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Walter Maxwell (1854–1931)

by John D. Kerr

This article was published:

Walter Maxwell (1854-1931), agricultural scientist, was born on 14 June 1854 at Paradise, Sedgefield, Durham, England, son of Walter Maxwell, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Walker. He reputedly studied at the Royal College of Science, London, and undertook research in physiological chemistry under Professor E. Schulze at Zurich, Switzerland and at Harvard University in 1888. Maxwell began sugar research in the United States Department of Agriculture under Dr H. W. Wiley and took charge of the Sugar Beet Experiment Station, Schuyler, Nebraska.

In 1893 Dr Maxwell resigned to investigate sugar-cane juice under Dr Stubbs at Audubon Park Sugar Experiment Station, Louisiana. His essay on reviving the cotton industry won a $500 newspaper prize. He became first director of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association's Experiment Station in 1895. An aggressive, energetic worker with broad vision, he studied the lavas and soils of Hawaii and irrigation; sugar yields increased dramatically.

Confronted with declining prices, land exhaustion and the termination of Melanesian labour, Queensland growers, supported by J. C. Brünnich and H. Tryon, were demanding full-scale sugar experiment stations. The Bundaberg Planters' and Farmers' Association funded a visit by Maxwell through J. V. Chataway, minister for agriculture.

Maxwell's Report on Investigation Into the Conditions in the Sugar Industry in Queensland (Brisbane, 1900) recommended the establishment of experiment stations for research and educational services. He was appointed director of the sugar experiment stations on 27 October 1900, and negotiated an annual salary of £3000, the highest paid to a Queensland public servant.

Funded equally by government and industry, Maxwell acquired the existing station at Mackay, but established his headquarters and laboratory at Bundaberg. He initiated a complete system of soil analysis and experimented with irrigation, fertilising methods, cultivation and cane-breeding. As comptroller, Bureau of Central Sugar Mills, from 27 October 1904, Maxwell eliminated preferential treatment for shareholder cane, reduced the price to meet debt repayments, modernized mills and threatened to enter possession of farms mortgaged to the government as collateral—six defaulting central mills were taken over initially. He was also honorary technical adviser to the Australian Sugar Producers' Association, formed in 1907 along lines he had recommended in 1900-01. Devoting increasingly less time to sugar experiment stations work, Maxwell antagonized many former supporters and was savagely criticized in parliament for his failure to educate independent farmers or to establish further stations, for meddling in the Pacific islander labour dispute and for not investigating insect pests and diseases in cane.

As Commonwealth government adviser Maxwell had reported on the cane sugar industry (1901) and on the sugar bonus (1905), which resulted in legislation that extended the controversial white-labour bounty till 1913. He left Australia in 1910, the year he again reported to the Commonwealth government on the condition of the industry. He then reported on the Philippines sugar industry for the United States Department of Agriculture, and advised the British government during World War I. He lost a son during the war. In retirement at Washington and New Hampshire, Maxwell published two volumes of verse. He died on 9 July 1931 at Conway, New Hampshire, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Easterby, The Queensland Sugar Industry (Brisb, 1933)
  • Queensland Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, Fifty Years of Scientific Progress (Brisb, 1950)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1900, p 1828, 1903, p 936, 1906, p 687, 2119, 2130, 2140, 1907, p 680, 738
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1901, 4, p 271, 275, 291
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1905, 2, p 597, 1911-12, 2, p 1048
  • Sugar Journal and Tropical Cultivator, Dec 1899, Feb, Mar 1900
  • International Sugar Journal, 2 (1900), p 170, 282, 4 (1902), p 38, 11 (1909), p 213
  • Facts About Sugar, 27 (1932), p 24
  • Hawaiian Planters' Record, 36 (1932), p 3
  • Bundaberg Mail, 12 June 1899.

Citation details

John D. Kerr, 'Maxwell, Walter (1854–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 June, 1854
Sedgefield, Durham, England


9 July, 1931 (aged 77)
Conway, New Hampshire, United States of America

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