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Bennetts, Harold William (1898–1970)

by Jill E. Maughan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Harold William Bennetts (1898-1970), veterinary scientist, was born on 18 July 1898 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of William Rawling Bennetts, iron merchant, and his wife Sarah Jane, née Clark, both Victorian born. From his father, Harold acquired a love of music and nature, and, from boyhood, showed interest in animal anatomy. Educated at Wesley College, he studied veterinary science at the University of Melbourne. In January 1918 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and trained as a gunner; he was discharged in April 'for family reasons'.

Having graduated (B.V.Sc., 1919; M.V.Sc., 1920; D.V.Sc., 1931), in 1921-22 Bennetts worked for the Commonwealth Department of Health as bacteriologist in charge of the emergency laboratory at Cairns, Queensland, during an outbreak of bubonic plague and subsequently as a microbiologist at Townsville. Returning to Melbourne in 1923, he was appointed to the university as a lecturer and demonstrator in veterinary pathology and bacteriology under Professor H. A. Woodruff. Bennetts was 6 ft 3¾ ins (192 cm) tall, gaunt in appearance, with a fresh complexion, blue eyes and fair hair. He married Jean Muir Sinclair with Presbyterian forms on 28 January 1924 at the Park Church, South Brisbane; they were to have three children.

The crucial decision of his career was made in 1925 when he accepted the recently-created position of veterinary pathologist with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture. In 1928-35 he was seconded, part time, to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in order to use its better facilities and to have contact with leaders in his field. Much of Bennetts's work, however, was carried out in professional isolation and with inadequate resources. His first 'laboratory' in Perth consisted of two small cubicles in the basement of the department with a floor space of some 240 sq. ft (22 m²). To the 'chagrin and malaise' of staff and citizens, animals were housed and post-mortems conducted in a small lane between the department and Government House.

Despite these obstacles, Bennetts achieved world recognition for his monographs and for his contributions to controlling major diseases in livestock. His work on enterotoxaemia and enzootic ataxia proved invaluable to sheep-raisers. He introduced two new concepts into veterinary pathology: those of diseases due to the absorption of bacterial toxins from the bowel and diseases due to a deficiency of essential trace elements. With his colleagues, he extended knowledge of copper deficiency in ruminants and also identified naturally occurring oestrogens in pasture as the cause of clover disease or ovine infertility.

In 1947 an animal health and nutrition laboratory was completed at Hollywood; Bennetts was its principal until 1959, except for eighteen months in 1952-53 when he was hospitalized with tuberculosis. He published the results of his researches in over one hundred papers in scientific journals. His collaborative work with C. A. Gardner on the effects of toxic plants on livestock culminated in their book, The Toxic Plants of Western Australia (1956). Late in his career Bennetts worked on lupinosis in sheep. His resignation from the department in December 1959, four years before his stipulated retirement, was seen as a great loss to veterinary science. In 1960-66 he was employed as a technical consultant by William Cooper & Nephews (Australia) Pty Ltd.

Dr Bennetts belonged to the Weld Club and enjoyed gardening and swimming. He had been appointed C.B.E. in 1948. The Royal Society of Western Australia, of which he was president (1934-35), awarded him the Kelvin medal in 1955 and he received the Australian Veterinary Association's Gilruth prize in 1957. An honorary member (1950) of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and a fellow (1946) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, he was, as well, a fellow (1954) of the Australian Veterinary Association and a corresponding member (1957) of the Académie Vétérinaire, France. Bennetts died on 28 August 1970 at Shenton Park, Perth, and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, daughter and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of Western Australia, Journal, 40, 1956-57, p 1
  • Australian Veterinary Journal, 33, no 9, Sept 1957, p 241
  • Wesfarmers News, 2 June 1960, p 36
  • H. W. Bennetts, Veterinary Research in Western Australia (manuscript, no date, Dept of Agriculture Library, Perth)
  • M. R. Gardner, Obituary: Harold William Bennetts, C.B.E., D.V.Sc. (manuscript, 1970, Dept of Agriculture Library, Perth).

Citation details

Jill E. Maughan, 'Bennetts, Harold William (1898–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennetts-harold-william-9491/text16701, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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