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Colin Malcolm Donald (1910–1985)

by John C. Radcliffe

This article was published:

Colin Malcolm Donald (1910-1985), agricultural scientist, was born on 21 March 1910 at Colchester, Essex, England, one of six children of William Donald, corporal in the Royal Field Artillery, and his wife Julia Jane, née Bloxham. He spent his childhood on a small farm, receiving his early education at the Dover County School. In 1926 he travelled to Australia under the auspices of the Wembley scholarship scheme and began a course at Hawkesbury Agricultural College, Richmond, New South Wales (Dip.Ag. Hons, 1929). Awarded a further scholarship, he graduated with first-class honours at the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1933; D.Sc.Agr., 1963). In 1932 he was appointed as an assistantagrostologist in the New South Wales Department of Agriculture. On 12 November 1935 at St Peter’s Church of England, Neutral Bay, he married Margaret Clare Voysey, a secretary.

In 1934 Donald had joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s pasture research group, based at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide. He worked initially on strain variation in grasses and clovers, then on mineral nutrition of pastures and in 1936-37, with David Riceman, made the first discovery of a trace element deficiency in Australia. After gaining a master’s degree in 1939 from the University of Adelaide and winning the Pawlett scholarship from the University of Sydney the same year, Donald studied pastures for two years in Britain, the United States of America and New Zealand. On his return to Australia he transferred to the CSIR’s division of plant industry, Canberra. In 1942-45 he was seconded to the Department of War Organization of Industry, Melbourne, first under (Sir) John Crawford, and later as assistant-director in charge of the rural division. He then undertook research into competition among annual pasture plants in the Mediterranean environment of southern Australia. In 1951, sponsored by the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation to assist with a survey of grasslands in Mediterranean countries, he also led an Australian plant-collecting expedition in that region. He became assistant-chief of his division in 1953.

In 1954 Donald was appointed professor of agriculture and head of the department of agronomy at the Waite Institute. During his nineteen-year tenure he expanded the departmental academic staff to seventeen, and attracted a rapidly rising number of postgraduate students. He was dean of the faculty in 1955-59 and 1962-64. In later years he found expression for his strong social conscience by becoming increasingly involved with agricultural improvements in the less-developed countries of South-East Asia. He led missions to various countries and surveyed agricultural faculties at universities in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

A lucid writer, Donald generated sixty-seven scientific publications, three of which gained him international recognition. The first, written with C. G. Stephens, was `Australian Soils and Their Responses to Fertilisers’ (Advances in Agronomy, 1958). It drew attention to the antiquity of Australian soils, their severe nutritional limitations for plant growth, and the scope for amelioration through the use of superphosphate, trace elements and subterranean clover. In the second, `Competition among Crop and Pasture Plants’ (Advances in Agronomy, 1963), he summarised the factors that influenced yields of plants growing at high densities in crops and sown pastures. The third, `Phosphorus in Australian Agriculture’ (Journal of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, 1964), highlighted the trends in Australian cereal yields: the initial reduction due to progressive exhaustion of soil nutrients, and subsequent increases associated first with the introduction of superphosphate and fallowing, and later with better crop rotations and the use of legumes to increase soil nitrogen content.

Donald had a profound influence on pasture and crop development in Australia. Recognised for his important contributions to discussions on the most recent discoveries in the plant sciences, he was also able to talk easily with farmers. Often dressed in the farmers’ attire of a tweed jacket, he had a friendly, equitable and considerate approach and a ready availability which provided great stimulus to farmers, students and staff alike. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1961) and of the Australian Academy of Science (1968), and was a section president at the 1962 meeting in Sydney of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1964 he was awarded both the Farrer memorial medal and the Australian medal of agricultural science. He retired in 1973 and served (1973-75) on the Wheat Industry Research Council. In 1979 he was appointed CBE.

During his final years Donald suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 14 March 1985 at Parkside, Adelaide, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • V. A. Edgeloe, The Waite Agricultural Research Institute (1984)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 10, no 1, 1994, p 51
  • personal file, PH/DON/1 (CSIRO Archives, Canberra).

Citation details

John C. Radcliffe, 'Donald, Colin Malcolm (1910–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 March, 1910
Colchester, Essex, England


14 March, 1985 (aged 74)
Parkside, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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