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Conroy, Wilfred Lawrence (Bill) (1921–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Bill Conroy, through a meeting at the University of Sydney in the early years of World War II, turned his mind towards Papua New Guinea, then under imminent threat of Japanese conquest.

Enlisting in the army in 1942, he served in PNG with the Australian Army Medical Corps. But where others who served returned home and tried to forget the ghastly business of war, Conroy saw the country needed people with expert knowledge who could help it negotiate the difficult path towards independence.

There began a long and fruitful association.

Wilfred Lawrence (Bill) Conroy was born on September 22, 1921, in Randwick, the son of NSW public servant Wilfred Conroy and his wife Eileen De La Mont Brown. After the family moved to Northbridge, Bill Conroy showed interest in the natural world, roaming the middle harbour escarpment. He attended Marist Brothers, Darlinghurst, where he distinguished himself in sport.

He gained a brilliant Leaving Certificate pass and won an Exhibition Prize to study agriculture at Sydney University.

Serving with the University Regiment at the outbreak of war, Conroy was influenced by Alf Conlon, who ran the Australian World War II Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. The directorate provided reports on a broad range of topics of national importance, such as army health and nutrition and the study of the terrain and diet of Papuans and New Guineans. Conroy finished his studies but by the time he was to receive his degree in 1942, he had enlisted.

In New Guinea, Conroy used his agriculture degree in his command of several malaria control units. At war's end, he assisted in the demobilisation of Australian troops and in June 1946 became part of a group recruited as agricultural extension officers in PNG. In 1947, Conroy was part of the Nutrition Survey Expedition, which included anthropologists, health experts and scientists who undertook wide-ranging research into PNG life.

In 1950, as the regional agricultural officer based in Madang, Conroy administered an area stretching from Finschhafen, including the whole Highlands through to the then border of Dutch New Guinea. He was also a visiting lecturer in tropical biology and land use at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA), which had grown out of Alf Conlon's directorate.

In 1951, Conroy joined a group of scientists and eminent people called together by the Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies, to forge a 25-year science policy and program. Conroy was a member of the Agriculture Strategy Committee and commissioner for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which launched the international rice hybridisation program and distribution of various cereal varieties selected for fertiliser response.

In March 1952, Conroy married Marie Colbron, who had been working as a laboratory assistant at Sydney University, and they went to live in Port Moresby. From 1966 until 1973, Conroy was director of the PNG Department of Agriculture, Stock and Fisheries (DASF) and chief conservator of fauna. He believed that the prosperity of the country must be based on extending the indigenous agricultural practices and customs for a sustainable social and economic future.

This meant he was interested in the development of small landholdings and introducing new cropping ideas. Conroy was instrumental in developing coffee, tea, copra and palm oil, along with tick-resistant cattle, as agricultural industries with long-term potential. In 1967 and 1968, he served in the PNG House of Assembly. From 1972 to 1976, he was secretary of the PNG Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence.

Conroy also held posts with the Research Council – South Pacific Commission, the FAO International Fats, Oils and Beverages Committee, the International Cocoa and Coffee Agreements, various PNG commodity, marketing and stabilisation boards and the FAO Land Use and Conservation Committee for South East Asia and South-West Pacific. In 1975, when PNG gained independence, Conroy was awarded the CBE for his services to agriculture.

In 1978, the Conroys settled in Avalon. Conroy remained active and became director of a tropical agricultural consultancy. In 1993, he became involved with tick disease research, working with Dr Bernie Hudson (Royal North Shore Hospital) and the Northern Beaches Tick Alert Support Group. The secretary of the Careel Bay Residents Association, Ian Spencer, said: ''His mind seemed ever-active and his willingness to contribute inexhaustible.''

In 2000, Conroy received the Centenary Medal for his work in medical entomology during the war. He was also honoured for his work on the environment and on the tick parasite insect in the Pittwater area.

Conroy is survived by Marie, their children Stella, Susan, Linda, Lawrie and Chris, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2010

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Conroy, Wilfred Lawrence (Bill) (1921–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/conroy-wilfred-lawrence-bill-16741/text28637, accessed 21 May 2018.

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