Colleen McCullough: Author whose second book, 'The Thorn Birds', sold 30 million copies and spawned an award-winning TV series

McCullough's 50-year saga takes in murder, church politics and the priest's struggle between faith and the flesh

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The Independent Online

Colleen McCullough's novel The Thorn Birds sold 30 million copies around the world and spawned an acclaimed television miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Jean Simmons, Christopher Plummer and Barbara Stanwyck. It won four Golden Globes, but McCullough wasn't a fan: she liked to refer to it as "instant vomit".

She once expanded on her displeasure: "I didn't think that the director had any idea of what he was doing. The um, screenwriter was a Baptist female from the midwest, and I didn't like Chamberlain in the role." The role was that of a priest in the Australian outback whose forbidden love affair with a member of a sheep-rearing family is part of a 50-year saga that takes in murder, church politics and the priest's struggle between faith and the flesh.

Though McCullough didn't care for the adaptation – for which she did, in fact, write several episodes, and which was filmed in California, rather than the outback – it did earn her nearly A$2m in film rights, and it went on to become the second-highest rated American miniseries of all time, behind Roots.

McCullough was born in the small town of Wellington in New South Wales in 1937 and was reading by the time she was three. Her mother was a New Zealander of Maori ancestry, her father an Irish immigrant who worked as a cane cutter. She recalled how she started writing, buying a typewriter with money her mother had given to her to buy an overcoat.

The family moved to Sydney, where she began studying medicine at Sydney University – until she discovered that she had an allergy to the antiseptic soap surgeons use to scrub up. She switched to neuroscience, establishing the neurophysiology department at the city's Royal North Shore Hospital.

From 1963-67 she worked at Great Ormond Street in London, where she met the chairman of the neurology department at Yale, who offered her a job across the Atlantic. She worked at Yale until 1976, researching and teaching. It was while there that she wrote her first two books. Tim was published in 1974, and became a film five years later starring Mel Gibson, in one of his first roles, as the young, intellectually disabled handyman who has a love affair with a middle-aged woman, played by Piper Laurie. She followed it with The Thorn Birds and was able to become a full-time writer.

She lived in the US and London again before settling on Norfolk Island, the former British penal colony in the Pacific Ocean which became home to descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers. In the early 1980s she married one of those descendants, Ric Robinson; she was 46, he was 33 ("the lovely thing about being 40 is that you can appreciate 25-year-old men more," she had said).

Although McCullough rejected repeated pleas from publishers to write a Thorn Birds sequel she did write a couple of dozen more novels, spanning genres. During the 1980s came love stories including An Indecent Obsession and The Ladies of Missalonghi, while her historical seven-novel series "Masters of Rome" ran from 1990 to 2007; the depth and quality of her research for the series, which she set in the last days of the Republic, persuaded Macquarie University in Sydney to award her an honorary doctorate.

Her 2008 novel The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet proved controversial, thanks to her retooling of characters from Pride and Prejudice. Susannah Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, said she "shuddered" that Elizabeth Bennet was rewritten as weak, and Darcy as savage.

Her final book, Bittersweet, was published in 2013. HarperCollins Australia's publishing director, Shona Martyn, said McCullough had continued to produce books despite going blind through macular degeneration and suffering from severe arthritis. "[She was] ever quick-witted and direct," Martyn said. "We looked forward to her visits from Norfolk Island and the arrival of each new manuscript delivered in hard copy in custom-made maroon manuscript boxes inscribed with her name." McCullough, who had been confined to a wheelchair, died in hospital on Norfolk Island following a series of minor strokes.


Colleen McCullough, neuroscientist and author: born Wellington, New South Wales 1 June 1937; married 1983 Ric Robinson; died Norfolk Island 29 January 2015.