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Fat Science

Brian Shorland: Doyen of New Zealand science
by Joan Cameron (NZ Association of Scientists, $25)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Shorland_001Geologist Harold Wellman and biochemist Brian Shorland were exact contemporaries in many ways – born in 1909, died in 1999, both spending many years at Victoria University, and continuing active research until their late 80s. The late Patricia Holborow recalled inviting the two elderly men to lunch, and finding that Shorland was jealous that Wellman’s life had featured in a BBC documentary. This biography by Joan Cameron helps to redress the balance by telling Shorland’s story.

In the middle years of the twentieth century, Brian Shorland was one of New Zealand’s leading organic chemists, making a major contribution to knowledge of the biochemistry of fats and their significance to human nutrition and health. Shorland made a significant contribution to fundamental knowledge, while also helping solve practical problems in agriculture and human health. But as far the government was concerned, his main job was to provide quality control of the huge amount of butter we exported to the United Kingdom.

The biochemistry of fats is a highly technical area, and the biography could have been a difficult read for all but dedicated workers in the field. Author Joan Cameron has skilfully interweaved just enough technical information to make the significance of Shorland’s work clear, and the general reader can easily skip over the technical details. Shorland himself was a complex character, described as “a compulsive worker …. The nearest thing to a mad scientist that one was ever likely to meet”. He was in fact completely obsessed by his work, argumentative and fiercely competitive, and his dedication to his scientific career was accompanied by neglect of his family and some difficult interpersonal relationships. But Shorland was held in high regard by many of his contemporaries as well as younger staff whom he mentored.

Shorland drifted through school, and it was not until he started work as a cadet in the Department of Agriculture’s laboratory that he showed any interest in science. Coming under the influence of Bernard Aston and Professor Robertson at Victoria University College, he single-mindedly pursued a career as a biochemist, specialising in the study of fats. In 1935 he won a scholarship to do his PhD at the University of Liverpool, and began to establish his international reputation. Back in New Zealand, he spent the war years working on a variety of practical problems related to nutrition.

After the war, Shorland faced a crisis when it was decided to move the staff of the agricultural laboratory to Ruakura, under the control of Dr C. McMeeking who Shorland detested. Dr Ernest Marsden, head of DSIR, came to the rescue by proposing that Shorland set up a new unit, the Fats Research Laboratory. Scientific politics were in play, as it was a chance for Marsden to move into agricultural research, long jealously guarded by the Department of Agriculture. Even though money was always short, it was an ideal situation for Shorland, who was able to direct the scientific operation of his own group.

Turning 60 in 1969, Shorland found that retirement from the public service was mandatory. So he moved up to Victoria University where he started a new career – lecturing, supervising research students, commenting on nutrition issues, and editing the journal of the Association of Scientists. Shorland had mellowed by that time, and is remembered as being much more outgoing and sociable in his later years

This book provides a well-researched and sympathetic biography of Brian Shorland, and helps redress the real lack of biographies of New Zealand scientists and engineers.. The author, Joan Cameron (nee Mattingley), died earlier this year, and the book was prepared for publication by Neil Curtis and Brian Halton.