Vale Roger Short, 1930–2021

Daniel Stefanski was a third-year medical student in 1994 when he attended a lecture that changed his life. The lecturer strode purposefully into the room, a seemingly innocuous presence. But the moment Roger Short unleashed his sonorous English voice and impaled the students with his sharp, insightful blue eyes, he captured his audience as masterfully as any Shakespearean actor.

The opening assault took their breath away: the world was killing itself, he said. By the start of the 19th century – after 100,000 years on the planet – humans had reached a population of 1 billion. But in the next 200 years, the world’s population had pushed close to 6 billion.

With that rate of multiplication, it was clear why global ecosystems were collapsing, he told them. Yet despite the terror the professor aroused in the audience and the enormity of the problem, this was no doom-and-gloom sermon: it was a call to arms. And there was a fresh note in Short’s tone – he suggested practical solutions. These included a proposal that educating females for longer was likely to decrease the number of children they bore. And that couples all over the world still lacked access to contraceptives or effective sex education.

Stefanski and 13 of his fellow students were hooked. After the lecture finished, they buttonholed Short in the corridor, speaking with him for four hours. Stefanski recalls Short finally saying: “Hey, there’s this really big U.N. conference in Cairo on population and development, you should go.” The students naturally thought this ridiculous. But Short persisted: “Why don’t you go back to your old high schools and do a peer-education program in sex education and present it at the conference?”

In the end, that’s exactly what they did. Presenting the paper about sex education in Australia to the Cairo conference was a life-changing experience for Stefanski. “It galvanised my desire to work in international health and development,” he said. But Stefanski is only one of a small army of missionaries that have been inspired by Roger Short. Over the years, his students studied elephant survival in Thailand, teenage abortions in Australia and AIDS in Botswana.

As Roger’s wife and scientific colleague Marilyn Renfree points out, “go to almost any conference anywhere and there will be people there who have been trained or inspired by Roger”.

Go to almost any conference anywhere and there will be people there who have been trained or inspired by Roger.

Short was a luminous evangelist, and idealistic researchers were drawn to him like moths to the flame. He may have lived in a middling suburb of Melbourne and work from an oversized cupboard at the back of Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital (after his ‘retirement’ from Monash University in 1995), but his everyday correspondence was likely to include letters from Jos, Nigeria; Gaborone, Botswana; Bangkok, Thailand; and Berkeley, California. With his connections in the highest echelons of science – he held fellowships in a string of elite scientific societies, academies and colleges – and close ties to leaders in public health and politics, he had the world at his fingertips.

Short lived and breathed the big picture, and his ideas never stopped. Alan Trounson, a Monash University reproductive biologist who knew Short at Cambridge University, describes him as “one of the special people in science”.

“He probably won’t win a Nobel Prize, but if I’m asked who’s had the biggest impact on scientists and the community, it would be Roger. He’s an ideas man, he’s always very creative and always outside of the mainstream. Most of us are lucky to have made one or two contributions to global scientific knowledge; he has made numerous,” Trounson says.

A large measure of Short’s brilliance came from the breadth of his work. He was not the typical ‘carrot’ scientist, growing deeper and narrower with time. Short was a self-confessed ‘cabbage’, adding layer upon layer as the years went by. Bob Seamark, another Cambridge colleague and reproductive biologist, suggests he was also something of a cabbage moth – darting from topic to topic, wafted by his own winds of inspiration and creativity.

A man and three young children stand at a monument marking the equator in uganda.
In Uganda in the mid 1960s.

The cabbage model helps explain how a zoologist ended up as one of the world’s least conventional and most controversial AIDS warriors. The development of Short’s career provided him with a broad repertoire of strategies. But his core idealism was something he attributed to his father.

“This has been in my wallet every day of my life,” Short once told me as he carefully removed a yellowing manuscript from a small plastic cover. The paper was so old it had fractured along the fold lines into a number of squares. It was a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address to the scholars of Dartmouth College on 24 July 1838, which Short’s father sent to him anonymously after he finished high school. Short recited it all flawlessly by rote – and one paragraph seemed particularly apt.

“Explore, and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatise, nor accept another’s dogmatism. Why should you renounce your right to traverse the starlit deserts of truth, for the premature comforts of an acre, house, and barn? Truth also has its roof, and bed, and board. Make yourself necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread, and if not store of it, yet such as shall not take away your property in all men’s possessions, in all men’s affections, in art, in nature, and in hope,”

Short finished the speech, then added, “It’s me, or what I would like to be. It directed my early days.”

Short’s father was a gifted mechanical engineer, who instilled in his son a love of practical things. His mother – a milkmaid and sometime actress – left her mark too. In their home in the English country village of Weybridge, they would hold play readings once a week, which is how Short honed his theatrical talents: “My mother taught me expression and how to hold an audience.”

His mother also set her son’s feet on their course: visiting him one day at school, she informed him: “Roger, you’ll be a vet but you’ll never practice; you’ll do research.” She knew her son well. Short showed every promise of being a hopeless veterinarian in practice – once, while spaying a cat covered by a surgical sheet, he mistook its knee joint for its ovary.

