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Wadham, Sir Samuel Macmahon (1891–1972)

by L. R. Humphreys

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

Samuel Macmahon Wadham (1891-1972), by Sam Hood

Samuel Macmahon Wadham (1891-1972), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 29997

Sir Samuel Macmahon Wadham (1891-1972), professor of agriculture, was born on 31 October 1891 at Ealing, Middlesex, England, second child of Samuel Thomas Wadham (d.1906), railway agent, and his wife Mary Louisa Amy, née MacMahon. Aged 69 when his son was born, Wadham senior retired during Samuel's childhood and took his family to Eastbourne, Sussex. From the Boys' Municipal Secondary School, young Samuel won a scholarship to Merchant Taylors' School and the family moved to London in 1904.

Maintaining high scholastic standards, Wadham displayed 'scientific interest and enterprise', and won prizes in history, divinity and English, despite being 'too sententious' and 'fond of moralizing'. He gained colours for cricket, bowling to the great W. G. Grace in a match against the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1910. His coach commented variously that he: 'Has an enormous leg-break and uses his brains well'; cannot 'keep still when batting'; and needs to be 'rather more silent'. Awarded an open entrance scholarship at Christ's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1913; Agr.Dip., 1913; M.A., 1917), he achieved first-class honours in both parts of the natural sciences tripos and participated in the college's debating society, usually taking radical stances. He went to Germany in 1914 to study clover at the University of Hamburg, but returned prematurely, crossing the frontier on 2 August, the day before Germany declared war on France.

That month Wadham enlisted in the British Army. Commissioned in the Durham Light Infantry on 26 February 1915 and promoted temporary captain in September, he was sent to the Wireless Training Centre, near Worcester. From September 1917 he served in the Middle East as a signals officer. He was mentioned in dispatches, modestly fancying that the award was for 'putting an electric light in the Corps Commandant's tent'. At the Catholic Apostolic Church, Gordon Square, London, on 12 April 1919 he married Dorothy Fanny Baylis, a schoolmistress and childhood friend.

The Wadhams moved to Cambridge where Samuel became junior then senior demonstrator in botany. Dorothy ran the Deric House Home School at their residence. Wadham was among young academics, including J. M. (Baron) Keynes, who, wishing to reform university governance, made submissions to the 1920 royal commission on the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In addition to his teaching, Wadham pursued mycological studies with F. T. Brooks, carried out seminal research on the ecology of the Fens, and collaborated with (Sir) Frank Engledow in establishing the basis of yield variation in cereals. The latter work exhibited a rigorous mathematical approach at a time when the application of statistical method to biology was in its infancy.

In 1925 the University of Melbourne advertised its chair of agriculture. George Swinburne, a member of the university's council, and Sir John MacFarland, the chancellor, were in London in July. On (Sir) Roland Biffen's advice, Swinburne travelled to Cambridge and interviewed Wadham who was loath to let his name go forward unless there was a high chance of success. Swinburne and MacFarland indicated their strong support, and Wadham made an application which was then rejected outright by the selection committee in Melbourne; he was perceived as lacking practical experience. After MacFarland and Swinburne returned to Melbourne, Wadham was unanimously appointed. No Australian professor of agriculture was to understand farmers as well as this Cambridge 'laboratory man'. Wadham stated his plans: 'The production side of agriculture ought to be taught from the biological point of view'. It is 'the economics of agricultural practice . . . so badly represented in Cambridge, which I propose to emphasize in Melbourne. I fully realize that for the first year or two I must be more a student there'.

Wadham arrived in Melbourne in September 1926 without his family. He had a five-year appointment only, and Dorothy was attached to Cambridge, her school, and her aged parents. He lived in Queen's College where E. H. Sugden became his friend and mentor. A. W. Jessep was appointed for 1927 to assist Wadham but otherwise Wadham was the sole academic in the faculty of agriculture; its courses were taught mainly by part-time lecturers from the Victorian Department of Agriculture. He inherited a generalist curriculum which exposed students to a range of disciplines and technologies. The basic structure of the course, with minor changes, was to be maintained over the next thirty years. Wadham travelled the countryside assiduously and soon gained recognition in the farming community. At the request of ex-servicemen, in 1929 he sat as their representative on a State government board dealing with settlement in the Mallee region; he was successful in having the sizes of farms increased.

