A conversation with Mike Tallis

by N I Fisher[1]

University of Sydney


George Michael Tallis was born in Melbourne on 10 August 1931.  After private tutoring, he entered Geelong Grammar School at the age of 12 to complete his schooling.  He attended Longerenong Agricultural College (Diploma and BSc 1953), before studying Human Genetics at Ohio State University (MS 1956, PhD 1957).  He joined Helen Newton Turner’s group in CSIRO Division of Animal Genetics, then transferred to CSIRO Division of Mathematical Statistics in 1961.  He studied (part-time) study at the University of New South Wales, graduating with an MSc in Mathematics in 1963, and a PhD in Statistics in 1965.  He spent 1964–1966 at the Department of Biostatistics, Johns Hopkins University, returning to CSIRO in 1967.  In 1970, he took up a Readership at the University of Adelaide, retiring as Associate Professor in 1992 and continuing as an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow until 2000.  In 1976, he was awarded a DSc by the University of New South Wales in recognition of his research contributions in Biostatistics.  After 2000, he continued doing research, much of it with his wife Joan, with whom he documented the Tallis family history.  He authored or co-authored 96 peer-reviewed articles and wrote 5 books, most notably The Silent Showman, which recounted the story of Mike’s grandfather Sir George Tallis, founder of the world’s largest entertainment organization in the 1920s, and of the first 50 years of the Australia’s theatre company, J. C. Williamson Ltd.

This conversation took place at Mike’s home in Springfield, Adelaide during 14–15 April, 2010.



Posthumous note.  A short while after completing this interview, Mike’s health started to deteriorate and it was not possible to finalise the details of the interview.  He passed away on 21 February 2017, Joan having preceded him in 2015. They are survived by their four children George Andrew, Katie, Lindy and Jenny, 12 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.

Joan and Mike were very hospitable during the period of the interview, and provided me with a copy of The Silent Showman, opening the door to a part of theatrical history – and indeed, a side of Mike – of which I was completely unaware.  Finalising the interview was not possible at the time, as Mike had become unwell.  Early in 2017, his daughter Lindy contacted me with news of Mike’s and Joan’s passing, and having seen the draft interview advised me that the Tallis family would like to see it published.  Lindy has been extraordinarily helpful in clarifying and correcting details and meticulous reading of drafts.  Also, she supplied many of the photographs.  I’m also grateful to Bill Venables and Peter Chesson, who provided valuable information about Mike’s time at the University of Adelaide. Mike was a long-time Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, which has published an obituary (Fisher 2017).

  1. Family background

Interviewer.  Mike thanks very much for agreeing to have this conversation.   I’d like to start by asking you a somewhat unusual question.  You are George Michael Tallis and yet you call yourself Mike. Why aren’t you called George?

GMT.  The first George that was my grandfather, George Tallis.  Various of his descendants have George in their names, but he was the only one known as George when I was growing up; for example, my father was named George Cassias Tallis, but people called him Mick.

Let’s start with the first George, because he wasn’t born in Australia.

No, he was born in Ireland. He went to school until he was fourteen and then he took on a job with the Kilkenny Moderator as a cadet reporter where he acquired good writing and reporting skills. Then he added to his skills by learning Pitman Shorthand, and this additional skill led to a remarkable story … .

George had two brothers, John and Henry, who were sickly.  In Ireland the winters were appalling and the diet was very bad so they decided they’d go to Australia where they hoped the sunshine would help. They boarded the boat all right, got over there and disembarked at Sydney but that didn’t work well.  John died within a year, leaving Henry on his own, and he drifted all over the place. News eventually filtered back to the family and they were so worried they decided to send two more siblings to Australia to try to save Henry.  George and his sister Charlotte sailed out to Melbourne and Charlotte went off to find Henry, who’d actually ended up in a small town near Melbourne. Sadly, Henry died a short while later and Charlotte went back home.

Meanwhile, George decided he’d like to have a job so that they could keep the home fires burning in terms of money. He knew exactly where he wanted to go and he knew that long before he even got on the boat.  The name J C Williamson –  that is James Cassias Williamson, you notice the Cassias in that –  was known around the world.  Not only had George heard about him before he’d left Ireland, he even had a letter of introduction to him.    Williamson was a great theatre manager and because he could also act, he was also an actor-manager;  he’d learnt all this in America, where he was born.  He’d travelled a lot, was very, very experienced, and he was running a very big theatrical company right there in Melbourne.  George went to see him to ask him for a job. Williamson was very overworked at that particular stage and he was really looking for a secretary, so when George turned up, and it turned out that he could do the secretarial work with his shorthand, and he looked presentable, Williamson took him on.

They ended up working together for twenty-five years. Williamson trained George to understand the business of theatre, and on the reverse side George was pretty good at finding cute ways of doing things faster and better, so they got on very well. By the time they’d finished they’d essentially built the biggest theatre company in the southern hemisphere (although it wasn’t actually a company at that stage). You just don’t realise how busy and how strenuous it was to run the business.  They had to bring new theatre material back from America and Britain and either get the actors over or get the requirements about what was needed to put on a show. Then of course the business of show business is a very exhausting thing: running theatres, bringing the theatricals in, getting the players.  They sent these theatrical companies travelling on circuit, and some of the better ones travelled all over Australia and then over to New Zealand, so you can just imagine what it was like moving such huge amounts of people and the necessary requirements for stage acting.

