ABOUT CHARLES PALLAGHY - IN SCIENCE

‘I am what I am because of the love of God towards me’

IN SCIENCE

Born in Kecskemet 1939 in Hungary, to a German mother (Rotraut) and Hungarian father (Kalman), I,  Charles Pallaghy, grew up in war-torn Hungary and Germany, and then remained in post-war Germany before emigrating and arriving in Australia at the age of nine. I give much credit to the prayers of my German grandfather Pastor Friedrich Oels and to my parents for the ways God frequently saved our lives through the war years and beyond (see under 'God's grace over the years').  I hardly got to know Pastor Oels because he was very busy and our family was frequently on the move.

My family spent about nine months in the Lutheran manse in Germany before the war ended. My father, formerly a director of a magnesium plant in Hungary, had transferred himself to IG Farben in Bitterfeld, Germany, allowing the family to retreat from the advancing Russian front. IG Farben, that produced several Noble Prize winners and the first antibiotic, was the progenitor of AGFA, BASF and Bayer.

As a thirteen year old in Australia I would have much preferred becoming a multimillionaire in the newspaper business. I was offered an expense-free, full partnership in a franchise that covered the main city block including the central railway station in Melbourne. I had greatly impressed the business owner who had no children.  I was daily selling 500 copies of the paper, as well as magazines, with a weekly salary that was 50% higher than that of my father whose impeccable German degrees were not at first recognized, as many migrants discovered to their chagrin in those days. I would account for every penny at the end of the day and then purchased my own meal before walking home in the dark – in trepidation running quickly past dark alleys once I had seen the science-fiction film “The Thing”.  My older sister, Elizabeth, would often tease me about my fear of the dark.

On my salary I could have purchased a block of land every eight weeks in the northern suburbs or a two bedroom home every 40 weeks  in Carrum, a seaside resort on Port Phillip Bay, around 35 kilometres from Melbourne. I didn't and foolishly compromised my schooling by frequently not turning up deceiving my father. I spent my money on super-hero costumes, train sets, comics, the cinema, stamps, steel-tipped arrows and friends. On my ball-bearing go-cart I once delivered 800 comics to the Royal Women’s Hospital for their fund raising effort, but rarely thought of helping my own needy family, apart from a few items.  I watched Samson and Delilah starring Victor Mature 19 times and still enjoy the film and other biblical epics. In those days, one could stay in the cinema and watch the same film over and over again. I believe that some of the films were early catalysts in me eventually becoming a Christian.

Despite a home visit and pleas by the owner of the franchise my father refused to take me out of school and insisted that I must go onto University.  Both my mother (who greatly loved, but unfortunately also spoiled me) and I were bitterly disappointed. I detested study even more after that and only received sufficient grades to pass each year, and then even more so once I met my Czech-born, fiancé Milena during my third year at University.

I admit that I spent little time on studies and was constantly wavering what to do next. I spent a lot of time doing what I really loved - playing soccer at which I excelled. I am shown here at Melbourne University with other Blue’s winners at a dinner honouring past outstanding achievers in sport. When Sputnik circled the globe I skipped my first medical class and quickly enrolled into chemical engineering wanting to manufacture rocket fuels one day.

I graduated at the Universities of Melbourne and Tasmania in chemistry and biophysics respectively. My research career took me to Canberra for four years and then to Michigan State University for one year where I could have stayed on longer, but hastened back to a University in Melbourne to take up a tenured job on staff. Work was difficult because I studied chemical engineering for only two years and then switched to chemistry for four years, and finally took my PhD over four years in biophysics. At my new job I had to lecture and research in plant physiology. I always felt that I was a jack of all trades and master of none. I was expected to teach botany and plant physiology up to fourth year level never having formally studied classical biology previously, either at school or at university. Yet this is how God wanted me to proceed in life, to learn something about everything, so that eventually I could witness for God and have a wide knowledge of science at the same time. 

 

Despite success here and there I struggled to keep in pace with other staff in the department who were regularly awarded grants from external sources.  During my first year I was shown the file on my job application. I was staggered to discover that I had been competing internationally against 70 others, many of whom were my idols in the scientific literature. There is no doubt that getting the job and later success was a part of God's plan for my life since I hardly got grants after 1976, once I became a very vocal Christian. Theologians call that prevenient grace, the grace that comes before one even knows God. As the least academically qualified member of staff I had no business getting my tenured appointment in the first place. My outstanding references from top scientists in Canberra and at Michigan State University must have pushed the balance in my favour.

Before I became a Christian I had a very successful career in science despite personal difficulties. I spent one year in the Commonwealth Scientific Research Organisation before moving with the Head of Department, Australia's chief scientific adviser both to UNESCO and to the Prime Minister of Australia, over the road to the Australian National University, Canberra, where I stayed until 1970. At his recommendation I next spent a successful year at the Atomic Energy Plant Research Laboratories at Michigan State University. Discovering that many Australians who were overseas had difficulty returning to Australia I took up an invitation to join one of the Universities in Melbourne. At this time scientific jobs in Australia were also becoming rapidly scarce. I wanted to be close to my parents and relatives.

