| Issue 49 Contents |
In 1905, Audrey Josephine Osborne was born in the imposing sandstone "Cloisters" on the Melbourne University campus. Hers was a childhood spent playing under leafy camellia trees in what is now known as the Law Quadrangle. Audrey’s father, William Osborne came to Melbourne University in 1903 to take up the Chair of Physiology, Biochemistry and Histology. In those early days, Professors of laboratory-based disciplines, who needed to do weekend work, were offered accommodation on campus. So Audrey grew up as one of the "Children of the University" (see  for her own account of these early years). Professor Osborne was a great scholar with extremely broad interests who encouraged his children’s interest in science. Audrey remembers trips to his lab on weekends where her father once made "exploding spiders" for her; these were small drops of nitrogen tri-iodide that exploded when touched! No wonder she was always fascinated by chemistry. Her father had a particular interest in nutrition and gave public "extension lectures" on the rewards of healthy eating and it was from this early indoctrination that Audrey gained her initial interest in dietetics and nutrition.
Audrey’s mother, Ethel Goodson received a B.Sc. and a M.Sc. from Leeds University. After she married and moved to Melbourne, Ethel worked for the Victorian State Government examining the conditions of women in various trades and, as Audrey recalls, was something of a socialist. Ethel’s work led her to develop an interest in the sociological aspects of medicine and, to further this interest, she undertook study towards a medical degree at the University of Melbourne. She travelled overseas on several occasions to attend conferences associated with her work and on one trip to the U.S.A., she was asked by St. Vincent’s Hospital to make a survey of Dietetics Units in American Hospitals. She duly reported back and her study was used as the basis for setting up the first Dietetics School in Victoria, at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Audrey remembers a childhood in which she and her three siblings were encouraged in both physical and intellectual pursuits. There was no distinction made on the basis of gender; they were all led to believe they could succeed in whatever area they chose.
Summer was an idyllic time as the family had a property at Warrandyte on a bend in the Yarra River. Reaching the property involved taking a horse-drawn cab to the Royal Park railway station, a steam train to Heidelberg, a horse-drawn coach to the Warrandyte bridge and walking the rest of the way. Later on, the family purchased a T-model Ford and Audrey’s mother used to drive them to and from Warrandyte with children, dogs and chooks all squashed in the back. The family had connections with members of the Heidelberg School of painting and Audrey still has a portrait of herself as a six year old with two White Leghorns painted by the impressionist painter, Clara Southern.
Having excelled at the limited offerings in the sciences at Merton Hall Grammar School for Girls, Audrey matriculated in 1922 and enrolled at Melbourne University for the degree of Agricultural Science. She was attracted to agricultural studies because, she says, she "liked animals and wanted to work in the great outdoors". She obtained a studentship from the State Department of Agriculture and was the first woman to complete the newly established Agriculture Degree on campus at Melbourne University. She completed the course in 1928 having obtained exhibitions in botany and zoology.
Audrey declined a job offer from the State Department of Agriculture because "women were only given desk jobs and I wanted something a bit more exciting" and instead, in 1929, she took a job with Kraft as a Microbiologist and Food Analyst. Later that year, Audrey married an architect, Leslie Cahn and a year or so later gave birth to twin girls. As this was the beginning of the Australian Depression, there was very little work in Australia, especially for young architects, so Cahn went to the U.S.A. to look for work. Meantime, Audrey lived with her parents in a residence in Professors Row on the University campus, a site that is now occupied by the Baillieu Library. After a couple of years of struggle in the U.S.A., Leslie Cahn moved to the U.K., then to Ireland, though again he found only very limited and poorly paid work. Audrey travelled by ship to Belfast to meet up with him, taking with her the 2-year-old twins. In 1934, they all returned to Australia by ship. By then the twins were at a very active and mischievous age and Audrey recalls that they escaped from the cabin and threw most of her shoes overboard before being discovered. With all the difficulties engendered by lack of work and long periods of separation, Audrey’s marriage did not survive for long after the return to Australia.
In Australia of the 1930s, a married woman with children had little hope of finding professional employment in the agricultural or scientific areas, so Audrey was forced to retrain in an area considered "more appropriate for women". She undertook a year’s training in the newly opened Dietetics Unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital to obtain a Hospital Certificate of Dietetics. She stayed on at St. Vincent’s and soon became the Chief Dietician. Of course, given that Dietetics was a "woman’s profession", the pay was pitifully meagre, so, in an effort to increase her income, she left St. Vincent’s to take employment as a microbiologist in the Kraft/Walker Milk and Cheese Factory in Drouin. This job involved work commitments on all 7 days of the week. The twins were, by this time, attending boarding school, so Audrey used to drive back to Melbourne on Saturday afternoon to see her children and then drive back to Drouin on Sunday morning to continue work in the afternoon. Audrey left Drouin to take a job as Chief Dietician, first in the Victorian Mental Hygiene Department, then for a year at the Royal Perth Hospital. With the outbreak of the second world war, Audrey returned to Melbourne to join the army as Chief Dietician at the Heidelberg Military Hospital. She was in the army for more than 4 years and achieved the rank of Major which made her the most highly-ranked woman at the Hospital.
