Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

White, Michael James (1910–1983)

by Jim Peacock

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

Michael James Denham White (1910-1983), zoologist and geneticist, was born on 20 August 1910 at Chelsea, London, eldest of three children of James Kemp White, army tutor, and his wife Una Theodora, née Chase.  The family migrated to Italy in 1915 and to southern France in 1920; Michael was educated at home by his father.  His interest in natural history continued through correspondence courses after his father died (c.1924).

Returning to London in 1927, White entered University College, London (B.Sc. Hons, 1931, M.Sc., 1932, D.Sc., 1940), gravitating from botany to zoology under the influence of D. M. S. Watson, and to evolutionary development and entomology in particular.  White’s graduate research on chromosomal and genetic questions led to an early specialisation in experimental investigations of cytological phenomena, which brought him into contact with J. B. S. Haldane, a charismatic leader in the field of genetics.  Working with grasshoppers, then mantids and midges, White used an analytic and genetic approach to cytology that differed substantially from the more descriptive outlook prevalent in his field.  Assistant-lecturer (1933) and lecturer (1936) in zoology at University College, he showed a capacity to formulate generalisations arising from his work.

In 1932 the physicist John Bernal had encouraged White to join the Communist Party, although he remained more a supporter than an activist.  On 13 October 1932 at the register office, Chelsea, London, he married Margaret Jane Thomas, a schoolteacher; they soon separated and divorced.  Publishing The Chromosomes (1937), he gained a Rockefeller research fellowship (1937-38) to work with distinguished cytologists at Columbia University, New York, where he met Theodosius Dobzhansky, a leading authority in evolutionary genetics.  On 3 December 1938 at the register office, Hampstead, London, White married Isobel Mary (Sally) Lunn.

On the outbreak of World War II White’s university department closed down.  After briefly working in a laboratory at Slough, he was placed as a statistician in the Ministry of Food.  He completed, however, Animal Cytology and Evolution (1945), a critical survey of the field and a work of conceptual integration that became the foundation of modern animal cytogenetics.  In revised editions (1954, 1973), it kept track of vast changes in genetics with the advent of molecular biology.  Appointed as a reader (1947) at University College, White was dissatisfied with the academic environment in England.  That year, after holding a visiting fellowship in genetics at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, New York, he accepted a professorship in zoology at the University of Texas.

White’s time in the United States of America was productive in research and publication.  He rekindled an interest in population cytogenetics, concentrating on the order Orthoptera (grasshopper family of insects).  Required by State law to testify that he had never had communist affiliations, he resigned in 1953 rather than face deportation.  He had found some respite as a visiting fellow (1951-52) in the Carnegie Institute.  Through the efforts of his colleagues, (Sir) Otto Frankel, chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s division of plant industry, Canberra appointed him as a senior research fellow (1953-56) in the division’s genetics section.  In 1957-58 White was professor of zoology at the University of Missouri.

Back in Australia, White became professor of zoology (1958-64) and foundation professor of genetics (1964-75) at the University of Melbourne.  While building his department into one of worldwide significance, he remained a formidable researcher, setting high standards for his students and associates and influencing the international development of evolutionary biology.  His findings on morabine grasshoppers led him to emphasise the possibilities of stasipatric speciation and demonstrated that geographic separation of populations of organisms was not a necessary precursor for speciation to occur.  A committed field naturalist, he collected material for his analysis of cytology and evolutionary systems in some of the harshest arid environments across Australia.

Idiosyncratic both in his scientific methods and his speech, White developed a reputation that encompassed his standing as a man who was erudite and literate (his writings were a pleasure to read) as well as one who liked to be the centre of attention.  He had a mischievous sense of humour.  Elected a fellow (1955) of the Australian Academy of Science, he chaired its flora and fauna committee; he was involved in the early planning of the National Museum of Australia.  President (1967-69) of the Australian Entomological Society, he was foundation president (1970-73) of the Genetics Society of AustralAsia.

After retiring in 1975, White became a visiting fellow at the Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, and was an active member of its cytogenetic team.  He retained academic connections to Italy, being elected a fellow (1978) of the Accademia Nazionale Dei Lincei and attending its meetings.  Among the most distinguished scientists in evolutionary genetics of his generation, he published Modes of Speciation (1978) and continued actively working and thinking until a few days before his death.  Survived by his wife and their daughter and two sons, he died on 16 December 1983 in Canberra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • W. R. Atchley and D. S. Woodruff (eds), Evolution and Speciation (1981)
  • W. J. Peacock and D. McCann, 'Michael James Denham White 1910-1983', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 10, no 2, 1994, p 143
  • Canberra Times, 21 January 1984, p 8
  • M. White papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Jim Peacock, 'White, Michael James (1910–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-michael-james-15875/text27076, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019