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Bill Conroy, top agriculturalist, dies at 88

BY KEITH JACKSON

Portrait THE LOCAL NEWSPAPER, struggling for a parochial angle, headlined the story ‘Avalon expert on ticks dies’.

The expert in question was Wilfred Lawrence Conroy CBE, who in fact was far more than a local entomologist.

He was better known to the many people who encountered and respected him as Bill Conroy, a pioneering agriculturalist in PNG during and for many years beyond World War II.

After training as an agricultural scientist, Mr Conroy commanded a malaria control unit in the Australian Army in PNG during the war.

He stayed on after the war, eventually becoming Director of the Department of Agriculture, Stock and Fisheries. He remained in PNG until 1978 after training his successor and acting as an adviser to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Four of Mr Conroy’s five children were born in PNG.

While serving in PNG, Bill published many articles including Swampland agriculture, Native agriculture in PNG, Some land use problems in PNG, The evolution of the agricultural environment in PNG, The effect of fire and Tradition and trends in agriculture.

After moving to Avalon many years ago, Mr Conroy and fellow entomologist Bernie Hudson got involved in the Tick-Borne Diseases Research Unit at Royal North Shore Hospital.

I bumped into him in 1983 when, as a Labor party candidate in the election won by Bob Hawke, I door-knocked his home in north Avalon. We spent the afternoon yarning about PNG - electoral matters the furthest things from our minds.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist John Huxley wrote of him in an article a few years ago: “Small, wiry and smelling pungently of a powerful insect repellent, which he has sprayed from the top of his felt hat to the toes of his battered leather boots, 81-year-old Bill Conroy emerges bedraggled from the bushland above Avalon on the northern beaches.

He looks like a long-lost fugitive, or a Civil War soldier, waving what seems to be a large, white flag of surrender.

In fact, Bill is neither lost nor defeated. And his flag - an old, cheesy-smelling towel attached to a long, wooden pole - is not a symbol of surrender, but a weapon in his long-running battle against an almost invisible foe that spreads disease and, in some cases, death.

The paralysis tick, or, to give its scientific name, Ixodes holocylus. Blind and, even in its adult form, no bigger than a watermelon seed, the tick is described by leading Sydney University parasitologist Henry Collins as ‘basically, little more than a balloon attached to a hypodermic syringe’.

Conroy is fascinated by ticks - has been for several years. They can climb. They can jump - "six inches: must be a world record for bugs". And their legs and heads are covered with hundreds of minute sensors. These enable them to identify the animal hosts, including humans, on which they drop, usually from overhanging branches, when questing for the blood that sustains the parasites through the various stages of their life cycle.

What's more, Avalon is the tick capital of the empire," says Conroy proudly, as he sweeps his smelly towel back and forth, hoping to pick up ticks from the bosky under-storey of bushes. "This is ideal habitat," he says, pointing off the path. "Semi-cleared, close to human traffic, on the margins."

Conroy admits that his wife, Marie, who has never forgotten "a particularly nasty time she had with a tick many years ago", tends to attack the ticks with metho. "She likes to hear them die screaming." But, surprisingly, perhaps, he follows almost all of his own advice: covering up well; tucking pants into socks; spraying everywhere on the body, especially round the neck, waistline and ankles, and on hat and clothes; checking after each outing that none of the little buggers has penetrated his defences.

It might be imagined that after so many years of collecting ticks he would have enjoyed immunity from their bites. "Not so. I went through that state a long time ago," he says, before striding back into the bush with his white flag. "I'm now highly sensitised. A tick bite could kill me."

In 2001, Bill Conroy added to his CBE the Centenary Medal for his service to military medical entomology.

One tribute in the local media said: “This scientist was a good man and my heart goes out to his family. He worked- for free - and was a great, decent, honest man who loved animals. Bill I thank you - as I know many others thank you - for your tireless work on trying to make this country a safer place for pets and mankind”.

