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Fielding, John Mervyn (Jack) (1910–1995)

by Alan Brown and Ken Eldridge

Jack [John Mervyn Fielding] died on 20 October 1995 following a long retirement in Buderim, Queensland, where he had grown up. In a eulogy at his funeral, Garth Nikles described him as ‘a passionate forester and scientist’, and indeed this is apt. Other qualities which contributed to his effectiveness throughout his career included imagination and a great capacity for work. He did much to transform exploratory research on tree breeding in the 1930s into a widely-used operational tool by the 1960s, not only in Australia but internationally.

Born on 4 July 1910 at Toowoomba and graduating from the University of Queensland and the Australian Forestry School in 1934, he worked for the Queens- land Department of Forestry until appointed in 1938 to run the first regional research station of the then Commonwealth Forestry Bureau at Mt Burr, SA, which had just been established to undertake research on radiata pine. A photograph of the building in which he worked was published on page 8 of the 1991–92 Report of the CSIRO Division of Forestry. Research commenced on selection and establishment of clone banks, spacing, pruning, nutrition and natural regeneration.

Jack enlisted on 10 October 1942, serving as Flying Officer 429942 in RAAF 30 Squadron equipped with Beaufighters and posted to the SW Pacific/New Guinea area 25 February–9 December 1944. Whilst on active service as navigator he parachuted from a crippled plane and was rescued after spending some time in the sea. Following discharge on 26 March 1945 he resumed duty with the Bureau and was transferred to Canberra, taking over the silvicultural research formerly conducted by Max Jacobs and who had been appointed Principal of the Forestry School.

He won a Harkness Fellowship for study and travel in the USA and Europe in 1948–49. Whilst at the University of California at Berkeley he met Bruce Zobel, also studying there, and who subsequently established major cooperative breeding programs which have been widely emulated. Bruce has said that Jack’s work on variation in radiata pine was an important stimulus to take up similar work with the southern pines for which he earned world-wide acclaim; Bruce used the well-illustrated FTB Bulletin 31, published in 1953, to enlist industry support for his US program. The Fellowship also enabled Jack to make seed collections from the three mainland provenances of radiata pine, and to develop contacts with tree breeders in USA and Europe which paved the way for valuable interaction in subsequent decades.

Back in Australia, Jack set out to quickly develop the breeding program on radiata pine which had evolved from work by Max Jacobs in the 1930s on variation and vegetative reproduction, and which had resulted in whole compartments of trees propagated by cuttings. This material provided graphic evidence that much of the variation seen in the plantations of that era was of genetic origin (Bulletin 31) and was therefore amenable to selection, while vegetative reproduction promised to be an efficient means of reproducing the best trees for use on an operational scale (FTB Bulletins 32 and 45), as well as providing benefits associated with physiologically- aged plants (World Consultation on Forest Genetics and Tree Improvement 1963). His work on variation exacted a high personal price when, measuring branches in the 1938 clones on 18 October 1957, he fell about 18 metres to the ground and broke his back. The first seed orchard of radiata pine in Australia was established at Tallaganda State Forest in 1957 (Aust. For. 38, 203-6 1964). Work on hedging with Bill Libby (NZ J For. Sci. 2, 263-83) contributed to techniques now widely used in several species.

Jack was very conscious of the need for foresters to work with wood scientists to maximise the value of plantation products (Internat. Rev. For. Res. 2, 95- 126), and thus he developed cooperative projects with Alan Wardrop, Eric Dadswell, Ted Hillis and Jack Nicholls of the CSIRO Division of Forest Products.

Although Jack’s interests extended beyond radiata pine, it was for this species that he reserved his highest praise: ‘...a wonderful tree’. The accuracy of his judgement is becoming more and more evident as time goes by.

He extended his academic qualifications with an MSc For. from the University of Melbourne in 1959 (‘Studies of Monterey pine’), and a DSc (‘Aspects of the nature and characteristics of Monterey pine’) from the University of Queensland in 1964.

His interest in the organisation of forest research in Australia is reflected in a paper, with RD Johnston and HD Waring, to the IFA Conference in 1958, which advocated that the Commonwealth forest research activities would be best undertaken by CSIRO. While the reception at the Conference was cool, the proposal was almost given effect several years later when the operation of the F&TB was reviewed, and was finally realised in 1975. In the 1960s, Jack was an enthusiastic advocate of better communication and cooperation among research workers within Australia, and was delighted when he was invited to be the initial office-bearer of Research Working Group 1 (Tree improvement and introduction), the first meeting of which was held in December 1967.

Following resignation from the Forest Research Institute, Jack managed an FAO Pinus caribaea project based in Kuala Lumpar from 1969 to 1972.

He was appointed a Fellow of the Institute on 28 September 1971.

Jack’s enthusiasm for work—by others as well as himself—can be best illustrated by an incident which occurred when he occupied a new office at Yarralumla in the 1950s. Awaiting the installation of a telephone, he looked out the window to see that of a crew of about eight men, only a couple were working on the trench for the cable. He jumped out of the office and asked the reason for the delay, being told that there were only two shovels. To the considerable surprise of the crew, he helped out by going to the adjacent nursery and bringing back a barrow-load of tools to ensure that no man would go without!

That was the way Jack went about his research. He was full of enquiry, ideas and energy, and expected everyone who worked with him to be as busy and determined as he was. His working life as a researcher in tree breeding covered the pioneering years; everything he did was new and adventurous. Radiata pine plantations in the world increased from a few tens of thousands of hectares to nearly four million hectares in that period. New plantings now all use genetically improved seedlings or cuttings, as Jack had confidently expected.

Jack’s many friends—in Australia and elsewhere—have been enriched by their association with him, and have been saddened by his passing.

Original publication

  • IFA Newsletter, vol 36, no 6, December 1995, pp 30-31

Citation details

Alan Brown and Ken Eldridge, 'Fielding, John Mervyn (Jack) (1910–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 September 2017.

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