An Australian, McCullough got off to a rough start — “Get out and get a job as a mangle hand in a laundry,” her father told her repeatedly. “That’s all you’re good for. You’ll never get a husband, you’re too big and fat and ugly.” She ignored him, and went to medical school to become a doctor, but found she was allergic to the soaps used there. Instead, she became a neurophysiology researcher — the medical discipline that tests for and diagnoses neuromuscular diseases. After working at a hospital in London, she ended up working at the Yale School of Medicine …where she soon discovered she wasn’t being paid as much as men in the same position. “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 said later.
She noticed that a Yale colleague, Erich Segal, had hit it big as a writer with his book Love Story. She had wanted to be a writer as a girl, so she turned to writing. Her 1977 book brought a record advance: US$1.9 million — The Thorn Birds, which has sold more than 30 million copies. And it was made into a miniseries for TV in 1983. It not only won eight Emmy Awards, it was so successful only one miniseries in history has better ratings: Roots. But McCullough has no illusions about it being great literature: the miniseries was “instant vomit” that she “hated.” And as for the book, she said, there would never be a sequel. “If I wrote ‘Road to Thorn Birds’, ‘Return to Thorn Birds’, ‘Thorn Birds Revisited’…” she shuddered. “Can you imagine? I would be stuck in a dreadful quagmire of boring stuff.” In fact, she said, “I deliberately killed everybody off in that book because I knew I couldn’t write any sequels.” She did write about 20 other books, and used the Thorn Birds riches to move back Down Under. But, she said, she couldn’t live on “the same continent” as her mother, so in the late 1970s she moved to Norfolk Island, a tiny refuge mostly inhabited by descendants of HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian and his shipmates. In 2006 she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia “For service to the arts as an author and to the community through roles supporting national and international educational programs, medico-scientific disciplines and charitable organisations and causes.” She died on Norfolk — survived by her husband Ric Robinson — on January 29. She was 77.