And then there were some big names.

Yes.  Dame Nellie Melba was a local, but there were other big ones who came out and travelled on the circuit. Theatre people can be somewhat difficult to manage:  if they don’t get what they want they start whingeing so you have to keep everybody happy and keep the whole troupe together when you’ve got them on the circuit.   And that would be for just one production and when you find out that they used to have fifteen of them on the circuit at any one time, it was a massive exercise in co-ordination.


Mike’s grandfather George Michael Tallis, the ‘Silent Showman’, photographed in 1946

You and Joan [Mike’s wife] have written a fascinating book (Tallis & Tallis 2006) about this period which describes your grandfather’s journey from being almost a penniless immigrant to somebody who was the head of the largest entertainment organisation in the world, an astonishing thing in that relatively short space of time.

My grandfather was a busy man and loved his job with a passion. Williamson was a marvellous fellow himself. He was very well known, but he dropped out in 1913 and died the same year, which was a great loss. But then George took over the company, J C Williamson Limited as it was at that time, and so he ran it for the next eighteen years.

And he expanded into wireless and he expanded into film, cinema, and so on … .

Yes. He saw that flicks were becoming popular and that some of theatre-goers were now going to the flicks and not to the live theatres so he had to do something about it. J C Williamson had a huge collection of theatres that they had to look after all the time, as well as keeping up to speed with their theatre business.  Silent films suddenly became the talkies and that was a big thing for him too. Then of course there was radio which followed pretty quickly after that, in the 1920s. The flicks were really from about 1915 to 1920, 1921, 1922, after which time they were talkies. Then once the talkies started, radio followed and George was heavily involved in that and in building up broadcasting stations. J. C Williamson eventually got the biggest listener area because of 3LO and 3AR, which were very, very powerful broadcasters.  In addition they also put on a short wave system that was almost unique and that was broadcasting all over Australia.

A Rupert Murdoch in terms of media development.

J C Williamson were perfectly happy to take risks and not everything turned out well.  Radio for instance couldn’t have been worse. They had licences that lasted for five years, so there was a lot of effort put into 3LO, 3AR and a lot of other things. Licences weren’t made available to them from that time on and by 1933 a lot of these radio stations were taken in by the government and they weren’t compensated for them so there were huge losses there.

Do you remember your grandfather at all?

Yes: he died in 1948.  I was still at school and I saw him on and off for seventeen years, but he was away an awful lot. We used to live in the house where he lived in later times: from 1935 onwards he sold up everything and moved to the Mornington Peninsula. They had a nice old house and as children my sister and I were there all the time. My father obviously got his Cassias from J Cassias Williamson just as a nice gesture of respect.  Grandfather was forever coming and going to England and other places, you’d see huge trunks being loaded and taken away, even after he had resigned. He’d be away for nearly a year at a time, about six months of travelling and six months looking at various theatre productions.

So with all this travel he couldn’t have had much time with his own children let alone with his grandchildren.

I think he left his own children to take care of his farms.   He had apples and pears and sheep and cattle and milking cows and all these sorts of things so I think my father looked after all of those when his father was away.

What was your father’s background?

He was a mechanical engineer, and enjoyed engineering things.  Then the war came. He was too old to be at the front but they found a good spot for him

Mike and his father, 1941

because he was a mechanical engineer.  They tried to invent useful devices that would help the war effort and some quite sensible people wrote in with ideas that would be tested to see if they were any good.  Most of them were thrown away.


But the Army Inventions Directorate was trying to do its own stuff and my father was interested in a number of those things and a lot of this stuff was kept very quiet.

Can we go back a little bit: how did he meet your mother?

He went to Harvard University, and that’s where he ran into my mother, who was American and was studying at Radcliffe College.  He left Australia without a wife and he came back with one.   She had a very difficult life in those days.  None of her friends were out here and it was very hard to get established in a totally different environment like Melbourne. And then right through the war she was on her own. I think she enjoyed her life but it was a very tough one.

You have a sister?

Yes, she’s still alive.  She’s older than me.  She’ll live to be a thousand, she’s like that.



  1. Early days

So you were born in Melbourne?

Yes. Didn’t last there long, I grew up mainly down in the big old house on the Mornington Peninsula, on the farm.    George had four children: my father was the first, then another boy and two girls.

What are your earliest memories?

I used to like reading, even as a kid I used to read a lot.  Then one day, when I was only about four or five, I was reading a very nice story about an elephant running on top of something or another and all of a sudden somebody whipped the book away from me.  I remember that I kicked up a huge fuss, I gave them heaps. They said, ‘You can’t read it now,’ and I said, ‘Why not?’ and they said, ‘The doctor’s coming.’  It turned out that I had progressive myopia, which means that your eye keeps on getting bigger and bigger and bigger and as it does that you have to hold things closer and closer so that you can see them. They reckoned that if you used your eye you were straining it so that meant that reading strained it.  It’s a piece of rubbish but in those days that’s what the ophthalmologists were insisting upon because they didn’t want to have somebody working their eyes too hard and saying, ‘Look what’s happened now’. They told me that I was banned from reading again until I was 21. That was very, very hard for me.

What happened about your schooling?

I got a certain amount of education from people reading to me. One of the first was Mimi Kassner, who was a very interesting woman, very clever.  She taught me German, French and some mathematical things that nobody understood but that didn’t matter.  She also taught me judo, the best present she could have given me.  However, she left in 1943.

