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Hugh Pye (1860–1942)

by H. J. Sims

This article was published:

Hugh Pye (1860-1942), by unknown photographer, 1935

Hugh Pye (1860-1942), by unknown photographer, 1935

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14347032-2

Hugh Pye (1860-1942), agricultural educator and pioneer wheat breeder, was born on 1 January 1860 at Ascot, Victoria, son of William Marsland Pye and his second wife Joanna Saunders, née Edwards. Emmeline was his sister. Hugh was educated at Geelong State School and Christ Church Grammar School, Geelong, of which his father was headmaster, and also attended classes at Geelong Technical School before completing two years of an engineering course at the University of Melbourne, against his will but at his father's command.

Pye began work as a science master at St Kilda Grammar School in 1879. Because of his keen interest, since boyhood, in botany and agriculture, he took up the position of science master at Dookie Agricultural College in 1887, the year after its establishment. His initial experimental interest was mainly with pastures and the greater use of native pasture plants. Although Pye made his first wheat crosses in 1888, it was after contact with William Farrer in 1889 that he gave his full attention to cereals and wheat breeding. This work developed into a lifetime commitment and resulted in the outstanding contribution of more than 100 new cultivars of wheat, although many did not gain commercial importance.

Appointed principal of the college in 1894, Pye firmly established the standing and reputation of Dookie and traditions of approach, management and excellence that carried on into the 1960s. While principal, he continued his wheat-breeding activities which, despite his heavy work-load, gained world recognition, both for himself and for Dookie. Unfortunately, in 1911 a struggle between the Council for Agricultural Education and the University of Melbourne for the control of higher agricultural education emerged, continuing to 1916 when Pye resigned and became government cerealist, thereby devoting his full attention to wheat-breeding and cereal work. He continued in this position until retirement in 1931.

The first new Pye cultivar, distributed to farmers in 1899, was Improved Steinwedel which he produced in 1893 by a technique he called 're-crossing', now known as 'back-crossing'. Other early releases were Warden (1900), a very successful hay wheat, and College Purple (1901) from a cross between the then widely grown Purple Straw and a Fife x Indian line—with the objective of quality improvement from the Canadian cultivar, Fife. Pye's most successful cultivar was Currawa, distributed in 1912; by the mid-1920s it had become the second most widely grown wheat in Victoria and Australia, behind Federation. Currawa's pedigree includes true club and durum wheats—the first successful use in Australia of such wheats to improve drought tolerance. Pye successfully demonstrated, first in Minister (1917) and later in Baldmin (1926), that good yielding capacity and high baking quality could be combined satisfactorily, although his selection for quality was limited by inadequate equipment and assistance. In the mid-1920s another cultivar, Major, then third in Victorian sowings, was sown on about 100,000 acres (40,469 ha) in South Australia, and was the most widely grown wheat in New Zealand. Other important Pye cultivars include Austan, Bald Early, Gluclub, Joffre, Moira, Minflor, Strongbolt and Yanward. At the time of Pye's death it was estimated that in the previous ten years his cultivars had added five million bushels to Victoria's production.

Pye's objective was to produce cultivars suitable for moderate and low rainfall areas and capable of producing the highest-grade food products, in both bread and durum wheats. His early work showed he had some understanding of Mendelian principles before the rediscovery of Mendel's publication on inheritance in the early 1900s. He realized the importance of good husbandry, and the need for a better understanding of the physiology of tolerance to drought, frost hardiness and varietal adaptability. In regard to adaptability he sought, and obtained, the co-operation of farmers in many areas of Victoria and other States.

Maintaining a correspondence with overseas breeders, Pye acquired material for his programmes from worldwide sources. He also exchanged material with breeders in Australia, including Farrer, and with the Victorian vegetable pathologist, D. McAlpine. Pye was a member of the Victorian Wheat Improvement Committee, established in 1908. At Dookie he maintained nurseries of oats, barley, sorghums and millets, and attempted intergeneric crosses between wheat and other cereals. He wrote on agricultural education, pastures and fodder plants, trees on farms, olive production and poultry. These studies were published in the Journal of the Department of Agriculture, Victoria, in 1902-17, in earlier departmental reports of 1897-1900, and in his 1921 report published by the Council for Agricultural Education. Pye was a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society of England, nominated by Sir Ferdinand Mueller.

Hugh Pye has been described as quiet, shy, kindly and charming. He was lightly built, bearded, and 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall. Although not fluent, he always spoke with sincerity. His wide interests and generous disposition made him a genial companion and a delightful host. He was a president and life member of the Yorick Club. His sincerity of purpose and intellectual honesty have stimulated generations of students and agricultural scientists.

On 10 February 1892 at Hawthorn Pye married Jane Menzies Tough, who predeceased him. He died at Armadale, Melbourne, on 22 August 1942 and was cremated. Two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Aldridge, Dookie College. The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1986)
  • H. J. Sims, ‘Wheat breeding in Victoria. Some historical notes’, Victorian Crops Research Institute, Australian Wheat Breeding Today, Special Supplement to the Treatise of the 3rd Assembly of the Wheat Breeding Society of Australia, Aug 1980 (Victorian Crops Research Institute, Longerenong, Victoria, 1980)
  • Journal of Agriculture (Victoria), 40, Nov 1942
  • Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, 49, Nov 1938, p 583, Dec 1938, p 649, 50, June 1939, p 308
  • Department of Agriculture (New South Wales), Bulletin, 1937
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24, 25 Aug 1942
  • Shepparton News, 27 Aug 1942
  • Pye papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • a list of Pye's publications is in his ADB file
  • private information.

Citation details

H. J. Sims, 'Pye, Hugh (1860–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 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

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