30 Jan 2015

Writer Colleen McCullough dies

6:04 am on 30 January 2015

Australian author Colleen McCullough has died at the age of 77, after a long illness.

Her sweeping family drama The Thorn Birds sold 30 million copies worldwide, and she wrote another 24 novels. Her final book, Bittersweet, was published in 2013.

Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough Photo: AFP / Ieemage

The Thorn Birds was sold for a then-record $1.9 million and a mini-series, starring Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck became one of the most watched of all time.

It was just one of the many books McCullough wrote in a career spanning four decades.

Her first novel, Tim, written in 1974 tells the story of the relationship between an older woman and a younger, developmentally impaired man. It too was dramatised and became one of actor Mel Gibson's first films.

But it was her seven-book, intensely researched, historical series Masters of Rome, that won her much acclaim, including plaudits from politicians including Bob Carr, Henry Kissinger and Newt Gingrich.

Born in New South Wales, her mother Laurie was a New Zealander of Maori ancestry and her father Jim was an Irish immigrant who worked as a cane cutter and spent long periods away from the family.

She taught herself to read by the time she was three.

She originally studied neuroscience, and established the neurophysiology department at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.

She took on a researcher role at Yale Medical School where she worked for 10 years. It was at Yale that she began to write and also where she wrote Tim.

On returning to Australia, McCullough moved to Norfolk Island and married Ric Robinson in 1984.

Having moved to Norfolk Island in the 1980s, she died yesterday in the hospital there.