Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Summerville, Sir William Alan Thompson (1904–1980)

by L. R. Humphreys

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir William Alan Thompson Summerville (1904-1980), agricultural scientist and public servant, was born on 6 February 1904 at Ipswich, Queensland, seventh of eight children of Ipswich-born parents William Henry Summerville, solicitor, and his wife Annie Agnes, née Herbert. Alan enjoyed cricket at Ipswich Grammar School (1917-21) and was a determined, short, compact figure on the Rugby field. In 1922 he was appointed a 'learner in entomology' under Henry Tryon in the Department of Agriculture and Stock, Brisbane. He studied part time at the University of Queensland (B.Sc., 1929; M.Sc., 1933; D.Sc., 1944).

In 1929 Summerville was promoted to assistant-entomologist and posted to Nambour to work on horticultural crops. At the Methodist Church, Sherwood, on 3 September 1930 he married Ethel May Barker. His early research, reported in the Queensland Agricultural Journal (1934), was on the scale insects of citrus and the spiny and bronze bugs of orange-trees. He found that oil sprays were a more effective means of control than the growers' hazardous method of fumigating with cyanide. As senior research officer from 1937, he investigated the physiology of the banana plant. He found that the area of leaves available to light interception was a controlling factor in crop growth and inflorescence development. His work earned him his doctorate.

Transferred to Brisbane in 1942 to assist the wartime organization of vegetable production, Summerville was made director of horticulture in 1945. Two years later he was appointed director of plant industry: his division embraced agriculture, horticulture, agricultural chemistry, entomology, plant pathology and botany. He advanced applied research in horticulture and pastures, and built up soil conservation teams. In 1957 he was elected president of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science. He became under-secretary of the department in 1958 and its director-general in 1959.

A decisive, quick-witted and articulate administrator, Summerville helped to transform the role of the department from one of regulation to one of providing landholders with effective advice based on sound research. The number of staff increased. Several laboratories and research stations were established to deal with the needs of specific industries. New branches broadened the scope of the department's work in plant, soil and animal science, in economics and in agricultural education.

Summerville's special contribution lay in his staffing policies. Recruiting men and women from interstate and from British Commonwealth countries, he encouraged them to gain further education and experience overseas, and provided them with opportunities for promotion. His tough and incisive manner concealed a warm-hearted and sensitive concern for individuals' difficulties. He once arranged for a plant breeder working at Biloela to attend an extension course in Brisbane where his wife was in hospital. Afterwards, the scientist suggested he should return to Biloela to plant his experimental crop. Summerville responded: 'Marriott, there are more important things in life than bloody cotton!' On another occasion a scientist presented with some trepidation his proposed overseas itinerary; Summerville insisted that he spend more time in London for his cultural enrichment.

From 1962 Summerville oversaw the development of 360 holdings in Central Queensland on brigalow scrub land. He had good rapport with landholders. When criticized by a farmer over the operation of a pasture-improvement scheme, he persuaded the farmer to serve on its executive-committee. Summerville forged strong links with other government departments and agencies, such as the Irrigation and Water Supply Commission, and gave robust, independent advice to his ministers. He also served (1956-64) on the senate of the University of Queensland, which granted him an honorary LL.D. in 1963.

As agent-general in London in 1964-70, Summerville proved a buoyant, convivial advocate of his State's interests. In 1968 he was knighted. Back in Queensland, he chaired (1970-73) the Sugar Board. Sir Alan possessed a fine sense of humour, laughed a great deal, and was passionate in the honesty of his dealings with people and in his enthusiasm for the vocation of agricultural science. He had wide cultural and sporting interests, and was fond of early Australian poetry. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 20 December 1980 at Auchenflower and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Skerman et al, Guiding Queensland Agriculture, 1887-1987 (Brisb, 1988)
  • P. J. Skerman, The First 100 Years (Brisb, 1998)
  • Journal of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, vol 47, 1981, p 88
  • private information.

Citation details

L. R. Humphreys, 'Summerville, Sir William Alan Thompson (1904–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/summerville-sir-william-alan-thompson-11802/text21115, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014