 

I am pictured in front of my EDAX x-ray analysis gear, obtained by a personal grant from the Australian Research Grants Committee, that was hooked up to the Department’s scanning electron microscope for microanalysis by electron-induced X-ray emission. All elements from atomic number 4 (Be) to 92 (U) can be detected in principle in individual cells, including heavy metals such as mercury and lead. I and my PhD student were invited to co-author a chapter in a book on environmental contamination with examples taken from all over the world.

During the years that followed I developed good relations with Indonesia who not only sent me students, but also invited me to train University staff in technical skills one month per year over a three-year period, through the International Development Program (IDP). Some of the Indonesian staff had already been well trained on equipment donated to Indonesia by various governments which puzzled me why IDP sent me there. I recount a humorous incident. When I struggled to understand the ambiguous, Japanese instruction manual the Indonesian (man with the moustache in blue shirt) finally said, ‘It’s this button, Sir’. The Japanese had already taught him. ‘So why am I teaching you?’ I asked. He responded, ‘Because if I damage the machine I will be in big trouble. But if you do, the Chancellor will understand that it was indeed a difficult instrument that even the expert from Australia damaged’.

I am well pleased that I never had the fairly narrow specialist training of other members of staff. It meant that I had freedom to move laterally, spend time to question dogma, and most important of all, did not inherit the tunnel vision that the more arrogant university teachers can pass on. My wide coverage of academic disciplines allowed me to talk the 'lingo' across a number of scientific disciplines and also critically investigate evolutionary dogma. Once I became a Christian I found comfort in the scripture which seemed to apply to me,

 

'Because the foolish thing of God is wiser than men and the weak thing of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brothers, that not many wise men according to the flesh are called, not many mighty, not many noble. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and God has chosen the base things of the world, and things which are despised, and things which are not, in order to bring to nothing things that are; so that no flesh should glory in His presence'. (1 Corinthians 1:25-29).

When I first believed in 1976 that God had created everything it paralysed me and my research effort. I was both delighted and devastated. I lost interest in scientific research for a few years devoting myself to teaching and helping biology students, yet was the supervisor of four PhD students in botany and one PhD student in Physics at Melbourne University during this critical phase.  My  values had suddenly been turned upside down and I wasn't prepared for it. With God's help He brought the students through successfully bar one who also lost interest, but ended up with a good teaching job, at least.

This insert shows a proud father at my son Paul's graduation at the University of Melbourne. Both of us received doctorates in physics departments, I in biophysics at the University of Tasmania and Paul in elementary particle physics at Melbourne University. Later on, Paul researched in biophysics, tutored in medical physics, and is now designing software some of his time. Unfortunately, it is an area devoid of jobs in Australia and he never ventured overseas for post-doctoral studies when he was still young and more capable, due to poor counselling. My hope and faith was that it would work together for good in God. (Romans 8:28). It has because he now has a good job with a large company using his skills.

We are also pleased with our daughter, Jennifer, who won prizes in Microbiology and graduated with an Honours degree. She is seen in this very recent photo working in pathology in one of Melbourne's diagnostic laboratories.

In their younger years, both of our children were harassed at school, at University and in their work-places, for being children of a creationist. Yet, all of our family love science and technology. My father was an industrial, chemical engineer, and company director, and my Hungarian grandfather was an excellent mathematician and principal of a high school. My wife has a Diploma of Education in English, German and History, while her sister and niece are well respected teachers, and her uncle was a Physics Professor in Czechoslovakia. So higher education runs in our blood.

It would be a grievous disservice to call any of the world's creationists 'flat-Earthers' and people still living in the Dark Ages. Though, in a botany department, I was appointed co-supervisor of a PhD student in physics at the University of Melbourne, while his supervisor took sabbatical leave overseas. I was co-recipient of a grant in physics for access to one of the  proton beams of the three storey-high Pelletron at Melbourne and was unofficially, but technically, part-owner of their X-ray analytical gear.

 

The project involved focusing a dynamic beam of protons electromagnetically into a three-dimensionally accurate, one micron probe for sub-microscopic analysis or mapping of elements in a sample by x-ray emission. I supervised the enthusiastic student for six months who was well versed in the mathematics required. We produced a scientific paper together once the supervisor arrived back.

It was at this time that I saw an ex-Mother Superior, of the Catholic Church in the USA, fill a teenager’s tooth through prayer in the name of Jesus. It would not be difficult to imagine how this stunned me,  a person thoroughly convinced that physics, mathematics and chemistry ran the Universe. Well, this changed everything!

 

When I told the returning supervisor, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, all he wanted was for me to get a tiny scraping from the silvery filling to see whether we could discover a new element in the Universe. I was not going to tempt God. I was just pleased for the girl and that miracles can happen today.

