Acclaimed Novelist Sells 30 Million Books, Is Remembered For Her Physical Appearance In Obituary

Colleen McCullough, 1977. CREDIT: AP
Colleen McCullough, 1977. CREDIT: AP

Colleen McCullough wrote 25 novels. Her The Thorn Birds sold 30 million copies worldwide for $1.9 million, then a record; a miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Barbara Stanwyck based on her work became one of the most watched in history, second at the time only to Roots. (The miniseries won four Golden Globes but McCullough, whose tastes did not align with the HFPA’s, called it “instant vomit.”) Her historical series, Masters of Rome, was critically acclaimed by the likes of Henry Kissinger. Before becoming a full-time author, McCullough was a researcher at Yale medical school. And in between her time in New Haven and her global literary pursuits, she established the neurophysiology department at Syndey’s Royal North Shore hospital. She published her first novel, Tim, in 1974; her last, Bittersweet, in 2013. She was still working on a sequel when she died yesterday, at age 77, in a hospital on Norfolk Island.

But if you read her obituary in the Australian Photograph you will learn other, definitely more important facts about her before you ever get to this list of accomplishments. Because the second sentence of that obit reads: “Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless a woman of wit and warmth.”

This is the sort of idiocy you’d think someone at the paper might catch. An editor, perhaps. Someone on the copy desk. Literally any human who saw it. But nope, here it is, and we can’t even blame the punishing publish-first-think-later evils of the internet, for as you can see from the highlighted image above, this appeared in a Traditional Legacy Print Newspaper Made From Only The Finest Trees.

Within hours, #myozobituary caught on with the Twitterers:

Twitter has a reputation as a place that fuels the outrage industrial complex, the CAPS LOCK FURY that cascades over the internet whenever anyone makes any mistakes about anything, ever. That people on the internet get outraged other a new thing every single day is well-documented. But this is actually a pleasant case of people responding with a totally appropriate amount and type of outrage, a measured reaction that sees this screw-up for the sexist joke that it is and makes comedy out of its carelessness.


The whole incident brings to mind the backlash to the New York Times obituary of Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist who died in 2013. When she started out in the field in the 1940s, Brill was one of the only, if not the only, women working in rocket science, and she went on to invent the electrothermal hydrazine thruster, a rocket propoulsion system that keeps communication satellites from falling out of orbit. In 2011, she earned the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. And the lede of her Times obit read as follows:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

The second paragraph goes on to state Brill’s name and add that she “was also a brilliant rocket scientist.” In a not exactly up-front response to the widespread criticism of the article, the Times scrubbed the stroganoff reference from the piece and tweaked language throughout the story, without noting anywhere in the online version that a previous version of the article had ever existed. The new and not-significantly-improved first paragraph still emphasizes her home life over her out-of-this-world professional one:

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

For whatever it’s worth, McCullough’s obituary was reportedly written years ago “by a male obituary writer who has since passed away himself.”

Follow all the snarky fun of #myozobituary right this way.