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Walter Lawry Waterhouse (1887–1969)

by Keith O. Campbell

This article was published:

Walter Lawry Waterhouse (1887-1969), agricultural scientist, was born on 31 August 1887 at West Maitland, New South Wales, third son of John Waterhouse, a Tasmanian-born schoolteacher, and his wife Hephzibah, née Lawry, a New Zealander. Walter was educated at Sydney Boys' High School where his father was headmaster (1896-1915). After two years commercial experience, he entered Hawkesbury Agricultural College, gaining its diploma in 1907. He was headmaster of a Methodist high school in Fiji before enrolling in 1911 in the new agricultural science course at the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1914); he graduated with first-class honours and the University medal.

In 1915 Waterhouse declined the 1851 Exhibition science scholarship, opting instead to enlist in the 2nd Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 21 June. Commissioned in December, he sailed for Egypt in January 1916. Crossing to France with his battalion, he attended a bombing school and was awarded the Military Cross for 'conspicuous gallantry in the capture of an enemy's strong post' at Pozières in July. He was severely wounded in the shoulder in November and invalided home in January 1917.

Awarded the Walter and Eliza Hall agriculture research fellowship in 1918, Waterhouse attended the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, and obtained its diploma (1921). He returned to Sydney via the United States of America, spending some time at the University of Minnesota where he developed a lifelong association with Elvin Charles Stakman, a notable rust researcher. In 1921 Waterhouse was appointed lecturer in agricultural botany (as well as plant pathology, genetics and plant breeding in 1923) at the university under (Sir) Robert Watt. On 6 September 1924 Waterhouse married with Presbyterian forms Dorothy Blair Hazlewood in her father's house at Epping; they were to have three daughters.

Centring his research interests on the cereal rusts, Waterhouse pioneered the assessment of annual changes in their pathogenic variability and demonstrated that new races of rust could arise on the alternative hosts of both stem and leaf rust of wheat, namely Berberis vulgaris and Thalictrum sp. respectively. His investigations indicated the importance of Australian grasses as hosts in the persistence over the summer of economically important rusts. In 1929 the University of Sydney's first doctorate in agriculture was conferred upon him for a thesis on Australian rusts.

Waterhouse is chiefly remembered by Australian farmers for producing successful wheat varieties which he bred for rust resistance, baking quality and yield. In 1937 he released the varieties Hofed and Febweb which rapidly gained acceptance among wheat-farmers especially on the north-west slopes of New South Wales. The variety Gabo, released in 1945, had the greatest impact: it became for a time the leading wheat variety grown in Australia and also gave high yields in other countries, such as Mexico.

Influencing three decades of students, Waterhouse was a severe taskmaster who refused to tolerate shoddy work. The essence of his approach to teaching was captured by his colleague Professor Eric (Lord) Ashby:

He brought to lecture room and laboratory an austere integrity, a quiet dedication to the training of agricultural scientists which touched even the less sensitive of his students and made a life-long impression on those who fully appreciated his talents. There was a gravitas about his whole approach to teaching which influenced colleagues and students alike. The secret of his success was that for him the scientific career and the upright life were indivisible.

Appointed reader in agriculture in 1937, Waterhouse became research professor in 1946. Although a prodigiously hard and methodical worker, he did not involve his undergraduate students directly in his evolving research interests. The laboratory tasks he set them could never be completed within the scheduled hours which caused conflict with other members of staff when students were absent from their classes.

Active in scientific circles, Waterhouse was an executive-member of the Australian National Research Council and of the State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; he was also president of the Linnean (1935) and Royal (1937) societies of New South Wales, and of section K (agriculture) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1939). He was awarded the Farrer (1938 and 1949) and (W. B.) Clarke (1943) memorial medals, the local Royal Society (1948) and Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1949) medals, and the James Cook medal (1952); in addition, he received the first E. C. Stakman award of the University of Minnesota in 1956. Appointed C.M.G. in 1955, Waterhouse was a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1954) and the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1960).

Dignified and self-effacing, kind and dedicated, Waterhouse showed a devotion to his family which carried over to his relationships with his students, by whom he was affectionately (though confidentially) known as 'Wally'; he took a personal interest in their careers and was willing to give them advice whenever they sought it. Quietly spoken, he embodied courtesy and good manners: no man, so far as is known, ever succeeded in following Waterhouse through a doorway, no matter how hard he tried. Despite his modesty and gentle ways, he was a man of action and determination when occasion demanded it.

Upon his retirement in December 1952, the university's research committee acknowledged his 'outstanding' contribution. Waterhouse then spent time in writing up his research which had been set back by his heart attack in 1942. Survived by his wife and daughters, he died at Concord on 9 December 1969 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 45, pt 3, 1971, p 260
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 2, no 3, Nov 1972, p 76
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Dec 1952
  • Times (London), 15 Jan 1970
  • K. O. Campbell, ‘Emeritus Professor W. L. Waterhouse—an obituary’, Professorial Board minutes, 15 Dec 1969 (University of Sydney Archives).

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Citation details

Keith O. Campbell, 'Waterhouse, Walter Lawry (1887–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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