Joe Baker

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Joe Baker

A life rich with science, sustainability, respect and rugby league

by Angelika Erpic

This is the biography of Joe Baker (1932–2018), an Australian scientist whose many broad-ranging achievements were interwoven with conspicuous respect for and generosity toward others.

Joe's biographer, Angelika Erpic, writes:

'I was so enchanted by Joe’s telling of his "most significant science"—explained in Chapter 1 —that the urge to ask to write his story became irresistible. The science story he told me was of the path to his doctorate—a path that was somewhat directed by his love for a girl.

'Joe’s doctorate, Studies on Tyrian purple and its precursors from Australian molluscs, resulted from inadvertently finding a chemical produced by a shellfish collected on a rock platform, and led to his extraordinary life. However, the reason he was fishing at all was to gain the skills to better woo the girl with whom he was smitten—she was a keen and skilled fisher.

'Joe was very well known, respected and widely admired within his fields of work and interest and has also been recognised at official levels—for example, he was a recipient of an OBE and OA.

'When I first met Joe, I knew very little about him, but I came to realise that he was an exceptional person for many reasons. For example, Joe wished for outcomes of research to be spread as widely as possible—and he had no wish for personal gain or glory. To his last breath he most fervently wished for an informed society that cared for the land, sea and all the people who inhabited these spaces. He held a deeply embedded belief in providing whole-hearted service to society.

'Even though he is remembered by many as a most remarkable man of his time, Joe’s story is not widely known within the broader population—perhaps because of his unassuming, modest manner and lack of interest in personal glory. However, he was and will remain a source of inspiration, including to the younger, emerging scientists of today.'

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Often the most interesting biographies to read are those about the humble hero, whose rewards seem to come from the achievements themselves rather than fame. Joe Baker’s biography definitely falls into this category.

By the time I reached the end of the book, I had a strong sense of what a wonderful man Joe Baker is – a true gentleman, an outstanding scientist and an excellent team player and mentor – a rare combination indeed.

If Joe Baker were a cricketer, he would be classified as an ‘all-rounder’. Joe Baker though is more than that – a pioneer in various fields, a man who could so easily have made his career based on sport, a devoted family man and above all, someone whose decency and determination never faltered.

With little background in science, I found this book to be an absorbing read – I was never bored. The style of the book pays homage to a man who, with little fanfare, has achieved so much.

Joe’s story does not strictly follow chronology but is rather loosely linked to the order in which interviews took place. That, together with Erpic’s decision to start each chapter with her response to the next stage of visits or research related to this project, gives the reader a sense of undertaking a journey with the writer.

The end of the journey left me with the sense that we need more Joe Bakers in this world. Certain images teased my mind well after finishing the book. This is a man who has been instrumental in raising the profile of marine science in Australia. The many battles he faced in establishing facilities ironically reflect the development and support of science in Australia generally. Joe never shied away from the challenges and setbacks in the various institutes where he held either senior or founding positions. And he never lost his decency and respect for others.

Erpic’s book provides a detailed account of Joe’s many achievements and awards. Without a doubt, he has had a stellar career. However what remains in my mind are the many times he displayed a caring, consultative attitude towards his colleagues, and his unerring modesty and unselfish responses to all he met. He gives his time and wisdom to others generously, whether it is family, sport or work. He was able to deal skilfully and tactfully with politicians, business executives and even those with a mistrust of academia.

The discovery that ‘one of life’s true gentlemen’ can still achieve so much in today’s cutthroat environment makes this book memorable.

Dr Jacqueline Jaffrey has a first class Honours degree from Newcastle University and Ph.D in English and Diploma of Education from Monash University. She has taught English at various schools and colleges in Victoria and Tasmania as well as teaching English at the University of Saarbrücken in Germany. She has now retired to the Sapphire Coast of NSW, based in Eden.