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John Waugh Paterson (1869–1958)

by R. J. Moir

This article was published:

John Waugh Paterson (1869-1958), professor of agriculture, was born on 13 January 1869 at Skirling Mains, Peeblesshire, Scotland, fifth of six children of John Paterson, farmer, and his wife Mary Paterson, née Waugh. He attended local schools and the Royal High School, Edinburgh. After a year at the University of Edinburgh, studying agriculture and English, he returned to work the farm his father managed till 1891. In 1894 he graduated B.Sc. in agriculture at Edinburgh. He wrote a thesis on rural depopulation in Scotland at Göttingen and Leipzig (Ph.D. cum laude, 1896), where his oral examinations were in political economy, chemistry and agriculture. From 1897 he lectured in agricultural chemistry at the West of Scotland Technical College; in 1900 this became the West of Scotland Agricultural College and Paterson its professor of chemistry. From 1902 he was also professor of chemistry and toxicology at the Glasgow Veterinary College.

Paterson had married Agnes Howie Smith at Glasserton Parish Church, Wigtownshire, on 31 July 1901; they had a daughter and six sons. In 1905 he moved to a farm in Bedfordshire, England, but five years later migrated to Melbourne. He farmed, taught, and worked for the Victorian Department of Agriculture before accepting, in 1913, the Hackett chair in agriculture at the University of Western Australia. A shy, quiet man, he had a wry wit and was an excellent lecturer, although his accent was pronounced. In conversation, particularly when under stress, he nodded, a neuromuscular complaint developed early in life.

Paterson's university teaching began in earnest after World War I. He set up the degree course in agriculture within the faculty of science, and a diploma course for non-matriculated students. In 1918-20 he was vice-chancellor of the university. One of the few professors to influence powerful groups in the community, he helped to re-establish the Narrogin School of Agriculture and to found Muresk Agricultural College; he assisted two government agricultural enquiries; and he introduced agricultural science into the junior and matriculation public examinations. Paterson also lectured in the country from Albany to Geraldton, reaching over 8400 people from a wide range of interest groups. His books, Nature in Farming (1916) and Science in Agriculture (1938), saw many editions.

He was a founder of the State branch of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, and when the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry was developed in 1916 Paterson was chairman of the State committee. It proposed that collection of data on soils, rainfall and agricultural systems for repatriated soldiers be undertaken; that prospecting for native phosphates be encouraged; and that a forest products laboratory be established.

In the journal Science and Industry in 1919, Paterson discussed the obligations of science to the pastoral industry, arguing that 'the time had come for recourse to more scientific methods and more “intensive” systems of management'. He asserted that 'it was not a question of whether our pastoral industry can afford to spend large sums in elucidating its many problems … it is a national question to decide whether it can afford to do anything else'. Industry funding of research is based on such an idea today. Paterson was involved in further research planning with the establishment of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1926.

He retired in 1934, spent some years in Britain, but returned to Perth in 1953 where he died on 5 June 1958. His ashes were interred in Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • University of Western Australia Calendar, 1915, 1916
  • Sydney University Agriculture Graduates' Association, SUAGA, 17, 1934, p 33
  • Department of Agriculture (Western Australia), Bulletin, 77, 1987
  • West Australian, 30 Jan 1916, 17 Jan 1917
  • Countryman (Perth), 19 June 1958
  • Paterson papers, including a brief private autobiography (privately held)
  • University of Western Australia Archives.

Citation details

R. J. Moir, 'Paterson, John Waugh (1869–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 January, 1869
Skirling Mains, Peeblesshire, Scotland


5 June, 1958 (aged 89)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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