Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walter Victor Macfarlane (1913–1982)

by D. R. Curtis

This article was published:

Walter Victor Macfarlane (1913-1982), physiologist, was born on 27 September 1913 at Christchurch, New Zealand, eldest of three children of Walter Macfarlane, builder, and his wife Ada Constance, née Westerman, both born in New Zealand. The family lived in the Cashmere hills, north of Christchurch, and at an early age Victor acquired an interest in natural history as he explored the countryside on foot and by bicycle. Encouraged by his parents, he became an avid reader and developed a propensity for expounding knowledgeably on a vast range of topics. He was educated at Cashmere primary and Christchurch Boys’ High schools, and at Canterbury University College (BA, 1935; MA, 1937), where he majored in zoology, history and chemistry. His choice of an unusual combination of subjects was strongly influenced by the chemist Hugh Parton, a family friend. For two years, while still an undergraduate, Macfarlane was an honorary laboratory assistant in the department of zoology. He continued to study zoology for his master’s degree.

First employed by the Department of Agriculture at the Wallaceville Animal Research Station as a parasitologist, he investigated two problems relating to sheep: the intermediate host of the New Zealand liver fluke and, later, ‘blowfly strike’. Becoming aware of his lack of training in physiology and biochemistry, he decided to undertake a medical course at the University of Otago, Dunedin (MB, Ch.B., 1945; MD, 1950). He read widely in the biomedical literature, came under the influence of distinguished scientists and clinicians, and participated in many non-academic university activities. While a student, he used himself as a guinea pig to establish that larval schistosomes present in local lake water were responsible for a type of dermatitis known as ‘swimmer’s itch’. In his final examinations he topped his year and won numerous academic awards.

As a resident medical officer at the Dunedin Hospital he assisted the neurosurgeon Murray Falconer and attended neurophysiological seminars in the university’s department of physiology of which Professor (Sir) John Eccles was head. Developing an interest in the mechanisms underlying nerve and brain function, in 1947 he was appointed senior lecturer in physiology. In addition to teaching, he collaborated in research with Eccles, acquiring expertise in electrophysiological techniques.

Moving to Australia, in February 1949 Macfarlane became professor of physiology at the University of Queensland. On 12 December that year at Christ Church, Claremont, Perth, he married with Anglican rites Pamela Felicia Margaret Sinclair, a zoologist and university lecturer whom he had met in Dunedin. Heavily involved in teaching and administration, he oversaw major changes in the department and actively encouraged his staff to pursue their research interests. He directed most of his personal research to the problems of thermal regulation and the adaptation by animals and humans to different environments, and the associated mechanisms of water and salt metabolism. Field-work took place on Toorak station, near Julia Creek, at the height of summer. The Macfarlanes travelled in the United States of America and Europe in 1951-52 and 1958. He was a council-member (1956-59) of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. In the mid-1950s he helped to organise Australian and international symposia related to the problems experienced by humans and animals in the tropics.

Early in 1959, wishing to have more time for his multiple interests and research activities, Macfarlane took up a post as professorial fellow in the department of physiology, John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University, Canberra, again under Eccles. He continued his studies on water and salt balance, involving laboratory experiments and field-work in Australia and Africa, and diversified his research to include the electrical activity of cardiac muscle and habituation of mammalian spinal reflexes. Maintaining his associations with Australian and international arid zone organisations, he was the prime mover in founding (1960) the Australian Physiological (and Pharmacological) Society. In Canberra his wife became a painter of note.

Administrative and funding problems within JCSMR, and lack of contact with undergraduates, led Macfarlane to accept appointment in 1964 to the foundation chair of animal physiology at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide. This was his final and most satisfactory academic post: he had contact with both undergraduate and postgraduate students; he carried out field-work in outback Australia and overseas—New Guinea, Israel, Kenya and Alaska—as well as laboratory studies related to his wide interests in group behaviour, brain mechanisms, ecophysiology of a range of animals, and climatic adaptation. He and his wife entertained visitors from many countries at the house that he had designed himself at Crafers, in the Adelaide Hills.

Macfarlane won the William F. Petersen gold medal award in animal biometeorology and, in 1968, the decennial medal of the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research, Israel. In 1972 he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. Retiring late in 1978, he was appointed professor emeritus. He continued to research, write papers, teach and actively participate in local and overseas scientific meetings. Recognised as a polymath, he pursued his interest in wider fields of science, architecture, history, arts and languages. The Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science awarded (1979) him its Mueller medal and made him a fellow in 1981. Survived by his wife and their daughter, McFarlane died of myocardial infarction on 26 February 1982 in Canberra and was cremated. A second daughter had predeceased him. Professor A. K. McIntyre said of him that despite his ‘iron determination and penetrating wit’, he was ‘a warm, modest and caring soul, with a deep concern for fellow humans as well as for the whole biosphere’.

Select Bibliography

  • International Journal of Biometeorology, vol 26, no 4, 1982, p 261
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 247
  • Macfarlane papers (University of Adelaide Library)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

D. R. Curtis, 'Macfarlane, Walter Victor (1913–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 September, 1913
Christchurch, New Zealand


26 February, 1982 (aged 68)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


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