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Australian Academy of Science
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

John Stewart Turner 1908-1991

By David H. Ashton and Sophie C. Ducker

Family Background and Education(1)

John Stewart Turner was born in Middleborough, England on 9 September 1908, second son of Thomas Stewart and Ellen Turner (née Spice). His father was a Government inspector of armour plate. Apart from an older brother he had one sister and two younger brothers. His early childhood was spent in Stockport, Cheshire, where the family lived in a big rambling house with a large garden wonderfully suited to playing games and going for secret walks.

John's first school was the Stockport Primary School in Cheshire. Here an elderly Scottish teacher encouraged him and was responsible for his getting a scholarship to secondary school, namely the Boys' High School at Sheffield. At Sheffield, where the family had moved, they frequently walked and picnicked in the Derbyshire dales. Later, bicycle excursions were very much in fashion and took John and his friends far into the countryside. Bicycles were ridden daily to school but were also great on holiday trips to the Lake District, to Cambridge, and to the seaside.

As a boy he played the piano and sang with his family. He enjoyed going to concerts and to the opera and when the teachers arranged Shakespeare's plays John was involved, mostly backstage. All members of the Turner family were interested in drawing and painting and John liked particularly to make pencil sketches. A sketch-book was his steady companion on hikes and bicycle rides.

During some school holidays the Turner children were invited and stayed with relatives in London, where they visited the Kew Gardens. They had a grandfather who had been head gardener at a large estate and later started a nursery in London.

Botany was not a school subject, but there were some dedicated teachers who taught the subject to small groups of interested students during weekends. These sessions were often out in the countryside and later in life Turner remarked frequently how much he owed to these masters. He was very much interested in the world about him, especially in nature: he collected tadpoles, newts, birds' eggs and, in particular, plants. Although he was shy of adults he was always teaching and demonstrating to his brothers, sister and other children the wonderful things to be found in the garden and the countryside.

From an early age John and his brothers and sister were great readers, and many a tale Turner had read in his youth was cited and retold more than half a century later to his friends in Australia. It was a delight to be in the company of John Turner, especially for me [SCD], as, being bilingual, I was not so fluent in English. It was one of the greatest pleasures to listen to him recalling episodes from books or from his life. He was a wonderful story teller, painting the scene with good words in vivid colours. When in high spirits he often broke into a ditty. Words flowed easily from John Turner, both spoken and from his pen.

Cambridge Years

In 1927 Turner went up to Cambridge, having won in 1925 the undergraduate State Scholarship to Selwyn College. He took an Honours degree in the Natural Sciences Tripos after three years, reading for Part I Botany, Chemistry and Zoology, and for Part II in Botany. He was placed First Class in the Intercollegiate Examination and in both parts of the Tripos. During the years 1930 to 1934 he carried out research in plant physiology under the supervision of F.F. Blackman, F.R.S., holding during this time, a renewed State Scholarship (1931), a grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (1932) and the University Frank Smart (1933) and University Allen (1934) Studentships. A thesis embodying some of his research and entitled 'On the relation between respiration and fermentation in excised carrot tissue, with special reference to the effect of sodium mono-iodoacetate on the metabolism of tissue slices'(2) was accepted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1936. His essay discussing this subject was awarded the University Gedge Prize, which was open to physiologists and biochemists in the University. Turner was a member of Selwyn College, Cambridge, during his undergraduate and postgraduate years.

In the years 1934 and 1935, Turner was Demonstrator in Botany at the Botany School in Cambridge and, from 1936 to 1938 Senior Demonstrator. His love of the outdoors allowed him to develop ecology as a counterpoise to laboratory experimentation. He organized very successful botany excursions to the oakwoods of Killarney and the alpine Cairngorms of Scotland in close association with two first-rate ecologists in the Botany School, A.S. Watt and P.W. Richards. He also carried out field work on fenlands with his life-time friend Harry Godwin (later Professor Sir Harry Godwin). Turner published his first paper on the fens in 1933.

The University of Melbourne

In November 1937 Turner applied to the University of Melbourne for the Chair of Botany and was appointed by University Council on 3 March 1938.(3) He arrived in Melbourne on the ship Strathaird on 8 August 1938 and was met by Dr Ethel I. McLennan, the long-standing Associate Professor who had been in charge of the department for the preceding year, and the Senior Lecturer, Dr Reuben Patton.

