Historical Note

'Well now, it was very nice having you here dear, but we don't employ women permanently'.(1)

This is how Phyllis Rountree recalled the attitude of her first boss, Professor James A. Prescott, to the end of Rountree's three-year CSIR fellowship in 1934 at the Waite Agricultural Institute in Adelaide. It was a time of shortage of scientific workers in Australia, not addressed until tertiary education was expanded under the Menzies Government well into the 1960s. However, in an environment where her all-male scientific colleagues did not even deign to chat with the young Phyllis at afternoon tea, employment opportunities for the outstanding graduate from Melbourne University were not straightforward.

Rountree recounted that her work at the Institute had proceeded 'in a rather leisurely sort of way' and she 'thoroughly enjoyed' herself. Concluding her fellowship, Rountree presented a paper that embodied three years of research into the problem of soil salination to the fastidious Professor Prescott, and he accepted it without so much as an addition. Nonetheless, the Institute did not offer Rountree a continuing position, and later she reflected that 'if I'd been a man, they probably would have found me something'. (2)

Rountree was a pioneer from the periphery, like many of her Australian colleagues, in work of practical and theoretical importance. As a woman, she received belated recognition of her work, and did not always step forward as far as her male colleagues to take credit for her own valuable and painstaking work.

Like her peers, Rountree set high standards for her work. A prolific repertoire of publications reflects just how high her standards were, but, she admitted, 'there's a whole pile of stuff that's never been published', suggesting that perhaps she 'didn't think it was quite good enough', or that she 'was lazy about it'. (3)

In 1987 Rountree received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Sydney in 1987. At the age of 76, it was the first major prize or honour she received. The occasion did not go unnoticed - she was acclaimed in mainstream newspapers and magazines. When Rountree mentioned the Honorary Award to her brother on the phone, he retorted, 'what do you need another doctorate for - you've already got one'. (4) Her first doctorate had been awarded by the University of Melbourne in 1950 for research in microbiology.

Of all her achievements Rountree valued her election as Honorary Life Member of the Australian Society for Microbiology, an organisation which she fostered from its early days. During the 1950s the Australian Society for Microbiology was a section within the recently dissolved general science organisation, the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS). Another measure of Rountree's modesty is that despite her involvement in the foundation of the ASM, and was in fact NSW Branch President of the society for a year in the mid-1960s, she never pressed for a position on the governing federal body. 'I had too many things to do, and perhaps I wasn't a suitable person anyway' (5) was her self-effacing reason.

Rountree's field, microbiology, has produced three Australian nobel laureates. Those honored were Sir Howard Florey, in 1943, for the development of penicillin, Sir (Frank) Macfarlane Burnet, in 1960, for discoveries concerning immunological tolerance and Peter Doherty, in 1996, for his work on the recognition of viruses by the immune system (MHC restriction).(6)

A Masters degree in bacteriology, as the pioneering field was then known, offered by the University of Melbourne started Rountree's career. Her interest was inspired by an undergraduate veterinarian teacher, Professor Harold Woodruff. Professor Woodruff convinced Rountree's father that Phyllis should study a fourth year in bacteriology. The negotiations over Rountree's future took place during a chance visit by Woodruff, attending a University Extension Board Lecture, to Rountree's home town of Hamilton, in the Western District of Victoria.(7)

Scientific education for women was no novelty in Rountree's family. Among her paternal Aunts numbered two pharmacists (as was her father James Henry Rountree), a nurse and a doctor. Phyllis Rountree's first choice for university studies was medicine, but her father had protested she was too young to undertake the course - Phyllis was just 16 years-old when she began her undergraduate degree in 1927.

Obstacles turned into opportunity for Rountree, which was the pattern for much of her career. From the early days, she embraced these opportunities with enthusiasm: 'I was not going to be a zoologist', her major field in her first three years of study, 'but at least I was going to be a bacteriologist', she said. (8)

Upon completed her Masters degree, Rountree expected to work in the agricultural field, but her career at the Waite Institute went no further than a pristine but forgotten paper. She returned to Melbourne and walked off the street into the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Rountree politely asked the Director, distinguished physiologist Sir Charles Kellaway, for a job. Dr Frank Burnet, later Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet the nobel laureate, interviewed Rountree for the job, 'I don't know who was the more shy Dr Burnet or I', said Rountree. She was appointed as a research assistant.

At the WEHI, Rountree was introduced to research on staphylococci, later her area of specialisation. She witnessed discoveries such as Burnet's research on the nature of bacteriophages, viruses which attach themselves to certain types of bacteria, rendering the bacteria identifiable. 'I was thrown into something that was really happening' said Rountree, reflecting upon her time at WEHI. 'Once one had worked there, one had, I think, a passport to go almost anywhere.' It was on Burnet's reference that Rountree was accepted into the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine in 1936-37 to study a graduate course in clinical bacteriology.

At the time the London School's course was the most prestigious post-graduate course offered on bacteriology techniques and principles. Rountree studied under the 'terrifying' Professor Wentworth W. C. Topley and the endearing Sir Graham S. Wilson, (9) and with the London School's annual intake of 11 other British and colonial students.

