Colleen McCullough

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A neurophysiological researcher at Yale, Colleen McCullough turned to writing at 37 as a second career and made it her first, producing with The Thorn Birds, a book about illicit love between a married woman and a priest, a career-defining success. Where did a story of such forbidden passion come from? Well, she was the daughter of a bigamist who had at least three wives at the same time. Listen, as an author she wasn’t Carson McCullers, but she didn’t need to be: Her heart was its own kind of lonely hunter. From her New York Times obituary, penned by the excellent Margalit Fox:

On a typical day, Ms. McCullough said, she might produce 15,000 words; on a very good day, 30,000. Her facility was all the more noteworthy in that she continued to use an electric typewriter well into the computer age.

“I spell perfectly,” she told The Inquirer in the 1996 article. “My grammar’s very good. My sentence construction is excellent. So I don’t have a lot of mistakes.” …

As a girl, Ms. McCullough dreamed of becoming a doctor. She entered medical school at the University of Sydney but was forced to abandon her studies after she developed a severe allergy to the soap widely used in Australian hospitals. She trained instead in neurophysiology, which is concerned with testing for and diagnosing neuromuscular diseases.

In the late 1960s, after working at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, Ms. McCullough accepted a position as a neurophysiological research assistant at the Yale School of Medicine. Discovering that she was being paid less than her male colleagues there, she cast about for another source of income.

“I loved being a neurophysiologist, but I didn’t want to be a 70-year old spinster in a cold-water walk-up flat with one 60-watt light bulb, which is what I could see as my future,” she told The California Literary Review in 2007.

Interested in writing since girlhood, she took to her typewriter.•

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