One of the youngest professors to be appointed to a chair at the University of Melbourne, Turner took up his position as Professor of Botany and Plant Physiology later in August 1938. He succeeded the foundation professor, Alfred James Ewart (1872-1937) who was appointed in 1906 when the School was first housed in the Zoology Department. Under Ewart's guidance the first Botany School was built and the new building opened in November 1929. For its time, the building was very modern, and reflected the taste of both Ewart and McLennan, who held the position of Associate Professor while the School was being built. The School had not only a large lecture theatre, a constant temperature room, up-to-date sterilizers, glasshouses and a wonderful library, but was furnished very tastefully entirely from Tasmanian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). The benches, the cupboards, and all the furniture made of Australian timber were for seventy-five years a showpiece and the pride of Australian workmanship.

Turner must have liked what he saw in the Botany School. In an early letter to Professor W. Stiles in Birmingham he wrote: 'Ewart has built up a very fine school and the laboratory is very well planned and well equipped. And we rejoice in the possession of quite a large and very fine garden at the back'.(4)

Professor Sam (later Sir Samuel) Wadham, Turner's predecessor as demonstrator at Cambridge University, became a close and valuable friend in a neighbouring department across the System Garden. Wadham had been appointed to the chair of Agriculture at Melbourne in 1926 and was able to introduce him to the scientific community and to point out the state of the countryside under the effects of a century of exploitation. He introduced Turner to the problems and importance of catchments and he consequences of mismanagement.

Not long after his arrival in Australia, in January 1939, Turner attended the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in Canberra. This was an important occasion for him in more ways than one. He drove up to Canberra with several members of his staff who introduced him during the journey to the Australian vegetation, for Turner an unknown botanical environment. The vegetation was strange and new, his familiar flora echoed only as weeds, horticultural species, or cosmopolitans of strand habitats. He was never completely at home with the new flora, so many times more diverse than that of Britain, but with his solid grounding in European botany, he soon mastered it sufficiently. He was assisted in his endeavours by the best of teachers in the Australian flora, Ethel McLennan. During this stage, Turner was delighted to see European weeds; they were, so to speak, the old friends from back home.

The trip to Canberra was also important because Turner hosted it for his former colleague from Cambridge, Professor F.T. Brooks and, in his letters of invitation, showed the pride and interest he had in his newly adopted country. It was also a crucial test for Turner because it was one of the hottest summers ever, with raging bushfires all over south-eastern Australia. He never forgot this and when he took students and visitors out in later years he would often point to reminders of the 1939 summer.

The War Effort

Turner had brought with him from England elegant equipment to continue the plant physiology work which he had done in Cambridge. However, less than a year after is arrival in Australia, war broke out, and the School under his leadership diverted all its energy towards the war effort. Turner drew ably on the personnel in the University and assembled different working groups in his Department. He made Ernst A.F. Matthaei (1904-1966), who had trained at Zeiss and the University of Jena, officer-in-charge of a small workshop where graticules for sighting telescopes and binoculars were made. After Japan entered the war in December 1941 and the theatre of war moved to the Pacific, the Botany workshop and staff were enlarged to accommodate an additional wartime effort to stem bio-deterioration of instruments. It was necessary to 'tropic-proof' equipment against fungal infections which occurred even within optical instruments. As part of this effort, fungi growing on optical equipment were cultured and assessed. This involved the mycologist Ethel McLennan, the physicist J.S. Rogers and the microscopist Ernst Matthaei. Turner was the head of this team. The publication 'Tropic proofing of optical instruments by a fungicide' (with E.I. McLennan, J.S. Rogers and E. Matthaei), and later the report The Tropic Proofing of Optical Instruments, published by the Australian Ministry of Munitions, are both classics in this field and show the importance of the work in the Department under Turner's direction.

