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Colin Malcolm Donald: 1910-1985

Colin Donald was Waite Professor of Agronomy at the University of Adelaide from 1954 to 1973, succeeding Professor H.C. Trumble, the first Professor of Agronomy in Australia. Previously he had been with CSIRO. Between 1934 and 1940 he was stationed at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute in Adelaide working on mineral deficiencies in pastures and strain evaluation in subterranean clover. Between 1942 and 1954 he worked on a wide range of problems at the Division of Plant Industry in Canberra. He became Assistant Chief of the Division and left his mark on the field work CSIRO was conducting at the time, and on the research scientists in the Division.

During 1941 and 1942, he held a Pawlett Scholarship of the University of Sydney and studied in the United States of America, Britain and New Zealand. His sojourn in Professor J.E. Weaver’s laboratory at Nebraska stimulated his thinking on competition and had a lasting influence. His meeting in Britain with George Stapleton and William Davies stimulated his thinking about the role of forage legumes and the use of nitrogen fertilizer on pastures; in New Zealand his contact with Bruce Levy furthered his interest in management and ecology.

Prof. Donald wrote extensively on various aspects of crop and pasture growth. He wrote well, with enjoyment and always presented a positive side of his topic. Perhaps one of his most widely read publications was “Pastures and Pasture Research” first published in 1941 by the University of Sydney. Originally delivered as a series of lectures at the university, they were revised and reprinted several times and for many years served as a reference for pasture agronomists around Australia.

Of the most widely cited contributions, the following deserve mention. The article in the Advances in Agronomy in 1963 “Competition among Crops and Pasture Plants,” was based on a series of lectures given at Cornell University during study leave. It has been compulsory reading for many students and is still widely quoted. The 1964 Farrer Memorial Oration “The progress of Australian agriculture and the role of pastures in environmental change,” which appeared in the Aust. J. Sci (1965) 27: 187-198, and the chapter on “Innovations in Australian agriculture,” which appeared in D.B. Williams (1981) “Agriculture in the Australian Economy” (pp 57-86), develop the same line of thinking. They give a wide ranging account of the role of pastures in Australian agriculture and put in perspective the development of farming in southern Australia.

Prof. Donald will probably be remembered, most of all, for his introduction of the concept of the ideotype. First proposed at the 3rd International Wheat Genetics Symposium in Canberra in 1968, it was received coolly by cereal breeders at the time. The arguments that ensued lead Donald to embark on a breeding programme which he carried on into his retirement and culminated in the publication in 1979 of the paper “A barley breeding programme based on ideotype” (J. Agric. Sci. Camb. 93: 261-69). Nowadays, the word ideotype is accepted in the vocabulary of breeders/agronomists, alongside genotype and phenotpype and appears regularly in the literature.

As well as his contributions in scientific journals, Donald wrote many review articles. These were like a breath of fresh air in the literature. They not only put work in perspective but they contained a significant element of original thought; they were invariably well written and therefore were widely read. In this respect his writing will stand the test of time and his influence has extended beyond his lifetime and beyond Australia.

In 1964 he took the initiative that led to the establishment of the A. W. Howard Memorial Trust. The aims of the Trust were firstly to commemorate the pioneering work on subterranean clover by Amos Howard, a farmer near Littlehampton, South Australia, and secondly to establish a fund to advance pasture development in Australia and particularly to help young pasture research workers. The Trust has been successful in meeting these objectives.

He had a warm personality. Any account of Colin Donald would not be complete without reference to his relationship with his postgraduate students during his years at the Waite Institute. He had a continuous succession of students of many different backgrounds. Although he was under considerable time pressure, he gave as much of himself as time permitted, and imparted something of his way of seeing things and thinking about agronomic problems. Many have gone on to successful careers of their own and they would readily attribute some of their success to Donald’s influence in shaping their attitudes and outlook.

This history was written by Walter R. Stern
1st PhD Student of Professor Colin Donald
Foundation Professor of Agronomy, UWA
President of ASA 1989/1990

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