How did she teach you?

She’d read to me and then she asked me what it meant.  I’d translate it.  By the time I got finished with it, I couldn’t talk to the ophthalmologist because I could only recite the alphabet in German.  He said, ‘Can you read what that is, is that an A, or B, or C?’ I responded, ‘Ah, Beh, Seh,’ and he said, ‘What?’

You responded with German pronunciation of the letters?

I hadn’t had time to learn the Australian alphabet. It gets a little bit tougher after that [recites whole alphabet in German].

She was also teaching you maths. Were you learning formulae?

That’s when I went to school, in 1943, as a border at Geelong Grammar.  Almost the whole time I was in Geelong Grammar I wasn’t able to use my eyesight muchI couldn’t write much either. Physics was all right but maths no, I didn’t do much. So I really came out without any real mathematics at all.

What about sport?

Mimi had taught me Judo. If you have a bad time with a bunch of kids – and you always do if you’ve got big glasses – they are giving you heaps so you need some form of retaliation, so occasionally I applied it. I couldn’t play football, I wasn’t allowed. I avoided ball games except for golf because the ball stood still.

You played a lot of other sports at school.

Yes, Rowing, Athletics, Gymnastics and Swimming. That part was good but I couldn’t do any ball games. During the last year at school I rowed with the First Eight, won the Shot Put, came second in the High Jump, was in the school swimming team, the gymnastic team, and played off 10 at golf. Post school, my main sport was discus throwing. I was 3rd in Australia and I felt pretty smart.  Then, when I arrived some years later in Columbus Ohio I watched a schoolboy break the Australian record for the discus at will, so it was time to move on. Up until the last 12 years, Joan and I played B grade golf, but now I go to the gym three times a week and Joan plays competition bridge.

In the classroom you didn’t do much history, mainly scientific subjects?

I hardly did any science subjects. I did German and French and English but you had to do a bit of something there. There was still a problem with not doing too much work on my own and if I got stuck on something I had to go and talk to somebody. You have no idea how out of whack you are when you leave school without doing maths or the sciences properly.  I was really uneducated in any of that stuff.

Then I went to an agricultural place, Longerenong Agricultural College.

  1. Genetics studies

Why did you choose an agricultural college?

Because they reckoned “You can’t read, boy, you’d better get on a horse out on a farm”. The ophthalmologist again, my parents were listening to the ophthalmologist.

This was the same chap who was talking to you before.

Yes he was still going. That seemed a good thing to them to do because I’d never be able to do any proper study. I couldn’t stand it.  It was boring.  What wasn’t so boring was being with other people and there were things that we learnt, such as Accountancy, which is a good thing to learn.  The rest of it was okay but it was just marking time for me.

Eventually, I went to England to help get my eyes sorted out. I needed contact lenses and you couldn’t get decent contact lenses in Australia at the time.

What year was this, Mike?


You were born in 1931 so you are now nineteen and still not allowed to read?

Yep, not allowed to read. My mother went with me to make sure that I got to see the right doctors. She stayed there and I went on to Ohio.  I met Joan on the boat to England and that was a problem for both of us because she had her parents with her. She was marvellous with them though, they were very old people and she guided them all over the place.  I had to move on to Columbus Ohio because I was enrolling there.

Why did you choose Columbus, Ohio?

Well my mother came from Columbus, Ohio and she’d done some work in Columbus and it just seemed the right thing. I had an aunt and uncle there who were very helpful.

Did you know what you wanted to study?

After spending time at Longerenong I’d learnt enough to realise that there weren’t very many people who knew genetics, particularly animal genetics. That was becoming quite an interesting area to be in so I thought, well, maybe I should get on the bandwagon and go into genetics and see how it all pans out. When I went to Columbus I did the first year and a half and tidied up the Longerenong studies that I’d been pursuing, and that gave me an undergraduate degree. I went back to Australia and Joan and I were married.

The two of us actually went out and looked at farms for about six months and they didn’t thrill us in any way at all. Everything was falling down, there was nothing that didn’t have to be fixed and so on and it looked so depressing. If you are going into farming you’ve got to have the thing all up and running and smooth otherwise you’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do, so we got on the horse again and went over to Ohio State to study Genetics. I knew some of the people there by then.

You picked up some statistics and biometrics while you were there?

Yes, I picked up some biometrics. There was only one fellow who was fairly lightweight in statistics, there was very little going at all. Anyway there was enough there to help with whatever we were doing.  I managed to finish my PhD (Tallis 1957) and then we headed back to Australia in 1958 and I started looking for a job.

  1. CSIRO – Genetics, and statistical beginnings

How did you set about that?

I applied for a job with CSIRO.  I knew CSIRO would be one place to go and I knew that Helen Turner was in charge of the sheep in animal genetics.

She gave me a call.  She wanted to know whether I had a hat.   I didn’t have a hat, I’ve never had a hat in my life but I just said yes, I thought I’m not going to say no on this one. She said “Well, you’ve got the hat so jump on it, you’ve got it.’ That was an interesting way to tell you that you’d got a job. I had to wait a long time though, there was another person scouting around this position and it was just a toss of the coin. I just happened to get it.

OK, you are now in the CSIRO Division of Animal Genetics. What was going on in the group?

Helen wanted to get an assessment of a number of things to do with sheep in genetic terms and I was the one who had to find out.   She gave me plenty of problems to solve. The first involved calculating the variances of various genetic estimators.

