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Waterhouse, Douglas Frew (Doug) (1916–2000)

by Malcolm Robertson

from Age (Melbourne)

A passionate biological scientist, Doug Waterhouse, who has died in Canberra at the age of 84, will forever be remembered as the person who identified the active ingredients in the insect repellent Aerogard.

But he was also a humanitarian with a deep desire to help communities in Australia and overseas. And he was a warm and friendly individual with just enough of the larrikin in him to put those around him at their ease but cause his superiors grief.

Douglas Frew Waterhouse was born into the family of Gowrie and Janet Waterhouse in Sydney and was one of four sons. His father, a modern languages professor at Sydney University, was a bush walker who, as a youth, took an interest in wildflowers and cultivated plants. He became a devoted camellia grower and his legacy is a huge camellia garden at his home in Gordon, now maintained by the Eryldene Trust. This early exposure to biology undoubtedly had a lasting effect on Waterhouse.

However, perhaps more importantly, Waterhouse’s uncle Athol, his father’s elder brother, was a noted naturalist and scientist who published the first comprehensive catalogue of Australian butterflies. By the time Waterhouse was eight or nine his uncle had helped him to become a well-equipped and skilled insect collector.

Throughout his school years his interest in entomology grew and by the time he graduated from Sydney University in 1938 with first-class honours and a university medal he was clearly destined to have a major impact on our understanding of the insect world. Luckily, Waterhouse followed up student vacation employment with CSIR (the forerunner to CSIRO) with a secure position in 1938, and so began his remarkable entomological career spanning the next 60 years. He began with research into the sheep pest blowfly, then costing Australia’s sheep producers dearly in lost production, and followed it with work on repellents during the war years, especially against mosquitoes. After the war, his work covered the wool moth and more on the blowfly.

Flies and repellents continued to be a focus for Waterhouse and he ultimately identified from the scientific literature the key ingredients of what we all now know as Samuel Taylor’s famous Aerogard product for protection against the annoying but certainly not harmful Australian bush fly.

By this time in his career, Waterhouse was saddled with senior management responsibilities at CSIRO Entomology, so his time “at the bench” was limited.

However, one of his favourite stories concerned the 1963 royal visit to Canberra, then the home of bush flies, when in his management role he was called to the phone with a request from Government House to find out “what was CSIRO going to do about those damned flies”. This was the ideal opportunity to try out the new repellent so Waterhouse and some staff from CSIRO took some of the magic potion to Yarralumla and demonstrated its effectiveness to the royal aides. The next day at the official function, Waterhouse was alarmed to see that, despite CSIRO’s efforts, the Queen was still brushing flies away from her face in the traditional Aussie salute. It turned out that no-one had been game to get close enough to her to effectively apply the repellent in case it stained her outfit. A quick spray in her general direction was all the royal entourage was willing to try!

But the experiment was enough to be declared a success and the press were quick to see the benefits. The rest is history as the commercial product soon entered into Australian folklore and remains a favourite in the marketplace today.

Affectionately known as “father” during his time as head of CSIRO Entomology, Waterhouse devoted his life to applying the science of entomology to solving practical problems faced by people in Australia and in the developing nations.

The Aerogard episode epitomised his whole approach to science — the need to apply results so that we all benefit. In his leadership capacity at CSIRO Entomology for 21 years, from 1960 to 1981, Waterhouse championed significant research programs which continue to have lasting benefits to Australian agriculture, to our unique biodiversity, and to all Australians to-day. His extraordinary tenacity to see things through was one of the secrets to his success. Among the more successful programs he championed was the “dung beetle project” which saw the CSIRO introduce over 50 species of dung beetles from other countries to deal with the huge problem of pasture fouling caused by European cattle, and the attendant problem of increasing numbers of dung-breeding flies, especially the bush fly. As a result, both these problems are significantly reduced today. But there were many others.

Waterhouse was also the driving force behind the establishment of the Australian National Insect Collection as a permanent national entity, located within CSIRO Entomology, to develop a systematic and comprehensive understanding of Australia’s insect fauna and to be a centre for Australian insect biodiversity. The knowledge generated in the ANIC is used to underpin both applied research in many industry areas and studies aimed at conservation and environmental management. Fittingly, he served as the first chairman of the ANIC fund.

His visionary approach to biological control has seen huge pay-offs not only to Australia in terms of pest and weed management, but also to many of our neighbouring countries, especially among the Pacific island nations, where successful projects have restored local economies and livelihoods.

He retired from the CSIRO in 1981, but continued in an honorary capacity providing expert advice to governments and agencies in Australia and overseas and committing scientific knowledge to paper in a series of books about biological control and other matters. His latest book, jointly authored with Don Sands from CSIRO Entomology, is on the benefits of biological control in Australia and will be published early next year. Together with his family and colleagues, CSIRO Entomology will take the opportunity of the publication of this work to hold a special event next year to celebrate his life and the legacy he has left.

Waterhouse was recognised globally for his leadership in science by his election as a fellow of the Royal Society, fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering as well as numerous awards and medals. He was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 1980 and was elected to many academies and learned bodies overseas, including the US Academy of Sciences. This year he was elected honorary chairman of the International Congress of Entomology. He published over 100 scientific papers and several books.

Waterhouse was also committed to the role of education in Australia and became involved with the University of Canberra in the late 1960s when he joined an advisory committee looking at founding a college of advanced education in Canberra. A CAE council was established in 1968, with Waterhouse as its foundation chairman and he continued on the council for 16 years. He also served on the board of Canberra Grammar School and was the chairman of the National Science Summer School for many years.

Waterhouse is survived by his wife Dawn, their daughter Jill, and their sons Douglas, Jonathon and Gowrie.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 11 December 2000

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Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Robertson, 'Waterhouse, Douglas Frew (Doug) (1916–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/waterhouse-douglas-frew-doug-16377/text28344, accessed 24 November 2017.

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