On completion of her degree, Rountree worked a Public Health Laboratory in the East End of London, 'seeing what would happen next'. Not expecting to return to Australia, her expatriate experience was cut short when she was recalled home by her family to be with her father, who was suffering from hypertension. She spent a few months fishing with James in a seaside village and then returned to Melbourne to look for work. (10) She applied for a job running the Bacteriology Laboratory at St Vincents hospital, where many scientific staff were women. St Vincent's Bacteriology Laboratory had no administrative staff 'except two men to do the media and the washing up' (11). This was certainly a turn-around from the Waite Institute and Rountree fared much better at afternoon tea for the rest of her career.

She left St Vincents in early 1943 to set up the Defence Food Control Base to test Army and Airforce supplies, which was established as a political response to an outbreak of botulism in the American Army. In their new laboratory behind Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Road, Rountree and staff 'were overwhelmed with canned asparagus, canned cabbage, canned carrots, canned potatoes and canned peas'.

This proved to be a 'disastrous kind of job' for Rountree, even though everyone she knew 'had gone into the Services, so I though I would do it'. Her inglorious job was a contrast to the challenging positions taken up by many Australian scientists during the war. Service, however, had its advantages.

Esmond (Bill) Keogh was Director of Army Pathology Services and organised placements for his staff all over Australia after the war. In a similar vein, Keogh, a friend of Rountree's from the WEHI days, intervened on her behalf, and helped her apply to Manpower for a transfer. Keogh had found Rountree another job at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, testing catgut. There was 'nobody in Sydney who could do the job of catgut testing' Rountree and Keogh told Manpower. It was an excuse for Rountree to move to Sydney and be among colleagues who needed 'scientifically trained people to deal with the problems being raised by the army'.

One such colleague was Professor Hugh Ward, from the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Sydney. Ward would visit Rountree in the laboratory two or three times a week and bring 'problem organisms to try and identify, organisms that had filtered down to him from the Army', recounted Rountree. (12)

Rountree did in fact test catgut, and Johnson and Johnson provided her salary, but the job turned into something much more. '[F]rom 1944 unitil 1961, a period of sixteen or seventeen years, I had a research job, a job which involved no responsibility for the routine work of the hospital. It was absolutely ideal', she said. (13) For many Australian scientists this would have been the ideal. Years of uninterupted work 'at the bench', working on practical problems, but without the strain of administrative duties. The funding from Johnson and Johnson, is just one example of the respect for scientific endeavour consolidated during the war, and supported by funding for research. During these years Rountree published the majority of her extensive research. (14)

In 1961 Rountree was promoted to the Head of the hospital bacteriology laboratory. She took on a joint role of hospital administration, while continuing some avenues of research with her staff. (15) She held this position until 1971.

Rountree's experiences at WEHI and the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine supported her own ground-breaking research into Staphylococcus aureus (Golden Staph), a group of bacteria which cause infections like septicaemia, osteomylitis, food poisoning and the suppuration of wounds.

Rountree's breakthrough came during a 1950s pandemic caused by Golden Staph, known as 'Nursery epidemic', which spread through hospitals in Australia and overseas, causing numerous deaths among new-born babies. Rountree used bacteriophage typing, to track the progress of Golden Staph through the Prince Alfred hospital in Sydney. She used the same method to investigate the new strain of Asian influenza when it arrived in Australia, and staphylococcal septicaemia prevalent in surgical wards. (16)

One noticable development in this work was that mutations of various strains of bacteria became resistant to the new forms of antibiotics as they began to be used in hospitals. The result was that various staphylococci could still survive despite the use of a range of antibiotics, and certain strains continued to spread throughout Australian hospitals well into the 1980s. (17)

Simple measures for controlling some epidemics were developed directly from Rountree's findings. For example, one of the practical conclusions from her detective work was that the bacteria lingered on wool blankets, then commonly used in hospitals and seldom washed. Rountree recommended their replacement by cotton blankets which could be laundered frequently. The Bacteriology Laboratory at the hospital, according to Rountree, was not very popular with the Wool Bureau. (18)

To facilitate these scientific discoveries, Rountree had taken extra training in 1947 under her old Professor, Professor Wilson, in the Central Public Health Laboratory, at Colindale in London. Ostensibly to gain experience in the latest techniques for bacteriophage-typing needed for her work at the hospital, she used much of the nine months to research the nature of bacteriophages, inspired by Burnet's work in the 1930s at WEHI:

'I was looking at the nature of the relationship between these bacterial viruses called bacteriophages and their hosts, which is of quite profound genetic importance,' she said of the research. '[T]here was an upsurge of interest in bacteriophages in the 1940s in America; the became extraordinarily fashionable. The whole of bacterial genetics and molecular biology was finally erected on this research.'

