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Thomas Cherry (1861–1945)

by Jill Stowell

This article was published:

Thomas Cherry (1861-1945), bacteriologist and agricultural scientist, was born on 27 October 1861 at Gisborne, Victoria, son of Edward Cherry (1830-1910) from Hertfordshire, England, and his wife Ann Appleby, née Davis. His father had established a joinery workshop at Gisborne soon after his arrival in Australia in 1855; various models of his 'Cherry Churn' were used for over eighty years throughout rural Victoria. Thomas was educated at the Gisborne Board School and later at St Paul's School, Geelong. He matriculated at 16, and worked in the family business for seven years, though his connexion with the firm remained lifelong. He later said that his interest in farming and its problems developed in this early period, as well as a love for working with his hands, especially with stone.

In 1885 Cherry began a medical course at the University of Melbourne, with a scholarship to Ormond College. He topped each of his five undergraduate years and graduated M.B. (1889), M.D. (1892) and M.S. (1894). He was senior house surgeon at the Melbourne Hospital in 1890 before continuing his studies in pathology and bacteriology, encouraged by Professor (Sir) Harry Allen, at King's College, London, and the University of Aberdeen. He returned to Melbourne in 1892 to become assistant lecturer and demonstrator in pathology; he also took charge of the department's first post-graduate classes.

Revisiting Europe in 1894, Cherry worked with leading bacteriologists in London, Cambridge, Paris and Berlin, and on his return inaugurated a service to hospitals and doctors for the bacteriological diagnosis of diphtheria, tuberculosis, typhoid and related diseases. He undertook regular examinations of Melbourne's water-supply and also worked for the Department of Agriculture, discovering in 1895 the link between the freshwater snail and liver fluke in sheep. In 1900 he was appointed first lecturer in bacteriology, and for a few months in 1901-02 was acting registrar of the university. In 1902 additional work for the government involved training butter-factory managers in bacteriological procedures.

Harassed by Allen's efforts to retain control over bacteriology, in 1905 Cherry accepted appointment as director of agriculture at a salary of £850. He travelled and lectured extensively, and published thirty-four papers on such diverse subjects as silo-construction, bee-keeping and pasture improvement as well as further works on scientific dairy production and water purification. His appointment expired in March 1910 amid controversy over the role of the director and disorganization within the department: Cherry had no statutory authority over his staff, and senior officers often dealt directly with the minister without reference to him. His term was extended until the end of the year, when he was succeeded by Dr S. S. Cameron. Backed by the strong recommendations of cabinet, Cherry was then appointed by the university to the newly created chair of agriculture in 1911. He was active at this time in the movement to establish a national laboratory, in anticipation of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

In 1916 his tenure expired when the government withdrew financial support for the chair, and Cherry enlisted as a major with the Australian Army Medical Corps. He worked as a pathologist in Egypt with the 14th Australian General Hospital and later with the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance in the attempt to prevent the introduction into Australia of Mediterranean bilharziasis. Interested in archaeology and historical evolution, he gave many lectures for the army's education programme.

In 1921-34 Cherry was John Grice Cancer Research Fellow, working first at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, and from 1930 at the university's Veterinary Research Institute. His study was directed to discovering a link between cancer and tuberculosis: he published nineteen papers on his experiments with mice and the statistical analysis of causes of human death. From 1934 his work was sponsored by the Cancer Causation Research Committee.

On 6 February 1894 at East St Kilda, Cherry had married Edith Sarah (b.1870), daughter of F. J. Gladman; she had graduated M.A. in 1891. Cherry had an extremely lively mind and encyclopaedic general knowledge and was a skilled sculptor and draughtsman. An active member and churchwarden of St James' Church of England, Glen Iris, and councillor of Ormond College from 1893, he remained robust and energetic until his death on 27 May 1945. He was survived by his wife, three sons, one of whom became Sir Thomas Cherry, F.R.S., and a daughter; his eldest son had been killed in action in France in 1918. Cherry was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His portrait by Aileen Dent was presented to the university in 1944.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • K. F. Russell, The Melbourne Medical School 1862-1962 (Melb. 1977)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 8 (1945-46)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 28 July 1945
  • E. S. J. King, ‘The story of the Melbourne School of Pathology’, Medical Journal of Australia, 28 July 1951
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 July 1910
  • Cherry family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Jill Stowell, 'Cherry, Thomas (1861–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 October, 1861
Gisborne, Victoria, Australia


27 May, 1945 (aged 83)

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