In 1936, Audrey was a founding member of the Dietetics Association. This group lobbied the State Government to adopt a registration procedure which, as Audrey points out, was necessary to stop the "quacks" from taking over the new field of Nutrition. At about this time, Audrey’s father, Professor Osborne, applied for NH&MRC funds to set up a Diploma of Dietetics at Melbourne University and Jean Millis was appointed in 1937 as the first Lecturer in Nutrition. When Osborne retired, in 1939, Biochemistry and Physiology were established as separate disciplines and the newly appointed Professor William Young retained the Nutrition and Dietetics teaching within the Department of Biochemistry. Young died in 1942 and was succeeded by Victor Trikojus. Wanting to update her qualifications, Audrey prepared and submitted a thesis on Aspects of Hospital Dietetics and was awarded the Diploma of Dietetics (by thesis) by the University of Melbourne.
In 1947, Audrey was employed by Melbourne University as a Lecturer in Dietetics for the grand sum of £870 per annum. Later, when Jean Millis went overseas to further her studies, Audrey was given responsibility for both Nutrition and Dietetics subjects and she ran the entire course leading to the Diploma of Dietetics. The course consisted of three year’s study towards a B.Sc. degree taking biological science subjects, such as Biochemistry, plus the specialised subjects of Food Chemistry and Preparation in 1st year, Food Services and Administration in 2nd year and a major in Nutrition in 3rd Year. After graduating with a B.Sc. (Nutrition), students could proceed to a 4th year for which Audrey organised placements in approved external Dietetics Units and conducted examinations leading to the Diploma of Dietetics.
Audrey gave all of the lectures in the Nutrition subjects and initially organised and ran all of the practical component (though later she did get some help from part-time demonstrators). The practical component involved analytical work (food analysis) and animal experiments (e.g. looking at the effect of vitamin deficiencies on growth of rats). Part of the practical work involved cooking up different meals and analysing their nutritive value. Audrey remembers that this was a very popular practical component as both students and colleagues used to eat the results of the practical classes. Audrey says she tried to teach Nutrition as a "wholistic" rather than a "reductionist" discipline. She wanted her students to look at all aspects of nutritional problems and to treat patients as integrated organisms. She believed in a well-balanced diet and disapproved of high-dose vitamin supplements and other pill-based nutritional approaches. She says that the field of Nutrition suffers from the fact that it evolved as a hospital-based discipline aimed at therapeutic intervention. Audrey was always a proponent of the idea that nutrition and dietetics should be used as preventative medicine. In this she was clearly ahead of her times.
In the late 1940s, Melbourne University was given £20,000 by Nicholas/ ASPRO to set up a Nutrition Department and £50,000 by the Russell Grimwade legacy to build a new Biochemistry building. It was not possible to build the new laboratories at the time due to the exigencies of the post-war period and the lack of a high-level political proponent for a Nutrition Department within the University hierarchy. So the money sat in the bank for a number of years. The Russell Grimwade building was finally completed in 1961 and Biochemistry was relocated from the Old Chemistry and Old Pathology buildings. The Head of Biochemistry, Victor Trikojus always thought of Nutrition as "soft" science or "women’s" science. None the less, having accepted the funds from Nicholas/ ASPRO, he was obliged set up a Nutrition and Dietetics Unit, and the 4th floor of the Russell Grimwade building was dedicated to this purpose. Audrey, who had been promoted to Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Applied Dietetics in 1959, continued to run the show.
Audrey has very pleasant memories of the early Academic women of Melbourne University, who, she says, were very supportive of each other. She always enjoyed meeting after work with friends and colleagues to wine and dine at University House or at restaurants in Carlton, the City or Warrandyte. Audrey has particularly fond memories of a trip to Alice Springs in 1961 with six women, including Ding Dyason (History & Philosophy of Science), "Nan" Millis (Microbiology, now Chancellor of La Trobe University) and Meriel Wilmot (Physiology). However, work in the laboratory was not always so congenial. Audrey’s early days in the Biochemistry Department preceded the development of modern biochemical equipment. As Audrey remembers, "..the labs were awful". There was no electrophoresis, only elementary chromatography, very limited spectrophotometry, very limited access to radiolabels and no Sigma catalogue of chemicals. All biochemical reagents had to be prepared in-house and the practical laboratory smelled of gas and had only two power points and very little equipment.
