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Soutter, Richard Ernest (1878–1955)

by P. J. Skerman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Richard Ernest Soutter (1878-1955), wheat-breeder and public servant, was born on 4 September 1878 at Hull, Yorkshire, England, son of William Soutter, gardener, and his wife Martha, née Hill. After migrating with his family to Australia, William became overseer (1885-98) at the Acclimatization Gardens, Bowen Park, Brisbane, and taught his son how to use forceps in crossing plant varieties. Richard was a foundation student at Queensland Agricultural College, Gatton, in 1897, but did not stay to qualify. A horticulturalist at Westbrook State Farm near Toowoomba from 1898 to 1902, he transferred to the Maranoa district in 1905 to supervise wheat demonstration plots for 'marginal areas'. On 7 February 1906 he married Evelyn Maud Ashburn with Presbyterian forms in Brisbane.

That year he was appointed manager of the Roma State Farm: he cleared the prickly pear, ring-barked the box trees, cultivated the soil, and supervised the planting of crops and the breeding of Ayrshire cattle and pigs. From 1911 wheat-breeding predominated at the farm and Soutter's varieties had doubled the average yield per acre of the region. Heavy soils and summer rains created problems for many Queensland wheat-farmers. Soutter therefore encouraged contour cultivation to combat soil erosion, and, to retain moisture, advocated shifts in the pattern of fallow as well as the use of mulch. For the local district, he sought a strain of wheat with a short straw and little flag which would reduce transpiration, mature quickly, have a high gluten content, shed less grain in high winds and be resistant to rust.

Interstate ministers of agriculture in 1913 commended Soutter's experiments in the selection of appropriate wheats for hybridization. Milling tests in the 1920s proved their excellence. Bred from Florence and Bobs and released in 1923, Flora was his first successful commercial variety. He later bred such other varieties as Puora, Puno, Puseas, Warput and Lawrence. Flora's acreage in Queensland increased from 20 (8 ha) in 1928-29 to 55,815 (22,588 ha) in 1939-40. Soutter visited all States to discuss wheat-breeding, contributed papers at conferences and won respect from farmers.

Transferred in 1935 to Brisbane to take charge of wheat and maize-breeding on the Darling Downs, in 1937 Soutter became senior research officer in the division of plant industry of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock. He contributed the chapter on wheat in the Queensland Agricultural and Pastoral Handbook (1941), a departmental publication. His retirement in 1948 was accompanied by high tributes. He had produced a wide variety of hybrids which showed virtual field immunity to both species of rust. In 1945-46 eight of Queensland's ten most prolific varieties of wheat had been bred by him.

A photograph of Soutter in his early seventies reveals him, in spectacles and a striped suit, as a man with a high brow, alert eyes and a good-humoured mouth. Survived by his daughter, he died on 12 November 1955 at Brisbane General Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Agricultural Journal, 67, 1 July 1948, p 3
  • Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, Journal, Dec 1951, p 231
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 18 Nov 1955
  • P. Skerman, History of the Queensland Department of Primary Industry, 11 vols (manuscript with author).

Citation details

P. J. Skerman, 'Soutter, Richard Ernest (1878–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/soutter-richard-ernest-8591/text15001, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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