Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Apperley Norton Robertson (1874–1939)

by Norah L. Killip

This article was published:

William Apperley Norton Robertson (1874-1939), veterinary scientist, was born on 25 November 1874 at St Kilda, Melbourne, son of Robert Robertson, a surgeon from England, and his Geelong-born wife Joanna Kate, née Norton. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1886-89) and Longerenong Agricultural College, where he was dux (1893), he won the W. T. Kendall scholarship to Melbourne Veterinary College. He completed one year before seeking practical experience on a farm, returning to his studies in 1896 and graduating in 1898. He then set up practice at St Kilda and was appointed veterinary inspector and meat inspector to the St Kilda City Council. He also lectured at the Veterinary, Working Men's, Dookie Agricultural and Wesley colleges, and edited the first volume of the Australian Veterinary Journal (1901). On 15 June 1904 he married Agnes Maud Ferne at Christ Church, St Kilda.

In 1906 he joined the State public service as a veterinary officer in the Department of Agriculture, and in 1910 was appointed acting chief veterinary officer. Next year he graduated B.V.Sc., from the University of Melbourne, and began his long association with the faculty. In 1913 he became chief quarantine officer (animals) for Victoria, and was a delegate to the Tenth International Veterinary Congress, London, abandoned on the outbreak of World War I.

Chief inspector of stock in Victoria from 1916, Robertson was the ideal choice as the Commonwealth appointee to a board charged with containing rinderpest which, in November 1923, had appeared in cattle in Western Australia. Many farmers refused to acknowledge the danger to the country's industry. It fell to Robertson to isolate affected herds and rigorously enforce regulations. His quiet manner and shrewd determination won the day. Two hundred officers were needed to patrol day and night and to check herds weekly. All stock within a mile of infected herds were slaughtered and farmers compensated. The State was declared clear by March 1924. For a thesis on rinderpest Robertson received his doctorate in 1925 from the University of Melbourne where he lectured (1922-25) part-time on animal husbandry.

He was appointed first director of veterinary hygiene, Commonwealth Department of Health, in July 1926. President of both the Australian Veterinary Association (1924-26) and the Veterinary Association of Victoria (1924-25), he was a frequent contributor to technical journals, especially the Journal of the Department of Agriculture (Victoria), and the press. He gave the first Kendall oration in Canberra in 1930. In 1932 he was president of the veterinary science section of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.

Robertson oversaw programmes of tick eradication, and influenced legislation for uniform quarantine laws. He was foundation treasurer (1918) of the Red Poll Cattle Breeders' Association of Australasia before it became a federal organization. He was also prominent in establishing the Cattle Compensation Fund.

'Robbie', as he was generally known, was a quiet man with a strong character and a marked sense of humour. On leave prior to retirement, he died at home in Elsternwick of atherosclerotic disease on 11 October 1939 and was cremated. His wife, a son, and twin daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Health (Canberra), June 1939, p 82
  • Australian Veterinary Journal, 15, no 6, Dec 1939, p 270
  • Australian Journal of Science, 2 (1939), p 78
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 May 1938
  • Australian Academy of Science Library card index
  • Melbourne Veterinary College, graduates file
  • private information.

Citation details

Norah L. Killip, 'Robertson, William Apperley Norton (1874–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 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]


25 November, 1874
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


11 October, 1939 (aged 64)
Elsternwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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