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Helen Alma Turner (1908–1995)

by Doug McCann

This article was published:

Helen Alma Newton Turner (1908–1995), animal geneticist and statistician, was born on 15 May 1908 at Lindfield, Sydney, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born parents Alphonse Joseph Newton Turner, public servant, and his wife Jessie, née Bowmaker. Helen’s mother was one of the University of Sydney’s early women graduates, being awarded a BA (1901) in philosophy and French, and winning the university medal in French. Educated at Bowral Public and Parramatta High schools to Leaving certificate standard, Helen excelled in mathematics. Unaware that science offered women career possibilities other than teaching, she undertook an architecture degree at the University of Sydney (BArch Hons, 1930).

Messrs Kent and Massie, Architects, employed her for twelve months at the peak of the Depression, but did not then offer her a professional position. Newton Turner, as she was known, stayed on doing office work, while learning shorthand and typing at the Metropolitan Business College. After working at the Board of Optometrical Registration as a clerk, in August 1931, in a move she later regarded as the most fortunate in her career, she gained employment as secretary to (Sir) Ian Clunies Ross at the Sydney-based F.D. McMaster Animal Health Laboratory, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Clunies Ross was fostering a major expansion of fundamental genetics research in Australia.

Newton Turner became interested in the comparatively new discipline of statistical analysis applied to agricultural experiments, and she furthered her knowledge by enrolling in evening classes in statistics at the University of Sydney. In 1938 Clunies Ross, recognising her potential, arranged for her to study quantitative genetics with the founder of agricultural statistics and pioneer of the ‘application of statistical procedures to the design of scientific experiments’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica n.d. (Sir) Ronald Fisher, at the Galton Laboratory, University College, London. She also worked part time with Frank Yates, head of statistics at Rothamsted Agricultural Experimental Station, Hertfordshire.

In September 1939 Newton Turner left Britain and spent ten weeks in the United States of America visiting sheep research laboratories. Returning to the McMaster Laboratory, she was appointed technical officer and consulting statistician. In 1940, with the marine biologist Isobel Bennett, she helped form the University Women’s Land Army. After Japan entered the war Newton Turner worked as a statistician in the Department of Home Security, Canberra, and from early 1943 with Clunies Ross who was director of scientific personnel at the Manpower Directorate. In 1944 she was employed part time at the McMaster Laboratory and when the war ended returned to a full-time position as consulting statistician, Division of Animal Health and Production, CSIR (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization from 1949).

This was the beginning of Newton Turner’s long and productive career in wool research that included merino sheep breeding experiments at Cunnamulla, Queensland, and Armidale and Deniliquin, New South Wales. In 1951 she aroused the interest of wool growers when she published a statistical analysis showing that genetic inheritance accounted for over 30 per cent of variation in fleece weight. This finding challenged graziers’ thinking about how to select sheep for breeding. Experimental and statistical work on twinning in sheep produced spectacular increases in reproduction rates. Newton Turner went overseas for a year in 1954. Visiting India, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal, she studied sheep-breeding methods and visited animal-breeding laboratories.

In 1956 Newton Turner was appointed senior principal research scientist and invited to lead a group in the Division of Animal Health and Production where she was responsible for all sheep-breeding research. She also initiated work on the heritability of different characteristics of wool, including wool weight, crimp number, fibre diameter, staple length, and follicle density. For these data assessments she introduced rigorous objective measuring procedures in contrast to the traditional subjective methods of judging characteristics by eye. Stud breeders and wool classers were slow to adopt these new quantitative methods but they eventually adapted as yields markedly improved and wool began to be sold by measurement.

Described as ‘tall, vivacious, and bright-eyed’ (Sun 1939, 14), Newton Turner travelled extensively in Australia where she gave seminars, talked to breeders, and became well known in country areas, lecturing and broadcasting on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Country Hour. She published over one hundred scientific papers and her 1969 textbook, Quantitative Genetics in Sheep Breeding, co-authored with Sydney Young, became an international standard reference. From the 1950s to the late 1980s she led delegations overseas and was involved in a wide range of breeding programs globally. She visited countries in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. In 1970 she was awarded a DSc by the University of Sydney for her thesis, ‘Quantitative Genetics in Sheep Breeding (1937–69).’

Newton Turner retired in 1973 and in the following year became the first woman to receive the Farrer Memorial Trust’s medal. A foundation fellow (1975) of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences, she was appointed OBE in 1976 and AO in 1987. In retirement she continued her involvement in wool research, sometimes attending conferences. Although having little time for personal pursuits, she expressed interest in cooking and photography. Unmarried, she died on 26 November 1995 at Chatswood, Sydney, and was cremated. A humble woman who deprecated her own achievements, she was recognised worldwide as an outstanding experimental scientist and theoretician. Her memory is perpetuated by the Helen Newton Turner Medal, established in 1993 by the Association for the Advancement of Animal Breeding and Genetics. Her account of her travels, And Yonder Lies, was published posthumously.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Allen, Nessy. ‘The Contributions of Two Australian Women Scientists to Its Wool Industry.’ Prometheus 9, no. 1 (1991): 81–92
  • Allen, Nessy. ‘Helen Newton Turner and the Wool Industry.’ Journal of Australian Studies 33 (1992): 56–62
  • Allen, Nessy, ‘Scientist Found the Golden Fleece.’ Australian, 5 December 1995, 19
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization Archives. Helen Newton Turner—Records 1950–1988
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. ‘Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher.’ Accessed 15 August 2019. Copy held on ADB file
  • Moyal, Ann, ed. Portraits in Science. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1994
  • National Library of Australia. MS 3987, Helen Newton Turner Records, 1953–1973
  • Newton Turner, Helen. And Yonder Lies: Travel Memoirs of a Remarkable Scientist. Roseville, NSW: Loma Newton Priddle, 1996
  • Sun (Sydney). ‘This Girl Likes Figures.’ 24 December 1939, 14

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Citation details

Doug McCann, 'Turner, Helen Alma (1908–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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