For some time Wadham had been urging Dorothy to join him in Australia, and she agreed to visit late in 1930. On 19 October, however, her car overturned in a ditch, near Stevenage, Hertfordshire. The Wadhams' daughter and elder son died but their younger son, Ben, survived. Wadham sailed for England, the pain of his slow journey exacerbated by poor health and the absence of any direct word from his wife.

Dorothy and Ben spent most of 1931 in Australia with Wadham who, after a fierce battle, secured university tenure that year. Following another visit to Melbourne in 1934, she decided to make her home in Australia. The Wadhams bought a comfortable house at Parkville where Dorothy engaged in passionate but 'destructive' gardening.

Wadham had considerable influence as an educator. He was highly articulate; in Who's Who 'talking' appeared as his sole recreational interest, although in the Australian version he added 'and sleeping'. Usually lecturing extempore, he illustrated his themes with anecdotes and ironic humour. He had an 'inimitable and whimsical style' but spoke with passion, communicating his enthusiasm. Much of his material was informed by a 'dry cynicism'. Students from the country, such as F. J. R. Hird, later recalled the impact of encountering for the first time a teacher whose treatment of questions was open and inquiring. Wadham's mission was to educate students in science as applied to agriculture; his approach was eclectic, thematic, philosophical, and with some biological science woven into the economic and sociological context of agricultural practice. His social conscience, his concern for environmental conservation, and his emphasis on the development of problem-solving skills were explicit.

Conceiving popular education as a primary aspect of his vocation, Wadham was an inveterate journalist and public commentator from his early years in Australia until his old age. Agricultural issues, in the widest sense of the term, were his central preoccupation but he engaged in controversies on other social and philosophical questions. His regular broadcasts led to an immense popular following. Brought up an Anglican, he turned to Methodism in mid-life and became a lay preacher but later returned to Anglicanism.

Wadham gradually attained a high place in university affairs. In 1933 he mediated successfully in a quarrel between the students of Trinity College and their warden (Sir) John Behan. He conducted a successful campaign to secure the appointment in 1935 of his Cambridge friend (Sir) Raymond Priestley as the University of Melbourne's first paid vice-chancellor. That year Wadham was elected to the university's council. Acting-chairman of the professorial board in 1936, he was vice-chairman in 1940 and chairman in 1941-43. He became a close friend of (Sir) John Medley who succeeded Priestley in 1938.

Active on the major committees of the university, Wadham advocated the introduction of examination boards and in World War II facilitated the necessary adjustments to many procedures. When difficult questions arose, he was not usually prominent in debate, reserving his intervention until he could propose a generally acceptable outcome. He was involved in two major controversies: the appointment of J. S. Turner (rather than Ethel McLennan) to the chair of botany, and the council's acceptance of the resignation of T. H. Laby from the chair of natural philosophy; Laby had resigned as a ploy but Wadham and the council, whose patience had been greatly tested, refused to let him withdraw.

By 1951 the academic staff of the school of agriculture had increased to six. During Wadham's deanship 427 students graduated with bachelors' degrees, 81 with masters' degrees and 4 with doctorates of philosophy. The school building was enlarged in 1956, aided by a substantial donation from Wadham's friend V. Y. Kimpton, a flour-miller. Managing his research funds skilfully, Wadham maintained a small group of research students in a well-run, happy school known for its regional surveys: the basaltic country at Mount Gellibrand, near Colac; the infertile, sandy lands about Berwick; and the rural area of Whittlesea on the fringes of suburban Melbourne. Wadham's emphasis on improving the amenities and circumstances of rural life was to be influential. A social analysis of the country towns of Victoria and a study of living and working conditions on wheat farms were carried out. These were followed by a major investigation of the sheep industry in the west of the State. The production of dried fruit and the marketing of fruit and vegetables also received attention.