Former Bougainville District Commissioner, Bill Brown MBE, adds:

Bill Conroy was a lecturer at ASOPA in 1949, on secondment from Papua New Guinea.

Another lecturer and Bill's compatriot, Jim McAuley, was a lifelong friend, and two of Jim's odes, one in song and one in verse, figured largely in the funeral service at Avalon today.

Bill's life had many highlights. One was in Bougainville, in August 1969 - after the Rorovana disaster - when he led the Administration's team in the Arawa land negotiations.

Conroy never lost his cool. He puffed his pipe, and he and [Public Solicitor Peter] Lalor controlled the play.

Research: Robin Hide

Comments

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Ian Ridley

Bill was inspirational, full of enthusiasm and freely gave his time and knowledge during a brief research project I conducted with him on paralysis ticks.

Ken McKinnon

As usual an excellent PNG Attitude. It is a real contribution for which you are to be congratulated and thanked.

Your piece on Bill Conroy highlighted what a good scientist he was. I don't think, however, that you said enough about his service as a departmental head.

He was Director of Agriculture, during the time I was Director of Education from the mid sixties until 1973. Few people knew just how influential Bill was in his characteristically quiet and understated way.

Most of us who were there at that time were aware of the didiman extension officer scheme, which introduced new cropping ideas and helped the first stages of economic growth through agricultural efforts.

Fred Kleckham, a close friend of mine, was one of the first of that band. It was he who first introduced me to Bill several years earlier when I was in Daru.

That acquaintance allowed me to draw on Bill's deep knowledge, especially at that time as we were trying to develop vocationally oriented schools.

Later as Director of Education I benefited from his deep knowledge of most parts of PNG and the kinds of development it would be appropriate to encourage through schools complementing Agricultural Extension Officer activities.

In Port Moresby, among Heads of Department and within Australian Government circles, especially the public servants in Canberra responsible for advising the Australian Government, his input was more respected than most.

For much of that time the Secretary of External Territories was George Warwick-Smith, an unsuitable occupant of that post and a positive drag on PNG development, but Bill's expert input was always a useful counterpoint that had to be taken into account.

A feature of discussions with Bill was the breadth of his knowledge of world agricultural economics and the forces that would impinge upon PNG as it moved into independence.

In that sense he was an important early strategist. He was, for example an informed voice on the question of tariffs, both Australian that would affect PNG and those that PNG itself might have to think about.

The usual mode of discussion with Bill was a joy, for he put his arguments and views in a civilised thoughtful way, responsive to other points of view but always with a wealth of evidence that had to be considered. He was always seeking a way forward for PNG.

He was, in my view, despite the public recognition he did get, under-appreciated, a senior public servant who would have graced any service, but certainly the right man in the right place at the right time to advantage the development of PNG.

Bill Brown

Bill Conroy was a lecturer at ASOPA in 1949, on secondment from Papua New Guinea.

Another lecturer and Bill's compatriot, Jim McAuley, was a lifelong friend, and two of Jim's odes, one in song and one in verse, figured largely in the funeral service at Avalon today.

Bill's life had many highlights. One was in Bougainville, in August 1969 - after the Rorovana disaster - when he led the Administration's team in the Arawa land negotiations.

The other sides to the negotiations, and there were many sides, included CRA led by Ray Ballmer (backed by Colin Bishop and Phil Opas QC), the people (perhaps represented by Peter Lalor and his team from the Public Solicitor's Office and also, or maybe, represented by Don McKay from a firm of Sydney Solicitors, Sly and Russell).

The Department of Territories was led by Assistant Secretary, Don Mentz, and on the sidelines, but still participants, were John Tidex, a Sydney accountant and Jim Coulter from Moral Rearmament.

Conroy never lost his cool. He puffed his pipe, and he and Lalor controlled the play.

And a mild clarification of an earlier post - Albert Maori Kiki (later Sir Albert) was the first Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Bill Conroy was the first Secretary of the Department.

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