1900 - 1958 | Victoria | Natural history writer
Thousands of Australians learned their natural history along the track with Morrison during his Sunday evening radio program on Radio 3DB-3LK. Morrison was a trained scientist, passionate naturalist and a journalist who did everything from general and political reporting to leader writing with The Argus before Sir Keith Murdoch poached him to edit a new magazine, Wild Life. The radio show was intended as a brief burst of publicity for Wild Life but it ran for over 20 years. Morrison used the program to lobby for a National Parks Authority, which was finally set up under Morrison’s directorship in 1957.
Philip Crosbie Morrison, born in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, where he began observing the “interesting faces of grasshoppers” at the age of six, was a man of many pursuits. He was a chemistry teacher, marine biologist, zoologist, conservationist, adult educator, journalist and editor, and Australia’s first science broadcaster.
Educated at University High School, he first worked as a chemistry teacher at Wesley College. He wanted to become an industrial chemist so enrolled in science at the University of Melbourne in 1921, after 18 months working on Kangaroo Island extracting resin from grass trees to raise his university fees. In 1925 he won a scholarship to research reef organisms on the Great Barrier Reef which earned him his Master of Science and, incidentally, his first job in journalism the following year.
The editor of The Argus, Edward Cunningham, on seeing Morrison’s photographs and captions of marine life, offered him a three-year cadetship at 30 shillings a week. Three months later, the indefatigable Morrison was a graded journalist.
His eleven years at The Argus saw him work as a general reporter, town hall roundsman, Federal roundsman, State roundsman (where he became leader of the State Parliamentary Press Gallery), and as deputy leader writer. He was also in charge of special supplements and, occasionally, acting editor of The Australasian.
In mid-1937, Morrison took over the boys’ page and a regular column of natural history notes when the paper’s nature writer, A. H. Chisholm, became editor. Crosbie Morrison had – at last – found his professional and environmental niche as a natural history communicator.
In less than a year, Sir Keith Murdoch had lured him to the Herald and Weekly Times to edit a new monthly magazine, Wild Life. A six-part series of radio talks – relegated to the dead time slot of 6 pm on Sunday – was arranged with Radio 3DB-3LK to promote the magazine. Six weeks became five years, by which time nearly 80 per cent of all Victorian radios in use were tuned to Crosbie Morrison. The show – heralded by a kookaburra and the call of a lyrebird – continued for more than 20 years and was broadcast throughout Australia and in New Zealand and South Africa.
The popularity of the man with the moustache and the Harry Potter glasses was enormous, as was his fan mail, which sometimes contained live spiders and other bits of flora and fauna for identification.
He was concerned, however, not only with the small stories of the natural world but with greater themes. He was ahead of his time when he spoke and wrote persuasively on topics that still resonate – soil and water conservation, the use of animals in sport and scientific experiments, the illegal export of native animals and the planting and preservation of trees.
At the outbreak of World War II, he became State Publicity Censor, selecting news items suitable for broadcast. But he continued to broadcast and edit Wild Life and began lecturing on natural history at Melbourne University’s precursor to the Council of Adult Education.
When the publicity office was absorbed into the federal Department of Information, he was appointed director of broadcasting, charged with organising an overseas service which later became Radio Australia. However, his ideas of suitable content diverged from those of his colleagues and in 1940 he requested release from the task. Yet his contribution to the war effort continued when, as an honorary lecturer in the Australian Army Education Service, he visited the troops in Victoria, the Northern Territory and, later, occupied Japan.
At war’s end, Crosbie Morrison began the campaign that was to leave Victoria with a precious legacy. In the May 1946 issue of Wild Life he wrote that “without a post-war New Deal for the flora and fauna which is the birthright of coming generations [it] will have gone and, once gone, it can be replaced neither by money nor toil nor tears”.
He lobbied relentlessly for the protection of environmentally significant areas of Victoria, such as Wilsons Promontory. A decade later, the Bolte Government enacted the National Parks Act of 1956. The following year – and the year before his death – Crosbie Morrison became the first director of the Victorian National Parks Authority. The authority managed 13 national parks covering less than one per cent of the state. Today more than four million hectares, or about 17 per cent, of Victoria, are set aside in 187 parks of national, state and regional significance.
And it all began with a far-sighted scientist/journalist who observed that grasshoppers had interesting faces.
Sally White is a former science editor of The Age and lives in the bush adjacent to one of Victoria’s 45 national parks.
Courtesy of Fairfax Media.
'Philip Crosbie Morrison (1900-1958)', Graham Pizzey, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 2000.
Along the Track with Crosbie Morrison: A selection from his nature talks, Lucy Morrison, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1961.