The other very important war work undertaken in the Botany School occurred following the discovery of penicillin, the antibiotic substance produced by a soil fungus. This stimulated world-wide research during the later years of the Second World War into the soil fungi, including in Turner's department where work commenced to investigate the then completely unknown soil microflora of Victoria and to test the isolates for antibiotic activity. In addition, in the closing months of the war, a collection of soil mould cultures was brought to Melbourne from the Northern Regional Research Laboratory of the Department of Agriculture at Peoria, Illinois, to be housed and curated in the Botany School. This occurred due to Turner's contact with F.G. Morgan at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne, who visited the Botany School in November 1943. The two men developed a plan for collaborative research on penicillin and antibiotically active fungi found in the future. Staff at the Botany School were to undertake the mycological side of penicillin production. The overall supervision of this aspect was to be by Ethel McLennan working with two assistants. The team was also to undertake a new survey of Australian moulds and larger fungi to determine if more organisms could be found that yielded antibiotics. To fund this research, Turner secured grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the National Research Council. These arrangements are documented in his correspondence with H.L. Cumpston, the Commonwealth Director-General of Health.(4) The School became a hive f industry with the project teams overcrowding the building. Financed to a large degree by munitions funding, a new wing was added to the Botany School. It housed two new laboratories, one for mycology and one for the optical work. A large no. of papers was published during this period, on the mycological work in articular, and this could not have been undertaken but for the overall involvement F J.S. Turner.

The extent of his care and commitment can be judged by his correspondence, as exemplified by a letter from Turner to the Director of Rationing:

Dear Sir,
Following my letter of 8th September, you were good enough to grant me a permit to buy 3 lbs. of sugar for this laboratory during each month, October, November and December, 1942.
We are still using sugar in these quantities, largely for research on war problems, and I would be grateful for a further supply of monthly ration tickets.
Yours sincerely,
[signed J. S. Turner]
Professor of Botany
Director of Rationing
Flinders Lane
Melbourne C.1.

The sugar was required for the preparation of culture media in which to grow the fungi. Every ounce of sugar and malt-extract used by the assistant [SCD] during the process had be accounted for.

The full involvement of the Botany School in the war effort can best be judged by a letter written by Turner to the then University Registrar, Mr. F.H. Johnston:

14th June, '43.
Dear Mr. Johnston,
re request from Scientific Liaison Bureau The following work pertaining to the war is going on in this department. Some of it is production, but coupled with this is research into the various problems that arise from time to time.
(1) Ruling and etching of graticules (information available on acid proof resists, and on ruling machines, properties of glass in relation to etching (O.M.P.).(5)
(2) Photographic production of graticules (O.M.P.).
(3) Photo etching of graticules (also see under Chemistry Department(6)) (O.M.P.).
(4) Optical cleaning and assembly of binoculars (Army).
(5) Growth of fungi on optical components of instruments (O.M.P. and Scientific Liaison Bureau).
(6) Control of timber rotting by fungi (Forestry Commission; Broken Hill Pty. Ltd.).
(7) Production of mannitol by native shrubs (with C.S.I.R.).
(8) Growth, and hyoscine and hyoscyamine content of Duboisia (with Physiology School of University).
(9) Control of virus diseases on vegetable crops (with Department of Agriculture, for Army).
(10) Survey of Australian fungi as sources of the drug Penicillin (suggested by Dr Kellaway, of Walter & Eliza Hall Institute).

It is difficult to appreciate fifty years later the importance and the commitment of Turner and his Department towards the war effort. The goal in the University of Melbourne, and indeed in Australia at large, was to win the war. All other occupations and research were of no significance compared to the final victory. It has been said frequently that in a totalitarian state like Germany the war effort was more serious than in the other countries during the war. Observations show that this was not so, and that elsewhere too there was a total commitment towards the war effort, as exemplified by the Botany School led by Turner.

Important Botanical Initiatives

On 2 March 1945, the Miss M.M. Gibson Trust, later known as The Maud Gibson (Gardens) Trust, was established. This was to be a Research Trust to aid the National Herbarium of Victoria. The first Trust Committee comprised the Professor of Botany at the University of Melbourne as Chairman, the Director of the Gardens, Mr A.W. Jessep, as Secretary, Mr Russell Grimwade, Mr F. Grassick and Mr A.G.M. Mitchell. Turner chaired this important committee until his retirement. On the death of Grimwade in 1955, he selected his friend Professor S. Wadham to fill the vacancy on the committee. The Trust was a welcome vehicle that allowed Turner to set in motion some important botanical projects for Victoria. James H. Willis, Government Botanist at the National Herbarium, wrote the two-volume Flora of Victoria (published by the University of Melbourne) under the auspices of the Gibson Trust. Miss Margaret Stones, the internationally recognized Australian flower painter, who owed much of her fame to early recognition by Turner, was brought out from England with Trust funding to illustrate the vanishing flora of Victoria's basalt plains. Turner also arranged for Dr Ronald Melville, head of the Australian section at the Kew Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, London, to be financed to study the Australian flora for a year.

