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Horace Newton Barber (1914–1971)

by Derek Anderson

This article was published:

Horace Newton Barber (1914-1971), botanist and geneticist, was born on 26 May 1914 at Warburton, Cheshire, England, son of Horace Maximilian Barber, printer's traveller, and his wife Mary, née Newton. Educated at the County High School for Boys, Altrincham, and Manchester Grammar School, Newton read the natural science tripos at Emmanuel College, Cambridge (B.A., 1936; M.A., 1944; Sc.D., 1963). Supervised by C. D. Darlington, in 1936-40 Barber carried out research on plant and animal cytology at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, Merton, Surrey, for which he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of London in 1942. In February 1941 he had joined the irregular army of applied scientists at the Ministry of Aircraft Production's telecommunications research establishment. He later served as a flight lieutenant with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in the Mediterranean and South East Asia, and wrote an irreverent account of his wartime adventures in air force jargon for his family.

A lecturer in botany at the University of Sydney from March 1946, Barber married a fellow lecturer Nancy Patricia O'Grady at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 20 April that year. In 1947 he was appointed foundation professor of botany at the University of Tasmania and extracted from a surprised administration the basic requirements of 'glasshouses, an experimental garden and a gardener'. Enthusiastic and dedicated, he believed that the 'business of a professor is to teach his students' and did much to encourage high standards of biological instruction. His interest in undergraduates extended to a strong record of overseeing postgraduates, a number of whom went on to contribute as academics and research scientists to genetics and plant breeding.

Barber quickly applied his pre-war interests in cytology and genetics to Australian plants and animals. His curiosity in natural history and his more formal disciplinary interests led to a spread of publication in experimental cytology, taxonomy, physiological and selection genetics (particularly in Eucalyptus), in ecology and forestry, and in biogeography, palaeobotany and mycology. He travelled widely in the bush and, with the eye and ear of the trained observer, took every opportunity (both as raconteur and writer) to recreate the atmosphere, mood and even redolence of those journeys.

Dean of science (1951-55), Barber returned to Hobart after a year as a Rockefeller fellow (1953-54) at the California Institute of Technology, United States of America, to be plunged into the controversy over the dismissal of Professor Sydney Orr. In an anomalous position as chairman of the staff association (from 1955) and of the professorial board (1956-59), he served on Miss Kemp's and the vice-chancellor's committees of inquiry. A regular spokesman for the university council, he was elected to the Tasmanian Club.

In 1964 Barber became foundation professor of botany at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He was noted for the quality, lucid exposition and focussed humour of the television lectures he prepared for first-year students. As chairman (1968-70) of the professorial board, he filled the post with inimitable style and considerable distinction, but his belief in integrated biological sciences was contrary to the convenience of the university. Impatient and frustrated, in 1970 he accepted the foundation chair of biological sciences at the University of Newcastle, but was never to take up the post.

At an imperial height of 6 ft 7 ins (201 cm) and with a slight limp (the legacy of a motorcar accident in the United States), Newton Barber was a conspicuous figure wherever he went. He had toured New Guinea in 1963 and, after visiting Africa for the Royal Society, London, assisted the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1967 to develop biological sciences; it was characteristic of the man to report that the standard of English among Nigerian students was better than that of their Australian counterparts. Having contributed papers to an international conference on chromosomes at Oxford in 1970, he revisited Nigeria to study the genetics of tropical plants and to lecture at the University of Ife.

His formal contributions to biological science had been acknowledged by his election as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1958) and of the Royal Society, London (1963), and by his appointment as a trustee of the Australian Museum (1964). Barber's peregrinating and frequently informal contributions to academic discourse and scholarship were widely appreciated by colleagues, among whom he had the reputation of originating more ideas than any other botanist in Australia.

A fiercely principled individual, scientifically rigorous in all he undertook, Barber was a devoted family man and one who took pride in the achievements of the many students and colleagues whose careers he touched. He died of sarcoma on 16 April 1971 at his Epping home and was buried with Anglican rites in the Field of Mars cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him, as did his son Michael, professor of mathematics at the Australian National University.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. C. Eddy, Orr (Brisb, 1961)
  • University of Tasmania Gazette, vols 1-3, 1956-65
  • Yearbook of Royal Society (London), 1964
  • University of New South Wales, University News, May 1971
  • Australian Academy of Science Yearbook, 1972
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of Royal Society (Lond), 1972
  • Barber lectures, filmed by closed circuit TV (National Film and Sound Archive).

Citation details

Derek Anderson, 'Barber, Horace Newton (1914–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 May, 1914
Warburton, Cheshire, England


16 April, 1971 (aged 56)
Epping, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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