In his role as a biologist, Parkes made highly significant contributions to the infant science of reproductive endocrinology. In an extension of his scientific interests, he became an active proponent of family planning and population control and was influential in the formation and development of several international organizations concerned with social aspects of human fertility.
Because his involvement in reproductive biology and in social aspects of human reproduction began when both fields were in their in-fancy, Parkes' reminiscences are peppered with idiosyncratic stories and comments pertaining to various individuals and events that figure large in modern history. Off-Beat Biologist—published by a charity organization in 1985 and therefore virtually unpromoted—will appeal not only to readers concerned with the author's self-portrait, but to others who would appreciate an intimate description of the early days in endocrinology or beginnings of the birth control movement and family planning.
The story of Parkes' education and professional development reflects superior intelligence, unwillingness to exert himself in the service of orthodox goals posing no personal challenge, but a prodigious capacity for sustained motivation and effort in solving unanswered but stimulating questions, or exploring newly discovered territory. His unconcern with traditional academic standards was reflected in an annoyed reply to a bureaucratic questionnaire concerning his professional qualifications, which he received after 15 years' employment at the National Institute for Medical Research: "1916 failed Lower Certificate. 1917 failed School Certificate. 1920 failed National and Cambridge Diplomas of Agriculture. 1933 FRS."
Off-Beat is written in a clear and attractive style but, at 444 pages, is too long for sustained interest, and coverage is somewhat undisciplined. Parkes was unable or unwilling to separate material of likely interest to the general reader from masses of trivia of dubious interest to anybody.
One other stylistic procedure that adds to the length of treatment is Parkes' fondness for self-quotation. Instead of summarizing his opinion of a particular individual, or his reaction to a particular issue, Parkes frequently reprints a selected passage from one of his earlier publications. The source may have been one of his books or lectures, or simply some remarks prepared for introduction of a speaker at a dinner or symposium.
Despite such criticisms, Off-Beat Biologist will entertain and instruct readers with an interest in its author and the areas to which he was such a magnificent contributor.