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Morrison, Philip Crosbie (1900–1958)

by Graham Pizzey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Philip Crosbie Morrison (1900-1958), naturalist, was born on 19 December 1900 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, eldest child of James Crosbie Morrison, a Hawthorn-born draper, and his wife Grace Evelyne, née Cass, who came from New Zealand. The family was solid, respectable, Congregationalist and musical, but not wealthy. Near their home lay open, grassy ground and a municipal drain. There the young Morrison discovered the fascinations of natural history. He later recalled that the arrival of twin brothers when he was aged 6 meant that 'I had to amuse myself to a greater extent. This took the form of watching grasshoppers. They have very interesting faces . . . before long I could tell the difference between the types'. He began his formal education at Auburn State School and won a scholarship to University High School, where he impressed the principal M. S. Sharman and gained honours in chemistry in the Leaving certificate examinations.

In 1918 Morrison was appointed to the staff of Wesley College's preparatory school as a chemistry demonstrator, with teaching and house duties. He joined the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria that year and became its honorary secretary in 1919. While at Wesley he was persuaded of the need for a university degree in order to become an industrial chemist. To raise funds, he spent eighteen months on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, with a firm that extracted resin from the local 'grass-tree', Xanthorrhoea tateana. Matriculating in 1921, he was admitted to the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1924; M.Sc., 1926). His career in zoology at Melbourne was described as a 'triumphal procession' of prizes and scholarships. Influenced by his professor W. E. Agar, Morrison enthusiastically embraced a Darwinian view of biology and genetics. Marine biology became his major interest. In 1925 he won a scholarship to carry out research on reef organisms, especially plankton. The ensuing six months on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, collecting from naval and trading vessels, saw him rapidly mature. A visit to the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board facility at Sherwood, near Brisbane, where the South American insect, Cactoblastis cactorum, was being bred in a successful attempt to control Queensland's prickly pear outbreak, helped to shape his views on biological control.

Trained in photography by his father, a gifted amateur, Morrison had taken a large-format camera to Queensland. His photographs of coral, of Aborigines spearing turtles, and of dugongs and other marine life were published in The Times and the Illustrated London News, with his own descriptive articles or captions. In April 1926 a letter of recommendation from his faculty brought this material and its author to the attention of (Sir) Edward Cunningham, editor of the Melbourne Argus. Cunningham offered Morrison a three-year cadetship in journalism at a starting salary of thirty shillings per week. Morrison worked out his cadetship in three months and became, successively, a general reporter, shipping roundsman, town-hall roundsman, Federal roundsman, State roundsman, leader of the State parliamentary press gallery, and a member of the literary staff, responsible for second editorials and special supplements. On 8 March 1930 at All Saints Church, Sandringham, he married Lucy Frances Washington with Anglican rites. In July 1937 he took over a long-established boys' page and a column of natural-history notes when A. H. Chisholm became editor of the Argus. After allowing his membership to lapse, Morrison rejoined the Field Naturalists Club (president 1941-43), and in 1938 also joined the Royal Society of Victoria (president 1949-51) and the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union.

In 1938 Sir Keith Murdoch, influenced by (Sir) Russell Grimwade, poached Morrison from the Argus—where he had progressed to senior special staff writer, deputy leader-writer, editor of special supplements and sometime acting-editor of the Australasian—and appointed him editor of a new magazine, Wild Life. Launched in October and priced at sixpence, the copiously illustrated magazine, with its various regular sections mostly written by Morrison under a pseudonym, was enthusiastically received. To publicize the new monthly, it was agreed that the Herald's radio-station 3DB-3LK would run a short series of weekly broadcasts by Crosbie Morrison.

Six 'Wild Life' talks were programmed for 6 p.m. on Sundays, an unpopular timeslot which lacked a commercial sponsor. But, in less than a month, Morrison's warm, well-modulated voice, with an accent neither offensively Australian nor obviously 'cultured', became required listening for thousands. The broadcast opened with a burst of kookaburra laughter, then the throbbing tones of a Sherbrooke Forest lyrebird, next the introduction of 'Mr Crosbie Morrison, Master of Science, editor of Wild Life', followed by the familiar, friendly, 'Good evening, listeners'. Before the programme was five years old, a survey found that 78 per cent of all Victorian radios switched on at that time on Sunday evening were tuned to Morrison. In the following year the programme was relayed throughout Australia and New Zealand. Later, it was extended to South Africa. It ran for over twenty years and continued after Morrison's death.