During this study visit, Rountree escaped for three weeks from bleak postwar London where 'life was rather hard' to Paris where her uncle, Professor William R. Hodgson, was the Australian Ambassador to France. Rountree made a casual visit to the Pasteur Institute where she was introduced to Andre Lwoff and Jacques Monod, who later won Nobel Prizes for their work on bacterial genetics. Lwoff invited her back the following week for afternoon tea. Rountree later described this afternoon tea as 'delicious', and it was here that Lwoff invited Rountree to the 'DNA Conference' in Paris, whereupon she returned for a week in the summer to attend.

The DNA Conference gathering was a crucial forum of European and American scientists which 'brought together many diverse people. It started people thinking, those who were already experimenting in the field. The actual DNA code and its structure were worked out within ten years of that meeting ' 'It was a most marvelous and stimulating intellectual atmosphere. Everyone was full of goodwill and excitement.' (19)

Lwoff aksed Rountree to stay and work with him on the mechanism of lysogenicity (where bacteria apparently infected with bacteriophages only showed this occasionally). Although this work was relevant to her research on staphylococci, the opportunity was lost this time. Rountree returned again to Australia to meet her pre-existing commitments and financial obligations. Lwoff developed his theory of lysogenicity alone. (20)

Rountree maintained and developed many new international contacts through her work and received plenty of international correspondence expressing interest in her work. (21) In addition she was a member the International Committee for the Phage Typing of Staphylococcus aureus. (22)

Rountree was very much a career woman. She considered never marrying and having children as a 'necessary sacrifice'. 'I had several narrow escapes from getting married in the 1930s,' she noted, 'but I knew that if I did marry it would mean the end of my career. That's how it was in those days - if you married you had to leave your job.' (23)

Like many senior research scientists, Rountree continued to work following formal retirement from Royal Prince Alfred in 1970. As Honorary Research Associate in Medical Microbiology at the University of New South Wales, Rountree was exposed to debates about scientific education, which she found interesting, although she was not a protaganist. Nonetheless, Rountree took up the challenge to learn new approaches being implemented at the University of New South Wales in the 1970s. (24)

These broad horizons contributed to Rountree's interest in the History of Microbiology. She wrote an article titled 'Pasteur in Australia', published in the Australian Microbiologist (1983). (25) Perhaps her own experiences with the French contributed to her fascination with this 'marevellous' story (26) of the French microbiologists' pursuit in Australia. Rountree was also a major contributor to the Australian Society for Microbiology's account, the History of Microbiology in Australia, her input focusing on the earlier years of the discipline. (27) It is no surprise that Rountree was involved in constructing the history of her discipline, so much was her career integrated with the first Australian generation of professional microbiologists. The British training, international outlook and local application of her work set Rountree's career within a tradition of Australian scientists; young during the 1930s, consolidating their careers during the war, and making important discoveries during the 1950s and 1960s. As much as Rountree worked in a spirit of comradely collaboration with many of her male colleagues, and was assisted by some of Australia's eminent scientists, as a first-class woman microbiologist in a context where the dominant culture mandated a domestic role for women, her career was not without individual challenges.


(1) ed. Victoria Barker, Transcript from Oral History Interview with Phyllis Margaret Rountree, Honorary Research Associate in the School of Microbiology, The University of New South Wales, 1971-1994, An Interview Conducted by Kerry Gordon, p. 3 in the Records of Phyllis Margaret Rountree, series 1, item 11.
(2) ibid.
(3) ibid, p. 13.
(4) 'Medical Pioneer Honoured', the Australian, February 7, 1987in the Records of Phyllis Margaret Rountree, series 1, item 7.
(5) Transcript from Oral History Interview with Phyllis Margaret Rountree, op. cit., p. 33.
(6)The 1997 Australian Science Festival Important Scientists
(7) Transcript from Oral History Interview with Phyllis Margaret Rountree, op. cit., p. 2.
(8) ibid, pp. 1-2.
(9) ibid, pp. 4-5.
(10) ibid, p. 8.
(11) ibid, p. 9.
(12) ibid, pp. 10-12.
(13) ibid, p. 13.
(14) ibid, p. 13.
(15) ibid, pp. 13 & 27.
(16) ibid pp. 18-19, 23-24.
(17) ibid, pp. 24-26.
(18) ibid, p. 21.
(19) ibid, pp. 15-16.
(20) ibid, p. 17.
(21) see, for example, the Records of Phyllis Margaret Rountree Series 2, item 4.
(22) Transcript from Oral History Interview with Phyllis Margaret Rountree, op. cit., p. 34
(23) Interview in Woman's Day, April 6, 1987 in the Records of Phyllis Margaret Rountree, Series 1, item 7.
(24) ibid, pp. 31-32.
(25) ibid, p. 36. Also see P. M. Rountree 'The Pasteur Institute and Australia', 1988 in J. Chaussivert and M. Blackman Louis Pasteur and the Pasteur Institute in Australia (University of New South Wales French-Australian Research Centre, Sydney) pp. 9-16.
(26) Ibid, p. 35.
(27) ed. Frank Fenner, (Brolga Press, 1990).

Published by the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre on AustehcWeb, April 2004
Listed by Lisa Jooste and Tim Sherratt
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Updated 13 November 2007

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