But you didn’t have any maths or stats at this stage …

No I didn’t. If you look at Oscar Kempthorne’s book (Kempthorne 1957), you’ll see a lot of material there that would have been very helpful so I suppose I must have got hold of that book to solve those particular problems. That was the first job and I think she was quite pleased.

Then there was an eternal artificial insemination project. I got sent way up into New England for six weeks at a time to work out what would happen if you did this, that and the other thing with artificial insemination. I was trying to learn maths and lots of other things and I couldn’t do it because I was called out at five o’clock in the morning to round up the sheep and get some artificial insemination going.

You were doing hands-on artificial insemination.

Hands-on all over the place.

Why do they want to do artificial insemination?

The idea is that you get a larger number of lambs from a fixed group of ewes.  It depends on how effective the ram is.  If the ram is good and he’s at it all the time then maybe there will be plenty of lambs but if he isn’t good there aren’t many lambs. With AI you should get the best results in terms of numbers of lambs. There were some interesting things that we could do.

So now you’re doing the applied genetics but you are also doing some theoretical calculations associated with it.

Yes. I’d done a little bit, and I’d done a bit of the maths.  It was nothing like the sort of maths that was really required but it was all right for some of this genetic stuff. The problem for Helen was that things weren’t going terribly well and what I couldn’t do we used to give to someone else and the results and the credit were going outside the Unit.  She wanted most of the credit for the Unit.  That’s fair enough, but I told her, ‘Well I can’t do it, I haven’t got the maths for it.’ She said, ‘Well go and get the maths.’ I said, ‘Okay you asked for it’, and went off to the University of New South Wales. It’s a marvellous place, straightforward, not ethereal; down-to-earth maths, with all that’s necessary, practical.

Who were the people there teaching you?

Jim Douglas. Absolutely the nicest guy you could ever meet.  I attended his classes and I’m totally sure that he was the best teacher that I’ve ever had. He was absolutely immaculate in how he presented things and how he got it all ready for his students, he was just great. He was a tough fellow, if you want to get something done he won’t allow you to cut corners. This got me an MSc in Statistics (Tallis 1963).

Did you keep studying?

Yes, I had these problems from animal breeding that I was trying to solve, and that led me into much more mathematical stuff because I needed to figure out how to handle various sorts of truncation in multivariate populations, so I did end up learning a lot more maths while I did a PhD (Tallis 1965).

At this time, you still have your day job working for Helen Turner in CSIRO. 

Yes, I was doing the PhD on the side. I want to tell you about Helen.  She was a very remarkable person.  She was trained by R A Fisher, and statistics wasn’t her first degree, which was in something else.  So she basically picked up her genetics and she was very good at it. Was she a tough person? She was a hard person but I think she was soft underneath. Fisher used to come and see Helen on a fairly regular basis and every time he was there Helen used to look after him very kindly. A couple of us were doing genetics at this stage and we were invited to go and see Fisher at morning tea time and discuss things with him. It‘s pretty hard when you’re still wet behind the ears and you’re faced with a guy who is one of the best scientists of the century but I found he was just excellent, a very nice fellow. So we’d ask questions and he’d always have some sort of answer that took him back to his way of doing things.

Had you read any of his work?

Not much. I found it very hard to read, and some of the influential people were saying they weren’t very happy about it so I didn’t want to debate anything there.  Helen used to put Fisher up in her house and look after him. He liked to get up early in the morning and get a newspaper. They used to deliver the paper by throwing it over the fence and you didn’t know where it would go. He used to go out and help himself to whatever newspaper he could find and invariably it wasn’t Helen’s paper.  But the people around were so delighted about it when they heard that it was Sir Ronald Fisher that they put out two or three lots of newspapers so they could get theirs to be taken. He was a regular kind of guy and the tragedy was that I think he died earlier than he should have. He had something wrong with him, went into Adelaide Hospital, and something went wrong.  He was quite chirpy the last time I saw him.

That was after he had joined Alf Cornish in CSIRO?

Yes, he was coming over from Adelaide occasionally to visit Helen.

Meanwhile, you were still in Helen’s unit?

No, I didn’t stay in Helen’s unit, and why that is the case is a very good question that has never been answered. One day I was called into Helen’s room and she said, ‘Sit down’.   I sat down, and she said, ‘We’re going to move you away from Genetics into Cornish’s group.’ I couldn’t think why, I’d been with this nice group for about five years. There was a Chinese fellow I used to work with all the time, and a much older guy called Dunlop who was a nice fellow, he was much older than we were, and George Brown had also joined us.  I must tell you a story about George, since you know him well.

Helen asked us to go out one Friday to the abattoirs and get there by 6am to get the tags off the experimental sheep.   The experiment had finished, the sheep had been auctioned, and Helen needed body measurements and tags for each sheep. We arrived there at six all right and we looked around and saw the sheep already coming down into the abbatoirs. I said to George, ‘Go and get the tags.’  By the time we got there there was a whole string of these butchered sheep. Everything must have happened at five because it was basically all over.   George came back and said, ‘I think most of each sheep is there but I’m sure that its tag isn’t.’ I said, ‘Surely not, the tag is supposed to be there and if anything is missing it has to be its head or something else.’ We wandered down there and found that parts of the heads had gone and if the ears were gone so were the tags, so it really didn’t much matter what state the sheep was in.