Post-War Changes

After the war, there was a tremendous influx of students taking Botany due to the many returned servicemen and women entering the university. This brought about a completely changed atmosphere in the Department, effected not only by the rapid growth in student numbers, most of whom were relatively older students, but above all by the arrival of new staff and a subsequent rearrangement of classes and duties.

Turner had inherited a department of older staff who were used to the authoritarian, volatile personality of Professor A.J. Ewart. To this extent his job was difficult, but he initiated changes in structure and outlook. The complement of staff and the courses taught were completely remodelled according to Turner's ideas and wishes. When Turner took up his appointment, every staff member in the Department was older than he: Dr Ethel McLennan, Dr Reuben Patton, Dr B.J. Grieve; only the junior tutor, Dr Eileen Fisher was almost his age. After the war he selected new staff fostered by his former friends in England. This gave him a feeling of superiority, because he was no longer the 'new boy' and, in particular, no longer the only staff member who had not been born and bred in Australia. Turner got on with the teaching and research he had originally planned to do on his arrival in Australia.

Some other important changes occurred in the Botany School at this time. There was a change of strength of leadership, direction and student control, from McLennan to Turner. There was also a change of research thrust to physiological and ecological work. Turner also moved to foster more personal community and environmental interests outside the University.

Physiological Research

Plant physiological research was resumed with great vigour after the war and, with Vera Hanly (later Vines) as his research assistant, Turner made great advances into the physiological processes of respiration and fermentation. At this time he collaborated with his great friend Dr Bob Robertson (now Sir Rutherford Robertson) in research on salt respiration. During this period and the following decades John Turner wrote numerous thoughtful reviews on the direction and perspectives of plant physiology - in particular the pasteur effect, photosynthesis, starch and phosphorus metabolism.

New physiological work was also developed by two of the bright post-graduates of that time, both returned soldiers: Dr (then Mr) Kingsley Rowan and the late Mr Bert Overell. The research later led to a valuable liaison with scientists in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Fruit Physiology Research Unit. Turner's interests continued on the effect of oxygen on photosynthesis with Dr Ed Brittain, and on protoplasmic streaming with Judy Kelso, Stella Ovenden (later Dr Stella Thrower) and Mr (later Dr) Garth Everson. In the latter work he employed optical equipment developed by Mr Ernst Matthaei.

An early and important appointment after the war was that of Dr David Goodall. He was the first of a long line of plant physiologists engaged by Turner to fulfil his interest in plant physiology and at the same time his commitment to the title of Professor of Botany and Plant Physiology. Goodall provided an enormous stimulus to research in nutritional physiology and later became a world leader in quantitative ecology. He had a direct and important impact on the ecological assessment of the Bogong High Plains (see later).

After the departure of Dr Goodall in the early 1950s, two further English plant physiologists were appointed: Dr Denis Carr who taught the Science students - due to the increase in student numbers, courses had to be duplicated and diversified - and Dr Tom Neales who initially was to teach the Agriculture students only but later taught whole plant physiology to both streams of students. Neales' research in this branch of botany flourished at a time when Carr had left the Department and Turner's interests were more ecologically directed. Rowan and Neales represented plant physiology teaching and research in the Botany School until recently. The historical connotation of the Professorship of Plant Physiology in the Botany School ceased with Turner's retirement in 1974.

Ecological Research

Early in the war years, Turner was fortunate in having in the department a first-rate junior botanist Maisie Fawcett (later Carr), who had completed her Master's degree several years before. She was unable to continue research involving microscopic studies for medical reasons. Turner created the opportunity for her to study the effects of grazing, fire and rabbit depredations on soil erosion in the Hume Catchment, as the first field officer for Victoria's newly created Soil Conservation Board. She was based at Omeo and travelled the area by car, foot and on horseback, finally producing a penetrating and careful report of catchment conditions. The work led directly to investigations of the important subalpine and alpine areas of the Bogong High Plains which were ear-marked for hydro-electricity development. Turner threw his weight and influence behind this work, and in 1945-6 was instrumental in obtaining funding to study the ecological problems of catchment maintenance under a regime of summer cattle grazing. He was an overseer of this work and its power base and organized logistical support from within the Botany School to help Fawcett in regular assessments of vegetation by point quadrats. Fenced plots established by her in 1944 and 1945 proved to be ecological benchmarks, and are still being monitored today. Turner missed few of the excursions into the High Plains, trips which were made the more enjoyable by his good spirits and camaraderie. He resented keenly the suggestion later made by D.J. Carr (1989)(7) that he was just another notable person who attended some of the High Plains field excursions.

