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Eric John Underwood (1905–1980)

by R. J. Moir

This article was published:

Eric John Underwood (1905-1980), professor of agriculture, was born on 7 September 1905 at Harlington, Middlesex, England, youngest of three children of James Underwood, master harness-maker, and his wife Elizabeth Gilbert, née Lowe. When his wife died in 1907, James left their children with relations and migrated to Western Australia. He settled at Mount Barker. After a long period of correspondence, he persuaded Kate Taysom, a friend in England, to chaperon the children to Australia. They reached Fremantle on Eric's eighth birthday. James and Kate were married next day. Eric attended Mount Barker State, North Perth State and Perth Modern schools. In 1920 his father took up a block near Coorow, about 155 miles (249 km) north of Perth; Eric worked on the 1850-acre (749 ha) property during school holidays.

While serving a cadetship (from 1924) with the Department of Agriculture, Underwood studied at the University of Western Australia (B.Sc.Agric., 1928). He won the Norman Albert prize and the Amy Saw scholarship, came under the supervision of Professor J. W. Paterson in his final year and graduated with first-class honours. His thesis, a botanical and chemical study of Western Australian pastures, was published in 1929. Taking up a Hackett research studentship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1931), he continued investigating pasture growth, at the university's Animal Nutrition Institute. In 1931 he returned to the Department of Agriculture in Perth.

Appointed animal nutrition officer in 1933, Underwood engaged in research on 'Denmark wasting disease', a disorder that affected cattle and sheep. The cause of the disease was thought to be iron deficiency. Working with J. F. Filmer, a veterinary scientist skilled in pathology and haematology, Underwood concluded that the wasting disease was due to a lack of cobalt. Other researchers in South Australia, led by Hedley Marston, were investigating the same problem: in January 1935 they named cobalt as the deficient element. Underwood and Filmer reported their findings two months later.

At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Perth, on 23 June 1934 Underwood had married Erica Reid Chandler, a schoolteacher. With colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, he embarked on an examination of the poor pastures in the south-west and the wheat-belt of Western Australia, analysing the associated problems of low productivity, poor lambing percentages, pregnancy toxaemia and other symptoms of malnutrition in sheep. He also maintained his interest in trace elements, particularly cobalt, copper and manganese. After spending two years (from June 1936) at the University of Wisconsin, United States of America, on a Commonwealth Fund fellowship, he was invited to work at the University of Western Australia's institute of agriculture. There, with access to better facilities than in the Department of Agriculture, he began a series of experiments designed to increase the fertility of ewes.

From the 1930s farmers had planted subterranean clover to improve the quality of their soil and the nutritive value of their pastures. By 1943 a severe breeding problem was evident in sheep that grazed on clover-dominated pastures. Underwood chaired a committee—comprising scientists from the university, the Department of Agriculture, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research—to co-ordinate research. With H. W. Bennetts and F. L. Shier, he showed that the cause of the problem lay in naturally occurring oestrogens in the pastures. This work led to further investigations into the chemistry and biology of phyto-oestrogens, and their potency and metabolic effects.

In 1946 Underwood was appointed Hackett professor of agriculture, dean of the faculty and director of the university's institute of agriculture. The research and teaching activities of the institute gradually outstripped available resources. Underwood sought external funding. He gained support from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the Wool Research Trust Fund and local industry, and helped to set up the Soil Fertility Research Fund (1954) and the Wheat Industry Research Committee of Western Australia (1958). His paper, 'New Deal for Agriculture', which he presented to the university's administrators, resulted in additional staffing that benefited research and increased postgraduate numbers.

Underwood was an excellent lecturer whose logical manner of presentation made even the most complex material easily understood. In 1940 he had published a review on the significance of trace elements in nutrition (Nutrition Abstracts and Reviews, 9) which established him as a leader in the field. He expanded this article into a book, Trace Elements in Human and Animal Nutrition (New York, 1956), and revised it in 1962, 1971 and 1977. Another book, The Mineral Nutrition of Livestock (Aberdeen, Scotland, 1966), followed. In part, his success sprang from his capacity to concentrate totally on the task of the moment, and to be undisturbed by any interruption. He never wrote drafts in double spacing because his writing was so precise that he needed little room for corrections. With the exception of a few minor alterations, his first draft was usually his last.

Underwood had chaired (1946-59) the Tuberculosis Association of Western Australia and been federal president (1956-58) of the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis. In 1963 he was appointed C.B.E. In 1966 he was awarded the Farrer medal. After retiring from the university in 1970, he continued to serve (1966-75) on the executive of the C.S.I.R.O., wrote a number of chapters and papers, and lectured on a wide variety of subjects. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, London (1970), the Australian Academy of Science (1954), the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1958), the Australian Society of Animal Production (1970) and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences (1975). Honorary degrees were conferred on him by the universities of New England (D.Rur.Sc., 1967), Western Australia (D.Sc.Agric., 1969) and Wisconsin (D.Sc., 1980). He was appointed A.O. in 1976. Survived by his wife, and their two daughters and two sons, he died on 19 August 1980 in Royal Perth Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • University of Western Australia, University News, Dec 1970, p 1, Sept 1980, p 3
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 27, 1981, p 579
  • West Australian, 4 Jan 1971, 8 Aug 1979
  • Underwood papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

R. J. Moir, 'Underwood, Eric John (1905–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 May 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]


7 September, 1905
London, Middlesex, England


19 August, 1980 (aged 74)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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