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Francis Noble Ratcliffe (1904–1970)

by John Warhurst

This article was published:

Francis Noble Ratcliffe (1904-1970), ecologist and conservationist, was born on 11 January 1904 at Calcutta, India, son of Samuel Kirkham Ratcliffe, journalist, and his wife Katie Maria, née Geeves. Francis was educated at Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, England, and at Wadham College, Oxford (B.A., 1925), where he studied under (Sir) Julian Huxley and obtained first-class honours in zoology. After graduating, he spent a year at Princeton University, New Jersey, United States of America, as a J. E. Proctor visiting fellow.

Following a period in London with the Empire Marketing Board, Ratcliffe was brought to Australia in 1929 by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to study flying foxes in Queensland and northern New South Wales. He returned to Britain in 1932 to take up a post as assistant in the zoology department at the University of Aberdeen. His affection for the Australian bush drew him back to Australia in 1935 to work for the C.S.I.R. in a free-ranging position which the chief executive officer Sir David Rivett described as 'biological scout'. Travelling from his base in Melbourne, he researched wind-erosion in north-eastern South Australia and south-western Queensland, and came to the favourable attention of C.S.I.R.'s senior staff. At College Church, Parkville, on 14 January 1936 he married with Presbyterian forms Agnes, daughter of Professor Sir John Marnoch of Aberdeen.

In 1937 Ratcliffe moved to Canberra, where he had been appointed senior research officer in C.S.I.R.'s division of economic entomology. His field-research formed the basis of his classic, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand (London, 1938). The book demonstrated his capacity for lively and clear prose, his eye for a sparkling phrase, and his ability to portray people, native animals and the bush. On 21 May 1942 he was commissioned acting captain in the Militia. Transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 31 August, he was promoted temporary major and appointed assistant-director of entomology at Land Headquarters in May 1943. He travelled extensively in the South-West Pacific Area, directing the fight against malaria, scrub typhus and dengue fever. On 6 December 1945 he was placed on the Reserve of Officers.

Ratcliffe returned to C.S.I.R. and carried out research on termites before accepting a new challenge as officer-in-charge of the wildlife survey section in the recently formed (1949) Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Remembered as 'a good-looking, charming Englishman', he was for more than a decade the leading figure in attempts to control the number of Australia's rabbits. With Professor Frank Fenner of the Australian National University, he conducted field-studies to test the introduction of the myxoma virus. They described their work in Myxomatosis (Cambridge, 1965). During this controversial period of rural politics, critics accused the scientific community of dragging its feet. Ratcliffe's chief adversary was Dame Jean Macnamara who, he self-deprecatingly said, regarded him as 'a boil on the bum of progress'.

Given his visionary plans for the conservation of Australia's natural heritage, Ratcliffe grew frustrated that so few resources were available for wildlife research and showed that he was uncomfortable with bureaucratic ways. In 1961 he returned to his former division as assistant-chief. While in this post, he made an enduring contribution through his role as founding spirit and honorary secretary (from 1964) of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Increasingly released from his duties at C.S.I.R.O., he drove the new and independent A.C.F. with dogged determination. He used his network of friends, acquaintances in high places and scientific colleagues to bring together the necessary people and funds. To this end, he needed to win over the 'hot-shots' and to tolerate the 'small-time, emotional conservationists'. From small beginnings the foundation progressed steadily at a time of limited but growing consciousness of conservation issues. Ratcliffe was a perfectionist. He insisted that the foundation's publications should always be of the highest scientific quality and wrote a number of them himself, including the very first, on the conservation of kangaroos.

The nascent conservation movement contained a diverse range of individuals—scientists, grass-roots amateurs, government officials and business leaders—with differing viewpoints. Ratcliffe was not always easy to work with, and was increasingly troubled by ill health. Much of his energy was spent in finding appropriate senior staff and the funds to employ them, which entailed constant negotiations with the Commonwealth government for grants. His dislike of organizational necessities, suspicion of '''front-room'' boys' and impatience with those who did not share his vision led to numerous conflicts. His moods ranged from the deepest pessimism to extraordinary optimism. At the same time, his humility and care for his colleagues won him many lasting friends.

In 1957 Ratcliffe was appointed O.B.E. The A.N.U. conferred on him an honorary D.Sc. in 1968. He was president of the Ecological Society of Australia in 1963-64. In January 1969 he retired from the C.S.I.R.O. and in October 1970 relinquished his formal connexions with the A.C.F. He continued to act as technical adviser to the House of Representatives Select Committee on Wildlife Conservation. Survived by his wife and twin daughters, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 2 December 1970 in Canberra Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Zwar, The Dame (Melb, 1984)
  • B. Broadbent, Inside the Greening (Melb, 1999)
  • B. Coman, Tooth and Nail (Melb, 1999)
  • Australian Conservation Foundation, Newsletter, vol 3, no 1, Feb 1971
  • Search (Sydney), vol 2, no 3, Mar 1971, p 74
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 10, no 1, June 1994, p 1
  • J. Warhurst, 'The Australian Conservation Foundation: The Development of a Modern Environmental Interest Group', Environmental Politics, vol 3, no 1, Spring 1994, p 68
  • Quadrant, Jan-Feb 1998, p 20
  • Canberra Times, 3 Dec 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Dec 1970
  • Ratcliffe papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Warhurst, 'Ratcliffe, Francis Noble (1904–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 January, 1904
Kolkata, West Bengal, India


2 December, 1970 (aged 66)
Acton, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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