In 1959 Turner co-authored two papers on the progress of the High Plains work with Stella G.M. (Maisie) Carr. She later developed themes of dynamics based on the pivotal work of A.S. Watt in Cambridge. In 1964 Turner met the costs of Carr's impending visit to re-assess the progress of the work, and also of relatively mundane items such as re-fencing of the plots before the return of the cattle to the High Plains.

In the late 1940s, Turner saw the need for ecological research nearer to Melbourne and the need to communicate this to the public, and for such study to be of direct use in land management. From Wadham he had heard of the magnificent Mountain Ash forests at Wallaby Creek on the Great Divide immediately north of Whittlesea. The effects of past fires had created large areas of dense young forest as well as areas of brackenland and scrub. The water supply for Melbourne is derived from this and similar areas to the east. Therefore, a knowledge of water use by different sorts and different ages of vegetation was an important basic study. John Brookes, an ex-serviceman, proved to be an ideal choice to study such water relations which he did in 1948 under the co-supervision of Associate Professor Leeper from Agricultural Chemistry. The work indicated the importance of fog drip and the large water use by young forest. It led subsequently to extensive research by hydrologists of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (now regrettably called 'Melbourne Water'). The tract of mature, non-regenerating Mountain Ash in the Wallaby Creek catchment was of particular significance. Turner believed that the key to the stability of the vegetation was its ability to regenerate. It fell to David Ashton to spend the subsequent forty years studying this and the post-fire vegetation dynamics.

John Turner also regarded as essential descriptions of vegetation close to Melbourne and in 1948 persuaded Trevor Clifford (later Professor) to study eucalypt distributions in the Dandenong Ranges and to relate these and the associated flora to soils and climate. He also started others on ecological programmes at this time: heathlands (R. Winkworth) and dry eucalypt woodland (C. Elliott). Turner once confided that he wished he had made every student study the plant ecology of a different area in much the same way as Professor Edwin Hills had done in Geology. In this way the ecology of the state would have been all but covered in the span of his professorship.

In 1950, after a sabbatical year in the United Kingdom, Turner arranged with the CSIRO to finance a reciprocal sabbatical year for Dr A.S. (Sandy) Watt from Cambridge. This was a master stroke, for it stimulated Australian ecologists to focus attention on stability and regeneration - cornerstones in ecology.

John Turner was a renewed man on field trips and his camaraderie, Gilbert and Sullivan doggerel and sense of fun are legendary among his old students and staff. His outlook undoubtedly promoted loyalty and cohesiveness in the Department. He was instrumental in raising money and having a Botany Laboratory, named McLennan, built at Tidal River, Wilson's Promontory, in 1960 and opened in 1961. Here, generations of students went on memorable excursions that involved floristic, heathland productivity, dune succession, and algal studies of both the rocky shore and river.

Turner represented Australia at international scientific meetings on two occasions: in 1964 in Paris for the International Biological Program, and in 1972 in Banff for the Eleventh International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

John Turner and Public Education(8)

No less important but less recognized than Turner's scientific achievements are his many contributions to public education.(9) He was one of the pioneers of science education in Australian schools. At the outset of mass secondary education in the 1940s, Turner and Samuel Wadham attempted to crystallize the ideal of a popular science curriculum for the compulsory years that had its roots in children's common experiences and that sought to elucidate the general principles observable in nature without emphasizing traditional academic divisions. The introduction of a prescribed General Science syllabus in Victoria to replace five specialized subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Physical Science, Botany, and Animal Biology) for the new Intermediate Examinations in 1943 was decisive in the formation of a community of science educators in Australia.(10) Turner wrote a text for the course, General Science for Australian Schools, and introduced a new undergraduate course structure for Science at Melbourne that permitted a broader scientific preparation for science teachers.

Turner was the first President of the Science Teachers' Association of Victoria(11) and for twenty-five years chaired the General Science Standing Committee of the Schools Board that controlled both the syllabus and the examinations. All Australian states adopted a General Science syllabus during that period.

