicine, microbiology, immunology


Professor Geoff Shellam completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in microbiology and biotechnology at the University of Melbourne, where he also undertook a PhD in immunology with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medicine. Professor Shellam then worked at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories before obtaining a Royal Science Fellowship which allowed him to study tumour immunology as a post-doctorate student at the College of London. He then won the prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt International Cancer Fellowship to research at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, USA. Professor Shellam originally came to The University of Western Australia as a Post-doctoral Fellow in 1977 and became a Professor of Microbiology in 1985. He is also a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists in the United Kingdom, Co-director of the Marshall Centre for Infectious Disease and Director of the Masters of Infectious Disease Program.


Shellam, Geoffrey


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Geoffrey Shellam


Nedlands, W.A.


Interview 1: 52 minutes, 30 seconds
Interview 2: 59 minutes, 18 seconds
Interview 3: 1 hour, 6 minutes, 58 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 58 minutes, 46 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1: Tuesday 18 March 2014

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Geoffrey Randolph Shellam born in Kalgoorlie in 1943. Father bank manager. Family moved to Warrnambool in Victoria in 1950. Moved to Morwell in 1953 and to Bendigo in 1955 where Geoff did his schooling at Camp Hill primary school and then Bendigo High School. By this stage, Geoff was thinking about being a scientist. He did a scholarship examination at Trinity College, Melbourne University where he studied from 1962 to 1964 gaining a Bachelor of Science.
04:16 At the same time Geoff obtained a cadetship from the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. He did not know what microbiology was when he applied. He was a cadet here from 1962 to 1972. This funded his university studies and he worked full-time for them after he gained his PhD in 1968. Geoff resident at Trinity College, Melbourne University which was similar in style to Oxford. He enjoyed the social life and the intellectual stimulus. He studied the biological sciences majoring in biochemistry and microbiology. He worked at CSL in the university vacation and learned a lot about infectious diseases and microbiology. He did a year of research at CSL in 1965 which equated to a year of a Bachelor of Science with Honours which gave him entry to PhD study.
07:03 Geoff did his PhD study at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Parkville, Melbourne from 1966 to 1968. Macfarlane Burnet was the Director in 1965 but that year he retired and the role was taken over by Gustav (“Gus”) Nossal . Geoff was Gus’ first PhD student and thoroughly enjoyed being under his tutorship. Burnet turned the focus of the Institute from virology to immunology so it was an exciting time. It was a world-class institution. Gus Nossal was interested in how we become tolerant of foreign tissues. Other important research at the Institute was being done by Geoff’s friend Graham Mitchell with Professor Jacques Miller.
11:41 Geoff finished his PhD in 1968 and went back to CSL for 3 years to finish his bond. It was very practical work but he missed the intellectual stimulus of research. He was keen to do post-doctoral studies and it was common then to do this overseas. He was lucky enough to be awarded the Horace Le Marquand and Dudley Bigg Fellowship by the Royal Society, London where he spent 1972 to 1976. On the way to London, Geoff travelled through Central Asia with Fiona Stanley the daughter of Neville Stanley who was the Professor of Microbiology at UWA. He met Fiona through her brother, Richard, who he met at the Hall Institute. At this stage, Fiona wanted to become a neurologist.

Track 3
00:00 Melbourne remains the centre of laboratory based sciences. At this time Perth was not well regarded. This stood Geoff in good stead when he arrived in London. Geoff was working out of the Tumour Immunology Unit of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in the Department of Zoology at University College, London. Geoff met Peter Medawar who shared the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. His boss was Professor Avrion Mitchison. He was an experimental scientist who had an interesting family who introduced Geoff to Socialist principles.
06:28 Geoff married Fiona in 1973 and they lived in a flat in Mitchison’s house for a rent of about £10 until 1976. Fiona was now studying epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They had a weekend place in Dulverton, West Somerset.
10:31 Geoff became interested in tumour immunology and tumour viruses. An important discovery was made during this time of killer cells. Colleagues Peter Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel were co-recipients of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work with T cells and the immune system.
13:48 Geoff was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt International Cancer Fellowship in 1976 and worked at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. The American researchers were very competitive and hard working. The funding was excellent as were the equipment and facilities.
18:24 The couple decided to return to Australia in 1977. Fiona’s parents were now living in Perth as were Geoff’s and he has a long family connection with Perth. His first forebear arrived in Cockburn Sound in February 1830. His maternal genes go back to 1840s Pinjarra. Geoff applied for an early UWA Post-doctoral Fellowship to UWA encouraged by his father in law, Neville Stanley. They had really enjoyed the Bicentennial Celebrations in the UWA in 1976. Coming back to Australia reinforced a lot of interest in family history and that Perth was a good place to study epidemiology. Fiona set up the new Telethon Institute for Child Health Research and became the first Director in 1990. She has only recently retired.