The next layer of the cabbage was added with Short’s doctorate at Cambridge, which he began in 1956 in the laboratory of celebrated Polish biochemist Thaddeus Mann. There, Short made his mark studying progesterone. The hormone was believed to play a key role in maintaining pregnancy, and labour was thought to be triggered by falling levels. Short developed a sensitive test for measuring circulating progesterone, and established that human birth is not preceded by a decrease in the hormone. He published several influential papers about progesterone’s role in pregnancy in different species, and generally earned himself a reputation as ‘Mr Progesterone’ – at least, that’s how an inebriated colleague once saluted him at a party.

Riding the wave of this success, Short set out on a quest to discover how different animals use hormones to tailor their reproductive programs. During the 1960s, in his role as a laboratory head at Cambridge, Short studied reproduction in African elephants, gorillas, chimps, waterbuck, Scottish red deer, domestic sheep, wild and domestic horses…and women. At one point he took his family to live for a year in Uganda in a mud hut 50 metres south of the equator. He designed and built himself a crossbow to paralyse and study elephants.

Short studied reproduction in African elephants, gorillas, chimps, waterbuck, Scottish red deer, domestic sheep, wild and domestic horses…and women.

“It was just good fun really,” he recalled. “I wanted to learn why elephants had a trunk, undescended testicles and no pleural cavity [a space between the lungs and chest wall found in all other mammals].”

The answer to each of these questions was to come nearly 30 years later. In 1999, Short acquired a series of elephant embryos from an elephant cull at South Africa’s Kruger National Park. When doctoral student Ann Gaeth dissected those embryos, she found tubular structures in their developing kidneys that are absent from other mammals, but present in fish and frogs. Since it is postulated that embryos replay the evolutionary history of their species, this suggested that elephants – in common with their close cousins the dugongs and manatees – had a recent aquatic past. The lungs are designed for snorkelling at depth, using their built-in snorkel: the trunk. And the testicles remain inside the body because elephants have so far had limited time to evolve a cooling system adapted to life on land.

Back in the 1960s, one of Short’s students in Uganda was dissecting elephants killed during an earlier cull and was arrested by local authorities. To rescue him, Short contacted Peter Scott, president of the World Wildlife Fund (since renamed Worldwide Fund for Nature). Scott pulled the right strings, but in the course of a conversation, Scott said something that had an enormous impact. Short recalled, “He got this far-away look in his eyes and said: ‘I set up the WWF to save endangered species. I’ve spent millions and failed. If we’d have put all that money into condoms, we’d have done better’.”

Sometime later, an official from Britain’s Medical Research Council visited Cambridge, hoping to speak to Short’s boss, Thaddeus Mann. Short happened to be in the office, so Mann canvassed his opinion on obstetrics research in Britain. Short said there were two sexes and Britain really ought to have an institute dedicated to all aspects of human reproduction, rather than focusing purely on the female. He must have made an impression: a few months later, he was invited to be the director of a new Medical Research Council Unit of Reproductive Biology. “I recalled Scott’s remark, and thought – why am I fiddling around enjoying myself with a crossbow and elephants and red deer? I should switch.”

That he was a veterinarian rather than medically qualified never fazed him. “I’ve always believed that’s an advantage, because you can think laterally in a way that medics can’t. They’re in a straitjacket; they only think about one species, which they consider to be at the top of the tree.”

And so, the next leaf of the cabbage was added. Short spent 10 years as the director of the unit he established in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was a fruitful if taxing time. The unit identified the hormonal signals that controlled nature’s most powerful contraceptive, breastfeeding. Their work showed that frequent suckling released endorphins, and that these were responsible for blocking ovulation. Short also developed an interest in the great apes and in researching the answer to such riveting questions as why the gorilla – largest of the apes – has the smallest penis and scrotum of any primate. Its erect penis reaches a length of just 3cm.

Chimps on the other hand, though smaller in build, have large genitalia. Chimps mate incessantly and never form lasting bonds; gorillas, on the other hand, mate once every four years and the dominant silverback forms a permanent relationship with his harem. Short came up with the theory that the size of the genitalia indicates the sexual culture of the ape: the more promiscuous the ape, the larger the genitalia. In the vernacular of the laboratory, Renfree said, it was known as “bad boys have big balls”. So where do humans fit? They have the largest genitalia of any primate; Short believed they were designed to be serially monogamous.

On a trip to Australia in 1981, Short met Marilyn Renfree, a marsupial biologist. It was the start of a passionate relationship that culminated in their marriage in 1982 and the couple’s move to Melbourne’s Monash University. Decades after that fateful meeting, Renfree said of her husband, “he was, and still is, my scientific hero”.

