Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Joseph Magee (1901–1989)

by John Atchison

This article was published:

Charles Joseph Patrick Magee (1901-1989), agricultural scientist, was born on 17 November 1901 at South Lismore, New South Wales, fifth of seven children of Charles Joseph Magee, a builder from England, and his New South Wales-born wife Mary, née Cleary.  Orphaned at an early age, Charles lived with an aunt and attended primary school at Newcastle, before going on to Cleveland Street Intermediate and Sydney Boys’ High schools.  He was awarded a New South Wales Department of Agriculture cadetship to study agricultural science at the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1924; D.Sc.Agr., 1939), and in January 1924 began work in the department as an assistant-biologist.

Seconded (1924-26) to the joint Commonwealth, Queensland and New South Wales investigation into bunchy top disease in bananas, supervised by E. J. Goddard, Magee isolated the aphid-borne virus that was destroying banana crops.  From a specially equipped field laboratory at Tweed Heads he was one of the first 'to demonstrate conclusively the transmission of a plant pathogenic virus by an insect vector'.  His control program initiated close, productive work with banana growers, notably H. L. Anthony.

Magee was awarded a Sir Benjamin Fuller travelling scholarship and undertook postgraduate studies in the United States of America, at the University of Wisconsin (M.Sc., 1928), where his research focused on purifying and isolating tobacco and cucumber mosaic viruses.  He visited scientific institutes in the USA, England, France and the Netherlands, before reporting on banana diseases in Egypt and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for the British government.  Returning to Sydney, he resumed his post with the Department of Agriculture.  On 12 December 1931 at St Mary’s Church of England, Waverley, he married Christina Kennedy Barlow, née Shearer (d.1983), a widow.

Promoted in 1933 to plant pathologist, Magee directed a special investigation into virus diseases in potato and tomato crops, set up by the government biologist R. J. Noble.  His research, covering the rhizoctonia and common scab affecting potatoes, tomatoes and cauliflowers, built on his classical work on bananas.  Associated with W. L. Waterhouse, during 1937-38 he worked full time, from a laboratory at Mullumbimby, on banana diseases and cognate matters, including an investigation of the Fijian banana industry.  He also helped to establish the New South Wales potato seed certification scheme.  Appointed senior biologist (1940) and chief biologist (1944), in 1958 he succeeded Noble as chief of the division of science services.  In 1960 he was named head of a division embracing biology, chemistry and entomology (later the Biological and Chemical Research Institute), housed in a new laboratory at Rydalmere.  He administered the research and advisory service activities with flair, distinction and efficiency.  His imposing personality and presence commanded esteem and lasting loyalty.

Magee’s many publications dealt with plant diseases, especially virus types.  On some twenty occasions between 1926 and 1965, he carried out work overseas reflecting his wide–ranging interests beyond specialisms in microbiology.  He was senior member in 1943 of a scientific mission sent to New Guinea by the armed forces to investigate deterioration of stores and equipment; he continued to advise on related problems until 1946.  Visiting North Borneo (Sabah, Malaysia) for the British Colonial Office in 1946, he reported on ex-Japanese hemp estates.  He advised on plant diseases there and in Fiji and Western Samoa.  In 1951 he took part in a plant survey of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, and in 1954 he was a delegate at the 5th Commonwealth Mycological Conference in London.  He was consulted on control of abaca mosaic virus in the Philippines in 1956, on city waste disposal in Britain, and on the application of electrodialysis to the desalination of sea and bore water in the USA.

A long-time member (president 1930) of the Sydney University Agricultural Graduates Association, Magee was a founding member (1935) and federal councillor (1940-41) of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science.  He was president (1946) of its New South Wales division and in 1965 was elected a fellow.  Holding executive positions over many years in the Royal Society of New South Wales, he was president in 1952.

After retiring in 1966 Magee was consulting bacteriologist with Root Nodule Pty Ltd for ten years.  He served on a committee pressing for the establishment of a university college in the northern suburbs of Sydney.  In 1969 he moved from Roseville to Palm Beach; his interests included golf, tennis, fishing, swimming and gardening.  He was a member of the University and Cabbage Tree (Palm Beach) clubs.  Survived by his daughter, he died on 2 February 1989 at Turramurra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Fenner (ed), History of Microbiology in Australia, 1990
  • P. J. Mylrea, In the Service of Agriculture, 1990
  • Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 122, 1989, p 92
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 August 1924, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1928, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 September 1932, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August 1936, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 1937, p 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 1939, p 5
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Atchison, 'Magee, Charles Joseph (1901–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 February 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]


17 November, 1901
Lismore, New South Wales, Australia


2 February, 1989 (aged 87)
Turramurra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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