Despite the difficulties, Audrey undertook a series of studies in nutritional biochemistry. Her early work examined the nature and physical properties of fat particles in milk. She then undertook studies of anti-oxidants and wrote articles on the safety of food additives. She was involved in attempts to identify the component of oranges that is harmful to people with gall stones and remembers making a member of staff, Jack Legge, quite nauseous by an experiment that involved his consuming quantities of orange extract. Audrey also undertook analyses of common dietary foods so that the composition and caloric value of these foods would be available for inclusion in Food Tables (i.e. Audrey compiled data for the tables that professional sports people and weight-watchers so avidly follow today). She was an early proponent of the need to reduce fat intake and to substitute saturated fats with foods that are high in the essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. She performed pioneering analytical work on levels of unsaturated fats in meat from different sources.
These molecular studies provided the basis for a series of population-based nutritional studies that Audrey later undertook. She supervised an extensive study of food intake and energy expenditure in a large group of adolescents. Audrey remembers that the unfortunate adolescents was connected to a "modified vacuum cleaner" to record ventilation rates and to obtain samples of expired air for analysis. In collaboration with workers in the Department of Anatomy, Audrey also set up a longitudinal study of Child Growth in Melbourne which commenced in 1954. The growth of a cohort of Melbourne children (boys & girls) was followed over a period of 17 years and correlated with their nutrient intake. The work was designed to establish norms for growth of Australian children (especially skeletal growth). These data were used to construct an "Atlas of Growth" which was compared with similar data for British and American children. Audrey and her co-workers had to develop instrumentation for measuring body volume and density. Because of the length of the study, the girls in the cohort eventually reached puberty, which necessitated the measurement of some rather curvaceous surfaces. They designed a suitable apparatus which they referred to as a "titometer". For publication purposes, this name was not considered suitable, so they contacted the Linguistics Department and came up with a more scientific-sounding name, i.e. a cyrtographometer (or mound measurer). One of the major conclusions of the study was that Australian children were overweight and inactive compared with their peers elsewhere. Audrey remembers that they were horrified in the mid-60s to find that the children were watching an average of 2 hours of television per night. Things could hardly be said to have improved more recently.
Audrey was involved in a running battle with Victor Trikojus, the Head of Biochemistry. Trikojus, along with most other members of the almost exclusively male University hierarchy, did not encourage women to pursue an academic career in science. According to Audrey, Trikojus saw women as useful background material; they carried a lot of the burden of day-to-day teaching and administration, but were not to be promoted to higher academic positions or greatly encouraged in research. The senior staff of the Biochemistry Department always treated the Nutrition Unit with some disdain, often complaining about the cooking odours floating down from the 4th floor. All through the 1950s and 60s, Audrey had a constant battle to keep the Nutrition course alive. With the benefit of hind-sight, Audrey was clearly right in her assessment of the importance of Nutrition as a discipline. Nutrition is now an extremely prestigious course of study and a well-respected area of research.
In 1960, the Dietetics Diploma was subsumed into the Faculty of Applied Science - a mish-mash of unrelated courses. Audrey fought this move as she saw it as the "beginning of the end" for the Nutrition course. Trikojus also opposed the move as he did not wish to loose control of an area of Biochemistry teaching. Audrey retired in 1968, heartily sick of the politics working against her discipline and, shortly afterwards, the Faculty of Applied Science folded and the Nutrition course was disbanded by the then Head of Biochemistry, Professor Frank Hird. As a consequence, Nutrition was lost as an area of study at Melbourne University. A more fore-sighted and less conservative Deakin University took up the challenge and their Nutrition courses are now a flag-ship of that university.
Audrey painted and sculpted throughout her life and was a foundation member of the group that set up Potter’s Cottage, a community of potters in Warrandyte. Upon her retirement, she designed and built a beach house at Wye River on the Great Ocean Road where she spent a lot of time painting, sculpting and writing. Audrey now lives in Osborne Road in Warrandyte in a cottage that was originally the gate-keeper’s residence on her family’s extensive Yarra frontage property. This tiny pine-panelled bungalow is dwarfed by ancient trees, both natives and exotics. Inside, Audrey is surrounded by her own paintings and sculptures and by works of her favourite artists. At nearly 93, she is extremely sharp and still bitingly witty and incredibly enthusiastic about life and has well and truly out-lived many of her contemporaries from the early days of Biochemistry. Asked what is the secret to a long and active life, she says: "Good genes". In addition, she advises "a moderate and varied diet", but in achieving a moderate lifestyle, she advises: "Do as I say and certainly not as I do"!
Reference  University Children. A. Cahn. Lowes Printing, Garran, A.C.T., 1987.
Leann Tilley is a Reader in Biochemistry at La Trobe University. She wishes to thank Max Marginson and Bruce Stone for sharing their memories and memorabilia of Biochemistry’s early days.