In 1945 Turner introduced Biology as a senior school subject in Victoria, replacing both Botany, and Animal Morphology and Physiology. He chaired the Biology Standing Committee of the Schools Board for thirty years, culminating in the production, through the Australian Academy of Science, of 'The Web of Life'(12) course that completely re-conceived the purpose, structure and function of biology teaching in Australia. In his inaugural address to the Australian Association of Scientific Workers in 1940, entitled 'Biology in Schools', Turner expressed his concern that in Victoria just before the war, fewer than two hundred boys in any year studied any biological subject at Year 10 or beyond. His achievements are a testimony to his commitment to public education and nature conservation. That he was able to bring these together is remarkable. His fine aesthetic sensibilities and skills as writer and diplomat for science made this accomplishment possible. Writing of this mission he concluded:

I have tried to bring home a sense of the miracle of evolution. I have argued that our environmental problems are not to be solved by a return to mysticism but by scientific investigation and a change of heart - a renewal of an old tradition of stewardship. Preaching the virtues of conservation would be unnecessary if only we could open people's eyes to the interest, the beauty and majesty of the planet on which we live: only if we love a place do we wish to save it.

Turner's Vision for Conservation and Heritage

In the mid-1950s and beyond, Turner became increasingly involved in conservation issues. He was concerned with what natural resources still existed and the best way to protect them from commercial development. He was very clear that proper conservation required ecological research to sustain it. This required money and money required persuasion of people in high places. In this regard he was supremely successful. He was not an aggressive extrovert but rather a backroom person who, through much diplomacy, set up the right climate for progress to be made. This was invaluable for the conservation cause.

In 1952 Turner became a foundation member of the Victorian National Parks Association, which began as a sub-committee of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria. He became the Association's Vice-President from 1969 to 1973 and was on its Council from 1960 to 1975. In 1954 the Australian Academy of Science was established and two years later John Turner was elected to its fellowship and was a member of its Council from 1967 to 1970. The Academy was instrumental in focusing conservation issues, especially those involving the High Country of south-eastern Australia. Turner was chairman of the committee that, in 1957, was instrumental in publishing a paper describing the effects of sheep and cattle grazing in the alpine and sub-alpine zones. In 1961 he and A.B. Costin, R.L. Crocker and J.W. Evans published a paper on the proposal to establish a primitive area in the Koscuisko National Park.

The conservation movement received a great impetus in the 1960s. In 1965 the Australian Conservation Foundation was established, Turner being one of the eighteen people involved with its inception. He resigned in 1973 after politicization of the Executive Council. The Foundation promoted important conservation studies such as that on Norfolk and Phillip Islands by himself, R.D. Hoogland and C.N. Smithers. He was without doubt influential in the directions taken by the Conservation Council of Victoria which was set up in 1969 following the public awareness and debate centred around the conservation status of the Little Desert in Victoria. In the 1970s many conservation initiatives bore fruit. John Turner and John Landy were early members of the Victorian Land Conservation Council set up in 1970, an impartial body the aim of which was to assess the best use of land for future generations. It began operating in 1971. Turner's influence led to the proclaiming of an Act of Parliament for the preservation of reference areas in each major plant community, an idea well ahead of its time. He was similarly influential in the setting up of the Environmental Studies Association by D.M. Calder and I. Hore-Lacy, with its main aim directed at conservation education through public courses and school curricula.

Turner's activities on public matters were wide-ranging since he was intensely interested in the heritage - whether natural or historic - of human activities. The National Trust (Victoria) was set up in 1956 and he was one of the original ex officio members. In 1964 the Trust acquired 'Como', an early mansion in inner Melbourne, and created an awareness of Victoria's nineteenth-century heritage. From 1968 Turner was chairman of the Como gardens sub-committee and, with landscape and garden consultants, advised on the grounds, purchases and employees at Como. His interest in landscape was very deep and almost passionate. In 1960 the Landscape Preservation Council of the National Trust was set up. He was a founding member and the chairman from its inception. Likewise, in 1972, he was on the Landscape Classification Committee and in 1973 he became its chairman. In this year he was commissioned by the Northern Territory Administration to report on ecological, aesthetic and social problems at Gove. In 1976 he and Professor George Seddon reported to the State Electricity Commission of Victoria on the landscape assessment of the new brown coalfields proposed in the La Trobe Valley. Much earlier, he was involved with the Scientific Sub-committee of the National Gallery of Victoria (1943) and was on the Civic Advisory Panel for the City of Melbourne (1955).

