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Calvert, Joseph Patrick (Pat) (1906–1988)

by William Hartley

The recent death of Dr "Pat" Calvert will revive many memories, especially among those fortunate enough to have lived in Canberra in the 1930s. For he was one of the best-known residents of the infant city, whether in the black suits which he favoured for work and more formal occasions, or in the striped jerseys of the football field. And whether on foot or at the wheel of the "Baby Austin" which he drove with a reckless abandon.

Pat was one of four appointees who came out from Britain early in 1930 to join the staff of the newly established Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, subsequently to become the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Born on March 7, 1906, in the County of Donegal, in the far north-west of the island, but living subsequently in Dungannon, he had his tertiary education at the Queen's University of Belfast, where he graduated BSc in 1927 with botany as his major subject. He subsequently specialised in plant physiology, obtaining his MSc in 1929 at the early age of 23.

His initial appointment was to the position of assistant botanist (weeds), but he also had the additional responsibility of looking after the embryonic herbarium, since developed into the Australian National Herbarium — a major repository for reference specimens of Australian plants, and an important centre for research on Australian flora.

All this, however, was in the distant future. For Pat a more important change — and one that had a major impact on his career in the CSIRO — was a change of title and duties in 1932 to reflect more appropriately his special training and skills in the field of plant physiology.

In his new position he under took a task recognised as of great complexity and uncertain success: to try to develop laboratory tests which might be used to assess the relative drought-resistance of varieties of wheat and other cereals, thus eliminating or minimising the need for extensive and unreliable field trials and providing a reliable basis for plant breeding.

Pat worked intensively on this problem for six years, using many techniques and establishing contact with scientists of similar interests throughout the world. In the end, he had to confess defeat, but the work that he had done was recognised in 1939 by the conferment on him of the degree of Doctor of Science by his old university.

Subsequently, until World War II, he worked on many projects, among them studies of flax and other fibre plants as part of CSIRO war-related research, and after the war, investigations on tobacco-growing. He left the CSIRO in 1956.

He was away from CSIRO during much of the war period. He enlisted in the RAAF in October, 1943, rapidly obtained his commission, saw active service in Papua-New Guinea as flight lieutenant and acting squadron leader, and was discharged in January, 1946.

It is a fascinating task to try to describe the man. Our friendship extended throughout the 58 years of his life in Australia. His character was complex and many-faceted. He was, first, a man of great personal charm — especially when he chose to exercise it.

With a ready wit, and a capacity to turn a phrase as Irish as the fairies in the woodland, he could enliven the dullest occasion and was a wonderful companion.

Keenly interested in sport, in the 30s and 40s he was a leading footballer (captain of Queen's University soccer team) and golfer (winner of the Canberra Cup). It is perhaps fair to say that, while he was perfectly familiar with the rules of these games, he was apt also to resort to the more flexible rules of his distinguished fellow-country man Rafferty.

Partly through his sporting contacts, but also because of the ease with which he adapted to different habits and environments, he had a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances. In this he differed markedly from most of his fellow-scientists, who tendered to form esoteric and introverted groups. Less well known was the sympathy and help he gave to the elderly and handicapped, including the families of colleagues suffering bereavement. This help was all the more appreciated for being practical rather than sentimental. At the other end of the life span, he was very fond of young children, whom he delighted with tricks, games and tales.

If the examples given above suggest a rather simple, "straightforward" character, this would be quite misleading. In other ways, and perhaps most notably in his attitude to authority, he showed marked ambivalence.

On the one hand he appeared to have a high regard and respect for "top-level" authority, as represented by royalty and (perhaps) government, which did not impinge greatly on his daily life.

On the other hand, he would go to great lengths, direct or devious, to oppose and frustrate those which did so impinge and which threatened to frustrate his freedom of action.

This is well illustrated by his attitude to motoring. A naturally gifted driver, with (in his youth) very quick reactions, it was his delight to drive without great regard for speed limits or the reactions of other drivers.

He was also quite prepared to go to considerable inconvenience to avoid parking his car in a zone allocated for that purpose, and instead to park it in a "restricted" zone — to which he was not entitled.

Such practices sometimes got him into trouble, out of which he would usually bluff his way.

His first wife, Betty Allen, whom he married in 1940, was a colleague in the CSIRO, who had had a most distinguished career as a pioneer in the field of biostatistics, especially as related to agricultural and biological experimentation. Their son, Allan, now a heart specialist in Adelaide, was born in the following year. Betty had suffered from high blood pressure after the birth of her child, and died suddenly in 1952.

Pat later married another Betty — Elizabeth Larke, whom he had known since early days in Canberra. She also had had a notable career, highlighted by her war service as a commandant in the Australian Red Cross in the Middle East, New Guinea and Italy.

In the course of their life together, Pat and Elizabeth continued and shared their interests, though increasingly hampered by serious problems of deteriorating health. They were especially active in the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Australian Red Cross, and their house was the venue for many functions in aid of these bodies and the Presbyterian Church.

Pat's death on May 26 followed a stroke on the previous Sunday. In addition to his widow, son, and three grandsons, all living in Australia, he will be mourned by his two sisters, Greta and Freda, living in Ireland and the United States.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 10 June 1988, p 12

Citation details

William Hartley, 'Calvert, Joseph Patrick (Pat) (1906–1988)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/calvert-joseph-patrick-pat-23068/text32340, accessed 22 July 2018.

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