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Skerman, Percival James (Percy) (1911–1998)

by Gail Clements

This article was published online in 2022

Percival James Skerman (1911–1998), agricultural scientist, was born on 19 March 1911 at Dalby, Queensland, third of eight surviving children of Queensland-born parents Percival James Skerman, farmer, and his wife Wilhelmina McDowall, née Mitchell, former schoolteacher. Raised on the family’s dairy and grain farm at nearby Kaimkillenbun, Percy attended the local State school (1916–24) and Toowoomba Grammar School (1924–26). He graduated from the Queensland Agricultural College, Gatton, with a first-class honours diploma in dairying in 1928, before studying agricultural science, and later arts part time, at the University of Queensland (BAgSc, 1932; MAgSc, 1936; BA, 1944; DAgSc, 1957). A keen sportsman, he was a good cricketer and tennis player.

From 1931 Skerman worked with the Fairymead Sugar Co. Ltd, Bundaberg, as a research officer. Two years later he was back at the Gatton college as agriculturalist, lecturer in microbiology, and resident master in Thynne House. On 8 September 1938 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, he married Joan Woodcraft Roberts, a law clerk. Rejected for military service in World War II because of his congenital deafness, in 1943 he joined the depleted staff of the Hawkesbury Agricultural College, Richmond, New South Wales, as lecturer in agrostology, microbiology, entomology, and plant pathology. He was also ‘sports master, master of residential discipline, leader of the western New South Wales tours for diploma year students and chairman of the Agricultural Bureau Conference’ (Shannon 1993, 61).

In 1945 Skerman returned to Queensland as agricultural resources officer with the newly created Bureau of Investigation, a unit of the Department of Public Lands; chaired by (Sir) John Kemp, it was responsible for surveying the land and water resources of the State and for assessing the potential for the development of agriculture. Travelling throughout Queensland, in 1948 Skerman drew the first detailed agricultural land-use map of the State and in 1951 a map outlining prospective wheat-growing regions. He also produced soil maps of the Burdekin River area and the Darling Downs, and assisted in many more mapping projects. The bureau’s work led to the joint Commonwealth-State Fitzroy Basin Brigalow Land Development Scheme that opened up an area of 11.2 million acres (4.5 million ha) of highly productive soils for closer settlement. During this time, he developed an extensive network of farming contacts that he was to retain and expand throughout his career.

Skerman was appointed as senior lecturer in the department of agriculture at the University of Queensland in 1953. In charge of the university’s wool research program, he undertook work on sorghum silage. His lectures focused on agronomy, world agriculture, and land use, and he organised farm tours for students. In 1961 he was promoted to reader and awarded a Carnegie Corporation of New York travel grant, enabling him to visit the United States of America, Europe, and Britain. Keen to further the development of agriculture in Queensland, he was more interested in training students and extending practical scientific knowledge to farmers and graziers than in undertaking basic research himself. As a result of his advice and encouragement, many graziers moved to develop arable farming in country long considered suitable only for pastoral activities. He was a champion of rural education and, as a member (1964–76) of the Queensland Department of Education’s rural training schools committee, he helped to identify suitable sites for these institutions, which were ultimately established at Longreach, Emerald, Ayr, and Dalby.

From 1954, when he had been a member of the four-person Anglo-Australian Rice Mission that advised the government of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on ways to increase production of the cereal, Skerman carried out assignments in many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and for the World Bank. It was, however, his outstanding contribution to the practice and productivity of agriculture in Queensland that mainly built his reputation. Having been appointed MBE (1959), he received the J. P. Thomson Foundation silver medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Queensland branch) and a rural achiever award from the newspaper Queensland Country Life (both 1985), and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Queensland (1987).

A member (1951–61, 1963–71) of the council of Emmanuel College (University of Queensland), Skerman was named an honorary foundation fellow in 1971. He was a stalwart of the Queensland Agricultural College Past Students’ Association and an enthusiastic supporter of the college, receiving its council’s inaugural gold medal in 1984. Active in professional organisations, he was a member of the Queensland branch of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (AIAS) (president 1951, fellow 1972, life member 1986), the Australian Society of Animal Production (president 1958, fellow 1978), and the Australian Society of Soil Science (president 1964).

Possessing prodigious energy, Skerman did not slow down after his retirement from the university in April 1976. He embarked on writing a mammoth centenary history, eventually published as The First One Hundred Years: Department of Primary Industries, Queensland, 1887–1987 (1998); with A. E. Fisher and P. L. Lloyd, he produced a shorter version, Guiding Queensland Agriculture, 1887–1987 (1988). For the FAO, he published Tropical Forage Legumes (1977) and, with F. Riveros, Tropical Grasses (1988, 1990). His Queensland Agricultural College (1991) covered the institution’s early history and development.

In addition to his literary endeavours, Skerman continued to work a small farm near Beaudesert that he had bought in the mid-1960s, intending to raise Sahiwal cattle, but the ‘effectiveness of the breeding venture was somewhat negated by the presence of a big Brahman bull on one boundary’ (Shannon 1993, 66). Thereafter, he fattened Santa Gertrudis steers for the Brisbane market. In 1981 Beaudesert Shire Council named a park after him in recognition of his contribution in providing land-use maps for the shire. Having, when young, helped clear land overgrown with prickly pear, he prevailed on the AIAS to establish a memorial to its biological control, in the form of a bronze sculpture by Rhyl Hinwood (1985), later housed at the Miles Historical Village and Museum.

Skerman had an engaging avuncular manner and a gentle sense of humour. A staunch member of the Presbyterian (later Uniting) Church, he was a lay preacher and active in church affairs. He and his wife were noted for their hospitality, and they continued to follow the careers of former students long after they had left university. In 1997 they moved to Box Hill North, Melbourne, to be closer to family. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 3 February 1998 at Kew and was cremated. His friend George Robertson wrote of the esteem in which he had been held by Queensland farmers, his former students, and people throughout the world.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Bulletin (Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, Queensland Branch). ‘Memorial to Biological Control Opened at Miles, QLD.’ No. 312 (November 1988): 3
  • Bulletin (Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, Queensland Branch). ‘Percy Skerman Awarded D.Sc.’ No. 306 (May 1988): 3
  • Chronicle (Toowoomba). ‘Cactoblastis Honoured in Bronze.’ 17 September 1985, 4
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Queensland Country Life. ‘Q’land Scientist a World Authority: Big Contribution to More Food for Hungry World.’ 25 March 1976, 31
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM606663
  • Robertson W. G. ‘A Champion of Rural Education.’ Chronicle (Toowoomba), 26 February 1998, 11
  • Shannon, Allan. Twentieth Century Profiles. Vol. 3. Bowen Hills, Qld: Boolarong Publications, 1993
  • University of Queensland Archives. UQA S135 Staff Files (mediated access)
  • Webb, Val. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Gail Clements, 'Skerman, Percival James (Percy) (1911–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skerman-percival-james-percy-17530/text29210, published online 2022, accessed online 6 July 2022.

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