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Prescott, James Arthur (1890–1987)

by T. J. Marshall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

James Arthur Prescott (1890-1987), agricultural chemist, was born on 7 October 1890 at Little Bolton, Lancashire, England, eldest of seven children of Joseph Arthur Prescott, machine-fitter, and his wife Mary Alice, née Garsden. James attended school in France in 1897-1901, while his father was working in the textile industry there, and remained fluent in French for the rest of his life. Completing his schooling at Accrington, Lancashire, he studied science at the Victoria University of Manchester (B.Sc., 1911; M.Sc., 1919), where he gained first-class honours in chemistry. He undertook postgraduate research on phosphate in soil at Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire. On 12 October 1915 at the Wesleyan Chapel, Accrington, he married Elsie Mason (d.1972). From 1916 to 1924 he was employed as chief chemist at the experimental station of the Sultanic Agricultural Society, Bahtim, Egypt; his work was mainly concerned with nitrogen in fertilisers and soil.

On the recommendation of Sir John Russell, the director of Rothamsted, Prescott was appointed to the chair of agricultural chemistry at the newly established Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide. He arrived in South Australia in 1924 and, in his first years, travelled widely to familiarise himself with Australian soils. Influenced by Russian work on soil genesis, he interpreted the effect that climate, vegetation and other factors had on soils. He drew a map of the major soil zones of the continent and in 1931 published The Soils of Australia in Relation to Vegetation and Climate (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Bulletin no 52). This work contributed to a D.Sc., conferred by the University of Adelaide in 1932, and established him as the leading authority on soil science in Australia.

Meanwhile (Sir) David Rivett [q.v.11], chief executive officer of CSIR, had sought Prescott’s advice on a proposed investigation of the soils of irrigated areas of the Murray River system, and in 1927 had named him head of the Murray River Soil Investigation Unit and chairman of the CSIR irrigation research station committee. In 1929 Prescott was appointed part-time chief of the CSIR division of soils, with headquarters at the Waite Institute. Under his direction, soil surveys by CSIR and laboratory investigations by his university group advanced soil research in Australia. In 1944 he published A Soil Map of Australia (CSIR Bulletin no 177).

From 1938, when Prescott succeeded A. E. V. Richardson as director of the Waite Institute, he administered research and education in a wider field of agricultural science. He was chairman (1938-55) of the CSIR oenological research committee and a member (1938-56) of the Advisory Board of Agriculture of South Australia. In 1939 he brought together scientists from around Australia for a two-week ‘winter school of soil science’ which was so successful that another school was held in 1945. He contributed to projects on analytical methods, laterite, soil classification, texture, fertility and acidity. The CSIR group classified soils and defined the salinity problems of irrigation areas. During World War II it undertook special projects such as soil stabilisation for airfields.  After the war the division expanded and diversified; under an increasingly heavy load of administration as both director and chief, Prescott resigned from his CSIR post in 1947. He was a delegate in a scientific mission to India in 1948 and led an agricultural mission to Pakistan in 1951.

Much of Prescott’s personal research related to devising a climatic index covering rainfall and evaporation. Since records of evaporation were not available for many sites, he made use of temperature records from wet and dry bulb thermometers to derive the saturation deficit of the atmosphere. With this to represent evaporating power, and using rainfall records, he established an empirical index as a guide to both length of growing season in various regions and the climatic limits to agriculture. In 1952 he was appointed to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization panel on zone climatology; he also served as chairman of a working group of the World Meteorological Organization. In all, he published 121 papers.

President of the Royal Society of South Australia (1932-33), the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute (1936-37) and the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1940-41), Prescott was awarded the Royal Society of South Australia’s (Sir Joseph) Vercoe medal in 1938, the Farrer memorial medal in 1948 and the Mueller medal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1954. He was appointed CBE in 1947. Elected a fellow (1951) of the Royal Society, London, and a founding fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, he was made an honorary member of the Australian Society of Soil Science (1961) and of the International Society of Soil Science (1964). He retired from the Waite in 1955 and was appointed emeritus professor. Next year the University of Melbourne conferred on him an honorary doctorate of agricultural science. In 1956-70 he was a council-member of the Australian Wine Research Institute. The Australian Society of Soil Science established the J. A. Prescott medal for outstanding contributions to soil science and climatology in 1971.

Of average build, Prescott had a reserved but unassuming manner and spoke frankly, with an English regional accent. He showed consideration to his staff and tempered mild criticism with a pleasantry. While his main concerns were with work and family, he enjoyed gardening, music, discussing current affairs and learning about the history of agricultural science in Russia, where he visited in 1934 and 1974. He had served from 1938 on the Scotch College council of governors (chairman 1953-61).

To celebrate Prescott’s ninetieth birthday the Waite Institute and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization arranged a symposium on a major soil group that he had defined. On 6 February 1987 he died at Glen Osmond, Adelaide, and was cremated. His son, John Russell Prescott, professor of physics (1971-89) at the University of Adelaide, survived him; a daughter had died in infancy. James Prescott is commemorated by a plaque in the pavement of North Terrace, Adelaide, and by a building at the Waite Institute, named in his honour in 1994.

Select Bibliography

  • V. A. Edgeloe, The Waite Agricultural Research Institute (1984)
  • C. R. Twidale et al (eds), Ideas and Endeavours (1986)
  • K. E. Lee, A History of the CSIRO Division of Soils 1927-1997 (1998)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 7, no 3, 1988, p 299
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 23 Mar 1982, p 5
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

T. J. Marshall, 'Prescott, James Arthur (1890–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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