In 1988-89 the University sent me for 9 months to the John Innes Institute, Norwich, UK, to be retrained in viral molecular biology by experts in the field. It was fashionable for Australian scientists to go overseas to the world's best laboratories, not only to learn the latest techniques, but also to establish new networks in growing fields. The investment proved worthwhile from many points of view.

I rose to the occasion and in addition to all my other duties, I became a molecular biologist, virologist and genetic engineer in the last fourteen years of my career. With the help of my graduate students and an award winning visiting scientist from Israel in my laboratory I co-discovered the critical amino acid grouping responsible for virus infectivity in maize and sorghum. I visited the scientist (Professor Raffi Salomon) in later years who was only too keen to show me many biblical sites throughout Israel.

With me as supervisor, another graduate student from Korea prepared artificial cDNA gene sequences containing specific mutations of  the entire Johnson grass mosaic virus (insert) genome (10kb). This pioneering and ground-breaking work enabled my team of graduate students to produce genetically engineered virus-immune maize and sorghum plants. It was quite a feat because this long, spaghetti-like virus has an RNA genome 10,000 letters long (see articles on 'What is a gene?'). We had to mutate some specific 'letters' (or nucleotide bases) to get our desired results. We were the first to accomplish this on such a long virus. 

At this time, I received more PhD students from Asia who were willing to work on gene manipulation in maize and sorghum. Our project was proceeding well, but Australian growers were not prepared to pay for large scale field trials on our first generation genetically manipulated maize and sorghum plants, despite the extensive losses growers sometimes  experienced, occasionally up to 100% in sorghum fields. Without further financial support our project on maize and sorghum slowed down considerably. Despite the outcry against engineered crops, Australia was already growing gene manipulated cotton on a massive scale in the north at the time so we could have achieved an economically sustainable result had somebody backed our cereal project.

 

The industry in Australia was just not big enough to fund the project without the help of the large multinationals. Growers were being pressed by companies such as Monsanto to do business with them instead of with us.

 

Since everybody knew that there was much money in the cotton industry I turned my attention to cotton. Once our project was already underway for six months and when the news leaked out I was aggressively threatened over the phone from Canberra to refrain from competing against the Commonwealth Government. I was greatly surprised because our inserted genes were going to be quite different, aimed to produce more vigorous and more drought resistant plants. Up to that point, my relations with Canberra had been on very friendly terms. They even shared information on cotton engineering with my Masters student over a two-day visit. Our project was abandoned abruptly as I shall describe elsewhere on this website.

 

For a number of years I also had several graduate students working concurrently in the biotechnology laboratories of the Government of Victoria who supplied the funds and facilities for their research in molecular biology. Our university department would not have been able to pay for their research costs. The Director was most gracious, became their co-supervisor and graciously chose to ignore the fact that I was a creationist. The fact that I was an outspoken creationist was one of many reasons why I had not received research funds for years. Work on the genetic manipulation of clover progressed extremely well and the students graduated with excellent references from our university. Some stayed on to work at the same biotechnology institute while others went abroad for further experience. 

 

Unfortunately, there was no money in the pasture industry either and especially not in dairying. Dairying was in dire straits with smaller farms having to close down, some farmers becoming so depressed, with growing debts, that suicide became an option in Victoria. A Christian dairy farmer in Gippsland told me that his expenses were greater than what the milk co-operative was willing to give him. The milk co-operative even wanted to 'claw' money back from previous years!

I am photographed with my devoted and very friendly graduate students, two each from Korea and Indonesia, who successfully  produced sorghum resistant to Johnson grass mosaic virus (Leaf on left).

Together with another excellent graduate student (Yi-Han Lin, top - far right), I remain co-owner of a world patent with the Victorian Department of Agriculture of a robust and vigorous, gene-manipulated clover important to the dairying industry that resists browning in pastures under drought.

During my science career which took me overseas on several occasions, I and my wife Milena experienced many memorable occasions. Milena enjoyed our visit to Israel, except once when Professor Salomon took us to a hillside Druze-Arab restaurant in the north of Israel where Raffi's choice of orders did not impress Milena as you will notice in the first photo below. Later on, we preferred the street-side Druze cooks in their temporary stalls. However, we all approved of his choice of the Russian-run hotel overlooking the Dead Sea. 

I and Milena happened to be in Norwich, UK, during the time when England was knocked out of the World Soccer Cup. Alex Grant, from the Food Research Institute, and his wife Eileen, were no longer as happy after the match as in the pre-match photo.

The University Department where I worked gave me a splendid farewell in 2004. They did not mentioning a word about the trouble I had stirred up as a creationist during the mid-1970's to 1980's. They were very gracious about the good things I had done. We all parted friends. Their farewell gift, a beautifully carved cuckoo clock adorns the wall in our dinning room. The Biotechnology Unit of Agriculture Victoria, with whom I collaborated on a number of projects,  gave me a tremendous send-off with an Argentinian-style barbecue, a favourite of the Director who was from Uruguay.  A selection of memorable photographs are attached below.

 

 

Email: charles.pallaghy@gmail.com

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