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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Callister, Cyril Percy (1893–1949)

by K. T. H. Farrer

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

Cyril Percy Callister (1893-1949), food technologist, was born on 16 February 1893 at Chute near Beaufort, Victoria, son of William Hugh Callister, schoolmaster and his wife Rosetta Anne, née Dixon. After education at state schools, Grenville College, Ballarat, and the Ballarat School of Mines, he attended the University of Melbourne on a major residential scholarship to Queen's College (B.Sc., 1914; M.Sc., 1917; D.Sc., 1931).

In January 1915 Callister joined Lewis & Whitty, manufacturers of food and household products. In June he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Within three months the Department of Defence withdrew him to join the Munitions Branch. Shortly afterwards he was sent to Britain and spent the war working on explosives manufacture in Wales, and in Scotland where he met and married Katherine Hope Mundell at Annau, on 8 March 1919; they had two sons and a daughter.

On his return to Australia in 1919 Callister rejoined Lewis & Whitty where he remained until that company was taken over. In February 1923 he was appointed to Fred Walker's small food company to develop yeast-extract for retail sale. Although this product was known overseas, no information was available about the process, and Callister developed it de novo from brewers' yeast. Under the trademark Vegemite it was placed on the market early in 1924 and slowly became an established item, solely through Callister's technological skill and perseverance. Walker was also interested in methods for preserving cheese, and involved Callister in this as well. Thus the chemist rapidly became well informed in microbiology and began to experiment with cheese-processing. With the help of patents held by the American James L. Kraft, he made a satisfactory product and Walker used this in 1925 to persuade Kraft to grant a licence for the manufacture of Kraft cheese in Australia. So the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. was established in 1926 with Callister as chief chemist and production superintendent.

He was the key to the increasing technical emphasis of the company. In 1925 he had sent samples of Vegemite to London to be tested for Vitamin B activity—a far-sighted move in the very early days of vitamin knowledge. The result confirmed Callister's confidence in the product as a valuable nutrient. In 1926-31 he carried out detailed original studies on the scientific background of cheese-making to establish the parameters of good cheese quality. Convinced that background science was essential in any industry, in 1927 he appointed a bacteriologist to his staff, possibly the first such appointment in Australia.

Callister became a director of the company in 1935 shortly before Walker died suddenly. He continued to build up laboratory staff and supervise production and quality as the company emerged from the Depression and shouldered unexpected demands for the production of familiar and unfamiliar products during World War II. Under his personal direction high tonnages of service rations for the Australian and United States armies were produced; the unfamiliar technology of dehydration was undertaken for government; and scientific staff greatly improved Vegemite, developed new knowledge of cheese manufacture and processing and of the behaviour of thiamine (vitamin B1) in foods, and introduced into Australia methods of assay of the B complex vitamins. Immediately after the war he stimulated successful attempts to diversify the source of raw-material yeasts for Vegemite.

Prominent in the leadership of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, for which he and (Sir David) Rivett secured the royal charter in 1931, Callister was also closely associated with the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria. His two greatest attributes were his professional excellence and his high personal integrity, a product of his staunch Baptist upbringing. Callister left few published scientific papers, though his output of company reports was extensive. His contributions to Australian food science and technology include the establishment of two new products, Vegemite and processed cheese; his emphasis on quality control; his demonstration of the value of research in the food industry when little was being done anywhere; and the men he trained and inspired.

Callister suffered his first heart attack late in 1939. Others followed, the fatal one occurring on 5 October 1949. Survived by his wife and two children (a son was killed in World War II), he was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £45,917.

Select Bibliography

  • K. T. H. Farrer, ‘C. P. Callister—a pioneer of Australian food technology’, Food Technology in Australia, Feb 1973, and for bibliography
  • Kraft Foods Ltd, records (Port Melbourne)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

K. T. H. Farrer, 'Callister, Cyril Percy (1893–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 8 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 7

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