I had to go to Helen and I wanted to have the door open so I could get out faster than usual.  It wasn’t funny.  I said to her, ‘I’m terribly sorry, they beat us to it. I suppose if we had got there earlier we would have been able to catch them coming through but by the time we got there they were already done.’ She said, ‘What time did you get down there?’ I said, ‘Exactly at six, that’s what we were told.’ She didn’t say anything for a moment, and then she said, ‘Just close the door slowly when you go out.’

What did that mean, two years of experiment down the drain?

Must have been, terrible.

Let’s go back to your move from Helen’s group to Alf Cornish’s group. Cornish was Chief of the Division of Mathematical Statistics. Had you met him before?

No. He was a nice guy. I didn’t get to know him for quite a while.  Then one day the phone rang and he said, ‘It’s Alf Cornish here, I want to see you.’ I said, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m down in Adelaide, just jump in the car and come down and we’ll have a talk.’ So I went out and jumped in Joan’s car, and just drove the thousand miles from Sydney to Adelaide, it was a marvellous ride.  I got down there and he said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I said, ‘Good.’ He said, ‘Right let’s see what have you’ve got. I tell you what: you’re a bit light on matrices.  You never want to be short on matrices I can tell you that.’ He had a smile on his face so I went out and learnt matrices and I was forever grateful. It was the best thing I ever did, get matrices, they really are marvellous things.

How did he run the Division?

He didn’t get flustered about things.  He ran the group in Adelaide and he was teaching at the University of Adelaide.  He had his people distributed just about all over Australia and there was always something going on out there and he’d have to fix it up. I suppose everybody knew what he was like: if you made a mistake and it was a genuine mistake and you went to see him he’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it.  I’ll fix  it,’ and it would never ever re-percuss on the person. If the person wasn’t trying or wasn’t doing anything properly he might get pretty tough and tell him to tidy himself up but never in a rage or anything. But if somebody phoned in and said, ‘That guy of yours, he’s hopeless,’ boy oh boy, you wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that phone.  He would use any language you like to tell that guy he didn’t know what he was talking about. He’d say something like ‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’ or ‘He’s my man and I’m going to fix him and I don’t want to hear any stuff like that again.’ But there would be another few expletives.

Where were you located at the time, Mike?

The first part of it was at the McMaster Laboratory on the University of Sydney campus.  I was collaborating with Alan Donald and John Dineen.  The work involved modelling parasite life cycles in sheep, deterministically and statistically.

That led to a lot of work in the area, not just by yourself, but by several others in the Sydney group.

Yes it did. I moved to Alpha House, in Newtown [in Sydney] some time during 1962 or 1963. Rupert Leslie was running the show, Jean Williams was there, and Hans Weiler was around.  Cornish hadn’t quite started his major recruitment in Sydney. I was pleased to see the Maths people coming in – David Culpin, Mike O’Callaghan, Geoff Gordon – and also some Stats graduates, starting with Doug Shaw. When did you turn up?

March 1969.  Peter Jones and Peter Gipps were already there, Ron Sandland and I joined in 1969, then more statisticians later. And George Brown was there briefly before he headed off to the US to do a PhD, as did Doug.  Were you involved in any of the recruitments or did Cornish just announce somebody was joining the Division?

Probably that. I was trying to get Biostatistics as an item rather than just Mathematics, get it separated out and have people who were interested in practical Statistics.

You were still doing your second PhD at this stage?

Yes still doing my PhD. I submitted it in 1964.

Okay now you’ve got two PhDs …

… yes, but one is just on the shelf I’m afraid because I’m not doing any Genetics.  Anyway, after a little while, we decided to go Johns Hopkins. I wanted to get away from Australia and try to get some fresh ideas.   Alf Cornish managed to get me two or three years’ leave, I don’t know how he did it.

  1. Johns Hopkins

Why did you pick Johns Hopkins?

I sent out about twenty-five letters asking about jobs and got five back. I can’t remember what the others were but Johns Hopkins popped out and they were enthusiastic and they made it fairly clear that they wanted somebody with Genetics, with Human Genetics, so away we went.

Did you know anybody there at the time?

I didn’t know them before I got there but when we got there we found a number of Australians that we’d heard of.  I just missed Herb David. There was Dave Duncan, who was there pretty much all the time I was. And Geof Watson was in the main part of Johns Hopkins University so I went over there one day to see what was happening. It was quite a nice day, the sun was shining. I knocked on Watson’s door and went in. I couldn’t really see at the far end because the sun was coming in behind where he was sitting and all of a sudden he swept around appeared in front of me in a pair of colourful shorts and said, ‘Oh hello old chap, nice to see you.’ I ‘d thought he was an Australian but I wasn’t so sure after that.  He sounded more English than the English.  Anyway we had a nice conversation and it was a nice meeting.  He really didn’t notice me after the first hello, he was very hard to talk to because he used to talk in mathematics that I didn’t really understand.

Had he read any of your work at that stage?

Well he did at the end. I’d written a heap of Human Genetics material and had it all organised for a Genetics course class as soon as the students returned, and that interested him.

Which department had you joined?

