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Andrewartha, Herbert George (Andy) (1907–1992)

by T. C. R. White

This article was published online in 2016

Herbert George (‘Andy’) Andrewartha (1907-1992), entomologist and ecologist, was born on 21 December 1907 at Mount Lawley, Perth, the second of three children of South Australian-born George Andrewartha, schoolteacher, and his New South Wales-born wife Elsie Mabel, née Morgan. He was educated at Perth Modern School and the University of Western Australia, graduating in agriculture (BSc, 1929). In 1931 Andy undertook research on apple thrips at the University of Melbourne (MSc, 1932). Returning to Perth, he was employed as a scientific officer with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture. In 1933 he was appointed field entomologist to the Thrips Investigation League, funded by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Waite Agricultural Research Institute of the University of Adelaide, and the University of Melbourne.

On 13 April 1935 at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, Andrewartha married Hattie Vevers Steele, a biologist and keen watercolour artist of native birds. They moved to Adelaide that year. Employed as entomologist at the Waite Institute, Andrewartha continued to study apple thrips, but was primarily responsible for research on the plague grasshopper. Vevers worked with and assisted Andrewartha, spending many weeks as his assistant in outback Australia.

Andrewartha’s work with apple thrips and the plague grasshopper, reinforced by his careful analysis of the work of other entomologists and ecologists, led him to question the dominant orthodoxy that animal numbers were regulated by mortality factors, principally predators or competition. These factors were said to vary in their impact, depending on the population density of the animal, stabilising numbers rather than allowing them to increase indefinitely or become extinct. Andrewartha’s questioning culminated in The Distribution and Abundance of Animals (1954). Co-authored with Louis Charles Birch, his former graduate student, the book proposed the alternative theory that both the abundance and distribution of animals were determined by their heterogeneous and constantly changing environment, and that these changes were not influenced by their numbers. Rather, they were driven by changes in the weather. The book’s impact was immediate and far-reaching, establishing Andrewartha’s reputation as an ecologist of international standing.

Shortly after publication of this major work Andrewartha was appointed a reader in the University of Adelaide’s department of zoology; he had been awarded a doctorate of science by the University of Adelaide in 1946. There he led a new animal ecology unit within which he developed and taught a final-year undergraduate course in experimental ecology, eventually publishing a textbook for it, Introduction to the Study of Animal Populations (1961). In 1962 he was appointed to the chair of zoology. He attracted postgraduate students from all over the world and led the most dynamic and interdisciplinary band of population ecologists in the country. Retiring as emeritus professor in 1972, Andrewartha returned to the Waite Institute as a visiting research fellow, where, in spite of a crippling stroke in 1975, he published, with Birch, The Ecological Web (1984).

Throughout his career Andrewartha played an influential role in agricultural and biological circles in South Australia. He was a member of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and served as president of its South Australian branch (1946). He was president of the Royal Society of South Australia (1952) and the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, and chairman of the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council of South Australia.

Recognition of Andrewartha’s contribution to ecology came from a variety of sources. In 1961 he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He was awarded the David Syme prize of the University of Melbourne (1954), the Sir Joseph Vercoe medal of the Royal Society of South Australia (1962), the (W. B.) Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1968), and the gold medal of the Australian Ecological Society (1987). For having ‘inspired the generation widely credited with constructing modern ecology’ (Simberloff 1989, 28), Andrewartha was named, together with Birch, eminent ecologist of the year by the Ecological Society of America in 1988.

Renowned for his ability to invent and improvise in both laboratory and field, Andrewartha, a keen gardener, built an intricate ‘automated’ system of hoses, taps, and slowly filling buckets to turn sprinklers on and off in his large garden. This led to his staff and students dubbing him ‘Heath Robinson Andrewartha.’ His other recreational passion was tennis. Vevers and he hosted Saturday afternoon games on his lovingly maintained grass court with family, friends, and colleagues.

A meticulous, demanding, but inspirational academic leader, Andrewartha’s graduate students and colleagues knew his sincerity, humour, and kind attention. Unlike many scientists he did not claim co-authorship of PhD students’ publications. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their daughter and son, he died on 27 January 1992 at Glen Osmond, Adelaide, and was cremated. The University of Adelaide honoured his memory in 1993 with a memorial gate opening on to the rose garden in which he studied thrips, and through which he walked to work, and in 2002 the Royal Society of South Australia established the H. G. Andrewartha medal for outstanding young Australian scientists.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘DSc. Degrees for Research Work on Locusts.’ 18 December 1946, 10
  • ‘SA Ecology Unit is First in Australia.’ 2 December 1954, 6
  • Birch, Louis Charles, and T. O. Browning. ‘Herbert George Andrewartha 1907 – 1992.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 9, no. 3 (1993): 258-268
  • Deveson, E. D. ‘The Search for a Solution to Australian Locust Outbreaks: How Developments in Ecology and Government Responses Influenced Scientific Research.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 22, no. 1 (2011): 1-31
  • Simberloff, Daniel. ‘Eminent Ecologist: Herbert G. Andrewartha and L. Charles Birch.’ Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 70, no. 1 (March 1989): 28-29
  • White, T. C. R. ‘Memorial Gate to Great Ecologist.’ Adelaidean, 15 March 1993, 9.

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Citation details

T. C. R. White, 'Andrewartha, Herbert George (Andy) (1907–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 24 October 2017.

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