Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David Guthrie Catcheside (1907–1994)

by David R. Smyth

This article was published:

David Guthrie Catcheside (1907–1994), geneticist, was born on 31 May 1907 at Streatham, London, elder child of British-born parents David Guthrie Catcheside, drapery warehouse assistant, and his wife Florence Susanna, née Boxwell, teacher. David junior won a scholarship to Strand School, Brixton Hill, (1918–24) where an enthusiastic schoolmaster, S. T. S. Dark, encouraged his interest in natural history, especially mosses, through the natural history society’s program and bryological field trips. This led to his study of botany at King’s College, London (BSc Hons, 1928)

Catcheside did not undertake a doctorate of philosophy, mostly for financial reasons; nevertheless in 1931 he became an assistant lecturer (lecturer from 1933) in botany at King’s College. On 19 December 1931, at Hanover Chapel, Camberwell, he married Kathleen Mary Whiteman. She was an elementary schoolteacher who had been a fellow science student and honours graduate at King’s. In 1936 he was awarded a doctorate of science from the University of London for his research on plant (Oenothera) chromosomes. That year he won a Rockefeller International fellowship to work in the biology division of the California Institute of Technology. In 1937, at the University of Cambridge, he became a lecturer (reader from 1950) in cytogenetics; in 1944 he was elected a fellow of Trinity College. Aided by his wife as part-time research assistant, he undertook research on chromosome breakage and developed an interest in microbial genetics. His first book, Genetics of Microorganisms, was published in 1951.

In 1952 Catcheside moved to Australia to take up the new chair in genetics at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide. Disappointed with the facilities he was offered, he soon moved to the main campus at North Terrace to focus on fundamental genetics. In less than four years he established a strong department that continued long after his departure. He accepted the chair of microbiology at the University of Birmingham, England, in 1956. With several research students, he worked on gene action and genetic recombination using the red bread mould, Neurospora crassa, as a model. He was elected (1959) a fellow of King’s College, London.

Appointed to the chair of genetics at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University, Canberra, Catcheside returned to Australia in 1964. He was attracted by the prospect of creating a research school of biological sciences (RSBS). With its establishment in 1966, he became director. While he envisaged an integrated community of biologists without divisive specialisms, the school quickly reverted to the traditional structure of independent departments. Although ‘some regarded his work as a little old-fashioned,’ he was certainly increasingly engaged on administration rather than ‘directly engaged in DNA research’ (Foster and Varghese 1996, 235).

Catcheside retired at the end of 1972. The new RSBS building that he had helped plan opened in 1973, and was perhaps a consolation for his failure to implement his collaborative vision. Comprising six wings, it was unified by a central refreshment area named Catcheside Court. In 1976 he returned to Adelaide to be closer to his children, where he became an honorary research associate at the Waite Institute. He published The Genetics of Recombination (1977) and The Mosses of South Australia (1980).

Scientific recognition came to Catcheside through his election to learned societies, a distinction he preferred over prizes. He had been elected (1951) to the Royal Society of London and served (1959–61) on its council. A foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, he also became a foreign associate (1974) of the United States of America’s National Academy of Sciences. Always prepared to contribute to the scientific community, he had been vice-president (1966–69) of the Australian Academy of Science; secretary (1935–41) and president (1961–64) of the Genetical Society, Britain; and president (1973–74) of the Genetics Society of Australia (GSA).

Although holding firm opinions and prepared to fight for them, Catcheside was by nature reserved. Remembered as being totally without ostentation, he ‘spoke to everyone, colleagues and students alike, in the same quiet, straightforward and often humorous manner’ (Fincham and John 1995, 404). His legacy continued through many former graduate students, including ten professors and a number of senior scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, who had been attracted to genetics by his vision, intellectual integrity, and by his nurturing of their research ideas. A devoted family man, natural history and bushwalking were his main pastimes. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, he died in Adelaide on 1 June 1994 and was cremated. The D. G. Catcheside prize was established by the GSA to honour his memory. His son, David, became professor of biological sciences at Flinders University, Adelaide.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Bryological Newsletter. ‘Recollections and a Tribute to Professor David Guthrie Catchside, 31 May 1907–1 June 1994.’ 31 (December 1994): 7–11
  • Catcheside, David Guthrie. Interview by Stephen Foster, 8 August 1991. Transcript. ANU Oral History Project. Australian National University Archive
  • Fincham, John R. S., and Bernard John. 'David Guthrie Catcheside 1907–1994.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 10 (1995): 393–407
  • Foster, Stephen G., and Margaret M. Varghese. The Making of the Australian National University. Canberra: Allen & Unwin, 1996
  • McCann, Douglas A., and Philip Batterham. ‘Australian Genetics: A Brief History.’ Genetica 90 (1993): 81–114

Additional Resources

Citation details

David R. Smyth, 'Catcheside, David Guthrie (1907–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 May, 1907
London, Middlesex, England


1 June, 1994 (aged 87)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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