Agar, Wilfred Eade (1882–1951)

by F. H. Drummond

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Wilfred Eade Agar (1882-1951), zoologist, was born on 27 April 1882 at Wimbledon, England, seventh of nine children of Edward Larpent Agar and his wife Agnes, née Henty. His father was a solicitor and businessman and also the principal founder of the game of hockey in its modern form. He went from a private school to Sedbergh School, Yorkshire, and in 1900 entered King's College, Cambridge, to read zoology. He graduated B.A. in 1903 with a first class in both parts of the Science Tripos (M.A., 1907). At Cambridge he was inspired by William Bateson with an ambition to research in genetics. He tried for a post in the British Museum (Natural History) but then decided that he would prefer an academic position.  

In 1904 Agar was appointed demonstrator in zoology at the University of Glasgow, where he found his vocation in teaching and research. His work on the embryology of the lungfish Lepidosiren and Protopterus led to a fellowship at King's College, Cambridge; this did not entail his leaving Glasgow, for he was obliged only to continue academic and research work. The work on Lepidosiren had another important consequence for him. The cells of this fish, being unusually large, offer favourable material for the study of chromosomes and in 1907, aided by grants from the Royal Society and the Balfour Fund at Cambridge, Agar made an expedition to the almost inaccessible Gran Chaco, Paraguay, to collect material for cytological study. His meticulous study of spermatogenesis in Lepidosiren provided critical confirmation that the chromosome mechanism could provide a physical basis for Mendel's laws. Another significant contribution to Mendelian theory came from his work on inheritance in parthenogenetic crustacea. He found that apart from rare mutations, the genetic constitution of these crustacea remained unchanged, generation after generation. This work provided the first direct evidence from animals that the segregation of genes is due to the segregation of homologous chromosomes at meiosis.

On the outbreak of World War I Agar, who was a member of the Territorial Reserve of Officers, was posted captain to the 5th (City of Glasgow) Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry which, as part of the 52nd Division, was sent to Gallipoli in June 1915. Agar was adjutant to the divisional base at Alexandria but after a year suffered a severe attack of enteric fever and had to return to England. He remained on home service until he resumed university work early in 1918. During this period he wrote Cytology (London, 1920).

In 1908 Agar had married Elizabeth MacDonald in Glasgow; consideration for the future of their young family led him, in 1919, to accept the chair of zoology at the University of Melbourne. In doing so, he feared that he was giving up most of his ambitions; his apprehensions seemed justified when he found that he had to give all the lectures and conduct a large proportion of the laboratory classes without help. However, the appointment of more staff enabled him to resume research; he refused offers of three chairs in British universities and after his retirement in 1948 wrote, 'I believe I have been able to do as much, and as good, work in the University of Melbourne as I should have done in a home university'. His appointment was of special importance to Melbourne. Under his predecessor, Sir Baldwin Spencer, teaching had followed almost exclusively the lines of traditional morphology. Agar introduced the newer disciplines of cytology and genetics and these remained his chief teaching interest. His courses were probably the first of their kind in Australian universities. He initiated studies on marsupial chromosomes and his paper on inheritance in cattle seems to have been the earliest in Australia to apply genetical techniques to animal-breeding. In 1921 he was elected to the Royal Society.

From student days, Agar had been interested in the problem of Lamarckian inheritance. Like most biologists he rejected the theory that acquired characters are inherited, but it continued to receive influential support. The most important of Agar's contributions to this controversy was his repetition of an experiment which the psychologist William McDougall claimed had demonstrated the inheritance of the effects of training in rats. It was the most impressive evidence published in support of the Lamarckian theory and none of the many criticisms levelled at it seriously weakened McDougall's claim. However, the results of Agar's properly controlled experiment, continued over twenty years, completely refuted the Lamarckian interpretation of McDougall's experiment.

In his early years in Melbourne, Agar became interested in animal psychology and carried on experiments on the capacity to learn by experience of a range of animals from amoeba to crayfish and snails. These studies over a long period were a source of great pleasure to him. They provided few publications but formed instead a background for his increasing preoccupation with broad biological concepts and the philosophy of science which found expression in A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism (Melbourne, 1943; second edition, 1951). Agar regarded this book as by far his most important contribution to biological theory.

Though retiring by nature, Agar took his full share of administrative work in the university. He was a council-member for many years, twice dean of the faculty of science, and chairman of the professorial board in 1931-34, guiding the deliberations that preceded the appointment of a full-time vice-chancellor. He was a councillor of the Royal Society of Victoria for twenty years and president in 1927-28. His services to science and to the university were recognized by an O.B.E. in 1939 and a C.B.E. in 1948.

Agar's scientific achievements were widely recognized. His scholarship and balanced judgment earned him the respect and trust of his colleagues and students. He wore his distinctions lightly and his kindliness, consideration and unfailing courtesy won wide affection. Beyond his scientific interests, he read widely in philosophy, enjoyed poetry and drama and occasionally did some water-colour sketching.

Agar and his family lived on the university campus until his retirement in 1948 when they moved to Kew. On returning from sabbatical leave in 1926 they had bought a bushland property near Healesville and, a skilful carpenter from boyhood, he built substantial additions to their holiday cottage there. In retirement he continued to research and write but was increasingly troubled by poor health. He had had a coronary thrombosis in 1947 and on 14 July 1951 he died at Kew; survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he was cremated.

A portrait by Max Meldrum and a bronze plaque by Andor Meszaros are at the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Kerr, ‘Obituary: Prof. W. E. Agar’, Nature, 168 (1951)
  • ‘Annual report to council’, Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings, 64 (1952)
  • ‘Epitaphs: W. E. Agar …’, Melbourne Graduate, 3 (1952), no 2
  • O. W. Tiegs, ‘Wilfred Eade Agar’, Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 8 (1952), no 21
  • autobiographical sketch (privately held).

Citation details

F. H. Drummond, 'Agar, Wilfred Eade (1882–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 June 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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