Turner also threw his weight behind smaller, local conservation issues such as the Albert Park Protection League, the Blackburn Tree Preservation Society, the Beaumaris Tree Preservation Society, the Native Plant Preservation Society and the Heytesbury Historical Society. The most important of these was the Save the Dandenongs League. Turner had become interested very early in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne because of the beauty of their scenery, gardens and forests. It was clear after the war that they were under threat from run-away development, and no doubt he was also influenced by the benefits of sensible control in England in such places as the Lakes District. In 1950 Turner and a prominent conservationist, Miss May Moon, set up the League and subsequently lobbied hard for conservation and aesthetics. He was president of the League from 1970 to 1972. A plaque commemorating his role in this movement was erected at Kalorama in 1993.

Turner still maintained his interests in plant physiology and ecological research but in the decade before his retirement in 1973, he became increasingly involved in the conservation movement and was uncompromisingly demanding that exploitation be accountable and fully restorative. He saw landscape in terms of beauty as well as science. He was a staunch advocate of the revegetation of much agricultural land in the most sensitive way possible, for he was well aware of the salinity problem that had developed as a result of uncontrolled agricultural practice before and between the last wars.

In 1938, soon after his arrival in Australia, Turner joined the Royal Society of Victoria. He was president of the Society in 1951 and 1952, and became a life member in 1981. In 1941 he also became a valued member of the Wallaby Club, a convivial group of intellectual ramblers. He was elected president of the Club in 1962 and became a life member in 1982. In both groups, Turner was therefore in contact very early with important and influential members of the community. He joined the Melbourne Club in the year of his retirement, 1973.

University Achievements

As well as his many important and time-consuming activities outside the University including conservation, heritage and literary interests, Turner maintained a high profile within the academic sphere. His university activities included a full teaching load which, in the early years, embraced the whole of first-year Botany. His research activities tapered off in the 1960s and he wrote more reflective papers and reviews. Administration in an enlarged Department and University increased. He was Chairman of the Professorial Board and a member of the University Council in 1953 and 1954, acting Vice-Chancellor in 1953, and Dean of Science in 1944-46 and 1967-1968. He was on the Board of Forestry Education from 1954 to 1973, having regularly examined at the Creswick Forestry School since the war years. He frequently acted as examiner for other universities in the 1950s and 1960s, in New Zealand (Auckland and Dunedin), Malaysia and Hong Kong. He was on the Grounds Committee of the University of Melbourne from its inception in 1958 until his retirement in 1973. He was largely responsible for the remodelling of the precincts into the showpiece they are today. Turner's literary interests took him to Melbourne University Press for which he was Chairman of the Board of Management from 1963 to 1973.

In 1960, with the departure of Dr and Mrs Carr to Queen's University, Belfast, John Turner saw the need for new directions and new staff in the Botany School. Dr Ray Specht was hired, a brilliant ecologist from Adelaide who was interested in ecosystems and productivity, and under this new influence physiology and ecology were blended in Melbourne. In 1965 he left the Department to take up the chair of botany in Brisbane. Turner replaced him with Dr Peter Attiwill who provided a great boost to both the teaching and research of environmental physiology and the processes of forest ecology. Dr (later Professor) Carrick Chambers brought in much expertise in general botany and electron microscopy, Dr Malcolm Calder provided a link between plant physiology and conservation with his expertise in population plant biology, and Sophie Ducker laid the foundations of an important phase of phycological research in Victoria. With the new staff appointments, new horizons of botanical science were introduced, stimulating students and influencing school curricula. Many post-graduates from the Department in this decade subsequently were appointed to the staff of other Australian universities.

Turner's myriad administrative duties required attendance at many weighty and important meetings. Yet even in these he retained a human touch and sense of humour. On the back of his agenda notes for what was probably a long session on Physics Projects for a sub-committee of the Australian Academy of Science, he wrote an apology for Gray's Elegy:

Dusk tolls
Herds flee
Hinds scoot
Not me.

Light dims
No row
Bug skims
Snores cow.

From tower
Owl's hoot
Bower's ours
Yor scoot.

'Neath trees
Turf clad
Tight squeeze
Lies dad.

No fire
No fuss
No sire
No buss.

