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Arthur Farquhar Webster (1906–1997)

by Jan Gammage

This article was published online in 2022

Arthur Webster, 1985

Arthur Webster, 1985

photo provided by family

Arthur Farquhar Webster (1906–1997), pharmaceutical veterinarian and company director, was born on 8 May 1906 at Burwood, Sydney, elder son of New South Wales-born parents Charles Farquhar Webster, pharmacist, and his wife Ellen Barrington, née Morris. Arthur grew up in Burwood, where as a boy he was almost blinded in one eye. In 1920 he went to Scots College, Bellevue Hill. He did well academically, represented the school in cricket and rugby union, was a prefect, and gained his Leaving certificate in 1923.

Working in his father’s pharmacy at Burwood in 1924, Webster enrolled as a pharmacy student at the University of Sydney. After qualifying in 1927, he registered as a pharmacist in December that year. An interest in bacteriology led him to a part-time apprenticeship with Francois Ray of Ray’s Vaccine Institute, and then to a partnership in Ray and Webster, bacteriologists. From Ray, he learnt the skills of vaccine development and manufacture, including for anthrax and pleuro-pneumonia, and how to ‘scale up’ cultures to increase the volume of vaccine produced. While working with Ray, he re-enrolled at the University of Sydney (BVSc, 1936) to study veterinary science, winning the William Cooper and Nephews prize for veterinary parasitology in 1935.

On 29 September 1938 at St James Church of England, Croydon, Webster married Eva Marion Knox, describing himself on his marriage certificate as a bacteriologist. At West Ryde, with help from his family, he had established Arthur Webster Pty Ltd in 1936. He was managing director and Eva the only other shareholder. In the 1940s growth in the company was slow. He did much of the work himself—his first technical employee was not appointed until early 1950—and he saved money by repurposing second-hand equipment. A forced relocation to Northmead in 1952 was a financial setback. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) elected him president in 1956, in which role it was predicted he would provide ‘sound advice and the point of view of a practical man’ (Australian Veterinary Journal 1956, 257). By mid-1974 two of his children, Arthur and Patricia, were on the company board.

Between 1975 and 1980 the annual sales revenue of Websters grew from $1.2 million to $2.65 million. In 1981, on his seventy-fifth birthday, Webster retired as managing director, and his son began modernising and expanding the company. Arthur senior remained involved, including through research, advice, and mentoring, until in 1993 the company, recognised nationally and internationally, was sold to American Cyanamid. By then Websters had produced seven global-first vaccines, while many of its medicines and vaccines became standard. Through developing new technology and collaborating with officials in departments of agriculture and researchers in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), by learning from and sharing his own experience and research, and by testing established ideas, Webster had inspired his workforce to adapt quickly to new technologies and research outcomes for manufacture, production, and distribution.

Webster’s work focused on local diseases holding back the livestock industry, and on developing vaccines for diseases in poultry. He assisted the growth of professional veterinary practice by making products more available, particularly for dogs and cats; one notable success was the company’s rapid development of a vaccine for a new canine parvovirus in 1979. His financial and other support for institutions, including the AVA and the University of Sydney’s veterinary science faculty—where his portrait by Reg Campbell was hung outside a lecture theatre named after him—reflected his commitment to research and education. The Australian branch of the World’s Poultry Science Association gave Webster the Australian poultry award for 1980, and in 1981 the AVA awarded him the Gilruth prize. Official recognition came when he was appointed AM in 1985. In 1990 his alma mater awarded him an honorary doctorate in veterinary science. An Arthur Webster oration was given in 1994 by CSIRO’s Alan Donald on behalf of the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists. A fellow and life fellow of the ACVS, he was made a life fellow of the AVA in 1994.

A big, dark-haired man, Webster did not feel the need to fill a silence or join a conversation, gaining a reputation as a ‘man of few words,’ although with ‘a dry crackling wit and a twinkle in his eye’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1997, 120). ‘He wouldn’t have a conversation with you,’ recalled Gladys Corey, the cousin of his wife, adding ‘I don’t think it was shyness, I think he was a very studious fellow, all the time thinking more about what he was doing’ (Corey 1993). Often till late at night, he read professional journals, played the organ, and watched sport on television, especially wrestling. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1985) and one child, and survived by their two daughters and one son, he died on 24 August 1997 at Northmead and was cremated. Described as ‘an icon of the veterinary profession,’ he was ‘a man of vision and a true Australian pioneer’ (Australian Veterinary Journal 1997, 613).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Veterinary Journal. ‘A. F. Webster, B.V.Sc.’ 32, no. 10 (October 1956): 257
  • Australian Veterinary Journal. ‘Vale Arthur Webster.’ 75, no. 9 (September 1997): 613
  • Corey, Gladys. Interview with Jan Todd, 1993. Personal papers of Patricia Lawson. Copy held by the author
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Arthur Webster.’ 30 August 1997, 120
  • Webster, Arthur C., Peter Claxton, Leigh Schwartzkoff, and former Websters staff and associates. Websters—Where There’s a Will There’s a Way: An Australian Pioneer in Veterinary Vaccines 1928–1993. Milsons Point, NSW: Farquhar Enterprises, 2020
  • Webster, Arthur C. Personal communication

Citation details

Jan Gammage, 'Webster, Arthur Farquhar (1906–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Webster, 1985

Arthur Webster, 1985

photo provided by family