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ON DISPLAY

Sir John Eccles
, 1959

by Pam MacFarlane

pastel on paper (frame: 65.0 cm x 46.6 cm)

Sir John Carew Eccles AC FRS FAA (1903–1997) won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1963 for his discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane. Eccles excelled at school and university in country Victoria and Melbourne – and proved himself a top pole-vaulter – before moving to Oxford to join the laboratory of neuroscientist Charles Sherrington. After holding positions in Sydney and Otago, New Zealand, Eccles returned to Australia in September 1952 to take up the Foundation Chair of Physiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra. Here, he and his colleagues concentrated hard on the biophysical aspects of synaptic transmission. Eccles weathered a blow in 1960, when a journalist told him that he had won the Nobel Prize; the celebrations died abruptly when news arrived some hours later that it was Macfarlane Burnet who had won. Three years later, he shared the Nobel Prize with AF Huxley and AL Hodgkin. President of the Australian Academy of Science from 1957 until 1961, Eccles worked in the USA from 1966 onward and retired to Switzerland, where he is buried. Nearly a fifth of his staggering pile of publications dealt with the question of the relationship between the mind and the brain. As he grew old, the father of nine came to see the field of his life’s work as central to ‘the mysteries of coming to be, and the mysteries of ceasing to be’.

Pamela MacFarlane was born in Dunedin, New Zealand and completed a Master’s degree in Zoology at the University of Otago in the 1940s. During part of this period she also studied at the Dunedin School of Art. In 1949, when she was working as a publications illustrator at the University of Western Australia, she married physiologist Victor MacFarlane. After some years in Brisbane and New York, in 1959 the MacFarlanes moved to Canberra, where Victor became a Professorial Fellow under Eccles at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. During their time in the capital, Pamela MacFarlane made several pastel drawings of Eccles and painted a commissioned work, Uroboros 1963, for the Junior Common Room of the ANU’s Bruce Hall. In 1964, when Victor accepted a position at the Waite Institute, the family moved to Crafers in the Adelaide Hills. Here, much of her work was to be destroyed in the catastrophic bush fires of 1983. MacFarlane held about fifteen solo exhibitions in Dunedin, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra, and participated in many group shows. She is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, the state galleries of South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania and University collections in Brisbane and Canberra.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of an anonymous donor 2007
Accession number: 2007.34