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Elwood Mead (1858–1936)

by J. M. Powell

This article was published:

Elwood Mead (1858-1936), by unknown photographer

Elwood Mead (1858-1936), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, RWP/17665

Elwood Mead (1858-1936), irrigation engineer and advocate of planned rural settlement, was born on 16 January 1858 at Patriot, Indiana, United States of America, elder son of Daniel Mead, farmer, and his wife Lucinda, née Davis. He graduated in agriculture and science from Purdue University (B.S., 1882; M.S., 1884; D.Eng., 1904) and from Iowa State College of Agriculture (C.E., 1883). He married Florence Chase, of Lafayette, Indiana, on 20 December 1882, before taking up an appointment at Colorado State Agricultural College where he received rapid promotion to a professorship in irrigation engineering, the first of its type in the United States.

In Colorado and later as state engineer in Wyoming, Mead established a lasting national reputation for his unusual grasp of the social impact and political context of modern water-management technologies, repeatedly emphasizing the priority of overarching community rights and the necessity for a state-controlled technocratic establishment. These views reflected a deep-rooted agrarian idealism which had been nurtured in his boyhood experience of the disintegration of cherished rural communities.

In 1899 Mead moved into the federal sphere as director of irrigation investigations for the Department of Agriculture while working part time for the University of California at Berkeley. His lecture courses and official duties provided the basis for Irrigation Institutions (1903) and other major publications. In 1901 his right arm was surgically amputated following a traffic accident. Supporting three children after the death of his first wife and an unsuccessful second marriage, he married Mary Lewis on 28 September 1905. Isolated in Washington after his opposition to the Federal Reclamation Act (1902), he accepted for six months an invitation from the Victorian government to become, at double his American salary, chairman of its newly formed State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. Mead and his family arrived in Melbourne in November 1907.

The high hopes for government-controlled irrigation in Victoria owed a great deal to the early efforts of Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who expected Mead to advise at both national and State levels. The novelty and openness of the Australian situation revived his idealism and, abandoning all plans for a quick departure, he embraced the opportunity to demonstrate the social utility of an enlightened irrigation programme. Not content with proposing higher water-rates to attempt to recover maintenance, management and construction costs, he also insisted on the logical extension which demanded higher-yielding uses of water and land. The Water Act was passed in 1909 despite the fierce opposition of large landowners, and Mead's influence on rural development was massively increased by his assumption of overriding control in the planning of closer settlement in Victoria's irrigation districts. He claimed much of the credit for the hierarchical arrangement of allotment sizes which characterized these designs, but the novelty was rather in Mead's salesmanship, in the very scale and complexity of the commission's operations, and in the bureaucratic web in which the new settlers became enmeshed.

The Australian interlude consolidated Mead's international reputation. Some of his prodigious energy continued to be directed away from Australia: American contacts were carefully cultivated and he obtained generous overseas leave. In Victoria his contributions were generally well recognized in the irrigation settlements, but his American background and involvements were less popular. A serious drought was threatening the entire irrigation programme across south-eastern Australia and Mead's own insecurity intensified in proportion to the mounting hostility towards America's continuing neutrality in World War I. His resignation became effective in May 1915.

Appointed professor of rural institutions at the University of California, Mead became prominent in the abortive campaign for a national settlement scheme for returned soldiers. Summary of Soldier Settlements in English-Speaking Countries was published in 1918, to be followed by his best-known book, Helping Men Own Farms (New York, 1920). As chairman of California's Land Settlement Board in 1917-23 he instituted 'agricultural colonies' but the plan was ill timed and abandonments and bankruptcies were common during the agricultural depression of the 1920s.

A four-month advisory tour of Australia in 1923 was punctuated by disputes with Sir Joseph Carruthers and leading irrigation authorities in New South Wales over the selection and use of land in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. Mead rejected plans for further fruit planting, advocating larger dairy farms and an improved co-ordination of grazing and irrigation enterprises which would favour stock fattening and the intensive production of lucerne. On his return he resigned from the University of California and in April 1924 took up his last major appointment, as federal commissioner for reclamation.

Survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters, Mead died in Washington on 26 January 1936 only four months after the official dedication of the giant Boulder Dam. In February 1936 the reservoir behind the dam was named Lake Mead. They were fitting memorials to a distinguished public service career devoted to the establishment and consolidation of modern irrigation administration in the western world.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Powell, Environmental Management in Australia, 1788-1914 (Melb, 1976)
  • American Society of Civil Engineers, Transactions 102 (1937), p 1611
  • Aqua, Feb 1951
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 67 (1982), p 328
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Feb 1911
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28, 29 Jan 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Jan 1936
  • J. R. Kluger, Elwood Mead: Irrigation Engineer and Social Planner (Ph.D. thesis, Arizona State University, 1970).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. M. Powell, 'Mead, Elwood (1858–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 July 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

Elwood Mead (1858-1936), by unknown photographer

Elwood Mead (1858-1936), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, RWP/17665

Life Summary [details]


16 January, 1858
Patriot, Indiana, United States of America


26 January, 1936 (aged 78)
Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.