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John Stewart Turner (1908–1991)

by Linden Gillbank

This article was published:

John Stewart Turner (1908-1991), botanist, educator, and conservationist, was born on 9 September 1908 at Middlesbrough, England, third child of Thomas Stewart Turner, admiralty ordnance inspector, and his wife Ellen, née Spice. John’s enduring love of plants and landscapes began during family and school rambles. Educated at Sheffield Central Secondary School, he won a scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge (BA, 1930), where he gained first-class honours in botany. With a succession of scholarships and grants, he undertook plant physiological research (MA, 1934; PhD, 1935). A demonstrator then senior demonstrator in the Cambridge Botany School, he participated in British Ecological Society expeditions and organised Cambridge ecology expeditions.

In 1938 Turner succeeded Alfred Ewart as professor of botany and plant physiology at the University of Melbourne, adding up-to-date physiological and ecological expertise to a department whose trickle of research was predominantly in plant pathology. His interests and influence extended beyond the department. During his first summer, he organised the McCoy Society’s ecology expedition, discussed his physiological research at the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) meeting, witnessed the Black Friday bushfires, and joined the Royal Society of Victoria’s council (president, 1951-52). On 27 December 1939 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he married with Anglican rites Kathleen Maud Jones, a Cambridge graduand in botany.

During World War II the botany department focused on penicillin-producing moulds and other war-related projects. But Turner also organised plant respiration and photosynthesis research, initiated Maisie Fawcett’s ecological investigation of fire-exacerbated soil erosion in the forested Hume catchment, and helped to design a new science degree in forestry. He also ensured the study of biology in schools, which he described as an essential part of education for life, and presided over the new Science Teachers’ Association of Victoria.

As a founding member (1945) and chairman (1952-73) of the Maud Gibson Trust, Turner secured funding for essential projects for Melbourne’s (Royal) Botanic Gardens and National Herbarium of Victoria, including James Willis’s comprehensive A Handbook to Plants in Victoria (1962 and 1972), the herbarium’s journal, Muelleria, and the gardens’  annexe for Australian plants at Cranbourne.

After the war, Turner developed and diversified his plant biochemical research. A foundation member (1958) and president (1962) of the Australian Society of Plant Physiologists, he formed  a branch of the plant physiology unit which (Sir) Rutherford (Bob) Robertson had established at the University of Sydney in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Turner also established a CSIRO-supported brown coal pollen research unit.

Turner organised useful ecological projects, including water catchment forest research for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, and, as the Kiewa hydro-electric scheme was being constructed, annual vegetation surveys of Fawcett’s exclosures on the long-grazed Bogong High Plains for Victoria’s Soil Conservation Board and State Electricity Commission. Elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in 1956, he contributed to AAS committees and reports that were influential in restricting grazing in high mountain catchments and limiting Snowy Mountains hydro-electric engineering works.

To facilitate ecological research, Turner established a University of Melbourne field laboratory at Wilson’s Promontory in 1960. On field trips he was known for ‘his camaraderie, Gilbert and Sullivan doggerel and sense of fun’ (Ashton and Ducker 1993, 284), which contributed to a loyal and cohesive department.

Turner publicised conservation widely, supporting national, state, and local conservation groups. A foundation member (1952) of the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA), he edited and updated Judith Frankenberg’s Nature Conservation in Victoria: A Survey, which was published by the VNPA in 1971 in time for its use by the Victorian government’s new Land Conservation Council (LCC). He was foundation chairman (1960) of the landscape preservation council of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), a foundation member (1965-73) of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and a foundation member (1971-78) of the LCC.

In the 1960s conservation issues and university duties increasingly displaced Turner’s own research. He chaired the Melbourne University Press board of management and the university grounds committee. He was also chairman (1965-74) of the AAS committee on biological education, supervising the development of the textbook Biological Science: The Web of Life (1967) and related material which revolutionised secondary school biology across Australia.

In December 1973 Turner retired from a department hugely enriched and expanded during his thirty-five-year tenure. For his services to botany, he was appointed OBE in the New Year. As professor emeritus he devoted more time to the LCC and, especially after his 1982 move to Castlemaine, to his long-practised art. His scraperboard landscapes illustrated various publications. In 1987 he received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Melbourne.

Survived by his wife and two children, Turner died on 9 May 1991 at Heidelberg, Melbourne, and was cremated. The Turner lecture theatre and John S. Turner postgraduate scholarship at the University of Melbourne, and the Turner review series in the Australian Journal of Botany, commemorate an intellectual whose curiosity and concerns, wit and passion embraced the science and beauty of plants and landscapes, their conservation, and our education about them.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Ashton, David H., and Sophie C. Ducker. ‘John Stewart Turner 1908-1991.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 9 (1993): 279-290
  • Clifford, H. Trevor, ed. Cambridge—Castlemaine: A Tribute to John Stewart Turner on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday. St Lucia: Department of Botany, University of Queensland, 1988
  • Gillbank, Linden. From System Garden to Scientific Research: The University of Melbourne’s School of Botany under its First Two Professors (1906-1973). Parkville, Vic.: School of Botany, University of Melbourne, 2010
  • Pascoe, Gwen. ‘John Stewart Turner—Communicating Conservation.’ In Melbourne University Portraits: They Called it “The Shop”, 83-90. Parkville, Vic.: History Department, University of Melbourne, 1996
  • Weste, Gretna. ‘Obituary: Professor John Turner.’ Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 104 (1992): 99-100.

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Citation details

Linden Gillbank, 'Turner, John Stewart (1908–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 20 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1908
Middlesbrough, Middlesbrough, England


9 May, 1991 (aged 82)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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