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Ronald Harry Wharton (1923–1983)

by Beverley M. Angus

This article was published:

Ronald Harry Wharton (1923-1983), entomologist and parasitologist, was born on 14 April 1923 at Armidale, New South Wales, youngest of six children of New South Wales-born parents William Frank Wharton, schoolteacher at the Arding Public School, and his wife Grace Elizabeth, née Kilpatrick. Harry was educated at Lismore High School, New England University College, Armidale, and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1944; M.Sc., 1958), where he graduated with first-class honours in zoology and entomology. Late in 1943 he studied mosquito control in the entomology department, University of Queensland. Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 24 April 1944 and commissioned in July, he carried out malaria control duties in the Northern Territory, Papua, New Guinea and Borneo, before being demobilised as a flying officer in February 1946. During this time he collected disease vectors, including mosquitoes and simulids. In 1946-48 he was a teaching fellow in the department of zoology, University of Sydney.

In 1948 Wharton joined the British Colonial Service in Malaya as a medical entomologist. Based first at Tampin, on the west coast, he conducted field trials to test the efficacy of the residual insecticides DDT and benzenehexachloride (BHC) in malaria control. During leave in 1952, as a research fellow in the entomology department, London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, he analysed his findings with J. R. Busvine and showed that different species of mosquitoes demonstrated a marked variation in susceptibility to insecticides. This work formed the basis of his M.Sc. research.

Wharton elucidated the epidemiology of Brugian filariasis, a disease prevalent in South-East Asia. He and his colleagues established that its causative agent, the filarioid nematode Brugia malayi, endemic in the swamp forests of Malaya, was a zoonosis, transmitted by Mansonia species of mosquitoes to both humans and monkeys. They also achieved successful insecticide control of the mosquito vector with the chlorinated hydrocarbon, dieldrin, and chemotherapeutic treatment of the disease with diethylcarbamazine. A monograph on Brugian filariasis and its Mansonia vectors earned Wharton a Ph.D. (1960) from the University of Malaya in Singapore. That year he transferred to the Institute of Medical Research, Kuala Lumpur. In 1961 he was appointed a consultant to the first World Health Organization expert committee on filariasis; he later became a member of its panel on insecticides and of its committee on vector biology and control. The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene awarded him its Chalmers medal in 1967.

Appointed principal research officer with the division of entomology, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Wharton returned to Australia in 1963. He led a group of researchers, based at the Veterinary Parasitology Laboratory in Brisbane, who were investigating possible methods of cattle-tick control in northern Australia. With W. J. Roulston and others he sought to identify mechanisms of acaricide resistance exhibited by certain strains of ticks. Other studies related to the biology and heritability of tick resistance in cattle; Wharton strongly advocated the use by graziers of tick-resistant livestock. Active in the Entomological Society of Queensland, he was president in 1966. He was promoted to chief research scientist in 1968, and was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1973, of the Australian Society for Parasitology in 1981 and of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences in 1982.

In 1978-82 Wharton was officer-in-charge of the Centre for Animal Research and Development, Bogor, Indonesia, where CSIRO was managing a joint Indonesian and Australian project on animal health and production, funded by the Australian Development Assistance Bureau. On his return to CSIRO in Brisbane, he transferred to the division of tropical animal science. He was a member of the scientific and technical advisory committee of the United Nations Development Program, World Bank and WHO’s joint program for research and training in tropical diseases, and also was a consultant on ticks and tick-borne diseases at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. In 1982 he was appointed OBE.

An outstanding scientist and administrator, Wharton possessed an urbane and engaging manner. Always a keen sportsman, in his later years he played golf and at weekends worked energetically on his farm at Billinudgel, northern New South Wales. On 6 June 1953 at St Swithun’s Church of England, Pymble, Sydney, he had married Helen Mary Pulling, an architect. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he was killed on 18 September 1983 in a tractor accident on his farm and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Angus, Tick Fever and the Cattle Tick in Australia 1829-1996 (2003)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 293
  • private information.

Citation details

Beverley M. Angus, 'Wharton, Ronald Harry (1923–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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