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Pennefather, Reginald Richard (1905–1957)

by N. Keith Boardman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Reginald Richard Pennefather (1905-1957), agricultural scientist, was born on 4 May 1905 at Camberwell, Melbourne, second child of John Francis Pennefather, a Victorian-born clerk of courts, and his second wife Grace Hilda, née Curtis, late Kemp, who came from England. Reg was educated at Wangaratta Agricultural High School, Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1920-24) and the University of Melbourne (B.Agr.Sc., 1927). After joining the development branch of the Prime Minister's Department as an investigation officer, he examined agricultural conditions in Tasmania, potato marketing, and the transport of sheep. From 1930 he surveyed farms in the chief dairying districts of Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia for the Federal Dairy Investigation Committee.

In 1932 the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research appointed Pennefather a field research assistant at its station at Griffith, New South Wales. He helped to find solutions to the massive problems of salination and declining soil fertility in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. From his investigations of the properties of local soils and the infiltration of water through them, he formulated principles to guide irrigation techniques. In 1940 he became foundation secretary of the C.S.I.R.'s irrigation research and extension committee. He began to put his principles for sustainable irrigation into practice, and much of the region's valuable land was saved from irreparable damage.

Pennefather was made research officer-in-charge of the new soils and irrigation extension service in 1944. He wrote numerous articles in the Farmers' Newsletter and regularly broadcast on radio 2RG. Seconded (1945) to the New South Wales Department of Agriculture to organize its M.I.A. agricultural extension service, he tried to improve both the farmers' economic returns and their way of life. On 9 October 1948 he married Norma Margaret Simms Tracy; she had served in the Women's Land Army. Their only child was stillborn in 1950. After a few years they lived apart.

Concerned that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's findings were not being widely disseminated, (Sir) Ian Clunies Ross established an agricultural research liaison section in Melbourne in 1951. Pennefather was persuaded to accept the post of officer-in-charge. His work brought him into contact with many members of the C.S.I.R.O., State departments and university faculties of agriculture. He established closer relations between scientists, farmers and public servants, and narrowed the gap between the results of research and their practical application. The section published the periodical Rural Research in C.S.I.R.O. to provide information on its work.

Although Pennefather had an outgoing personality and got on well with people, he was deeply tormented. On 19 January 1957 he was questioned by police about 'his associations with young boys' and warned that court proceedings would probably follow. He committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide on or about 2 February that year in a flat at Parkville and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Farmers' Newsletter, Mar 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Jan 1951
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Feb 1957
  • CSIRO Archives, Canberra, series 3, PH/PEN 002, parts 1, 2
  • Inquest deposition file, no 4247, 1957, VPRS 24 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

N. Keith Boardman, 'Pennefather, Reginald Richard (1905–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pennefather-reginald-richard-11366/text20305, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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