Wadham did not make a major contribution to the advancement of any discipline within agricultural science; his achievement was in intellectual synthesis, exemplified by the four editions (1939-64) of Land Utilization in Australia which he wrote with G. L. Wood. Land utilization was not a well-established subject in 1939 when the book first appeared. No one had attempted a synoptic account of the factors that determined the evolution of land settlement and a description of its present condition. Wadham and Wood dwelt not only on biological productive capacity but also on economic opportunity: the profitability of rural industry, as compared with the secondary sector and as affected by the terms of world trade. Moreover, they looked forward to the possibilities that might be created by new scientific discoveries. Their book widened perceptions about the diversity of landscapes and farming systems in the country, and heightened a sense of national identity.

An inquiry in 1928 into the dairy industry in the eastern States, on behalf of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, had begun Wadham's long record of service on government bodies. He was a member in 1934-35 of Sir Herbert Gepp's royal commission on the wheat, flour and bread industries, and in 1943-46 of the Commonwealth Rural Reconstruction Commission. The period of the latter assignment was the most strenuous of his life, as he wrestled with the whole gamut of rural problems in Australia; the nature of soldier settlement after the war was one significant outcome. Much of the commission's work fell on Wadham and C. R. Lambert, and the two wrote most of the ten substantial reports.

These reports included a general survey of rural conditions and provided a detailed consideration of the issues involved in land settlement: farm size and suitability, training of settlers, land tenure and valuation. They proposed commercial policies for rural credit, debt adjustment, wages and agricultural marketing. Although they treated the expansion of irrigation with caution, they endorsed the Snowy Mountains scheme. Education figured strongly in their treatment of rural life and amenities, and they noted that advances in agricultural research were crucial to rural progress. The reports had a careful analytical character, based on historical perspectives and statistical data. They stressed above all the need for efficiency in farm production; the extent of the rural population, and even the level of production, were secondary.

Membership of the Commonwealth Immigration Planning Council occupied some of Wadham's time in 1949-62. His signal achievement was the part he played in the defeat of the programme of B. A. Santamaria and the National Catholic Rural Movement to foster Italian peasant migration for small-holder, subsistence settlement.

Wadham was knighted in 1956 and awarded an honorary doctorate of laws at the university's centenary celebrations that year. Retiring in February 1957, he remained active, continuing his journalism and giving his time to such bodies as the Citizens Welfare Service of Victoria, the University of Melbourne's schools board, the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, committees of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and, in 1961-65, (Sir) Leslie Martin's committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia. Wadham became a lay canon of St Paul's Cathedral in 1959. He presided (1961) over the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science and published Australian Farming 1788-1965 (1967).

In the early 1960s Wadham made a brief return to biological research, working on the structure of silica in plants. Concurrently, he was much involved in the controversy regarding the reopening of the University of Melbourne's veterinary school. He and Professor D. E. Tribe unsuccessfully opposed the plan because it would reduce the income of other university departments. Wadham's major accomplishment in retirement was his chairmanship (1959-69) of the council of International House, which he developed into a well-funded hall of residence accommodating more than 240 students from overseas and Australia. The house's great decade of expansion was made possible by his persistence, sagacity and ability to deal with the university's administration.

After 1931 Wadham visited Britain only twice. He was frequently dismissive of that country's agriculture, with its attitude of dependency on government subsidies, and of the selfishness of British trade policies. His modesty and informality made him effective in the Australian community. He was clever, diligent, articulate and determined. In contrast with his choleric expressions of 'contempt for the illogical, the pretentious and trivial', he always adopted a gentle, kindly approach to those in need of his sympathy. All his life he used his social skills to amuse his companions. Sir Samuel was a member of the Wallaby, Rotary and Beefsteak clubs.

Wadham exerted a profound influence on the agricultural policies that sustained Australian rural communities, both through direct intervention and through the work of his graduates. In 1955 he and his wife moved to Brunswick. For many years, he suffered from arthritis and a gastric ulcer. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 18 September 1972 at Parkville and was cremated. The Institute of Land and Food Resources at the University of Melbourne holds a portrait of him by Jack Carington Smith (1956), and International House has one by Clifton Pugh (1964).

Select Bibliography

  • L. R. Humphreys, Wadham: Scientist for Land and People (Melb, 2000), and for sources.

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Citation details

L. R. Humphreys, 'Wadham, Sir Samuel Macmahon (1891–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wadham-sir-samuel-macmahon-11930/text21375, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 27 September 2016.

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

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