This was the Department of Biostatistics.  It was run by Allyn Kimball, and had other people who were also very good. Alan Ross was a very senior person there, he was absolutely marvellous to us, and Dave Duncan was around the place, so I didn’t feel out of place at all.   At that time, Allyn was chair of Statistics on the Homewood Campus in addition to being department chair of Biostats on the Downtown Medical Campus. When I got there, he interviewed me.  He was looking at everything on my CV and he was very unhappy about one aspect – he would have to give me a very low starting salary because if I was using the mathematical PhD that I had, I hadn’t had it very long, in fact it probably hadn’t even been finalised properly in Australia.  I said, ‘Well look, I’m here to teach Human Genetics, that’s why I was hired.’ All of a sudden Allyn looked at me and he said, ‘Okay, that’s game, set and match!’ and from that time on he just smiled with his marvellous eyes. He was a splendid fellow, he could just about talk with his eyes.  And he gave me a marvellous amount of money for the year once he found out the thing that I was using was my PhD in Genetics which I’d had for seven years. So that was an example of where I really had to be using both the Genetics and the Mathematics degrees.  I taught courses on Genetics and on Difference Equations. It’s a peculiar sort of mathematics but it comes into Genetics so I had to teach that one.

How did you find Hopkins as a place to work?

Of course things change, you never know what happens from one decade to another but in our era it was just excellent, they gave me a very good time. There were the two Alans, Allyn Kimball and Alan Ross.  Ross was a very good person with sampling and sampling theory and so on. There was Chuck Rohde with his heavy duty stuff, and David Duncan, who did a lot of different things too. So it was mixed and they were nice people.

  1. CSIRO – Statistics

So why did you come back to Australia?

The reason was that Joan’s father was very ill;  in fact, he died just a couple of weeks after we got back.  Anyway, once you’re there you’re there and it was CSIRO and Alpha House again.

This was in the latter part of 1966?

Yes, and suddenly there was a group of young people there – the ones I mentioned earlier.  I thought they were very good, and that we were amazingly lucky to have people like that. What really amazed me was seeing you could give these people who were just out of the university very difficult problems and somehow or another they could get to grips with them and get solutions, and that’s from day one after four years of undergraduate study. It’s pretty good isn’t it?  I thought they were very clever.

Certainly by the time I joined in 1969 it was a thriving group of very active people. There was an active reading group going when I arrived. You were working through Wilks’ book (Wilks 1962).

No, it was Rao’s book (Rao 1965) then a chunk of Wilks.

And then I remember Malcolm Hudson joining for six months before he went to study at Stanford and you got him to give us a course on Group Representations.

That was stupid! Why did I ever think of doing that?

So I wasn’t the only one wondering what I was doing?

Never mind. I thought he needed to be stretched but we got stretched instead.

In fact when I got there Rupert Leslie was overseas in Kentucky so you had a collection of young research Turks under your wing.  How did you find that?

I enjoyed it very much. There’s no difference between senior and junior, ask them if they want to do it, well yes let’s do it, if the minority want to do it then we don’t do it and so on. I enjoyed it anyway.

I can remember that you were extremely supportive of anybody who wanted to bounce an idea off you, happy to go into the main room with the big chalkboard and let us kick ideas around there. It was a fascinating time. 

It is better because if one person keeps on doing the same thing, just trying to put themselves in front, nobody gets very far. I was probably being lazy!  It’s better to let the boys go and see what they are going to do.

CSIRO Division of Mathematical Statistics, Alpha House, Sydney, around 1967.



Getting back to your own work at that time, you were doing your modelling work, and other pieces of research.  I remember things on mixtures of distributions, and calibration and something else with Geoff Gordon (Tallis 1969a, 1969b; Tallis & Gordon 1971) that were separate lines of research.  What else were you doing?

A year or two before I went to Hopkins I’d run into a guy called Gordon Sarfaty. Sarfaty was a guy who we’d met at Johns Hopkins. He was an American medico visiting from Australia who was interested in cancer, mainly breast cancer.  He was returning to Australia and I was going back to Australia pretty much at the same time and he wanted to keep in contact.  He lived in Melbourne.  When he got back we had a few chats about the type of techniques that he believed the doctors were using in trying to improve the quality of life for people suffering from breast cancer and to lengthen their lives too, if possible. Later on, after I moved from Sydney to Adelaide I spent a lot of time with breast cancer screening.


CSIRO Division of Mathematical Statistics, Alpha House, Sydney, 1968.

Just in connection with Sarfaty, a colleague from those days, Nan Carter, told me recently that you were responsible for creating the Alpha House library of books and journals, in other words, the library for the NSW branch of the Division. 

Yes, there were no books or journals, and we all used to borrow from Geoff Gordon’s private collection.  However, I’d been working with Gordon Sarfaty on a large cancer project and was able to arrange that payment for the work could be made by the Cancer Council donating a collection of books on Statistics and Mathematics.  I managed to get a matching grant from the Divisional Secretary for  journal subscriptions including back issues and an annual budget for books so that was the origin of the Sydney library.

Just before we move the discussion to Adelaide, in Sydney things were changing for you. Rupert Leslie announced that he was leaving to go to Strathclyde so you were left in charge of the group yourself.  Why did you leave?

I decided to go for multiple reasons. We were having difficulties with looking after our children.  They were still quite young and we had to transport them all over the place for their school and sport and so on. The other thing was that I knew that Alf Cornish wasn’t well – in fact he was really quite ill – and if he wasn’t going to be able to continue there would be a complete shake-up in CSIRO and in that group.  And at the same time I was offered a position by the Statistics Department at the University of Adelaide, so I decided, in the interests of the children and in the interests of us maintaining decent earnings that we do it. That is what took us away.

