In 1958, a man walked into the office of Professor Terry Robinson, head of animal husbandry at the University of Sydney, seeking a job.
His scientific credentials were impressive, his practical expertise impeccable, but Dr Steven Salamon’s thick Eastern European accent made Professor Robinson a little suspicious.
After all, it was the height of the Cold War and there was talk of Soviet spies.
The professor later recalled thinking that Dr Salamon’s arrival that day was either the most fortuitous find, or the biggest fraud in history.
He quickly realised Dr Salamon, who had published a scientific paper in a prestigious journal in Moscow, was the real deal.
Professor Robinson could also see how Dr Salamon’s experience and expertise fitted with his own plans to develop large-scale sheep-breeding techniques in Australia.
The nation’s economy still rode on the sheep’s back, and Dr Salamon possessed a special gift: the knowledge of artificial breeding of livestock, a science that was then largely unknown in the West.
From freezing gulag to Sydney science lab
Steven Salamon, born Istvan Salamon in 1918 in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, had literally come in from the cold.
He served in the Hungarian Army, fought alongside the Germans at the bloody battle of Stalingrad, and at the end of war was captured by the invading Russians.
Sent to a prison camp in Siberia, Dr Salamon somehow survived three years of hell.
When his father sent him a letter addressing him as doctor, the camp commandant accused him of concealing his identity.
Though Dr Salamon explained he was a doctor of agricultural science, not a medical doctor, he was still punished for lying and was thrown in to a freezing hole in the ground with two others.
He alone survived, in large part due to the warmth, clothes and food from the other bodies.
After release from the gulag, he trained and qualified in Moscow under the best Soviet scientists.
During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, he fled to Germany with only the clothes he wore.
Australia was Dr Salamon’s chosen destination because it was about as far as possible away from the repressive and brutal Soviet regime.
After a brief stay in Bonegilla Migrant Camp in northern Victoria, he then worked as a landscape gardener in Canberra.
A brilliant linguist and able to read at least 11 languages, he taught himself English and soon after made that opportune visit to Professor Robinson’s office.
His arrival at the Department of Animal Husbandry would help propel University of Sydney scientists into world leaders in reproductive technologies.
In 1961 at a conference of Australian sheep breeders in Melbourne, Professor Robinson and Dr Salamon asked around for sheep producers willing to let the scientists conduct experiments on their flocks.
The only volunteers were two young wool growers, Neil McDonald from Deniliquin in southern New South Wales and Peter Walker from an illustrious wool-growing family at Yass.
Mr Walker, eager to find better methods and techniques of collecting semen from stud rams and artificially inseminating his ewes, was delighted to assist.
The field trials got underway at Yass with the experiments carried out in the woolshed.
So began a highly productive scientific collaboration that lasted for almost half a century.
Dr Salamon’s skills and expertise proved invaluable. Russia led the world by a fair margin in artificial breeding science before World War II.
His linguistic skills allowed him to translate foreign scientific papers previously not accessible to Australian scientists, and in some cases, to debunk false scientific claims by the Soviets.
Led by Dr Salamon, the University of Sydney team perfected methods of collecting and processing semen from rams for artificial insemination.
Crucially, it developed methods for freezing and storing it without any loss of fertility and a way to synchronise oestrus in ewes, another enormous advance in artificial breeding.
That discovery allowed whole flocks to be inseminated at the same time.
Life-changing health effects
The work had several implications for human health.
“The compounds that were in the human [contraceptive] pill were similar to those that were being tested for synchronisation of oestrus in sheep,” University of Sydney Associate Professor Simon de Graaf said.
Emeritus Professor Chis Maxwell, who trained under Dr Salamon and Professor Robinson, said the research was instrumental in forming modern artificial insemination techniques.
“At that time, medical and animal scientists attended the same conferences, both national and international,” he said.
“There was exchange of material.
“I think, as in many things in human reproduction, the animal research often led the way, particularly in the area of human IVF.”
IVF pioneer Emeritus Professor Gareth Evans was also part of the University of Sydney team.
“Another of Robinson’s key students was Neil Moore, who worked on developing embryo transfer in small ruminants, sheep and goats, and from there into freezing embryos,” he said.
“You needed all three of those aspects together, but essentially then that led to human in vitro fertilisation.”
The world’s oldest frozen semen
Over time, Dr Salamon trained hundreds of sheep and goat producers, as well as veterinarians worldwide, and was recognised as a world authority in semen preservation.
He died in September 2017, just shy of his 99th birthday.
At his funeral, his former colleagues decided it was time to revisit an experiment from 1968.
Back then, Dr Salamon had frozen, in liquid nitrogen, ram semen from four of Mr Walker’s best stud rams.
Late last year, Associate Professor de Graaf opened the time capsule and the semen was used to impregnate merino ewes.
The fertility and conception rate of the 50-year-old sperm was outstanding, comparable to current-day frozen sperm.
The sheep, now eight months old, are part of an evaluation trial.
They will stay on a property near Coleraine in western Victoria for another two years, so that scientists and sheep breeders can assess how they compare to modern-day merinos.
They will provide an extraordinary measuring stick for genetic improvement in sheep during the past half century.
There are further implications of this experiment that have the present-day scientists excited.
The 50-year old semen is thought to have set a world record as the oldest ever used successfully, but it also proves that genetic material frozen decades ago should be still as good as the day it was stored.
Leaving a legacy
“The first [thing] is conservation of not only endangered species, but just genetic material generally,” Emeritus Professor Maxwell said.
“Frozen embryos and frozen semen are the main ways to do that and that’s an extremely valuable thing.”
The findings could assist cancer patients whose fertility could be irreparably damaged by radiation and other treatments.
“For humans it means that you would potentially be able to have a teenage cancer patient who is concerned about [if] he can have kids later on down the track,” Associate Professor de Graaf said.
“We’re able to freeze his semen, then 20, 30 years later, go back and use that semen and know that it’s going to be OK.”
Bringing back to life the best sheep from that era also had scientists reflecting on the great scientific advances made in the decades since.
“For what seemed to be a simple problem to us now was a monumental problem then,” Emeritus Professor Evans said.
“How to synchronise oestrus, how to transfer embryos — in vitro fertilization in the 60s was a fanciful suggestion.”
Later in life, Dr Salamon’s work was recognised in scientific circles in Australia and his native Hungary.
Though his life story is still scarcely known, his legacy survives in the lineage of scientists he taught and the discoveries they achieved, especially in the freezing and preservation of semen.
It seems very apt for a man who himself came out of the freezer.
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday, or on ABC iview.