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Davies, John Griffiths (Jack) (1904–1969)

by L. R. Humphreys

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

John Griffiths (Jack) Davies (1904-1969), agricultural scientist, was born on 10 May 1904 at Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire, Wales, son of William Davies, grocer, and his wife Margaret, née Griffiths. Brought up by an aunt on her farm near Borth, Jack was educated at local county schools and at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (B.Sc., 1924; Ph.D., 1927), where he studied under Professor (Sir) George Stapledon who led the development of grassland improvement in Britain. In 1927 Davies took up an appointment as assistant-agrostologist at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide, under A. E. V. Richardson. As a somewhat unwilling guest at one of Mrs Richardson's musical events, he met Kathleen Michell Gryst whom he married on 23 December 1929 at St Bede's Anglican Church, Semaphore.

In 1938 Davies moved to Canberra to direct the pasture research section of the division of plant industry, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization from 1949). His study of the poor response of native pastures to superphosphate led to four formative ideas in grassland science: greater scope for improving productivity through the use of exotic species; the role of annual legumes in the accretion of nitrogen to the ecosystem; the need to assess the value of pastures by their effects on the production of the animals which grazed on them; and the importance of statistical controls in experimentation. One noteworthy grazing experiment exposed the false claims made for the benefits of rotational grazing, and a simpler management system was promoted in which paddocks were to be occupied by animals throughout the year, albeit with seasonal variation in their density. Davies showed energy and acumen in establishing pasture research groups in Perth and Brisbane, and at Deniliquin, Armidale and Trangie, New South Wales. By 1950 his section encompassed more than half the staff employed by the division of plant industry.

Following the retirement in 1949 of the divisional chief B. T. Dickson and of Davies's mentor Richardson (who had joined C.S.I.R. in 1938), Davies advocated the establishment of a separate division of pasture research. A review committee recommended strengthening genetics and physiology within the existing division and (Sir) Otto Frankel was appointed chief in 1951. Davies found that Frankel's temperament, scientific emphases and approach differed radically from his own. He fled to Brisbane. There, as associate chief (1952-59) and officer-in-charge of the plant and soils laboratory, he concentrated on the improvement of tropical pastures. The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock (later Primary Industries) had already made notable advances in this field, but lacked a critical research base.

Davies's vision led to Queensland becoming a recognized international centre for this disciplinary area, and transformed the nature and productivity of millions of acres of grazing land. The distinguished plant-breeder E. M. Hutton and the legume bacteriologist D. O. Norris left Canberra to join him. This refugee nucleus group promoted a revolution in tropical pasture science. Davies soon gathered a multidisciplinary body of scientists about him. With the support of Sir Ian Clunies Ross, in July 1959 a new division of tropical pastures was established in Brisbane, of which Davies was foundation chief. The C.S.I.R.O.'s Cunningham Laboratory was built at the University of Queensland where he trained students in agricultural science.

Appreciating the regional diversity of agricultural problems, Davies recognized that their solution required the integration of field-experiments with laboratory and controlled environment studies. Research centres were set up at Samford and Beerwah in the coastal lowlands of south-east Queensland; in 1962 the Pastoral Research Laboratory, near Townsville, was developed; in 1966 the Narayen Research Station, near Mundubbera, was inaugurated; and research was also undertaken on farming properties. By 1969 the division comprised fifty-three scientists whose research was concentrated in the humid and sub-humid zones.

Shortly after arriving in Queensland, Davies had courageously declared to a large meeting of cattlemen at Rockhampton: 'Your natural pastures are no b--- good!' His proposals focussed essentially on the introduction and improvement of well-adapted pasture legumes from other tropical regions (which fixed nitrogen from the atmosphere, and whose nutritive value was superior to that of the grasses). Of equal importance was the identification of mineral deficiencies and—where feasible—the replacement of native grasses with African grasses more responsive to improved soil fertility. This system was further enhanced by determining the rates of stocking to synchronize pasture availability and animal needs. He eschewed the feed-lot fattening systems in vogue in North America and Europe, and sought the solution to difficulties of feeding in dry months by growing suitable plants in the wet season.

Davies's stature as a scientist derived more from the organization and leadership he gave to research than his publications. Capable of analysing the problems of an agricultural industry in a holistic way, he designed research programmes which benefited industry when adopted. Teams of interacting scientists from different disciplines were able to study the soil-plant-animal complex. They were recruited from agronomy and plant ecology, plant nutrition and physiology, biochemistry, plant-breeding and plant-introduction, legume bacteriology and animal nutrition. He gave special attention to developing a young and promising staff, but did not appoint women. His close association with successive meetings of the International Grassland Congress was strengthened by his membership (1960-64) of its continuing committee. Scientists from overseas were encouraged to visit his division, while his own assignments in tropical countries helped to develop its international status.

At ease with people in all walks of life, Jack Davies was noted for his conviviality: the resources for his work were sometimes derived from his cultivation of community leaders. In his youth he had played hockey and helped to organize the Amateur Sports Association of South Australia. He was short and slightly built, usually charming and confident, but occasionally morose. Fiercely emotional and graphically expressive in defending his friends or a point of view, he could be a teasing devil's advocate, ever determined to extract central conclusions from a discussion. Having once asked a visiting dignitary whether their meeting was formal or informal, and being reassured that it was the latter, Davies removed an uncomfortable upper denture before resuming business.

He was federal president (1951), a medallist (1957) and a fellow (1958) of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science. The University of New England conferred on him an honorary doctorate of science in 1958; he won the Britannica Australia award in natural and applied science in 1964; and he was appointed C.B.E. in 1967. Survived by his wife and two daughters, Davies died of cardiac infarction on 15 March 1969 in South Brisbane and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Journal of Science, 32, no 2, 1970, p 45
  • Tropical Grasslands, 4, Mar 1970, p 1, and for publications
  • A. G. Eyles, Factors Influencing the Nature and Extent of the Research Program of the CSIRO Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures (M.Sc. thesis, Griffith University, 1979)
  • private information.

Citation details

L. R. Humphreys, 'Davies, John Griffiths (Jack) (1904–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davies-john-griffiths-jack-9914/text17555, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 June 2018.

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

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