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James Melville (1908–1984)

by John C. Radcliffe

This article was published:

James Melville (1908-1984), agricultural scientist, was born on 10 July 1908 at Lovells Flat, Otago, New Zealand, third of four children of Andrew Melville, farmer, and his wife Isabella, née Somerville, both born in New Zealand.  Jim had a frugal Presbyterian upbringing.  Completing his schooling at Otago Boys’ High School, Dunedin, he studied science at the University of Otago (B.Sc., NZ, 1929; M.Sc., 1930), gaining first-class honours in chemistry.  A travelling scholarship supported him in 1932-34 at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London (Ph.D., 1934), and a Commonwealth Fund fellowship enabled him to undertake postdoctoral research in 1934-36 at Yale University, United States of America.  He returned to New Zealand and joined the staff of the Wheat Research Institute, Christchurch, as an assistant chemist.  On 9 April 1938 at the Presbyterian Church, Cashmere Hills, he married Margaret Ogilvie.

In 1938 Melville was appointed a biochemist at the plant chemistry laboratory, Department of Science and Industrial Research, Palmerston North; next year he became director.  Commissioned in the New Zealand Military Forces in December 1941 and promoted to temporary captain, he carried out operational and chemical-warfare research in the South and South-West Pacific areas, before being demobilised in December 1944 and resuming duties at the laboratory.  In 1952 he took over as director of DSIR’s grasslands division.  His research, which encompassed plant nitrogen metabolism and protein chemistry, led to an improved understanding of the impact of pasture growth and quality on animal production.

Appointed director of the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide, Melville arrived in South Australia in January 1956.  The family lived on campus, in Urrbrae House, the residence bequeathed to the university by Peter Waite.  Melville vigorously encouraged colleagues to collaborate with researchers in the State Department of Agriculture and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and with university staff located at North Terrace.  Over the next few years, using a collegiate management style, he increased the number of departments in the institute from two to six, one of which was animal physiology, a major new field.  The number of postgraduate students rose from six to sixty-five.  He sat on the university council (1958-78) and was a part-time member (1958-66) of the CSIRO executive.  Colleagues found him gentlemanly, pleasant, fair and decisive.

Throughout his career Melville sought to contribute to the development of agricultural industries on a national rather than parochial basis.  A council-member of the Australian Wine Research Institute (1956-70), he also sat on the Wool Research (1957-63) and Wool Production Research Advisory (1964-66) committees, and chaired (1964-66) the Australian Wool Industry Conference.  He was an adviser to the Rural Credits Development Fund of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.  Elected a fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (1957) and of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1966), he was federal president of AIAS in 1970.  That year he was awarded the Farrer memorial medal; in his oration he advocated the use of birth-control measures to curb world population growth.  Two months later in his Thomas Cawthron memorial lecture at Nelson, New Zealand, he delivered a similar message.  In 1973 he undertook a review of agricultural research in Spain for the World Bank.

Retiring as director of the Waite on 31 December 1973, Melville moved to a 20-acre (8-ha) property at Longwood in the Adelaide Hills.  From May to November 1974 he returned to work as the university’s acting deputy vice-chancellor, and occasionally as acting vice-chancellor.  In 1975-76 he sat on the Industries Assistance Commission for the inquiry 'Financing Rural Research'.  The university conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of the university in 1979.  He had been appointed CMG in 1969.

Melville’s interests included the arts.  He also served on the board of management (1969-84) of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital.  Chairman of the Bushfire Research Committee of South Australia in 1959-77, he made a mea culpa statement on television after having to be rescued by police while driving through a bushfire to his home in February 1980.  Soon after, he and his wife moved to Resthaven, Bellevue Heights.  He died on 8 October 1984 at Daw Park, Adelaide, and was cremated.  His wife and their son and two daughters survived him; one daughter had died in infancy.

Select Bibliography

  • V. A. Edgeloe, The Waite Agricultural Research Institute (1984)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 February 1980, p 8, 10 October 1984, p 9
  • Melville papers (University of Adelaide Archives)
  • private information
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

John C. Radcliffe, 'Melville, James (1908–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 May 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]


10 July, 1908
Lovells Flat, Otago, New Zealand


8 October, 1984 (aged 76)
Daw Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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