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Harold James (Harry) Frith (1921–1982)

by Libby Robin

This article was published:

Harold James (Harry) Frith (1921-1982), wildlife biologist and conservationist, was born on 16 April 1921 at Kyogle, New South Wales, younger son of Richard Frith, butcher, and his wife Elizabeth, née Marshall, both born in New South Wales. Harry was a keen pigeon-shooter from the age of 8 and an excellent naturalist. Educated at Lismore High School and Scots College, Sydney, he proceeded to the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1941; D.Sc.Agr., 1964). Despite strong results, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 5 September 1941 instead of completing the honours course.

Arriving in the Middle East in November, Frith was allotted to the 2/6th Field Regiment in January 1942. Back in Australia in March, he sailed for Papua in September and was posted to the 2/1st Tank-Attack Regiment in December. He took part in the Buna campaign and became interested in the rich wildlife of the area. Promoted to sergeant in April 1943, he returned to Australia in October. On 20 November at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Dorothy Marion Francis Killeen, a research assistant. Commissioned as a lieutenant in September 1944, he was made inspector, food supplies, at Land Headquarters, Melbourne. His AIF appointment terminated on 19 October 1945.

Frith and his wife moved to Griffith, New South Wales, where his first job was as assistant works manager and technologist at Griffith Cannery Pty Ltd. In 1946 he joined the nearby irrigation research station of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization from 1949). Under the guidance of Eric West, his first projects concerned the cultivation of citrus trees. Experiments in frost protection using wind fans were the subject of many early publications, but he found himself increasingly drawn to the zebra finches nesting in the trees, rather than to horticultural experimentation. In 1951 the officer-in-charge of the wildlife survey section of CSIRO, Francis Ratcliffe, sought Frith’s help with monitoring the spread of the newly released myxoma virus among rabbit populations. Frith seized the opportunity to make wildlife biology the centre of his research, transferring formally to the section in July 1952.

Fascinated by birds, Frith studied their ecology and behaviour, both at work and after hours. His `unofficial’ work on the mallee-fowl, Leipoa ocellata, which incubates its eggs by controlling the temperature of its mound, attracted international attention. As well as nine scientific papers on the species, he wrote an important popular book, The Mallee-Fowl (1962), which suggested guidelines for its conservation. His `official’ work built on his long interest in wild ducks and geese. In 1955 the CSIRO asked him to go to the Northern Territory to establish a scientific project on the magpie goose, perceived by the nascent rice-growing industry as vermin. He followed the geese well beyond the experimental rice-farming areas and became familiar with the monsoonal swamps ranging from `Goose camp’, near the Alligator rivers, to the southern Daly River.

Frith found himself increasingly responsible for overseeing the scientific work of others. His leadership style drew on practical `bush ecology’—getting things done despite obstacles. A naturalist by inclination, he liked to work closely with animals in the wild. His down-to-earth qualities endeared him to `people in the out-country’, but sometimes alienated leading theoreticians. His biological theory was largely self-taught, learned as required. He naturally linked `basic’ and `applied’ science, and was intolerant of well-educated `fools’ who could not make necessary practical connections.

Best known as a bird specialist, Frith was interested in other animals too. He expanded the Australian Bird-Banding Scheme to include bats. In 1959 he started a major project on the ecology of the red kangaroo, which required an understanding of embryology and endocrinology. According to the Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr, Frith `acquired the necessary know-how without hesitation’. He co-authored Kangaroos (1969) with John Calaby.

In 1956 Frith had moved with his family to Yarralumla, Canberra. By April 1961, when he was appointed Ratcliffe’s successor, he had spent `significant periods in all ecological regions’ of the continent and also in New Guinea. In 1962 the wildlife section became a division of CSIRO, with Frith as its chief. From major centres in Canberra, Perth and Darwin, his division reviewed and planned many national strategies for conservation, always beginning by understanding the ecology of the animals concerned. Numerous small remote stations were established to pursue particular projects, especially in northern Australia. Under Frith’s guidance, conservation concerns moved beyond reserves to include production landscapes: `many important species can be adequately conserved only on sheep stations, irrigation areas and in wheatfields’. He also opened discussion with water conservation engineers, recognising the links between irrigation, salinity and land degradation, and the plight of wild ducks. In 1965 he declared unfashionably: `we must ensure flooding of the rivers—even if this does damage the nation’s economy’.

Frith was proud of his success, in monsoonal Australia, in having the Kakadu area (which included his beloved `Goose camp’) declared a national park. The rich birdlife continued to enthuse him throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and he managed, despite his commitments as a manager, to undertake parts of the fauna surveys critical to its status as a World Heritage listed area.

A driven leader, Frith felt competitive with Ratcliffe. But CSIRO’s executive appreciated his `rough diamond’ style, and valued his practical management skills and excellent publications. His fluent writing style translated easily to a general audience and his natural history books included Waterfowl in Australia (1967), Birds in the Australian High Country (edited in 1969), Conservation (co-edited in 1971 with Alec Costin) and Wildlife Conservation (1973). In 1976 he edited the first Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, writing the accounts of fifty-six species himself. Elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1975) and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences (1976), he was a fellow of the ornithological unions of Australasia, Britain, Germany, France and the United States of America. In 1979 and 1982 he was awarded the (G. P.) Whitley medal by the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales. He was appointed AO in 1980.

In 1974 Frith persuaded the International Ornithological Congress to come south of the Equator for the first time since its establishment in 1884. Despite logistical difficulties, he organised in Canberra an exemplary meeting that greatly excited the distinguished visitors. He refused to admit to the personal discomfort he felt throughout the year leading up to the congress, following a serious motorcar accident. A second blow struck him four months later, when Cyclone Tracy flattened the homes of the scientists he had located in Darwin. He became increasingly depressed about the division and retreated to his own work, focusing on the aviary of pigeons he had built adjoining his office at Gungahlin. His failing health led him to announce that he would retire on his sixtieth birthday. He purchased land near his boyhood home, where he started to re-create a piece of rainforest. His last year at CSIRO was anxious, and he suffered a heart attack. Survived by his wife, and their two daughters and son, he died of another myocardial infarction on 28 June 1982 at Lismore and was buried in the local lawn cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • CSIRO Division of Wildlife Research, Report, 1962-82
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 10, no 3, 1995, p 247, and for publications
  • L. Robin, `International Ornithology Comes to Australia’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 13, no 3, 2001, p 233
  • Canberra Times, 30 Apr 1966, p 2, 26 Jan 1980, p 11, 1 July 1982, p 9
  • CoResearch, Aug 1982, p 2
  • series A8520, item PH/FRI/1, series A9697, items C2/25 and C2/25B, and series K1348 (National Archives of Australia)
  • International Ornithological Congress papers (AAS 1225, Australian Academy of Science Library, Canberra, and MS 11437, Box 19A, State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Libby Robin, 'Frith, Harold James (Harry) (1921–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 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

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