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Joseph Garnett Wood (1900–1959)

by Ray Specht

This article was published:

Joseph Garnett Wood (1900-1959), botanist, was born on 2 September 1900 at Mitcham, Adelaide, eldest of four children of John Wood, baker's assistant, and his wife Susanna, née Garnett. From early childhood Joe enjoyed rambles on the Fleurieu Peninsula and, with Aborigines from Point McLeay mission, in the Coorong region; later he was to explore farther afield. He attended Unley High School and the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. At the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1922; M.Sc., 1928; D.Sc., 1933), he won a John Bagot medal for first-year botany and a John L. Young research scholarship. After graduating with honours in chemistry, he became a demonstrator in botany in 1923, simultaneously taking advanced courses in the subject and lecturing to senior students in plant physiology.

Influenced by Professor T. G. B. Osborn, Wood became interested in the mechanisms which enabled the survival of the semi-succulent chenopod vegetation in the parched inland and the sclerophyllous vegetation on the nutrient-poor soils in the Adelaide Hills. Awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship, in 1925-27 he carried out research at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1933), on photosynthesis. He returned to the University of Adelaide in October 1927. Osborn co-opted him and T. B. Paltridge, from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, to establish experimental plots at the Koonamore Vegetation Reserve. The research area, 240 miles (386 km) north-east of the city, had been set up by the university in 1926 in one of the most overgrazed portions of South Australia, to investigate regenerating arid-zone flora. The two men continued recording changes in plant life there for eleven years. Until the early 1950s, Wood's research was to focus on stomatal physiology and the biochemistry of native plants under water stress.

In 1928 Wood had been appointed lecturer-in-charge of the university's botany department. Using data from J. M. Black's The Flora of South Australia (1922-29), he compiled a description of the floristics and ecology of the mallee, which appeared in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1929. He was fascinated by the meeting of western and eastern Australian floras on Kangaroo Island, and published next year an analysis of the island's vegetation in Transactions. On 7 February 1931 at Christ Church, Yankalilla, he married with Anglican rites 18-year-old Joan Hazel.

Promoted to professor of botany on 1 January 1935, Wood was dean (1937-40, 1946-48) of the faculty of science and chairman (1956-59) of the board of research studies. He published his handbook The Vegetation of South Australia in 1937. The sharp disjunctions between savanna and sclerophyll vegetations on soils of contrasting nutrient levels, seen in the Mount Lofty Ranges, focused his attention on mineral nutrition of native plant communities. Interested in nitrogen metabolism of Atriplex (saltbush) in the arid zone, he collaborated with the plant biochemist A. H. K. Petrie, of the (Peter) Waite Agricultural Research Institute, to investigate nitrogen metabolism of agricultural plants. Although the work was truncated by Petrie's death in 1942, Wood contributed reviews to three international journals—Chronica Botanica (1942), Annual Review of Biochemistry (1945) and Annual Review of Plant Physiology (1953)—on the biochemistry of nitrogen and sulphur metabolism in pasture plants. He attracted the best minds from Australia and abroad to address the major factors affecting Australian vegetation—aridity and mineral nutrition. Under his direction postgraduate students tackled the metabolism of copper and zinc, and the role of molybdenum in nitrogen fixation in legumes.

Early in the 1940s Wood argued for the inclusion of biology in the high school science syllabus. To assist in the training of secondary science teachers he mounted a week's refresher course in biology in 1942, and presented a first-year course in the subject at night. Botany students at the university studied the South Australian vegetation in detail during field excursions. Second-year students, working alone or in pairs, were expected to produce both a species study and a small ecological survey. In their third year, they learned about the physico-chemical processes which operate within native plants in the field. 'Lateral thinking' was fostered in all undergraduate courses, and formed the basis for postgraduate research.

President (1942) of the Royal Society of South Australia, Wood was awarded its Sir Joseph Verco medal in 1944. The Royal Society of New South Wales gave him in 1952 the (W. B.) Clarke medal. He was a member of the (interim) council (1948-59) of the Australian National University, Canberra, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's advisory council (1950-56, 1959), and of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's advisory committee on arid-zone research (1952-59). Elected (1954) a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, he was founding president (1958) of the Australian Society of Plant Physiologists.

Despite the recognition Wood received as a result of his exceptional intellect and enthusiasm, he was an extremely anxious man and a chain-smoker. Before he delivered a lecture, to undergraduates or to scientific colleagues, his nervousness tormented him. Although his approach to staff and students appeared formal, students appreciated his constant interest, evident during his daily circuit of the department, and his challenging questions both in discussions and in examinations.

Wood conveyed his love of both nature and literature to his three daughters; the eldest recalled him reading to her (with appropriate voices) Shakespeare as well as Winnie the Pooh. He appreciated good conversation, food and wine, and developed a beautiful garden. As supporters of contemporary Australian art, he and his wife frequented Adelaide exhibitions and purchased many fine paintings. Survived by his wife and their daughters, he died of a coronary occlusion on 8 December 1959 at his home at Beaumont and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. L. Specht, 'Australia', in E. J. Kormondy and J. F. McCormick (eds), Handbook of Contemporary Developments in World Ecology (Westport, Connecticut, 1981)
  • Nature (London), 185, no 4709, 30 Jan 1960, p 282
  • Australian Academy of Science, Year Book, 1960, p 29
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 84, 1961, p 1.

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Citation details

Ray Specht, 'Wood, Joseph Garnett (1900–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 June 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

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