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Robert Jackson Noble (1894–1981)

by Lindsay Green

This article was published:

Robert Jackson Noble (1894-1981), agricultural scientist and public servant, was born on 17 May 1894 at Five Dock, Sydney, eldest of seven children of New South Wales-born parents Alexander Noble, schoolteacher, and his wife Renetta, née Murphy.  Educated at Sydney Boys’ High School and, as a cadet in the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, at the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1915), Robert graduated with first-class honours and the university medal.  He was awarded the Belmore scholarship for chemistry and geology and the J. H. Maiden prizes for agriculture, botany and forestry.  Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 20 October 1915, he served in Egypt (1916) and on the Western Front (1916-18), much of the time with the 5th Mobile Veterinary Section, and began a lifelong practice of keeping meticulous records.  In 1919 in Britain he instructed in agriculture for the AIF Education Service.  He was discharged in Sydney on 2 December 1919.  The Australian War Memorial holds his seven war diaries, which have since been edited by his son James as War Diaries of a Veterinary Sergeant (2004).

In 1920 Noble was appointed an assistant biologist in the Department of Agriculture.  The first recipient (1921) of a Sir Benjamin Fuller travelling scholarship, he studied agriculture in the United States of America at the University of Minnesota (M.Sc., 1922; Ph.D., 1923); his doctoral thesis was on flag smut in wheat.  In 1921 he represented Australia at an international conference of cereal pathologists in the USA.  Back in Sydney in 1923, he was promoted to principal assistant biologist and, in 1927, to biologist.  On 12 March 1930 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Doris Mary Moncaster (Joan) Bullen, a schoolteacher.

Soon an acknowledged expert on cereal diseases, Noble also pioneered work on viral diseases of bananas, tomatoes and passionfruit.  In the 1920s he undertook research into the propagation of mushrooms and in 1933 helped to set up a commercial farm in a railway tunnel at Circular Quay.  Subsequent publicity prompted a surge in mushroom farming, which resulted in the development of a viable industry.  In 1940 Noble was appointed under-secretary and permanent head of the department.  In 1945 he led the Australian delegation to the first United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization meeting in Quebec, Canada.  The Commonwealth and State governments adopted recommendations made in his report for the co-ordination of health, fisheries, agricultural production and marketing services.  Noble was to retain his interest in the FAO and its activities throughout his career.  He was a member (1945-59) and sometime chairman of the Standing Committee on Agriculture of the Australian Agricultural Council.

Noble wrote some sixty-six scientific papers, dealing mainly with plant diseases, especially cereal smuts, plant viruses, and many aspects of agricultural history.  To prevent the introduction of diseases from overseas, he helped to introduce a comprehensive plant quarantine scheme.  He was well known throughout rural New South Wales and his endeavours greatly helped to promote a more scientific approach to farming.  In 1951 the University of Minnesota recognised him with an award for outstanding achievement.  He retired in 1959.

President of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1934), and of the State branch of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1936), in 1940 Noble was elected a fellow of the (Royal) Institute of Public Administration and of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.  He was chairman of the Farrer Memorial Trust (1940-59); a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (1940-59), the Australian Museum (1946-76) and the McGarvie Smith Institute (1951-77); and a member (1933-66) of the New South Wales State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization).  Noble also sat on the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service’s Fauna Protection Panel (1949-59) and on the Sir Benjamin Fuller Scholarship and Taronga Zoological Park trusts.  He was appointed CBE in 1957 and was presented with the Farrer memorial medal in 1959.

A keen golfer, Noble was a member of the Roseville and Killara clubs.  He was active in the Rotary Club of Sydney.  Widowed in 1971, he died on 21 May 1981 at Turramurra and was cremated.  His two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Mylrea, In the Service of Agriculture (1990)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1981, p 23
  • Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, July 1959, p 337, December 1981, p 7
  • Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 115, 1982, p 74
  • Noble papers (State Library of New South Wales and University of Sydney Archives)
  • B2455, item Noble, Robert Jackson (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information

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Citation details

Lindsay Green, 'Noble, Robert Jackson (1894–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 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

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