Kerry, Knowles Ronald AAM

  • Date and place of birth Knowles Kerry

    20 March 1939 Melbourne


    BAgSci 1963 PhD 1968 (University of Melbourne)

    Early work at RCH

    Soon after graduating Knowles was recruited in January 1963 to work as a biochemist in the Gastroenterological Research Unit with Dr Charlotte Anderson. His first task was to assist with the move from the roof top laboratory at the old Children’s Hospital in Carlton to the new and spacious laboratories in the new RCH in Parkville. For the next 4 years, working alongside Charlotte Anderson, Rudge Townley and Michael Messer, he studied the nature of intestinal malabsorption of sugars in infants. 

    Biochemical and histological and clinical investigations identified a variety of causes of intestinal malabsorption of glucose and galactose’ and disaccharides containing either of these sugars (sucrose and lactose). These included failure of active transport of glucose and galactose across the brush border membrane and partial or complete absence of mucosal sucrase and lactase. Sucrase deficiency was shown to be due to a recessive genetic disorder. Damage of the intestinal mucosa resulted also in a generalised decrease in sugar absorption through loss of enzymic and absorptive capacity.  

    Understanding the aetiology of intestinal malabsorption of lactose proved challenging and an animal model was sought with the cooperation of the Melbourne Zoo. This led to the discovery that the milk of marsupials and monotremes does not contain lactose and the practice of feeding cows’ milk to orphan joeys led to similar symptoms as seen in children with lactose malabsorption. Understanding of intestinal absorption of lactose and lactase in other mammals is a whole new story but it did involve seals and Knowles’s first trip to Macquarie Island in 1966.

    Professor Vernon Collins enabled him to submit these investigations for the Degree of PhD which was awarded in 1968. He then undertook post-doctoral studies in the University of Zurich after which he again worked with Charlotte (Charlo) Anderson, this time at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital in England, in 1969.

    He looks back at his time at RCH as one of the most rewarding of his research career. This was mostly because of the immediate outcomes for the children as the team unravelled the biochemical and physical causes of their illness through intestinal malabsorption of sugars. Because of this experience he very nearly took up an offer to complete a degree in medicine but in the end opted for a vastly different career path in research.

    Antarctic Research

    Knowles joined the Australian Antarctic Division 1969 and remained with them until retirement in 2006. He wintered on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island in 1969- 1971 studying albatross and furthering biochemical investigations on seal milk. On return to Australia he was employed as “the” Senior Biologist.

    Until that time research programs conducted by Australia on the Antarctic Continent were confined to the physical sciences as undertaken during the International Geophysical Year (1958), of glaciology, upper atmospheric science and meteorology. The biota was virtually unknown for the whole of the Australian Antarctic Territory. It became his task in 1972 to carry out biological surveys and then to establish and manage a series of biological research programs. Biological research is now a major part of the Australian Antarctic Program.

    In the mid 1970s scientists from among the Antarctic Treaty nations became concerned at the rise of uncontrolled fishing in the Southern Ocean. Very little scientific data were available on which to set regulation. However as a first step a “Special Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting” was called in 1977- 1980   to negotiate what became the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCMMLR) This called for the management of Antarctic Fisheries to be undertaken in an ecosystem context. Its regulations came into force in May 1982.  Knowles participated as a member the Australian delegation at the three negotiating rounds and subsequently as a scientific delegate at the first 17 of the annual meetings of the Commission and the Scientific Committee set up under CCAMLR. He feels some satisfaction in having pushed for the adopted ecosystem approach to management over a standard fisheries treaty which would serve to maximise catch only.

    The Australian Antarctic Division’s move into marine science was necessary to support Australia’s sovereign interests and to exercise these within CCAMLR. This was done through participation in the international BIOMASS (Biological Investigation of Marine Antarctic Systems and Stocks) program. Australia had no distant-water deep-sea research capability. This led to his next in-house career change and becoming a marine scientist. His task was to oversee the refit of the expedition ship MV Nella Dan to enable research scale trawling and hydrography, recruiting staff and leading the early expeditions. Australia participated in the first international BIOMASS experiment (FIBEX) in January 1981 together Japan and South Africa. The distribution and relative abundance of krill was surveyed in Prydz Bay region to the north of Mawson. This was an area where a large commercial harvest of krill was taking place.

    The principles underlying the ecosystem approach to the management of a fishery required that non target species “the so called dependent and related species” be taken into account. But for this to take place quantitative data were required on ecological relationships between the predators and the species being harvested. A CCAMLR working group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management (WG-EMM), of which he became Chairman, was established to suggest how such data might be obtained. This work was to be carried out by Signatory Parties to the Convention.

    Adelie penguins breeding near Mawson feed in proximity of the nearby krill fishery. This provided the opportunity to investigate their overlap with the offshore krill fishery and to monitor the factors which may reflect on availability of food. He developed a research program to this end. It was initiated in 1990. Technology was developed to enable automated data gathering including for identification, weighing and direction to or from the colony. Satellite tracking and depth recording was adapted to follow the birds at sea. 

    Over his 37 years with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions ANARE he spent about 7 years in total in Antarctica and the south polar regions, working on the Australian programs and also on the Antarctic programs of other nations including the USA and Italy. He was the expedition leader and chief scientist on many resupply and research voyages.


    1995 Awarded the Australian Antarctic Medal (AAM)

    Publications and films

    Five co-authored publications arose from work undertaken at the RCH

    Extensive publications arising from work in the Antarctic. Research fields included limnology, oceanography, marine and terrestrial ecology. Co-edited two books as proceedings of conferences organised: Antarctic ecosystems: ecological change and conservation and Diseases of Antarctic wildlife: a challenge for science and policy.

     Co-produced documentary films “Antarctic winter” and “Antarctic summer” with ABC.

    International cooperation in Antarctic affairs.

    Member: Australian delegation to Special Antarctic Treaty Meetings in Australia and Argentina.

    Member: Australian delegation to the annual meetings of the Commission and Scientific Committee of CCAMLR.

    1980 Accompanied the first Chinese Scientists to Antarctica.  Invited by the Peoples Republic of China to discuss Antarctic operations and scientific cooperation and to undertake a lecture tour.

    1997-2006 Participated in the field programs of Italy at Terra Nova Bay) and the USA at McMurdo Station.

    1998 Visiting scientist at Alfred Wegener Polar Research Institute, Bremerhavn, FRG and at Dipartimento di Biologia Ambientale, Universita degli Studi di Siena, italy and at the Italian Station of Terra Nova Bay, Italy.