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Aitken, Yvonne (1911–2004)

by Susan Hudson

The life of pioneering agricultural scientist Yvonne Aitken, who has died at 94, demonstrated how much better it is to look at the big picture in life.

Aitken was only 29, with a newly completed master's degree in agricultural science, when given an ostensibly impossible challenge. Her mentor, Professor Sir Samuel Wadham, suggested she decipher the mystery of why day length determined the time over which crops matured (as distinct from other environmental factors and genetics), a problem yet unsolved.

She took up the quest with extraordinary zeal, and over the next 30 years planted various species at locations offering extremes of daylight, temperature and altitude — in Alaska, Greenland, Macquarie Island, Canada, Wales, mainland US, Hawaii, Peru, Mexico and Tasmania, to name a few. She visited these sites while on leave from her post as lecturer at Melbourne University and largely funded the project herself.

It was research on a massive geographic scale and, according to colleague Dr Douglas Parbery, akin to the approaches and thinking of the great plant biologists Charles Darwin and Nikolai Vavilov.

For the first time, agronomists and plant breeders were able to predict geographic and climatic limits for plant varieties. It gave Aitken a doctorate of agricultural science (the first woman to achieve this in Victoria and possibly Australia) and provided the material for her book, Flowering Time, Climate and Genetics (1974).

Her other books included Agricultural Science — an Introduction for Students and Farmers (1962), co-authored and published with professors Derek Tribe, Norman Tulloh and Jack Wilson, and the Handbook of Flowering Vol.1 (1985).

Aitken's lifetime goal was to extend the range of consumable crops for humans and animals. She was a fellow of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1981-89), and was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1989 for her significant contribution to plant sciences and teaching.

Yvonne Aitken was the first of two daughters born to bank manager David Aitken and former teacher Arabella Miller at Horsham. They moved frequently and she attended the Convents of Mercy in Tatura, Camperdown, St Arnaud and Ballarat East before winning a scholarship to Melbourne University in 1930. In residence at Janet Clarke Hall, she was midway through her agricultural science studies when she contracted tuberculosis and deferred for two years before graduating with honours in 1936. Three years later she gained a master's degree by discovering why high proportions of subterranean sub-clover seed failed to germinate — her first ground-breaking research.

Aitken was appointed a lecturer at Melbourne University in 1945, senior lecturer in 1957, reader in plant sciences (1975-77) and, from 1977, an honorary senior associate of the Institute of Land and Food Resources in what became a 74-year association with the university.

A good, practical scientist, she helped many by adapting plants to suit particular needs and environments. Field peas were difficult to grow in north-central Victoria, so Aitken produced a new variety well adapted to the area, which she named "Derrimut" after the university field station where she spent many happy hours conducting her PhD research.

She collected an enormous number of pea varieties in her travels and later sorted them into genetic groups, 100 of which she deposited at the World Wheat Seed Collection held in America to preserve genetic diversity for plant breeders of the future.

Aitken was a resident tutor (1951-76), vice-principal and fellow of Janet Clarke Hall, and elected one of four foundation fellows, the highest honour the college can bestow. In his eulogy, JCH principal Dr Damien Powell recalled her insightful mind, gentleness, humility and love of nature that had "something of the Franciscan touch".

Her sister Lynly, director of nursing at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for 18 years, accompanied Aitken on many trips, partly because she could become so absorbed in work she would forget to catch planes. She had greater priorities, it seemed.

As well as an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, Aitken was interested in genetics, physiology and agronomy, but loved nothing more than being out in the field, walking and teaching. Well into her 80s, she would walk up to three kilometres, climb fences and talk to students eager to grasp a little of her extensive knowledge. Her goddaughter Dr Kate Cherry said: "Walks with Yvonne were always long walks - not because we covered great distances, but because she saw so many interesting things that other people might have missed, and would always stop to make sure we had seen them too."

An avid artist who kept pictorial records of her work and field explorations, Aitken became close friends with distinguished Australian artist Edith Alsop (1871-1958). When Alsop bequeathed to her 260 paintings, Aitken later donated the entire collection to the Ian Potter Gallery.

Her younger sister Lynly survives Aitken. Melbourne University sponsors the Yvonne Aitken Scholarship and the Australian Federation of University Women offers a bursary in her name. Janet Clarke Hall also has a residence named in her honour.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 20 January 2005, p 9

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Citation details

Susan Hudson, 'Aitken, Yvonne (1911–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/aitken-yvonne-31607/text39079, accessed 19 May 2021.

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