Humanist whose work saved lives




29-5-1919 - 12-10-2012

"GERRY" Gerrand made major contributions in two quite different spheres. As a pioneering aviation engineer in the 1940s, he designed some of the first distance-measuring equipment to improve aviation safety in Australia and abroad, and in the 1960s and '70s he guided civil aviation infrastructure planning in at least 10 Third World countries.

Then, after retiring at 60, he threw his energy and organising ability pro bono into co-founding the Australian Skeptics and later founding, and for 15 years running, the Inflammatory Neuropathy Support Group.

Born in Newcastle, New South Wales, to Andrew Scott Gerrand (a finance journalist) and Hattie Jean Gerrand (nee Graham, also a journalist), James was the second youngest of a family of two girls and five boys. Rather confusingly, all the boys were nicknamed "Gerry" by their schoolmates.

During the Depression in the 1930s both parents lost their jobs. Only the three most academically gifted children (Elsa, James and Len) were able to continue their education through to university, by winning scholarships. A science teacher at Sydney Grammar School had an enduring influence on James' life philosophy - pro-science and rationalist - and his reading of G.B. Shaw and later Bertrand Russell fostered his lifelong advocacy of humanism.

James graduated with first-class honours in science and engineering (electrical and mechanical) in 1941 at Sydney University. The CSIRO immediately recruited him into its radiophysics laboratories, where he spent the war years designing top-secret radar systems and installing them on RAN ships and in RAAF aerodromes.

In 1944-45, supervised by the legendary physicist and inventor Dr E.G. "Taffy" Bowen, he designed prototype distance-measuring equipment (DME), which accurately measured a plane's distance from a target aerodrome, thus helping the pilot avoid overrunning or underrunning the airstrip.

In 1947, a Trans-Australian Airlines press release credited the "28-year-old scientific engineer Mr J.H. Gerrand" with perfecting a "simple to operate" 25pound (11.3 kilogram) DME device to increase the safety of air navigation, based on his work at CSIRO. The DME specifications were adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation for implementation globally.

James' work on radar must have saved many lives during the war the DME technology would save many more in peacetime by preventing crash landings.

While at the CSIRO, James met WAAF Officer Betty Cohen, a psychology graduate and contemporary of his at Sydney University. They married in December 1943, and enjoyed a close partnership for the next 69 years, producing five children and engaging in the communities where his career led them. This included living in Melbourne, Port Moresby, Mogadishu and Montreal and back to Melbourne after retirement.

After nearly three years with TAA in Sydney, James moved to Melbourne in 1948 to work for the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), as a communications engineer. Once in Melbourne, this life-long sceptic became an enthusiastic convert to two secular religions: the Essendon Football Club - after in 1949 seeing John Coleman kick 12 goals in his first VFL game - and the Australian Labor Party, where he had to wait 24 years for a federal "premiership". Both made him a life member when he was in his 80s.

In 1953 the family moved to Port Moresby where he worked as the superintending airways engineer for DCA, building and operating aviation infrastructure for the then protectorate of Papua and New Guinea. On returning to Melbourne in 1956 as superintending airways engineer for Victoria and Tasmania, his biggest project was the planning of Melbourne's new airport at Tullamarine.

His experience in PNG gave him a love of contributing his expertise to developing countries, and while still with DCA he spent periods on loan to Nepal (in 1966) and Indonesia (1968). Then in 1973 he took a bigger plunge, joining the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation, first as a project manager in Mogadishu, Somalia, for one year, then as a senior development officer at ICAO's headquarters in Montreal for a further six. During those years he made extended visits to assist developing countries in Asia and Africa plan their aviation infrastructure, including the training of local staff. He suffered bouts of malaria picked up through his work assignments, but he never complained.

After the UN's compulsory retiring age of 60 finished his career with ICAO in 1980, James and Betty returned to Melbourne, where he found new outlets for his organising ability and intellectual energy.

In 1980 he co-founded the Australian Skeptics with Mark Plummer and Phillip Adams, and was founding secretary for several years, tackling the commercial TV shows that gave uncritical publicity to psychics, water diviners, Uri Geller and the Philippine "psychic surgeons". He was also national secretary of the Australian Humanists and a committee member of the Australian Rationalists, and in overlapping periods in the 1980s and '90s was editor of the journals of both organisations.

In 1990 he was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), a condition that leads to loss of nerve communication with the feet and hands. On being told by his neurologist that not much was known about the disease, James founded the Inflammatory Neuropathy Support Group of Victoria (the IN Group), and with wife Betty worked tirelessly to provide information to people across Australia - and sometimes overseas - who suffered from CIDP or the more acute GBS variety. He established a website for the IN Group in 1995, and he and Betty raised funds and produced 55 newsletters over 16 years. He visited people with the condition, giving them knowledge and thereby hope.

In 2002, at the age of 83, he began a two-year campaign to alert federal and state health ministers to a shortage of Intragam, the blood plasma product essential for treatment of CIDP and GBS sufferers. When the authorities restricted Intragam to those in life-threatening situations, he orchestrated a media campaign that caused the original government policy to be restored.

James and Betty did not step down from their work for the IN Group until 2006, when both were aged 87 and when James sadly found he was losing his memory - and his desktop publishing skills - to Alzheimer's. As the disease advanced over the following six years, he retained his gentle sense of humour, his stoicism, his love of family - and his love of Mozart. He died peacefully, surrounded by family members.

He leaves Betty, his wife and partner of 69 years his children, Peter, Rob, Jenny, Jeremy and David seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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