Screen shot 2021 08 10 at 1. 49. 13 pm samll 2 1
Credit: Noel Butcher

At Monash, Short and Renfree studied how hormones controlled marsupial reproduction. The Tamar wallaby was fascinating because its breeding cycle is highly seasonal. Give or take a day, all Tamar wallabies ovulate on 22 January. Working together, the couple teased out the circuitry that lay behind this extraordinarily precise control. Deep within mammalian brains lies the pineal gland, sometimes referred to as the ‘third eye’ because it senses light and dark. As daylight wanes, the gland releases the hormone melatonin – the longer the night, the more melatonin released. It turned out that wallabies used the changing duration of melatonin release as a ‘body clock’ to determine the time of ovulation.

About this time, Short found he was having trouble with his own body clock. Between visits to see his children in Britain and work conferences, he was becoming very jetlagged. He wondered if melatonin might also be setting the day-night cycle for him. So, on one of his trips to chair a conference in North Carolina, he swallowed 5mg of melatonin the night he arrived – the same dose he would give a sheep. Next morning, he was in such fine form one of the conference’s board members asked how he could be doing so well after arriving so recently from Australia. When Short told him, the board member, a Texan executive from the drug company UpJohn, responded, “Boy, when you get back to Melbourne, file a patent!” Short did, and that led to Circadian Technologies – Australia’s first listed biotechnology company, which debuted on the Australian Stock Exchange in June 1985.

Melatonin has since come into widespread use as a treatment for jetlag. Even NASA uses it for its astronauts. But the patent did not make Short wealthy: melatonin was a natural product, which meant health food companies in the US could make and sell it without infringing Short’s patent – as long as they did not claim it prevented jetlag.

Short moved on. While lecturing to medical students at Monash in the early 1980s, he was required to deliver a lecture about a new disease, acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Short never lectured from notes. In this case, he invited Brett Connolly, a man with AIDS who had been a captain in the Australian Army, to speak. Connolly described to the students how he had been court-martialled after being caught having sex with a man on Perth’s Cottlesloe Beach, and how he confessed this to his wife, and then discovered he had AIDS. At one point, a female walked out of the lecture theatre. Everyone assumed she was a prude or a bigot. She returned with a huge bunch of flowers, and presented them to Connolly. Everyone wept. “That was my turning point,” said Short, and his attention turned to AIDS.

Perhaps it was because of Connolly, or the Africans he knew who were affected by the disease, but for Short the AIDS epidemic was no abstract concept. When he visited St Paul’s Cathedral in London with one of his daughters (he had three daughters by his first marriage, and two with Renfree), he was reminded of the words of the English poet John Donne, who once sermonised in the cathedral: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

“This notion is what motivates me,” Short said earnestly. “I feel that idea very, very strongly.”

Often I think teaching is the most important thing one does. With research, if you don’t do it, someone else will; you may be first, but there’s always a second. But with teaching, you might just change someone’s life by inspiration.

As he advanced into his final decades, at a time when most would be planning a retirement hobby or serving on company boards, Short continued to dig deeply into the big ideas, and size up potential students to send on missions.

Serving with the WHO, it became apparent the fight against AIDS was failing. 

In 2004, about 5 million new cases were reported worldwide, of which about 60% were in Sub-Saharan Africa. Half were aged 15–24 years and 57% were women. The poor couldn’t afford life-saving retrovirals and there was no proven vaccine. Condoms could prevent the spread, but weren’t being used, to some extent because men disliked using them but also because church-based aid agencies were sometimes pressured by their head offices not to promote condoms. These realities in the field, and the rising infection rate, forced an urgent search for new solutions.

And Short came up with several.  For women these included lemon juice douches to kill the virus and estrogen cream to thicken and fortify the lining of the vagina to prevent the virus accessing tiny blood vessels.  

For men, Short promoted circumcision. Many studies showed that circumcised men had a reduced risk of contracting AIDS; Short believed this is because the lining of the foreskin has a large number of the Langerhans cells that ferry the AIDS virus into the body – something his student Scott McCoombe showed in his PhD work in Melbourne. 

Finally he addressed the social angle. In Botswana, girls were contracting the disease at three times the rate of boys. While they knew that having unprotected sex was playing Russian roulette, they couldn’t resist the lure of wealthy men who rewarded them with mobile telephones and ‘bling’. Another Short protégée, Kristi Roberts, supplied cameras to young women to focus the community’s awareness onto the problem. 

Not all of Short’s solutions for combating HIV were well-received. But whether lauded or criticised, it was difficult to imagine Short ever stopping. While a professorial fellow in obstetrics and gynaecology at Melbourne University’s Department of Perinatal Medicine, the aging Short received a letter from the university politely suggesting he wind down and become an honorary unsalaried professor. The idea was anathema to Short, because it would have removed him from his beloved teaching.

For Short, there was no higher calling: “Often I think teaching is the most important thing one does. With research, if you don’t do it, someone else will; you may be first, but there’s always a second. But with teaching, you might just change someone’s life by inspiration.

“And, if at the end of your life you have inspired just two other people, then you’ve justified yourself – you have made two for the price of one.”

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