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Arthur James Perkins (1871–1944)

by J. G. Daniels

This article was published:

Arthur James Perkins (1871-1944), by Rembrandt, 1928

Arthur James Perkins (1871-1944), by Rembrandt, 1928

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6415

Arthur James Perkins (1871-1944), agricultural scientist and viticulturist, was born on 11 May 1871 at Ramleh, near Alexandria, Egypt, eldest son of Edmund Arthur Perkins, Reuter's agent, and his wife Anna Edith, née Barker. He was educated at St Louis College, Carthage, St Charles College, Tunis (1881-85), and All Saints' School, Bloxham, Oxfordshire, England (1885-87). In 1887-90 he studied at and gained the diploma of the Ecole Nationale d'Agriculture at Montpellier, France, where he was especially interested in viticulture. Perkins was fluent in English, Arabic, Latin, ancient Greek, French and Italian. He spent two years running properties in Tunisia where his father, decorated by the French and Tunisian governments in 1903 and 1905 for diplomatic work, was manager of the company supplying gas, water and electricity to Tunis.

Recruited from Tunisia, Arthur Perkins was appointed a member of South Australia's Central Agricultural Bureau and government viticulturist in 1892. He was based at Roseworthy Agricultural College. His appointment followed requests to the government by the bureau and the South Australian Vinegrowers' Association for expert advice to farmers on viticulture, oenology and horticulture. Concern about agricultural diversification and productivity was also widespread and Perkins was asked to bring olive and vine cuttings and seeds of wheat varieties with him. At the college he taught viticulture, winemaking and fruit culture and lectured on these subjects in the wine-growing districts where he became popular with the farmers. He established 80 acres (32 ha) of vineyards and a winery at Roseworthy College in 1895. From that year he was called professor. Perkins passed all wines going to London through government channels, advised on any question about vines and wines, analyzed wine for winemakers and examined vineyards. In 1900 he told a Victorian royal commission: 'you have two men to do the same work that I do'. An early riser, he managed with little sleep.

His teaching of European viticultural methods, including pest and disease control and winemaking techniques, constituted Perkins' first major contribution to Australian agriculture. His second was the devising of quarantine regulations to protect South Australia from phylloxera, an insect pest of vines which decimated the European root-stock vines and consequently the wine industries in the eastern Australian colonies late in the nineteenth century. This left phylloxera-free South Australia as the leading wine-producing area, certainly in terms of volume—a position the State still holds.

On 7 March 1900 in the Wesleyan Church, Chilwell, Geelong, Victoria, Perkins married Mary Ethel Haslam; they had one son. In 1902 he became secretary for agriculture in the Department of Agriculture and editor of the South Australian Journal of Agriculture. Two years later he was appointed principal of the Agricultural College. In addition to agricultural education beyond the college, his fine record there included research into systematic selection to improve wheat varieties, digestibility of foodstuffs for stock, fat-lamb breeding, and phases of cereal growing—from the use of manures to the appropriate depth of seed-planting. His students' admiration was expressed in a testimonial they gave him on his return from Europe, north Africa and Asia in 1910.

In 1914 Perkins replaced William Lowrie as South Australian director of agriculture; his experience, persuasive powers and administrative skill were highly impressive. In 1925, looking back over thirty years, he saw improvement in the manufacture of dry wines; the area under vines had doubled, as had cellar accommodation. That year Perkins attended the meeting which set up the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; later he was a member of its standing committee on agriculture. He retired in 1936 and was appointed O.B.E. next year.

Perkins' publications included pamphlets on practical subjects, a history, South Australia: An Agricultural and Pastoral State in the Making, 1836-46 (Adelaide, 1939) and Training and Research (Adelaide, 1917). He opposed early specialization for young farmers, arguing for a liberal education, and supported the foundation of state secondary schools in country areas. He shunned publicity, but enjoyed literature and playing the cello, banjo and guitar. In retirement he was an active gardener and carpenter at his Brighton home. Predeceased by his wife, he died of cerebro-vascular disease on 23 June 1944 and was buried in St Jude's cemetery, Brighton. His son Horace James became a noted musician.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Fifteenth Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (Syd, 1921)
  • M. Williams, The Making of the South Australian Landscape (Lond, 1974)
  • J. Daniels (ed), The Personal Letterbooks of Professor A. J. Perkins, Government Viticulturist in South Australia, 1890-1901 (Roseworthy, SA, 1982)
  • J. Daniels (ed), Roseworthy Agricultural College (Roseworthy, SA, 1983)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1899-1900, 4 (34), 1901, 3 (36)
  • South Australian Education Gazette, Aug 1905
  • Public Administration (Sydney), 27, no 1, 1968
  • Observer (Adelaide), 8 July 1922, 21 June 1924, 21 Feb 1925
  • A. J. Perkins papers as government viticulturist (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

J. G. Daniels, 'Perkins, Arthur James (1871–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 April 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

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