  1. University of Adelaide

Okay let’s move to Adelaide. You joined a department that was headed by Alan James.  Who else was there at the time? It was quite a small department. 

Kerwin Morris, Bill Venables,  Bill Taylor and Phil Leppard.

This was the first time that you were employed as a genuine statistician to teach Statistics, because you are now in a Statistics department for the first time.

Yes, that’s what I needed all the way along. See, I’d never really had full training in Statistics, I had bits and pieces, a bit of probability, a bit of something else, a bit of something else, and the only way I could ever get anything out of it was to have to prepare it for students.  I learnt more during that period than at any other time.

As I recall, you had been feeling some pressure to learn and do what you could while you could, because of your eyesight. Is that right? Something had happened.

Yes, we were down in Melbourne with our parents around Christmas of 1970.  I was playing with a practice tennis set with one of my kids – you know, one of those poles with the ball whirling around it – and for once I wasn’t wearing protective goggles.  I was hit in my better eye – the left one.  So after that I had to manage with my right eye only which is myopic to a degree of minus twenty-three, so whatever I had to do over the next years had to be done quickly.

Anyway, you did a lot of teaching.

Yes. I don’t like teaching, I like research, but on the other hand I think teaching is marvellous for people to do if they can communicate properly.  So I taught Probability, Inference, Regression, Sampling, Genetics, Quantitative Genetics, Model Building and Genetical Probability.

What sort of research were you doing now?  Were you still working on your parasite modelling or had you moved over entirely to medical statistics?

There was a little bit of that parasite work and I got requests for doing it mainly from Honours students and a few others. Once you get away you are away from it and that’s where it stays.  I did a huge amount of work over that last period on breast cancer, working out the dimensions of the tumours and how they reacted with the length of life and so on.

These are longitudinal studies?

Yes longitudinal. The basic information comes from the United States and then we’ve done comparisons with what’s happening in Australia.

Were there differences?

No, not really.

I notice from your CV that a lot of this work was collaborative.   

Yes, I worked a lot with Phil Leppard, who is very good with the computing side of things.  Also, a former student, Terry O’Neill has had a long involvement with this work.

Let’s talk a bit about who else was at Adelaide.  You had a remarkable student, Peter Chessen …

Yes indeed.  I was in my study at the Adelaide University and all of a sudden there’s a knock on the door and this smallish sort of guy walks in wearing shorts, and he says, ‘I want to talk to you.’  I said, ‘What do you do?’ He was in some department to do with bugs and animals and he was interested in seeing where ants went and things like that.   He said, ‘If I’m going to go further I want to understand the statistics of this sort of thing.’ So we got started.  This was in his fourth year, and all of a sudden he said, ‘I’ve got all the statistics done now, now I want to just do some mathematics.’ He got himself into the mathematics. I gave him a problem about generalizing canonical correlation in bivariate distributions.  Lancaster had developed the idea under some sort of restriction.  He went away for six months, fiddled around with the most terrible mathematics you have ever seen in all your life and got rid of the restriction (Chesson 1976).

Did he go on to do a PhD?

Yes, he did a PhD with me on models for animal movements. Basically, it was stochastic processes for describing how organisms move around on a landscape.   He kept going off in all directions; it was never quite ready, it was three hundred and seventy pages and he still wanted to put more in.  I said, ‘For God’s sake don’t get any more we can’t lift the thing up now,’ and he was whistling around all over the place. He had this mathematics that tied in with his bugs and where they were and the heat and amount of water available and wind and all the rest of it, it was just the most massive technical achievement that you could ever get, and he just handed that in and nobody understood a single word of it.  It was a population job, how the population changes with time and all the other variables. People would slice their wrists to be able to do that sort of mathematics let alone anything else.

What has he been doing since then?

He’s been working on the theory of species diversity, especially how it is that a huge diversity of species can coexist with one another in any one area.  One thing he showed was that the natural temporal environmental fluctuations that all organisms experience can promote their coexistence and he used nonlinear stochastic difference equations to do it.  Without doubt he’s the most magnificent mathematician I’ve ever come across.

  1. Post-Statistics

All good things must come to pass and you decided to retire – retire from the university, that is, not from doing all sorts of things. You didn’t go right through to the age of sixty-five at Adelaide.

No, I retired from Adelaide when I was sixty-two, and Joan and I had decided to do some genealogy and get to work on a grandfather or two and a few other people and put some books together, and that took us a long time.

You’d been working on cancer studies with other people at the time you retired.  Did that keep going?

Yes, we continued that for a number of years. It was too hard in the end. If you’re in America you get the money, you get the people, you get help, you get things going for you, but that doesn’t happen here. There were a lot of things we found out but it comes to a stage where you know that it’s time to stop. We had a small group and the group broke up so that was the end of it.

Joan and I got into genealogy and found out who people were, mainly on my side of the family because that seemed to be more interesting. Maybe one day we’ll start on the other side as well. It’s very tiring.

I’ve read your biography of your grandfather [George Tallis].  This was a joint effort so Joan must have spent a great deal of time in libraries.

She did, huge amount of time in libraries. In fact while I was still working at the university Joan used disappear on Saturdays getting into old newspapers and trying to find the information from them. I couldn’t go because I had other things to do and she kept saying, ‘Well, if you are not going to come with me now you’ll miss all the fun, because I’ve got all the fun here.’ She rustled up all sorts of things and in the end I couldn’t put it off any more. I would rather help her than whoever else I was helping at the university.  Biographical work is a huge job if you don’t know where to start.

