What I know about women

Date

Interview by Robyn Doreian

"In science, basically women have to be twice as good just to be good": Dr Karl.

"In science, basically women have to be twice as good just to be good": Dr Karl. Photo: Nic Walker

DR KARL KRUSZELNICKI, SCIENTIST, 67, MARRIED.

My mother, who was a Polish Jew, had been in Auschwitz. As a teenager, she had been caught smuggling food into the Warsaw ghettos. Following that time she went to Sweden, where she met my father and where I was born.

Part of my mother's rehabilitation involved thread work. Her millinery skills attracted a scholarship with Dior in Paris, but it was never fulfilled due to the tensions of the Cold War.

My father was also Polish and had also been in a concentration camp [Sachsenhausen, Germany]. A girlfriend in Warsaw reported him to the Gestapo for helping the passage of Jews. What saved him was a fellow prisoner advising him to say he was younger than he was and had a trade. By saying he was 25 and a carpenter [he was 40 and didn't have a trade], he was spared death. His job was picking up dead Jews and taking them to the elevators, then they'd get dumped in the furnaces.

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We migrated to Australia when I was two and lived in a migrant camp in Victoria until I was five. We then moved to Wollongong. My father made tea at the Water Board, a fitting job for a man who had a master's degree in law and spoke 12 languages – he'd also been a journalist. When my parents had saved enough, they bought their own house.

Despite the trauma she'd experienced, my mother was wonderful and caring. Much of her energy was devoted to me. One Christmas, when I was seven, there was a knock at the door. I was made to answer it and there was Santa with a bag of toys. My mother had organised the whole thing. She also made pierogi, the traditional Polish dumplings that I loved.

My father was loving, but he had difficulty showing it. His experiences made him distant. His death in 1980 left me as my mother's only family. I didn't know how to deal with it.

Later in life, my mother had Alzheimer's and was placed in a nursing home. Another resident attacked her and she had a stroke and couldn't speak. For 10 years, I visited her on weekends to feed her. It was terrible not being able to do more for her.

Before my mother's stroke, I developed this deep appreciation of how shallow I'd been. I hadn't looked at things from her point of view. From her, I have gained the ability to walk in other people's shoes.

I also recognised her tenacity. She had started a classical record shop, despite knowing nothing about business, and did a fantastic job. She had just said, "I think I will do this" and did it. That impressed the heck out of me.

My early relationships with women weren't good. I hadn't grown up with siblings, and so I lacked advice on that front. I met my wife, Mary, at medical school. I was 32. Medicine was my fourth degree. When I met her, I was like, "Wow, who is this wonderful, vivacious, sensible woman?" We started studying together and drifted into a relationship.

It wasn't until we had three kids – Karl, 27, Alice, 25, and Lola, 17 – that I proposed. A legacy from my hippie days meant I didn't wish to be tied down.

A near-death experience prompted a reappraisal. I had gone with my son's school group to walk in the Himalayas. One of the teachers became incredibly ill, and it took us three days to get to a hospital. A lack of power meant her MRI couldn't be done until the next day, so I bought opiates for pain relief. I phoned Mary for advice. I said I was in a cheap hotel, injecting opiates into a young woman's buttocks. In the same conversation, I proposed. Mary hung up, but she eventually agreed to marry me.

Our wedding took place inside the Arctic Circle, Norway, in 2006. I cried like a baby. Just like the sun wouldn't set on us, neither would our love set on our marriage.

Our family is very close, as we've spent a lot of time travelling together. Lola is in year 12 at high school and I've been helping her with maths. We sit at the dinner table going through gradients, and gradually our legs become intertwined. It's wonderful.

Are women respected in science? It's tricky. In medicine, functionally, women are equals but that doesn't stop them being predated upon during training. In science, basically women have to be twice as good just to be good. At the University of Sydney, it's something we're trying to reverse.

Christmas Day will be spent at our home. Twenty-five people will arrive for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with the beach in between. I won't be wearing a special Christmas shirt made by Mary [who makes his trademark bright shirts]. Rather, the vibe of the morning will dictate it. Maybe a traditional wintry vibe? A laid-back Aussie feel? A 1980s kind of groove? We'll have to wait until the 25th to find out. 

Short Back & Science by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is published by Macmillan Australia.