Track 4
00:00 Fiona’s father, Neville Stanley was Foundation Professor of Microbiology at UWA in 1956. He came from Adelaide. His father Evan Richard Stanley had died young from infection and his mother died from TB a few years later. He worked at the University of Adelaide and then moved to Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney and worked on a vaccine for polio. Geoff thinks that Neville Stanley was keen to make his mark in the field of microbiology consequently when the job at UWA came up he applied for it and came over at the end of 1956. The Department was then situated at Royal Perth Hospital. He also set up a diagnostic service for WA. He worked on influenza viruses and Rio viruses such as Ross River virus. He headed an energetic and robust department of Microbiology which moved to the QEII Medical Centre in 1973 along with the whole medical school.
06:29 By 1977 the UWA Medical School was quite well regarded but not highly visible. They were graduating only about 70 students and it was very male dominated. It was outward looking, enthusiastic and energetic. Neville Stanley led a university team for the Chablis Cup against the wine makers in Middle Swan. The medical school included people from Hong Kong, Uganda and other universities in order to help develop a new medical school. They soon became the biggest earner of research funds in the university.
09:05 As the QEII Medical Centre was off the main campus it made it difficult to feel part of the rest of the UWA Campus. Geoff had done Fine Arts units at Melbourne University and enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts focusing on English Literature and Classics. He did not have time to finish this as by the time he reached the final year in 1985 he had been made Professor of Microbiology. He loved this time of his life. He made lots of friends in the Arts Faculty. By this stage Fiona and Geoff had a young family and had a busy life socially and professionally.

Interview 2: Tuesday 8 April 2014

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Decision to return to Perth due to family as well as a need for Geoff to pioneer his own field. It was also very good for Fiona’s career in epidemiology and they had a very collegial approach. She wanted to set up a study centred on patient’s databases. For Geoff, coming back to a smaller university was a risk, but he wanted to work with Neville Stanley and was interested in the innate immune response and natural killer cells. He was also interested in the new field of genetics. He was awarded a UWA post-doctoral fellowship.
07:00 They returned to Perth via South America and Tahiti. Geoff started his Fellowship in January 1977. The facilities were good and the department although smaller was very enthusiastic. Jane Chalmer had just finished her PhD researching the herpes virus in mice. This led to the discovery in the 1980s of the gene Cmv1. They worked with other researchers in the USA. Studies burgeoned in this field throughout the world and the laboratory at UWA was at the forefront of the research.
13:32 It was an exciting department as its head, Professor Neville Stanley, was charismatic and enthusiastic and a great leader in the department. He was used to working in developing fields of research. He worked on a vaccine for polio in Sydney in the 1950s. For him, Perth was a new beginning. Stanley began to study a new virus called the Rio virus in the late 50s early 60s. He realised that animals as well as humans were infected by this virus. He realised that using nature as well as laboratory work would enhance scientific research. It led him to study mosquito borne infections funded by the Health Department. One of Neville Stanley’s post-doctoral students was Michael Alpas who worked with Nobel Laureate Carleton Gajdusek in isolating the kuru virus from tribal practices in PNG. It was similar to mad cow’s disease.
18:39 Funding was fairly easy then compared to now. Geoff got local and national grants. He has been funded every year since 1977. It is possible that research that helps humans rather than animals or the environment is looked on more favourably by people granting research money.
20:46 Neville Stanley retired in 1983 and Geoff was made the second Professor of Microbiology in 1985. This was quite a stressful time as he felt that he had to know everything! He put his energies into building up the research. The AH&MRC was expanding its grant giving. At one time he had 45 PhD students and 25 post-doctoral scientists. Geoff was involved in the Australian Society of Immunology and became National President. He encouraged them to merge with New Zealand to become the Australasian Society of Immunology. He reformed the society and encouraged them to establish proper branches in each State with a budget.