In John Turner's professional life there were three main streams: plant physiology, education in schools and universities, and ecology and conservation in their broadest interpretation. An analysis of his publications shows the shift in emphasis with the years: in the 1940s and 1950s, Turner was committed to his great scientific interest, plant physiology. However, the subsequent two decades revealed his deep interest in ecology and conservation and the care of our heritage for the future. His attitude is best exemplified by his closing remarks in 'The Decline of the Plants':
Reserves for our fauna and flora are with some difficulty conjured out of Governments wherever the land is of little use for any other purpose. The probable fate of the Kosciusko Tops indicates only too clearly that it will be long (and often too late) before the people and their Governments come to recognise such reserves as competing for land on equal terms with agriculture, forestry or secondary industry.

Family Life and Retirement

On his retirement in 1973 John Turner threw his weight into the problems confronting the Land Conservation Council. In 1982 the Turners moved to Castlemaine, and here John's love of art flourished to its fullest extent. He gave lectures to the University of the Third Age and developed expertise with scraperboard and lino and wood cuts. To his great satisfaction, he successfully exhibited his work in local galleries in the 1980s. Until his death he was promoting to the civic leaders of Castlemaine a new vision of their landscapes and streetscapes.

At the outbreak of the Second World War Turner's fiancee Kaye Jones was still completing her studies in Cambridge, but she later came to Australia in a darkened ship to be married, at Christmas 1939, in Melbourne. John and Kaye were keen and assiduous gardeners. Together they toured much of the countryside appreciating landscapes, old buildings and gardens as well as savouring the joy of wildflowers and birdlife. He loved music, played the piano, and painted landscapes until ten days before his death. Above all he was a family man absorbed with the successes and lives of his children, Peter and Sue, both graduates of the University of Melbourne, and of his several grandchildren.

On his retirement, at the beginning of January 1974, Turner was awarded in the New Year Honours list the OBE for 'Service to Botany'. There are several letters in his correspondence congratulating him on this occasion, all of which echo the sentiment that 'Service to Botany' should read 'Service to the people of Victoria towards the preservation of their natural heritage'. Turner was awarded a Doctor of Laws honoris causa by Melbourne University in 1987.

John Turner died in the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne on 9 May 1991. After an Anglican service in Castlemaine he was cremated and his ashes scattered.

As a professor of botany, John Turner's greatest success lay in his choice of people for the right job and in his vision for research directions. His appreciation of the needs of future generations for conservation and for contact with the earth and with living things was profound. In his department at the University he may have often appeared to look outwards, but the coherence of his staff ensured the Department's very successful functioning. The benefit to Victorian and Australian botany and to conservation in the broadest sense from his public-spirited activity may never be fully appreciated. He stimulated many to do their best and his clear thinking and lucid writing were some of the finest attributes he passed on to generations of students. John Turner will be missed by many as an elder statesman in his field, and as a trusted link between conservationists and resource managers. In conservation and education he was enormously influential. His epitaph may well read: look, think, and see the present in order to conserve the future.


(1) Information about John Turner's early life was supplied by his sister, the late Mrs. K. Logan.

(2) Letter, dated 6 March 1992, from G. Waller, Manuscripts Department, Cambridge University Library.

(3) Council Notes, Melbourne University.

(4) Turner Collection, Melbourne University Archives.

(5) Optical Munitions Panel

(6) Professor E.J. Hartung, Head of the Chemistry Department, was very much involved with the Botany School in both the graticule work and the forays of the larger fungi for antibiotic production.

(7) Carr, D.J., Aust. Syst. Bot. Soc. Newsletter, 58 (1989), 21-27. See also L. Gillbank, 'Scientific exploration of the botanical heritage of Victoria's Alps: nineteenth and twentieth-century contributions of Ferdinand Mueller and Maisie Fawcett', pp. 211-234 in Babette Scougall, ed., Cultural Heritage of the Australian Alps (Canberra, 1992).

(8) This summary of John Turner's contribution to public education has been supplied by Dr. R.A. Fawns, Institute of Education, University of Melbourne.

(9) Fawns, R.A., 'The Maintenance and Transformation of School Science', Ph.D. Thesis, Monash University, 1987.

(10) Fawns, R., 'General science and the community of science teaching', Australian Science Teachers Journal, 34(2) (1988), 80-84.

(11) Anon., 'Professor John Turner: first President of the Science Teachers' Association of Victoria' (Obituary), LabTalk, 36(1) (1992), 3-5.

(12) Morgan, D.G., (ed.), Biological Science: The Web of Life (Canberra: Australian Academy of Science, 1967).

Both authors are retired Readers from the School of Botany, University of Melbourne.

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 3, 1993

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

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