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Bruce Robinson Davidson (1924–1994)

by David Carment

This article was published:

Bruce Robinson Davidson (1924–1994), agricultural scientist and agricultural economist, was born on 8 May 1924 at Brighton, Victoria, son of William Hamilton Davidson, farmer, and his wife Kate Nina Wynne, née Game. Members of his father’s family were pioneers of the Tambo Crossing area. Initially educated at Tambo Crossing primary and Bruthen State schools, Bruce attended Trinity Grammar School, Kew, Melbourne, from 1939 to 1941. He obtained his Leaving certificate in December 1941, and became a student teacher.

Having enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces in May 1942, Davidson transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force on 30 October. He qualified as a wireless operator air gunner. While serving with No. 9 (Fleet Co-operation) Squadron from October 1943 to January 1945, he spent three months in New Guinea in late 1944. In January 1945 he was promoted to temporary warrant officer and on 1 October he was discharged from the RAAF.

After obtaining a diploma of agriculture from Dookie Agricultural College in 1948, Davidson attended the University of Melbourne (BAgSc, 1952; MAgSc, 1954). He married Mary Devonald Thomas, a Welsh farmer exchange student whom he had met during his studies, on 22 August 1953 in Melbourne. The couple moved to the United Kingdom and he studied agriculture at the University of London (PhD, 1957). In 1956 he published—with G. P. Wibberley—The Agricultural Significance of the Hills. Between 1957 and 1960 he lectured at Egerton Agricultural College in Kenya.

Returning to Australia, Davidson was a research officer with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra from November 1960. He investigated north Australian agricultural development, but resigned early in 1963 when he felt he was being actively discouraged from publishing the results of that research, which were unfavourable to rural expansion schemes. Developing the north, both to encourage trade with Asia and to assist in settling what were seen as dangerously underpopulated areas, had become a widely supported national goal. Between February 1963 and March 1965 he was a temporary lecturer and a research fellow in agricultural economics at the University of Western Australia, where he continued his north Australian work. In the intense public debate over the Ord River Irrigation Area, he spoke against the scheme, in opposition to the Western Australian minister for the north-west, (Sir) Charles Court.

In March 1965 Davidson was appointed a lecturer in agricultural economics at the University of Sydney. Following Mary’s death in 1964, on 18 June 1965 at the Congregational Church, Mosman, New South Wales, he married Sydney-born Dr Hilary Frances Purchase, an agricultural scientist with whom he collaborated professionally. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1966, and acted as head of department in 1968. His lectures were ‘a delightful combination of intellectual rigours [sic] and iconoclasm delivered in an unorthodox style’ (Walsh 1994, 13). A stimulating speaker, he was not afraid to challenge provocatively the status quo. In a 1966 address in Canberra, for instance, he called farmers on the Ord River ‘Australia’s highest paid pensioners’ (Samuel 1966, 3). He published many books, also quite often involving the expression of controversial views. His outspokenness may explain his failure to be promoted beyond senior lecturer. He retired in 1989.

Davidson’s most important publication was The Northern Myth: A Study of the Physical and Economic Limits to Agricultural and Pastoral Development in Tropical Australia, published in three editions in 1965, 1966, and 1972. Extending his earlier criticisms of the Ord River scheme, the book argued that development of irrigated agriculture in northern Australia could not, on purely economic grounds, be justified. Although it attracted the ire of prominent proponents of north Australian economic development, it had a far-reaching impact. The senior federal Labor minister Peter Walsh later described it as a ‘devastating critique of tropical irrigated agriculture in general and of the proposed Ord River Dam in particular’ (Walsh 1994, 13). Libby Robin, the environmental historian, wrote that it ‘exposed at length the lack of economic sophistication in the scientific research into the “possible”’ (Robin 2007, 143). Other significant books were Australia Wet or Dry? The Physical and Economic Limits to the Expansion of Irrigation (1969) and European Farming in Australia: An Economic History of Australian Farming (1981). He also wrote The School in the Valley (1984), a history of the Tambo Crossing Primary School. In retirement he published papers on the economic history of Australian farming, and a book on legumes co-authored with his wife.

Davidson was one of Australia’s most publicly influential agricultural economists. ‘No one in our profession,’ three of his colleagues observed, ‘could weave so compelling an argument from such a fund of facts’ (Batterham, Mauldon, and Ockwell 1994, 121). Generous, persistent, and cheerful, he was sociable but argumentative. He loved the bush and hated war. Nominally he belonged to the Church of England. A short, thin man of fair complexion, he enjoyed drinking and smoking. Towards the end of his life he developed emphysema. He died of lung cancer on 22 March 1994 at Wahroonga, New South Wales, and was cremated; his wife, and the three daughters and two sons of his first marriage, survived him. One son, Brian, became an associate professor in the department of agriculture and food systems at the University of Melbourne. The University of Sydney established a prize for proficiency in natural resource economics in his name.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Batterham, Bob, Roger Mauldon, and Tony Ockwell, ‘Bruce Robinson Davidson 1924–1994.’ Australian Journal of Agricultural Economics 38, no. 1 (April 1994): 121–24
  • Batterham, Bob. Personal communication
  • Davidson, Brian. Personal communication
  • Gosford, Bob. ‘Bruce Davidson and the Myth of a Northern Food Bowl.’ The Northern Myth (blog), Crikey, 6 February 2014. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A3901, 5528375
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V500816
  • Robin, Libby. How a Continent Created a Nation. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2007
  • Samuel, Peter. ‘Ord Farmers “Highly Paid Pensioners”.’ Canberra Times, 19 April 1966, 3
  • Walsh, Peter. ‘Outspoken Critic of Ord Dam Project.’ Australian, 6 April 1994, 13

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Carment, 'Davidson, Bruce Robinson (1924–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 23 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

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