Track 3
00:00 The Department of Microbiology moved from Royal Perth Hospital to the newly created Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in 1973. Pathology and Pharmacology were also based here. This medical faculty was separate from the Crawley campus. The Department of Microbiology was closely associated with the diagnostic laboratories. Pathology and Microbiology were side by side but determined to be independent of each other.
04:14 In 2002, the university changed to a system of departments being merged into School structures and what was the Department being renamed as Disciplines. This was not well-liked. Heads of School are not necessarily the leading academics as was the case with the Professors. The Department merged with Chemistry, Biochemistry and Physiology – all non-human sciences. This became the School of Biological Biomedical and Chemical Sciences (BBCS) and the home base was set around the Department of Chemistry. It was the biggest school in the university. Soon afterwards the old Department of Chemistry buildings were demolished and a new building constructed, the Bayliss Building.
06:38 On the plus side, schools brought more resources than individual departments especially in relation to other skills such as IT. Microbiology was part of this school from 2002 to 2011 then it was changed as it was realised that the structure was not working. The Vice Chancellor, Alan Robson, organised for them to join the existing School of Pathology (next door in the QEII Medical Centre). Microbiology is a large field and very diverse and did not fit that well with Pathology. They are still fighting the have their name retained and be independent of Pathology. However, there are more benefits of being teamed with Pathology than was the case before.
10:28 UWA is now among the top universities in Australia and the world. It has been a long process of building research and the support of research, providing support for career structures and training, animal and human ethics approval, innovation and the development of patents. What hasn’t changed is the role of personal initiative and endeavour in research. It is important to have the best staff to teach the best students. Training the best students to go out into the world adds to the contacts and collaborations that are possible. International students were not that numerous until about 2004. The Master of Infectious Diseases Programme now attracts students from all over the world.
14:10 Geoff is proud of his contributions to the department especially teaching initiatives. The first was the development of a course in molecular biology in 1987. The course was taught with the Department of Biochemistry but is now no longer running. Molecular biology was a new and emerging field. Geoff also supported the development of environmental microbiology. This field did not ‘fly’ and it was abandoned after 20 years.
18:07 Geoff’s crowning glory was the development of the new Masters course in infectious diseases. He researched how tropical medicine was taught in London, Liverpool and Harvard and set the course up in 2006 with an intake of about 7 students in 2007. Today, the course attracts 70-80 students from all over the world. Thus, when the new course structure began, they already had a Masters course in place which contained vocational training. It is exciting as UWA is training scientists for the world. Geoff enjoys the role he plays in pastoral care of the students helping them adjust to a new learning programme and a different culture.

Track 4
00:00 Another exiting development was the Nobel Prize awarded to Barry Marshall Professor of Clinical Microbiology at UWA (and Robin Warren) in 2005 for his work that showed that the cause of peptic ulcers was the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). It was the first Nobel Prize awarded in Western Australia and was a huge coup for WA and UWA in particular. His laboratory was now located in Geoff’s department and they had supported him from the mid-1990s until 2005. The State Government and the university funded ongoing support. The Federal Government awarded them a grant to refurbish the building and the Marshall Centre for Infectious Diseases, Research and Training, centred at UWA. Barry Marshall and Geoff Shellam are the two co-directors. The Centre also studies other infectious diseases – viral, mosquito borne, bacterial, etc. The Training encompasses the Master of Infectious Diseases Program. It has given the department a focus and new prominence.

Track 5
00:00 Life at UWA has been extremely important for Geoff’s academic career, research career and his cultural interests. He was able to follow up studies on English Literature and History. The university also offered cultural education to the wider public by way of lectures at lunchtime or in the evening. He made and remains good friends with academics in the Arts Department and found it personally enriching.
02:55 UWA was unique due to the fact that so many academics had come from all over the world and were keen to get the university off the ground. They all knew each other and interacted socially as it was still quite small. They all understood each other and it broke down barriers.