What was there to start with? Weren’t there any accounts of your grandfather’s life?

There was hardly anything. It was only what we found in George’s papers and some of the other papers that we eventually dug up, that led from one thing to another but that still wasn’t enough. Then one day we were working at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, and they told us that a thirty-year collection had been just released. When we started on the collection we found that one of his friends had kept a diary every day – about three or four sheets of paper every day – over a period of about thirty or forty years and lots of things of interest to us were mentioned in this diary, so that gave us a big kick. The friend was a solicitor for the company.

You’ve produced a tour de force, starting from scratch. It’s fascinating reading, a wonderful piece of history, and it’s beautifully produced.

It’s the history of a person and of an industry, and the story of a great company, J C Williamson & Company, over the first fifty years of its being. It reached its heyday in the 1920s, but then drifted away after that, even though it staggered along in one way or another for almost another fifty years, so in the end it was one of the greatest Australian companies.

What are your current interests?

Surviving every day.

You are obviously exercising regularly …

Oh yes.  Walking and working out at the gym.  And more genealogy. The last book we completed was a mini one, about my grandmother, George’s wife Millie. She was mentioned in the first book, but it was really about George so we wrote a smaller book for Millie just to make sure she got a fair go.

Well, to achieve the sort of things your grandfather achieved somebody had to be keeping the show running at home.

Yes and it was her. She had the trouble of looking after all the important people that came irrespective of whether they were theatre people or whatever: if they were VIPs they all had to be looked after.

Also she had four children and some servants I presume. Her husband was overseas for many months at a time and also travelled throughout Australia.

Yes he did but that was par for the course for those people. If you want to have a decent theatre, a living theatre, in those days you had go to America and you had to go to England, it’s very hands-on. Then imagine how long it took:  if you sent a letter over, it probably took two months to get there and two months to come back or maybe longer than that, maybe it was three months, so there was a six month turn around.   Of course the Williamson Company had other people working for them in America and in England, and if they came across a decent show and they could get it they used to try and mail it. There’s not much point really going backwards and forwards because by the time you get a Yes or a No the show’s closed so it really has to be decided by the people on the spot

[Looking around the room in which the interview is taking place] Some of your grandfather’s interests seem to have

Joan and Mike Tallis in their garden at home, 16 April 2010.  Photo N. I. Fisher.

come down through the genes. He had an interest in art.

Yes he did, he loved art.  He’d find out the good artists and then wait until they had painted something and then buy it. One of his friends, the guy who kept the diary, was very knowledgeable about those sorts of things so he helped George with buying whatever he could get hold of.

Let’s talk a little bit about your children.

We have three girls and a boy. The boy is the oldest.  He’s a medico but he’s highly specialised. He’s still got all his old friends from school.t. They’re never short of anything, they play golf together and then they go away to Sydney. He’s got three children, a boy and two girls.


And then you’ve got three daughters.

Two of them are lawyers and between the two of them they’ve got six boys.  And our other daughter has three girls.  All our daughters have settled in Sydney, Joan doesn’t like it very much. We go up there periodically but we can’t have them down here too much because we can’t handle it all – 18 plus the two of us is over the top.

Mike Tallis and Nick Fisher in Mike’s garden, 16 April 2010.  Photo J. Tallis.

Well Mike I’m most grateful that you’ve spent the time telling me about your scientific life in particular. I fully expect you to go and do some other things quite apart from your genealogical studies so I hope you’ll have time for another conversation in some years’ time when I can catch up with all of those things. Thanks very much. Tt has been great fun talking and reminiscing.

It is good. Certainly hope to see you again.


  1. Bibliography

Chesson, P. L. (1976), “The Canonical Decomposition of Bivariate Distributions”, J. Mult. Anal. 6, 526–537.

Fisher, N.I. (2017), “Obituary, Mike Tallis, 1931 – 2017”.  Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A 180, 934–936.

Kempthorne, Oscar (1957). An Introduction to Genetic Statistics. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Rao, C. R. (1965). Linear Statistical Inference and Its Applications.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons.

Tallis, Michael & Tallis, Joan (2006), The Silent Showman. Second edition.  Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press.

Tallis, G. M. (1957), A Topcross Breeding Experiment with Outbred and Inbred Hereford Sires. PhD thesis, Ohio State University.

Tallis, G. M. (1963), A Statistical Investigation of Certain Genetic Parameter Estimators and Predictors of Genetic Gains. MSc thesis, University of New South Wales.

Tallis, G. M. (1965), Truncation, Grouping and the Construction of Distributions with Special reference to Normal Populations. PhD thesis, University of New South Wales.

Tallis, G. M. (1969a), “The identifiability of mixtures of distributions”.  J. Appl. Prob. 6, 389-398.

Tallis, G. M. (1969b), “Note on a calibration problem”. Biometrika 56, 505-508, 1969.

Tallis, G. M. & Gordon, G. (1971), “A Note on the Roots of the polynomial equation f(x) = a with Reference to Stability”. SIAM  J. Appl. Math. 21: 186-191.

Wilks, S. S. (1962), Mathematical Statistics. New York:  John Wiley & Sons.

[1] Nicholas Fisher is Visiting Professor of Statistics, University of Sydney, NSW 2006 Australia. The research was supported by ValueMetrics Australia. Email:  [email protected]


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