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Callaghan, Sir Allan Robert (1903–1993)

by H. M. P. Stock

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Allan Callaghan, 1983

Sir Allan Callaghan, 1983

National Library of Australia, 23617892

Robert Allan Callaghan (1903–1993), agricultural scientist and public servant, was born on 24 November 1903 at Perthville, New South Wales, eighth of nine children of Phillip George Callaghan, butcher and farmer, and his wife Jane, née Peacock, both New South Wales-born. Allan attended Perthville Public and Bathurst High schools. After completing his Leaving certificate, he secured a cadetship with the New South Wales Department of Agriculture and commenced studies at the University of Sydney (BScAgr, 1925). A resident at St Paul’s College, he represented his college and the university in athletics (Blue, 1924) and rugby union, and became involved in student politics.

In 1924 Callaghan was selected for a Rhodes scholarship. His failure to undertake compulsory military training, however, almost derailed the offer. In March 1925 the committee was persuaded that the lapse was not deliberate, but largely the result of the university’s requirement that he obtain practical experience in agriculture during vacations. Departing for England in July, he entered St John’s College, Oxford (BSc, 1926; DPhil, 1928), and conducted postgraduate research on the oat plant under Professor John Percival of the University of Reading. On 27 October 1928, soon after returning to Sydney, he married Zillah May Sampson (d. 1964), his long-time sweetheart, at St Paul’s College chapel.

Fulfilling the terms of his cadetship, Callaghan worked as an assistant plant breeder at the department’s research stations at Cowra and Wagga Wagga. By the end of 1931, dissatisfied with his conditions of employment and the attitude of his administrative superiors, he sought and gained appointment as principal of Roseworthy Agricultural College, South Australia. When he arrived in mid-1932, the college was in disarray, with tensions between students and staff, and financial difficulties, prompting the State government to review the future of the institution. He responded by raising entry standards, removing oppressive regulations relating to student behaviour, making judicious staff changes, and revising the curriculum to place academic and practical farm management on a firm scientific basis. Over the next decade ‘The Doc,’ as his students affectionately called him, introduced initiatives in dairying, plant breeding, oenology, and agricultural economics. He also established teaching, research, and administrative collaborations with the University of Adelaide.

At the end of 1942 he was seconded to the Commonwealth Department of War Organisation of Industry as assistant director for rural industry, with the task of determining the goals, and necessary resource requirements, for food production. Coordination of these activities with the Ministry of Supply and the Ministry of Commerce and Agriculture to provide overall control of production and distribution of foodstuffs proved difficult. Frustrated, he returned to Roseworthy by February 1944. From February 1942 Callaghan had also chaired the crown lands development committee charged with devising a scheme to resettle returned service personnel on farms. The scheme provided training for settlers and created holdings of adequate size with pasture, water, fencing, and housing. In all 973 farms, totalling some 744,000 acres (301,000 ha) of previously underdeveloped land, would be taken up by 1959.

In May 1949 Callaghan was appointed director of agriculture, in charge of the South Australian Department of Agriculture. He faced an organisation in flux as it responded to the needs of a rapidly expanding postwar population at the same time as many senior staff were due to retire. To meet these challenges, he restructured the department to focus on its core responsibilities; make selective external appointments; make better use of the skills of his staff; and take advantage of Commonwealth, industry, and private funding sources. His achievements included establishing effective relationships with the Waite Agricultural Research Institute and with the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization. He adopted a whole of farm approach to extension services, expanding them to encompass a women’s agricultural bureau, rural youth movement, and young farmers’ clubs.

Although Callaghan maintained good relationships with ministers of agriculture for most of his career, his association with (Sir) Glen Pearson (minister 1956–58) was fraught. Pearson, backed by Premier Sir Thomas Playford, refused to approve a number of his initiatives such as the construction of a woolshed at Minnipa to cater for experimental wool clips. Callaghan’s health deteriorated and he retired on medical grounds. In February 1959 he took up a position within the Commonwealth Department of Trade as commercial counsellor at the Australian embassy in Washington, DC. In this advisory role he had no executive responsibilities and his health improved. He concentrated on gathering information, developing personal relationships, and lobbying to improve access to world markets for Australian agricultural products.

In October 1965 Callaghan was appointed chairman of the Australian Wheat Board. Arriving in Melbourne, he married Doreen Winifred Rhys Draper, his former secretary, on 12 November that year at the Methodist Ladies’ College chapel, Melbourne. As chairman, he used his industry knowledge, personal contacts, and diplomatic skills, to achieve significantly increased sales of grain at a time of world surpluses. He also negotiated a change in how wheat was classified, which gave growers a fair price and assisted in the establishment of markets for special grades of grain. A competent scientist, respected manager, and gifted diplomat, he understood the need for both decisive action and masterful inaction to achieve his aims. After retiring in 1971 he was in demand as a consultant. He conducted an examination of the wheat industry’s stabilisation arrangements (1972) and reviewed the functions of the South Australian Department of Agriculture (1973).

Callaghan returned to Adelaide in 1977. He settled at Clapham and worshipped at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Mitcham, where he was rector’s warden. In 1991 he moved to a retirement home at Wattle Park. Among many honours, he had been appointed CMG in 1945 and knighted in 1972. He was president of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in 1953 (fellow, 1958), and the recipient of the Farrer memorial medal in 1954, and the Roseworthy Old Collegians Association award of merit in 1966. Sir Allan died at home on 18 July 1993 and was cremated. He was survived by Doreen, and the daughter and two of the three sons from his first marriage.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘Agricultural Dynamo and Fine Diplomat.’ 20 July 1993, 7
  • Callaghan, Allan. Interview by Suzanne Lunney, 5 June 1974, 30 June 1975, 13 September 1976. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Callaghan, Allen [sic] Robert. Interview by Lynne Arnold, 16 December 1973. Transcript. J. M. Somerville Oral History collection. State Library of South Australia
  • Humphreys, L. R. Allan Callaghan, A Life. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002
  • National Library of Australia. MS 4850, Papers of Allan Robert Callaghan, 1923–1974
  • Roseworthy Old Collegians Association Inc. ‘ROCA Award of Merit 1966—Sir Allan Callaghan.’ Fact sheet, November 2006. Copy held on ADB file
  • Trumble, Peter. ‘Allan Robert Callaghan.’ History of Agriculture in SA. Department of Primary Industries and Regions, South Australia, 2017. Accessed 18 July 2019. https://www.pir.sa.gov.au/aghistory/dept_of_agriculture_as_an_organisation/structures/callaghan. Copy held on ADB file.

Additional Resources

Citation details

H. M. P. Stock, 'Callaghan, Sir Allan Robert (1903–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/callaghan-sir-allan-robert-18728/text35279, published online 2020, accessed online 15 July 2020.

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