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Yeates, Neil Tolmie (1915–1996)

by Nathan Wise

This article was published online in 2020

This is a shared entry with Marjory Forsyth Yeates

Neil Tolmie Macrae Yeates (1915–1996), agricultural scientist, and Marjory (Marnie) Forsyth Yeates (1922–2001), botanist, were husband and wife. Neil was born on 24 November 1915 at Toowoomba, Queensland, youngest of five surviving children of Queensland-born parents Herbert Yeates, auctioneer, and his wife Margaret Ann McNeil, née Tolmie. Herbert was a stock and station agent who as a Country Party member represented East Toowoomba in the Legislative Assembly of Queensland from 1938 until his death in 1945. Neil attended North Toowoomba Boys’ State School and then Toowoomba Grammar School, where he was a senior prefect and captained the cricket and rugby union teams.

On finishing school, Yeates was faced with a decision either to join his father’s stock and station agency, or to follow his four older brothers to university. He compromised, deciding to study agricultural science, majoring in animal nutrition, at the University of Queensland (BScAgr, 1940). He later reflected that his decision allowed him both to take a degree, thus ‘maintaining the current family tradition,’ and to pursue his ‘deep interest in and love of the land—particularly the pastoral industry’ (Yeates [1979], 99). After completing his degree, in early 1940 he became agriculture master at The Armidale School in New South Wales. Shortly after, however, he left to take up a Robert Philp research scholarship at the University of Queensland, where he worked under Douglas H. K. Lee, the professor of physiology, on ways to protect poultry during periods of heat.

During this research, Yeates simultaneously applied for the Walter and Eliza Hall travelling fellowship, and for entry into the navy. He succeeded in both applications, so arranged a deferment of his fellowship. Commissioned in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve on 9 June 1941, he trained in anti-submarine warfare at HMAS Rushcutter, Sydney, before proceeding to Britain. His entire operational service in World War II was aboard the destroyer HMS Havelock in the North Atlantic, escorting convoys and hunting submarines. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1942 and two years later became the ship’s executive officer (second-in-command). As the war neared a close, he visited the University of Cambridge to investigate the possibility of future postgraduate study. Back in Australia in 1945, he was demobilised on 14 November.

While based in Sydney, Yeates had fortuitously met another agricultural scientist, (Sir) Robert Dickie Watt, and commenced a close friendship with Watt’s daughter, Marnie. The only child of Scottish-born Watt and his locally born wife Marjorie Dymock, née Forsyth, Marnie was born on 17 June 1922 in Sydney. She was educated at ‘Chambli,’ Woollahra, and Ascham School, Edgecliff, before enrolling at the University of Sydney (BSc, 1945), commencing a bachelor of veterinary science degree but later transferring to science, with a major in botany. During the war years she took time out of her study to work near Cassilis in the Australian Women’s Land Army. While at the university, she played basketball, for which she won a Blue, and was president of the Students’ Representative Council. The relationship was put on hold while Neil served abroad, but he later remarked that contacting Marnie was his ‘first act’ on returning to Sydney (Yeates [1979], 132). The pair married on 20 October 1945 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church.

Arriving in England with Marnie in 1946, Neil began studying at the School of Agriculture, University of Cambridge (PhD, 1948), under the distinguished physiologist and agricultural scientist John Hammond. His research explored why British breeds of sheep lamb only during one season of the year. He hypothesised that this was due to the duration of daylight, and tested his theory by controlling the period of light available to an experimental group, while keeping a control group under regular levels of light. The result was that the experimental group came on heat, and eventually bred outside the normal breeding season. This was a ground-breaking discovery for the time. His findings were published in the journal Nature and his work was reported in newspapers in Britain and Australia. The research was not without its problems, as the lambs born out of season were substantially underweight, but he nonetheless wrote up the results in his thesis, and would set himself the task of addressing the weight issue on returning to Australia.

Taking a position with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (from 1949 the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), Neil moved with Marnie to Brisbane in 1948. He was tasked with determining the composition and quality of beef carcasses, but, although the research was satisfying, he was unhappy with the working environment. The couple bought a farm at Moggill, outside Brisbane, and in June 1950 he joined the physiology department at the University of Queensland, where he had been lecturing part time. He worked closely with the head of school, W. V. Macfarlane, while continuing to be employed by the CSIRO. While at the university, he addressed the problem of low birthweight lambs born out of season, and, having expanded his work to examine cattle, concluded that this was due to the effects of seasonal coat changes in the animals and their inability to tolerate heat. He prepared his research as a thesis, and the university awarded him the degree of doctor of agricultural science in 1957.

The same year the family moved to Armidale, where he became associate professor of livestock husbandry at the University of New England. In that post he continued his research on the effects of temperature on animals, focusing in particular on cattle, while also devising a system of measuring the conformation of beef carcasses. In 1964 he was appointed foundation professor of livestock husbandry, an accomplishment he later described as ‘a pinnacle in my career’ (Yeates [1979], 164). The same year Marnie took up positions at the university as demonstrator in the botany department and research assistant in the department of livestock husbandry; she later lectured in botany. After she was appointed principal of the university’s Mary White College in 1967, the couple lived there until both retired in 1977; the college named a common room after her. The following year Neil was named professor emeritus.

Throughout his career, Neil was active in promoting the activities of the Australian Society of Animal Production, having been a founding member and president of the Queensland branch. At Armidale numbers increased such that the Armidale sub-branch soon became independent, with Neil as president. Between 1966 and 1968 he served as federal president for the society and in 1978 he was elected a fellow.

In retirement, the Yeateses lived at Woolgoolga, near Coffs Harbour. They travelled extensively, Marnie served (1982–91) as a Coffs Harbour councillor, and Neil increasingly dedicated his time to writing history, publishing two family histories, a two-volume history of Coffs Harbour, and a history of Woolgoolga. He remained active in the local community, including as president of the Coffs Harbour Historical Society, until his death on 30 August 1996 at Coffs Harbour; he was buried in Woolgoolga lawn cemetery. Marnie died on 28 October 2001 at Randwick, Sydney, survived by their three sons and two daughters, and was also buried in Woolgoolga lawn cemetery. In 2002 she was appointed OAM.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Epps, Rosalind A. ‘Marnie F. Yeates (1922–2001): “A Mother, an Academic, a Shire Councillor, Deputy Mayor, Photographer, Artist, Environmentalist and Community Activist … A Woman of Incredible Strength, Intelligence and Foresight”—“A Visionary and a Leader.”’ In New England Lives IV, edited by J. S. Ryan and Warren Newman, 127–42. Armidale, NSW: University of New England in association with the Armidale and District Historical Society, 2011
  • Epps, Rosalind. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, YEATES N T M.
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, YEATES N T M.
  • National Archives of Australia. J1795, 4/598
  • Yeates, Neil. Stone on Stone: A Pioneer Family Saga. Coffs Harbour, NSW: Central North Coast Newspaper Co., [1979]

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nathan Wise, 'Yeates, Neil Tolmie (1915–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yeates-neil-tolmie-23071/text32344, published online 2020, accessed online 22 June 2021.

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