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Downes, Ronald Geoffrey (Geoff) (1916–1985)

by Nick Uren

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Ronald Geoffrey (Geoff) Downes (1916-1985), agricultural scientist and public servant, was born on 3 January 1916 at Ascot Vale, Melbourne, third surviving child of Victorian-born parents Albert John Downes, salesman, and his wife Florence Maude, née Davis. Geoff was educated at Essendon and University High schools, and at the University of Melbourne (B.Agr.Sc., 1937; M.Agr.Sc., 1939) under (Sir) Samuel Wadham. On 20 July 1940 he married Gwenyth Edith Dodds at Caulfield Methodist Church.

Between 1939 and 1950 Downes was a research officer in the division of soil of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), conducting surveys across Australia. He was seconded to advise the United States air force on the preparation of airstrips in Papua and New Guinea in 1942-43. In 1950 he returned to Melbourne as one of the first three members appointed to the Soil Conservation Authority (SCA), established to address extensive erosion in Victoria. He rose to deputy-chairman in 1953 and chairman in 1961. A shy but confident man, he carried the trappings of office with dignity. While reluctant to forgo applied work, he became a respected and effective manager, allowing his staff to work with considerable freedom. His unemotional and objective approach to problems made him a useful committee-man.

In the 1950s and 1960s the SCA consolidated its role in what Downes preferred to term `land conservation’: `the devising of stable and therefore sustainable systems of land-use’, irrespective of the form of use (whether grazing, forestry or wildlife reserve). Under his guidance the SCA gained a national and international reputation for the conservation of land. Downes also acted as a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on dryland farming in Israel (1960, 1965), Iran (1967), Algeria (1972-73), Morocco (1981) and Brazil (1982). He used his knowledge of soils, ecology, hydrology and land management to help in attempts—mostly highly successful—to make the deserts bloom.

From 1961 Downes also chaired the Land Utilisation Advisory Council (LUAC), an interdepartmental committee dealing with increasingly controversial issues of land alienation and development. He took pride in the LUAC’s `unique’ level of expertise, but his emphasis on science over consultation, and his commitment to an overarching public interest, led to LUAC’s influence waning with the Victorian minister for lands Sir William McDonald. By 1970 LUAC had effectively lapsed.

In 1973, under (Sir) Rupert Hamer’s reform-minded government, Downes was appointed director of conservation and permanent head of a new Victorian Ministry of Conservation. He again sought to bring a `hard-headed’ approach to environmental and development issues. Distrusting the slogans and emotionalism entering debates over conservation, he none the less used his 1974 Meredith Lecture, Environment, Conservation and People, to urge critical attention to questions of `life-style’, population pressure and resource strain from a `spiritual’ as much as a social perspective. On his retirement in 1979 he was farewelled as `a quiet champion’ of the environment. That year he was appointed CB.

Downes served as a vice-president (1966-73) of the Australian Conservation Foundation, president (1961-63) of the Australian Society of Soil Science, and president (1971-72) of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science. He was a fellow of the AIAS, the Soil Conservation Authority of America, the Australasian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and the Australian Institute of Management. Awarded a doctorate in agricultural science by the University of Melbourne in 1972 in recognition of his work, he received other honours including the Prescott medal of the ASSS (1976), the Australian medal of agricultural science of AIAS (1977) and the Hugh Hammond Bennett Award (1981) of the Soil Conservation Society of America—the first to a non-American. In 1984-85 he was deputy-chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

In his private life Downes played first division lawn bowls and sang in the choir of the Ivanhoe Methodist Church. After a long illness, he died of cancer on 2 May 1985 at home at Eaglemont, Melbourne, and was buried in Eltham cemetery. He was survived by his wife and three sons.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Thompson, A Brief History of Soil Conservation in Victoria, 1834-1961 (1979)
  • L. Robin, Defending the Little Desert (1998)
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 May 1985, p 7
  • private information.

Citation details

Nick Uren, 'Downes, Ronald Geoffrey (Geoff) (1916–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/downes-ronald-geoffrey-geoff-12435/text22359, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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