Home Life and Bobbie's Death

There is brief mention of my marriage to Bobbie Roberts in Chapter 3 and of the children in Chapter 5, but she was such an important factor in my life and career that I must say a bit more about our life together, and her death. Throughout my career as a Professor of Microbiology, and even more when I was Director of the John Curtin School and of CRES, Bobbie was a tremendous support. With her help, we often entertained staff and visitors, with dinners at home and in summer, parties in our spacious garden. I travelled overseas a great deal. Most of these trips were short, and especially in Geneva I worked all the time. She did not come on these trips and did not want to. But, especially after my retirement, she often came as well, as outlined in the previous section.

Bobbie had always been a moderate cigarette smoker and when I was head of the Department of Microbiology I used always bring her back duty-free cigarettes when I had been overseas. But as soon as I became Director, she gave up smoking and told me to get rid of all the cigarettes in the house. Her initial distress, hunting everywhere for one more cigarette, brought home to me how addictive smoking is for some people (I had never smoked). Bobbie was very active in a range of community activities. Almost immediately after our arrival in Canberra, she was invited to become a Councillor of the Canberra Mothercraft Society. As a Triple Certificated Nursing Sister, she served with distinction, representing the Society as a delegate to the National Council of Women of the ACT and for many years was a member of the Executive. She supervised the monthly clothing sales for the National Council of Women and helped with the teas that were given every 'Pension Thursday' to the early pioneers of Canberra, before the advent of Senior Citizens Clubs. She was a member of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association, helping many people from those areas settle into life here, and as one of the first members of the Ex-Servicewomen's Sub-Branch of the Returned Services League of the ACT, she represented the RSL on the Services Trust Welfare Fund, on which she served with distinction for many years. Among the many charities that Bobbie helped regularly were the Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Smith Family, the Knitting Guild, the Save the Children Fund and UNICEF, which in 1995 recognized her many years of service with an award.

As a close friend has said, 'It was Bobbie's way to "say it with flowers"' and the garden at 8 Monaro Crescent was the venue for many fetes and garden stalls, for many organizations, including the Canberra YWCA Annual Garden Sale, which raised thousands of dollars annually, and she gave help with flowers and plants to fetes held by Legacy and the Boys' and Girls' Grammar Schools.' Besides gardening, her hobbies included tennis, golf and bridge, and she was a member of the University Ladies Drawing Room Committee, the Commonwealth Club and Friends of the National Gallery. In January 1980, she was decorated with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) at a ceremony at Government house, for community service.

In 1989 she was found to have colon cancer, and had a colonectomy, with good results for several years. Then, in 1994 she was found to have extensive secondaries in the lungs, which progressed in spite of radium treatment and chemotherapy. For some months she was confined to bed, at home, but in October 1995 she was sent to the Respite Care Facility, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. She gradually got worse, but insisted that I should go to London in early December to receive the Copley Medal of The Royal Society, although at that stage she was at death's door. She died on 28 December, 1995.

To many, she will be long remembered as a loving friend. This is well encapsulated in a letter from Kunang Helmi, the eldest daughter of Indonesian Ambassador Helmi, who was a near neighbour in the late 1950s: 'In fact what I really want to say is how much I love you Aunt Bobbie, for what you are and what you did. You set me a shining example of what kindness and generosity are about—I often think of you in my prayers, as do Rana and Rio [Kunang's younger siblings].'

Although it was long expected, I was devastated by her death. Company at the John Curtin School each week day was a great help, and after there had been time to repaint the interiors of the main house and the extension that we had built in 1981–82, I moved into the extension and Marilyn and her family moved into the main house, which has proved an excellent arrangement for both of us. Even so, it took about three years before I could adjust to Bobbie's absence and, only then, I told myself: 'I see so many women who have lost their husbands and adjust to life as widows; I must adjust, as a widower.'