Interview 3: Tuesday 15 April 2014

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Melbourne University Press began in 1922; University of Queensland in 1948 and University of New South Wales in 1962. UWA Press began in 1935. Presses also existed at the Australian National University, Adelaide University and Sydney University. These three Presses are no longer operating. UWA Press started publishing textbooks overseen by the Publications Committee. The Textbooks Board probably met in the main Vice Chancellor’s Building and the Press would have had its first home in the tower of Winthrop Hall, staff being spread over several levels in Winthrop Hall. Early publishers were Mr Fells (1935), Alex McDonald (1939), Frank Beaumont (1946-1960), John O’Brien, Cherrell Guilfoyle, Mr Binder, Vic Greaves. The modern era started with Meredith Chesterton in 1990; Ian Drakeford in 1992; Jenny Gregory in 1997 and Terri-ann White from 2005. Mr Beaumont was around in the 1940s and was instrumental in development the University Co-Op Bookshop.
06:05 Physical arrangements were difficult. Amusing incidents at the Press in the early days included the story that a rival chased a competitor for his lady’s affections around the Winthrop Tower with a loaded pistol. The Press grew in fits and starts up until the 1960s. The University Press took its name in 1953. Geoff was aware of UWA Press when he was studying Arts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Geoff was elected to the Advisory Committee in about 1988. Professor Don Bradshaw was the chair of the Press Board in that time. After Geoff returned from a year’s study leave, he became Chair in 1991 and remained in that role until 2006. There were about 6 people on the Committee who met 6-8 times a year for 2-3 hours. When Geoff first joined they met in a Tower Room in Winthrop Hall and later in Tuart House where the Press shared the building with the Festival of Perth. The Committee was not responsible for the appointment of staff (except for the publisher).
14:25 At this time there was about 14 staff. The books were published in-house in Tuart House. There was a typesetting machine and as there were only about 10 books published a year, it was soon felt that this equipment was unnecessary and that many things such as typesetting, editing and book design could be contracted out. Things became digital towards the end of Geoff’s time. It was very hard to downsize the staff as some had been there for 20-30 years. They had specialist skills and UWA Press was the only academic publisher. Meredith Chesterton was appointed as an interim publisher in about 1990 with only 1 or 2 staff. Vic Greaves was there from 1972 to 1989. He had a printing background.
18:55 The University gave a Senate grant to UWA publishing. It was originally about $180,000 pa. Some academics felt that the money could be better used. The Australian National University Press closed in 1983; Adelaide University in 1985 and Sydney University in 1987.
20:28 In 1990-91, UWA Press was almost starting from scratch with new staff and a new philosophy. It was a new era. Meredith Chesterton was a very can-do person which was very lucky but even so, the remaining staff felt under pressure. The Press had to find a way to survive but the Advisory Board was very keen that they do this. They had great community support. Many of them wrote to the Vice Chancellor pleading for the Press to remain in operation. There were 3 closure attempts during Geoff’s time as Chair.
23:07 Most University Presses depended on the support of other university Presses. UWA got advice from Frank Thompson from the University of Queensland who wrote a report in 1973 and a 5 year plan was adopted. The idea was that the Press did not operate at a profit but was to operate efficiently and at a minimum necessary loss. The publication of journals was to be phased out and would be published by the relevant departments.
25:10 In the early 1990s, Professor Fay Gale was the new Vice Chancellor and had had a career in publishing. There began to be a case building for the closing of the UWA Press. The finances of the Press were fluctuating and the deficit was larger than the annual budget. The problem was how to keep it publishing within the limits of the Senate Grant and reduce the deficit. The deficit had be accepted and had to be written off by the university.
27:48 The output of the Press was not just academic. They published natural history and children’s books. Their first children’s book in 1985 used the Cygnet imprint. Some highly specialised and intensely academic books were also published. Professor Vincent Moleta worked on some of these publications with the prestigious Olshki publishing house in Florence, Italy. Books published included one on the doctrine of poverty in Medieval Latin and another on the Medici family.

