Backpacker became gentleman scientist who scaled the heights in immunological research
Jen Jewel Brown
Photo by Mary Moore
THE AGE SATURDAY, AUGUST 8, 2015
Sadly, a wonderful man was lost to my family recently. Geoff Shellam was grandfather to my two great nephews. With the help of the family and his friends and colleagues, I was privileged to be able to write his obituary for The Age. This is a slightly longer version than the one which ran in the paper.
Fiona Stanley first really noticed her future husband Geoff Shellam when he was best man at her brother Richard’s Toorak wedding. Shellam seemed very formal, even wearing silk gloves. Stanley, on the other hand, was a radical, attending lots of “Black Power” meetings in those days. She was wearing a cotton frock, her hair untrimmed for years. It was quite a contrast.
However some time later, while she was planning to rough it through some very unpredictable trans-continental travel, she was surprised to receive a letter from Shellam, announcing he was planning to backpack through Asia too. They met up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1972. Eventually they became more than friends, marrying the following year.
Professor Geoffrey Randolph Shellam was part of the top immunology group in his area internationally, leading teams investigating how the immune system responds to infections and cancer. He grew up in Victoria, as a boy moving with his parents and younger sister Margaret from Warrnambool to Bendigo. He went to Bendigo High then majored in microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Melbourne. After winning a cadetship with CSL (Commonwealth Serum Laboratories) in Melbourne in 1962, he was awarded their Cadetship Prize in 1965.
He became the first PhD student supervised by Sir Gus Nossal, the incoming Director of Melbourne University’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the same year. Writing in his final days, Shellam recalled how Nossal’s excitement “made everything that you ever thought you’d dreamed of look second rate. His eyes were leaping out of his sockets.” For 100 years – and continuing today – Australia’s oldest research institute has contributed to medical breakthroughs and much internationally-recognised work. Nossal (who would be named Australian of the Year in 2000, for his contributions to science and the reconciliation movement) was only 34 when he took over, following 21 years at the helm by Nobel Prize-winning virologist Sir Frank (known by his middle name, Macfarlane) Burnet.
Shellam earned his PhD – Induction of immunological tolerance in adult and newborn animals – at the Hall Institute in 1969. He wrote he had “a scientific awakening” while completing it. “I saw the enormous power of working within a good collaborative group with a strong intellectual grounding ... It also made me understand the importance of having sufficient funds.” (Remarkably, Shellam’s lifetime of important studies would win funding for his entire career.)
Dr Chris Goodnow, President of the Australasian Society for Immunology, describes Professor Shellam in the ASI’s website tribute as “a pioneer and world leader in immunogenetics, particularly the interaction between mouse cytomegalovirus [persistent herpesvirus infections] and the immune system.” (Shellam worked with CSIRO scientist Grant Singleton on the problem of mouse plagues from 1989 and through the 90s, successfully triggering mouse infertility via the animals’ own immune responses to introduced pathogens.) Shellam had a long history with the ASI. He won their award for Victorian Best Final Year Student in Microbiology at 22, decades later becoming President to oversee its expansion from “Australian” to “Australasian” between 1991-2. He also initiated the society’s acquisition of their flagship journal Immunology and Cell Biology, now part of the Nature Group of science journals with a board sourced from every continent. He received ASI’s Distinguished Service Award in ’96 and was made an Honorary Life Member in 2012.
Staring his post-doctorate studies, he was awarded the first of many fellowships in 1973. The tall, gentlemanly scientist with a deep love of literature and classical music headed to University College, London to work with another inspirational mentor, Professor Nicholas Avrion "Av" Mitchison, at the Tumour Immunology Unit of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories. There he studied immune responses in rats, focusing on the newly-described NK (Natural Killer) cells and their innate ability to fight cancer. Bestowed with a prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt International Cancer Fellowship by the International Union against Cancer, Geneva, Switzerland, he then spent 1976 hard at work at the Immunology Branch of the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.
Next Shellam headed back to his birth state, WA, in ’77. Before growing up and gaining his PhD in Victoria, he had been born a fifth-generation West Australian in Kalgoorlie, to Girl Guide leader Norah (née Stow) and bank manager Herbert Shellam. Now taking up a Postdoctoral Fellowship for research in the Department of Microbiology at the University of West Australia, he settled down with his family and stayed at the university to extend his teaching, researching and administrative career.
Another scientific area of international concern that Shellam pursued was arboviruses (arthropod-borne viruses) such as Dengue Fever, Ross River Virus and Murray Valley Encephalitis, often carried by mosquitoes. Shellam’s father-in-law, the outstanding microbiologist Professor Neville Stanley, had set up a monitoring system in West Australia. Shellam extended the area of research to create an expert team, complimenting spraying by testing blood samples from “sentinel chickens” to check the regional spread of the viruses. Shellam and Drs Hugh Jones and Graham Budd also worked on Subantarctic islands on the microbiology of penguins.
Shellam was held in great regard as Professor of Microbiology and a top administrator, research leader and teacher at UWA for 30 years (since 1985). He was Head of the Department of Microbiology there between 1985-90; Head of the Discipline of Microbiology and Immunology, School of Biomedical, Biomolecular and Chemical Sciences between 2002-5; and Co-Director – alongside Nobel Laureate Professor Barry Marshall – of the university’s Marshall Centre for Infectious Diseases Research and Training since 2007.
That year he initiated and developed the Infectious Diseases course for the students who came from all over the world to study at UWA, aiming to equip them to contribute to the international understanding and control of existing and emerging infectious diseases. These include bird flu, SARS, West Nile virus, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Viral hepatitis, Influenza, Tuberculosis, Dengue and Japanese encephalitis. Concerns of germ warfare and the rise of global terrorism – as well as global climate change altering disease patterns worldwide – underpinned his development of the Graduate Diploma and Master of Infectious Diseases courses. Shellam, recognised as an outstanding teacher, taught subjects directly, as well as taking great interest in every Masters student enrolling in the coming semester.
He died at home in Nedlands, West Australia, of cancer, at 71. His wife of nearly 42 years, Fiona Stanley, and children, daughters Hallie and Tiffany Shellam, were by his side. He had just cleared up his fountain pens and closed his office, formally retiring two days earlier. Shellam is survived by Stanley (Australian of the Year, in 2003, for her advocacy for science in improving child and Aboriginal health); Hallie and Tiffany and their families. Although deeply missed, he will be remembered through the Shellam Fund for Research in Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, supporting researchers of the future at the University of Western Australia.
Melbourne writer Jen Jewel Brown is part of the extended family.