September 28

Ecology of Man

I’m going to cheat somewhat and start in 1978.

I’m sixteen years old and starting a medical degree at the University of Queensland and obviously I haven’t a clue what is going on. In those days first year students were allowed an elective, but those too stupid or scared (guilty on both counts) were given a “set” elective called “The Ecology of Man” ZL105. It was given by Professor William Stephenson (1921-1997) who had been the foundation Head of Department in Zoology and was only fifty-six, but to me looked 106. What he had done to deserve Med 1 and Dental 1 students, I have no idea, but I suspect he is enjoying a much reduced time in purgatory.  Since his major research was in marine biology and especially swimming crabs, it may have been thought he was used to dealing with creatures of low intelligence.

The course was largely based on the lecturer’s book “The Ecological Development of Man,” which is amazingly still available on Abebooks. I sold my book, but my wife, who also did this course but not because she was stupid or scared, did not and so I still have a copy. The Prof had done the course so often he could have done it in his sleep and some wags were known to mouth the words along with him as he recited from his book. In his first lecture to us on 21/2/1978, Professor Stephenson was keen to distance himself from “econuts” who he claimed, in the fervour of the sixties, had tarnished the reputation of ecology.

Compared to the physics (why), chemistry and cell biology we were doing, this was more history interacting with science with a nod to medical applications and the ecological crisis and so I include it as an arts subject despite its subject code.

The book commences:

The total study of man’s relationships to his surroundings — inanimate, plant, animal, and fellow man — lies well beyond the competence of any individual. It incorporates physiological studies of his reactions to stimuli, a botanical emphasis in relation to wild plants, horticultural and agricultural expertise with domesticated plants, zoological knowledge concerned with wild animals, and veterinary professionalism regarding domesticated animals. As it concerns our dealings with our fellow humans the following are involved — anthropology, prehistory, ancient history, modern history, the law, politics, economic geography and biogeography, sociology and theology. And probably many more. (W. Stephenson, The Ecological Development of Man Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972, 3.)


Much of what we endured as medical students in those days was an attempt to ensure we did not graduate while still adolescents.  The physics, for example, could have been contracted to STAY AWAY FROM THE X-RAY MACHINE. The dumbed down chemistry we did had some relevance as a precursor to the biochemistry of second year, I suppose, and the cell biology was needed to unlearn the inaccuracies in high school biology. I believe this to be the only subject I ever did in medicine that was not just aiming to eventually make me a doctor. It is also an excellent primer for followers of the wonderful Civilization computer games.

This course may have been an attempt to give some culture to straight science types, but I suspect none of us took it too seriously compared to the other subjects which were completely terrifying. The good Professor was something of an optimist in that he listed extra reading and to my horror I note that I at least looked up the call numbers of the books, although I have no recollection of actually reading any of them. I do remember enjoying the university libraries even at that age and especially the Central library that was not intended for scruffy undergraduates and especially not the medical students.

I intend to remind myself of the written work I have submitted over the years, but this course was graded on a single two hour examination. The past exams showed little variation and so even I figured out that all you had to do was prepare a couple half baked regurgitative pieces and crank them out to pass, which I did, getting a five on a 1-7 rating scale. I have found a dreadful example of this, which I reproduce here for embarrassment purposes.  The element of unintended humour I see in it probably relates to Monty Python sketches involving pointed sticks.

The Possible Evolution of Thrown Weapons


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Posted September 28, 2013 by Geoffrey Madden in category "Uncategorized

About the Author

Dr Geoffrey Madden MBBS BA PGDipArts MA (Theol) GCTS(Liturgy)