Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Donald Edward Waters (1922–1974)

by David Huggonson

This article was published:

Donald Edward Waters

Donald Edward Waters

Private family collection

Donald Edward Waters (1922-1974), Aboriginal soldier and shearer, was born on 20 July 1922 at the Euraba Aboriginal Station, near Boomi, New South Wales, third child of Donald Waters, labourer, and his wife Grace, née Bennett, both born in New South Wales. His parents were of mixed Aboriginal and European descent. The boy was always known in the family as 'Jim', possibly to avoid confusion with his father. He attended Toomelah Aboriginal School until 1932 when the family moved to Nindigully, south-east of St George, Queensland, and he completed his education at the local one-teacher school.

At age 14 Waters started work with his father, ringbarking, fencing and yard building. He was later employed on Balagna station as a general labourer earning twelve shillings and six pence for a six-day week. To increase his income, he turned to contract shearing. On 9 July 1942 he was mobilized in the Militia, the authorities ignoring his Aboriginal features because of the extreme manpower shortage. Attached to the 4th Infantry Training Battalion, based at Warwick, in April 1943 he was removed from a jungle-warfare course as unsuitable. He immediately asked for a transfer to the Australian Imperial Force; his request was granted on 24 April.

While recovering from a fractured right hand suffered in May 1943, Waters volunteered to join a group of soldiers who were to be deliberately infected with malaria, under experimental conditions, in order to test the efficacy of different drugs in treating the disease. Volunteers were required to be physically fit, mentally stable, and free from venereal disease, asthma, jaundice and previous exposure to malaria. Clinical trials at Cairns and on the Atherton Tableland demonstrated the suppressive and curative powers of Atebrin, and led to measures that dramatically reduced the incidence of malaria among allied servicemen. Waters and his fellow human 'guinea pigs' were formally commended (1945) by the commander-in-chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey, 'for distinguished services in the South-West Pacific Area'.

In March 1944 Waters was fit enough to reattempt, and pass, jungle-warfare training. He was posted to the 2nd/23rd Battalion in May. Sailing from Cairns in April 1945, the unit took part in the landing on Tarakan Island, Borneo, on 1 May. The 2nd/23rd was involved in periods of heavy fighting to mid-June, and then in mopping-up operations until hostilities ceased on 15 August. Donald's younger brother Leonard (d.1993) flew Kittyhawks with No.78 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, in support of the troops on the ground in Borneo. From February 1946 to January 1947 Private Waters served in the 122nd Transport Platoon with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, Japan. He was discharged from the army on 18 February in Sydney.

Waters returned to northern New South Wales and resumed work as a shearer. At the Aboriginal Station, Boggabilla, on 23 May 1949 he married with Anglican rites 18-year-old Ruby Orcher. They later lived at Tamworth. Survived by his wife, and their two daughters and four sons, he died of respiratory failure on 16 September 1974 at Tamworth and was buried in the lawn cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Clinical Problems of War (Canb, 1952)
  • Chronicle (Toowoomba), 2 Dec 1981
  • war diary, 2/23rd Battalion, AWM 52, item 8/3/23 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Recognition Malaria Experiment Volunteers, AWM 119, item 77 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

David Huggonson, 'Waters, Donald Edward (1922–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 July 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

Donald Edward Waters

Donald Edward Waters

Private family collection

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1922
Boomi, New South Wales, Australia


16 September, 1974 (aged 52)
Tamworth, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.