Asia Life

Remembering Colleen McCullough

The multitalented Australian author of The Thorn Birds died last week.

By Helen Clark for
Remembering Colleen McCullough
Credit: Colleen McCullough via Neftali /

Australian author Colleen McCullough died at age 77 Thursday in a hospital on Norfolk Island where she had live for more than 20 years. Her publisher, Harper Collins, made the announcement.  McCullough had suffered from poor health and arthritis for some time, though she was working on a follow up to her last novel.

McCullough is best known for her novel The Thorn Birds, which sold 30 million copies worldwide. Published in 1977, the book detailed the lives of a family on a remote outback cattle station (what Americans would call a “ranch”) in Australia. The rights were sold for a then-fantastic $1.9 million in 1983, and the book was turned into a hugely successful television miniseries. McCullough published her last book, Bittersweet, in 2013.

McCullough was a woman of many talents, teaching herself to read by the age of three and studying medicine – though forsaking a medical career thanks to a soap allergy. She spent some years as a neuroscientist and then a researcher at Yale Medical School in the United States, where she began to write her first novel, Tim. That also became a film, starring a young Mel Gibson.

As Harper Collins said of her, “She was one of the first Australian writers to succeed on the world stage.” Apart from literary plaudits, McCullough received the Order of Australia, has been the subject of an Archibald Prize entry (the Archibald is one of Australia’s highest profile art awards), and was immortalized on a postage stamp.

Once her death was announced, the praise was quick to follow. Perhaps the most memorable was an obit run in national broadsheet The Australian, which said “though plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.” It then quoted the author saying she’d never bothered too much with clothes or “figure” but had never had too much trouble attracting men. Perhaps predictably the “Oz” was accused of sexism (why did no obit of the famed Bryce Courtenay point out his weight?) and, possibly very predictably, a Twitter send up followed where others penned their own, tagged #MyOzObituary. Chef Adam Liaw tweeted, “Despite his regrettable BMI, Liaw possessed the capacity to complete basic tasks and communicate verbally…” Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio presenter Mark Colvin wrote, “He had a great face for radio.”

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Kinder words came from Harper Collins publishing director Shona Martyn, who said, “Ever quick-witted and direct, we looked forward to her visits from Norfolk Island and to the arrival of each new manuscript delivered in hard copy in custom-made maroon manuscript boxes inscribed with her name.”