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Watt, Sir Robert Dickie (1881–1965)

by Keith O. Campbell

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

Sir Robert Dickie Watt (1881-1965), agricultural scientist, was born on 23 April 1881 at Knocklandside, near Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, Scotland, second son of John Watt, farmer, and his wife Agnes Taylor, née Dickie. Watt's elder brother Hugh became professor of church history at the University of Edinburgh and moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. After early education at Kilmaurs, Robert entered Kilmarnock Academy. From the age of 16 he worked on his father's home farm, a tenancy within Lord Rowallan's estate, for three years before enrolling in arts and later science at the University of Glasgow (M.A., 1903; B.Sc., 1905). Some of the agricultural subjects were taught at the affiliated West of Scotland Agricultural College. Watt also obtained national diplomas in dairying, and in agriculture (with first-class honours and first place in Britain).

Awarded a Carnegie research scholarship, he undertook research at Rothamsted Experiment Station outside London in 1905-07. He was appointed agricultural chemist in the Transvaal Department of Agriculture at Pretoria. In 1908 he became chief chemist, but next year accepted the foundation chair of agriculture in the faculty of science at the University of Sydney.

Reaching Sydney from Britain in February 1910, Watt single-handedly began to devise an agricultural curriculum of university standard; the first four students were admitted in 1911. Watt relied to some extent on members of the science faculty and part-time lecturers from the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, but inevitably taught much of the course himself. Moreover, he had to persuade the State government to fund the construction of an agriculture building, a goal which was achieved early in 1916. On 3 June that year at Randwick he married Marjorie Dymock (Madge) Forsyth, by whom he was to have a daughter; they lived at Vaucluse (1929-46).

In 1920 agriculture became a faculty in its own right with Watt as dean until 1946. He was a fellow of the senate of the university in 1934-35 and 1946. In 1921 he had succeeded in having W. L. Waterhouse appointed to the staff. Thereafter they had a fruitful association and together established the reputation of the Sydney faculty. Watt concentrated on teaching and administration, leaving to Waterhouse the task of instilling in undergraduates the essentials of scientific discipline and a knowledge of agricultural research procedures.

His role in the emerging science of agriculture led to Watt's appointment to the State and executive committees of the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry (1916-19) and its successor, the Institute of Science and Industry (1919-26). He investigated prickly pear and helped to eradicate 'bunchy top', a serious virus disease of bananas. With the formal establishment in 1926 of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Watt chaired the State committee until 1941 (and was ex officio on its council); he remained a member until 1965.

In 1922 Watt chaired the Murray Lands Advisory Committee, appointed by the New South Wales, Victorian and Commonwealth governments to report on the suitability of Murray River lands as irrigation settlements. He was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales (1915-46), member of the Australian National Research Council (1919-54), president of section K (agriculture) of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (1924) and president of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1926). State (1935) and federal (1939-40) president of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, he was elected a fellow in 1960. A life member of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales (1935), he received the Farrer memorial medal in 1950 and was knighted in 1960.

After he retired in 1946, Watt maintained his professional interests and did research on Australian agricultural history which he published as The Romance of the Australian Land Industries (1955). For a time he acted as executive officer of the Men of the Land Society. He was a keen golfer and a member of the Royal Sydney Golf Club from 1941.

A tall, upright, distinguished figure, Watt was reserved but well spoken with his Scottish brogue. He observed and expected the proprieties of the time (he did not meet his students in private unless gowned) and he tolerated no nonsense. He took a keen interest in his students' extracurricular activities and actively encouraged them in their sporting endeavours. He was well liked, even loved, by the many students who passed through his hands, being affectionately known by them privately as 'Robert Dickie'. In committee he spoke only after due consideration and was generally respected, but he could be determined in his own bailiwick and authoritarian in university administrative matters.

Survived by his wife and daughter, Sir Robert died in St Vincent's Hospital of a brain tumour on 10 April 1965. He was cremated after a service at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, of which he had been an elder since 1928. A portrait of him by Arthur Murch is held by the university and the original agriculture building has been named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Yeates, Robert Dickie Watt Kt. (priv pub, Coffs Harbour, NSW, 1987)
  • Town and Country Journal, 5 Jan, 2 Mar 1910
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Apr 1965.

Citation details

Keith O. Campbell, 'Watt, Sir Robert Dickie (1881–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watt-sir-robert-dickie-9010/text15863, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 16 April 2014.

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

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