On the outbreak of World War II Morrison—still broadcasting and editing Wild Life—was made State publicity censor; his role was to oversee war news and items suitable for publication. The office was subsequently transferred to the Department of Information, whose minister Sir Henry Gullett appointed Morrison director of the broadcasting division, with the task of organizing an overseas service (later Radio Australia) to put forward Australia's view of the war. Morrison attacked the task with typical dispatch: within ten days of his appointment the service made its first broadcast—a statement by Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies of Australia's reasons for involvement in the war. Morrison soon found that his views on suitable subject matter 'failed to coincide' with those of his departmental colleagues. In January 1940 Gullett agreed to his request to release him.

Reasoning that the reassurance and solace offered by the natural world were doubly important in a nation undergoing the stresses of war, Morrison threw himself into Wild Life, his broadcasts and his writing. His crowded small office at the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd in Flinders Street had become legendary. Anything from a red-backed spider to a dead lizard was likely to arrive in the morning mail. He typed on a desk cluttered with books, files, papers, cigarette-lighters, ashtrays, and sundry tins, jars and matchboxes containing both live and obviously dead specimens. Smokers who visited him soon learned not to open any stray matchbox.

Morrison proved to be a popular part-time lecturer (1939-51) in natural history for the Melbourne University Extension Board (Council of Adult Education) and an even more popular panellist on 3DB-3LK's programme, 'Information Please', in which his particular and general knowledge shone. In 1942 he was appointed an honorary lecturer in the Australian Army Education Service. He visited troops in Victoria, in the Northern Territory and in occupied Japan to show films and to talk about wildlife to Australian servicemen and women. In 1947 he was awarded the Australian Natural History medallion by the Field Naturalists Club.

His commitments expanded with his reputation. He addressed a wide range of organizations, and gave fund-raising lectures for such causes as the United Nations Appeal for Children, the Russian Welfare Society, and, frequently, for the (Royal) Children's Hospital. Always a cheerful extrovert, Morrison joined the Rotary Club of Melbourne, and the Bread and Cheese, the Savage and the Beefsteak clubs. To the extent that his income permitted, he was becoming something of a man about town, who wore a black homburg and invariably had time for a quick chat and often a shaggy-dog story.

A trustee (from 1945), vice-president and chairman (1955-58) of the National Museum of Victoria, Morrison carried the fight for a new museum to successive State governments. As chairman of the building trustees representing the Public Library and National Gallery, as well as the museum, he hosted numerous state functions held at the gallery, particularly at the time of the 1956 Olympic Games. One of his innovations (1951) was a monthly series of Friday-night lectures.

At the end of World War II Morrison and others had pressed for a reorganization of Wilson's Promontory (he was a member of its committee of management) and all Victoria's neglected national parks. He wrote a rousing editorial to that effect in the May 1946 issue of Wild Life: 'if we do not have a postwar New Deal for the fauna and flora, the birthright of coming generations will have gone, and, once gone, it can be replaced by neither money nor toil nor tears'. The Field Naturalists Club subsequently convened a series of conferences of interested community bodies (chaired by Morrison) which advocated the creation by the Victorian government of a permanent, adequately funded, national parks authority. To further this aim, in 1952 the conference formed the Victorian National Parks Association, again with Morrison as chairman. For a further four years he led repeated delegations to Victorian premiers and development committees, urging the creation of the authority. Through Wild Life (until its demise early in 1954), in the press, on radio and in countless addresses to community organizations, Morrison maintained the pressure.

After various unsuccessful attempts by different political parties to introduce national parks legislation, (Sir) Henry Bolte's Liberal government passed the National Parks Act in October 1956. On 8 May 1957 the government announced the creation of the long-awaited National Parks Authority, with Morrison as its first director. In its care were thirteen national parks, totalling some 467,000 acres (188,990 ha), less than one per cent of the area of Victoria. Morrison faced the challenge with a small budget, few staff, and some entrenched committees of management. Despite suffering high blood pressure, he also kept up his punishing schedule of responsibilities, including his duties as chairman of trustees at the museum, his regular schools' programmes for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, his special consultancies for government and his Radio Australia broadcasts.

Crosbie Morrison died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 1 March 1958 at his Brighton home and was cremated; his wife and two sons survived him. Victoria's national parks system—his legacy—was by 1998 one of the finest in the country, with thirty-five national parks, three wilderness parks, thirty-two State parks, eleven marine or coastal parks and nearly three thousand conservation reserves, totalling more than 9.25 million acres (3.75 million ha) and covering 16 per cent of the State.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Pizzey, Crosbie Morrison (Melb, 1992) and for sources
  • People (Sydney), 1 July 1953
  • Victorian Naturalist, vol 75, June 1958, p 21, vol 75, Nov 1958, p 113
  • Emu, vol 58, May 1958, p 161.

Citation details

Graham Pizzey, 'Morrison, Philip Crosbie (1900–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/morrison-philip-crosbie-11177/text19917, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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