Hervey Bay's Vernon Harris, 93, is responsible for discovering over 40 new species of copepods.
Hervey Bay's Vernon Harris, 93, is responsible for discovering over 40 new species of copepods. Jessica Lamb

WATCH: Bay scientist makes 40 world-first discoveries

YOU wouldn't know from looking at the outside of Dr Vernon Harris's unit in Baycrest Retirement Community, but inside the quaint brick home lies a scientific lab responsible for world-first marine discoveries.

Glass microscope slides filled with specimens too small for the naked eye litter the Hervey Bay home and books of Latin, Greek and biology can be found on the bookshelves next to piles of research.

The 93-year-old scientist speaks with the purposeful British drawl emulated by fellow countryman and zoologist David Attenborough.

Vernon is responsible for discovering more than 40 species of animal, about one millimetre in size, known as copepods and he has done it all since he retired from his university academic career more than three decades ago.

Originally discovered in the Mediterranean in 1860, there were only four known species until Vernon decided to pursue research in 1974.

"I have since discovered more than 40 in Australia, Japan and New Zealand," Vernon said.

"I worked on marine things in the past in Canberra and these things popped up while I was working with other animals.

"I couldn't find out what they were and it wasn't until I was working at the Natural History Museum in London about 1975 that I found someone who knew what they were.

 

Hervey Bay's Vernon Harris, 93, is responsible for discovering over 40 new species of copepods.
Hervey Bay's Vernon Harris, 93, is responsible for discovering over 40 new species of copepods. Jessica Lamb

"I realised this was a completely undiscovered group of animals."

Vernon hasn't spent a lot of his life in his mother country England.

Conscripted into World War II to work three years in the United Kingdom's coal mines, he was demobilised and was accepted to finish his degree in biochemistry at Cambridge University.

"Because of the amount of people being demobilised at the same time there wasn't a spot for me for another six years," Vernon said.

"So I thought I would do a subject for fun not something I intended to earn a living from and I studied zoology comparative physiology.

"I finished my degree and I was asked to apply for funding to do research on lugworms but at the time after the war the government decided there was more important things to spend money on than lugworms."

Needless to say, Vernon did not get the grant.

However, his Professor G.P. 'Gip' Wells, son of science fiction author H.G. Wells, encouraged him to take on an Assistant Lecturer role at University College in Nigeria.

With just three weeks to prepare and arrive, he set about setting up an entire Zoology department at Ibadan, 128km north east of Nigeria's capital, Lagos.

"I wasn't sure I wanted to go because at that time everyone who went for colonial service in Africa came back in a coffin," he said.

"England was preparing to give power back to Kenya and Nigeria to allow them to govern themselves and they thought they needed university to educate people to be able to govern effectively.

"So I went over to help set up their university and teach zoology."

It was there Vernon met his future wife, Lucy, a pretty medical expert tasked with training nurses for the 600-patient university hospital.

"Our wedding is a great story, I won't get into but never get married in a university," he said with a laugh.

"All the staff were there and it wasn't the students who played fun and games it was the lecturers.

"The university had a very rigid syllabus like every student had to dissect a frog, rabbit, crayfish and earthworm but of course Africa didn't have these and they had to import the animals.

"Eventually they let us write our own syllabus with similar animals in Africa and frogs became cane toads."

After nine years in Nigeria, Vernon and his wife Lucy moved back to England in 1959 where Vernon spent another four years teaching in London before accepting a post-graduate position in Canberra at the Australian National University.

Retiring from teaching in 1986, Vernon kept working on a research fellowship before he moved to Hervey Bay with Lucy.

"I guess I only started taking documenting copepods seriously after 1986," Vernon said.

"The exciting part about Hervey Bay is there were four new species discovered here.

"They are the most abundant animals on the face of this earth.

Earlier in life, Vernon would walk more than a kilometre out at Point Vernon at low tide to collect seaweed in a bucket.

"I grab a handful of seaweed and I pour in a bottle of soda water which because of the carbon dioxide levels makes the copepods act drunk and fall off the seaweed," he said.

"Then I take out the seaweed and drain as much water as possible and in the bottom are about 50 to 100 of the little animals."

Vernon said it take him about 50 hours to complete a discovery of a new species.

Now most of Vernon's time is spent researching, sketching or studying them with the intention of publishing his book with the Smithsonian before "my body is incinerated and my atoms are released to the universe once more."

His wife passed away four years ago and his son Jonathan lives in Brisbane.

A bursary for nursing students in honour of Vernon's late wife Lucy was created in 2015 at the Fraser Coast campus of the Sunshine Coast University highlighting her work establishing a children's ward and medical clinics in Nigeria and assisting with research into sickle cell anaemia and child malnutrition.

He is an avid reader of non-fiction, doesn't own a television or radio and will continue, as long as he is able, to devote his life to scientific discovery and excellence.

"I don't regret anything in my life, If I had to go back and do it all again I wouldn't change a thing, its been too interesting," he said.

"I've had some incredible experiences."



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