Track 3
00:00 The Press attracted a variety of writers and some artistic books such as one by the performing artist Mike Parr. Some of his work could be quite confronting. In the early 1990s publishers from Melbourne, Ian Drakeford and his wife Janine, were appointed. They attempted to publish a mix of books – some of which would be more popular in order to make the Press more money. One such was published in Meredith Chesterton’s time and entitled Tin Dog, Damper and Dust: A Shearer’s Life by Don Munday (1991). The Walliston Journals were edited and published. They were launched in St George’s Cathedral. Janine Drakeford was interested in children’s books and The Deliverance of Dancing Bears by Elizabeth Stanley (1994) was very highly regarded and so popular that they had 2-3 print runs. It was sold nationally and also sold in the USA. Other children’s books were also published in the mid to late 1990s and provided an income stream. The Fremantle Children’s Literature Centre was a big supporter of UWA Press and many books were launched here. In about 2006, there was a change in direction and children’s books were no longer published.
07:48 The 1990s saw a reduction of staff and then the appointment of the Drakefords who were very professional and successful in saving UWA Press for a while. However, in mid-1996 the Senate subsidy was not going to cover the costs and the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Alan Robson, advised that the Press would have to be closed down. All contracts were to be approved by the Vice Chancellor, Derek Schroeder, and no new manuscripts were to be accepted. This made for a very uncertain year. It was suggested that UWA Press co-publish with Fremantle Arts Centre Press. This was not popular with the academics or their friends in the wider community. An Academic Board meeting took place and Geoff took a large trolley full of UWA Press books to hand out at the meeting. Seeing the quality of the books meant that the Press survived to live another day. It was a lot of time and energy on Geoff’s behalf to continue to fight for the Press.
13:27 This instability did not suit the Drakefords who made the decision to return to Melbourne at the end of 1996. An increase in funding was agreed in 1997 which was championed by Dennis Haskell while Geoff was away on sabbatical leave. So now the Press had an increased budget. Jenny Gregory an academic historian who was on the advisory board was invited to become a director of the Press in October 1997. There was some overlap with Ian Drakeford and continued to assist when he returned to Melbourne.
15:36 Later, in the 1990s there were further difficulties with the size of the deficit. An Eastern States publisher, Hilary McPhee, was invited to come to review the UWA Press in the late 1990s. Although supportive, she suggested some changes to the Vice Chancellor and the Senate and the ship was righted and procedures tightened. Jenny Gregory continued for 8 years until 2005 and then returned to academia and Terri-ann White took over. During Jenny’s time the quality, quantity and range for titles was increased. Commissioned books on history by corporations and Shire Councils were produced by UWA Press. The also published trade titles. It was also essential to continue to publish academic books which although not profitable were essential to the charter of the Press. Authors were asked to find subsidiaries to assist with the publishing of these books. They were able to get about $3,000 to $5,000 from the Arts Faculty or other bodies such as Kings Park, at different times. This mixed approach put them in a better financial position. They were now publishing between 25-40 titles a year as opposed to 10-15. (The largest amount of books was published during the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1979 because they were underwritten by the State Government).
19:38 The Press continued to publish a range of titles to balance the books. The Press were also selling about 30% of their books in the Eastern States. They also sold through distributors in the USA and Europe. They needed to lift their profile in the Eastern States and make the books less Westralian centric. The Press had published about 1/6th of all the books published in WA since the beginning of the colony which is a significant achievement.
21:17 When Alan Robson became Vice Chancellor in about 2006, he said that he would not attempt to close the University Press as the Press had become much more professional and the university were very proud of it. Terri-ann White who took over as publisher in 2006 was very adept at dealing with the Vice Chancellor and the university accountant. She had been an author and book shop owner so she was experienced in managing books and their sale and was particularly interested in creative writing.

Track 4
00:00 Professor Ted Snell is now Chairman of the Advisory Board. Sometimes economic rationalisation overlooks the value of the books and the fact that people outside UWA might have books published by UWA on display in their homes. People also turn to UWA Press for reference purposes. Many people support publishing in general and rate UWA Press highly. Supporters of UWA Press include the Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, the head of the Alexander Library, politicians and other publishers, historians and senior figures in the community, judges and many other people. Many of these people lent their support when the Press was having difficulties by speaking out or writing letters.
02:50 Book launches are interesting and enjoyable affairs. Geoff was often the MC and they were held in a variety of different places. The Scarlet Mile: A Social History of Prostitution in Kalgoorlie, 1894-2004 by Elaine McKewon (2005) was launched at both Langtrees brothels in Kalgoorlie and Burswood (Perth). A children’s book about the Barking Owl was launched in Floreat. The show was stolen by an actual barking owl that began ‘barking’ at the end of Geoff’s speech. A book on the Duyfken was launched on that boat in Fishing Boat Harbour, Fremantle. Books were launched in many places. Venues at UWA included a lecture theatre or the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery or at UWA Press itself. Many of the launches are now held at the new location of UWA Press at Claremont campus where they moved in about 2002. Books were also launched at Kings Park and at an old mill in Manjimup. This adds to the excitement of the launch.
08:51 UWA Press conveys the name and the image of the university on every book it publishes. When the book is reviewed this is free advertising for the university. The Press celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2005 with the publication of A Press in Isolation. University of Western Australia Press 1935-2004 by Criena Fitzgerald.
10:48 Geoff retired as Chair of the Advisory Board so he is not sure of the current direction of the Press, but it is concerning that the popularity of physical books are declining due to the popularity of e-books. The Press has taken to publishing on demand so they have a smaller print run of about 50 books and will publish more if there is demand which is more cost effective. Creative writing and novels are proving popular which has helped with the funding of the Press. Geoff is hopeful for the future of UWA Press.



Shellam, Geoffrey, “Geoff Shellam interview, 18 March 2014, 8 April 2014 and 15 April 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,