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Denis John Carr (1915–2008)

by Brian Gunning

Denis John Carr, Emeritus Professor of The Australian National University (ANU), died on 19 July 2008, aged 92. He fell in his home in Canberra and passed away just three days later, having retained his independence, lovely sense of humour and great erudition until the end.

He was a Foundation Professor of Plant Science in the ANU Research School of Biological Sciences from 1968 to his retirement in 1980, and was previously Head of the Department of Botany in the Queens University Belfast (1960–07) and a Senior Lecturer and Reader in Melbourne University (1953–60). His undergraduate studies at Manchester University (1946–49) earned him a first-class honours degree, after which he combined lecturing duties with a PhD project (1949–53).

His wife Maisie (Stella G.M. Fawcett), whom he had met and married in Melbourne, was famous for her pioneering research on the effect of grazing on the ecology of the Victorian High Plains. After her death in 1988,2 he wrote a detailed memoir about his early life and wartime experiences, revealing much that few, if any, of even his closest colleagues had known. His account is a testament to his extraordinary ability to recall people, events, scenes, songs, poetry, folklore and other aspects of his life, just as in his academic career he used to astonish colleagues with his total recall of the research literature and history of plant science.

His ancestry was Irish, and he wrote that his grandfather disappeared from Kilkenny to avoid punishment—even possible transportation—for poaching a salmon. His grandmother moved to England, where his father found work as a miner in a North Staffordshire pit, working long hours underground from age nine until he was over 70. His father was well read, literate and numerate and keen for his children to be well educated, though he had never attended school himself. Denis’ own schooling was not propitious, and his final results were not good enough for university entrance. He became a clerk, a dull job that he held for eight years until he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force in 1940. During that time, he worked in the evenings in the North Staffordshire Technical College to gain a London University external BSc by correspondence. This was of little value at the time, but later was to prove crucial.

He was reticent about his war experience, and only in his 80s did he recount some of his experiences, initially as an aircraft fitter, later as a trainer, then, having found this monumentally boring, as a volunteer in an Air Force Commando unit, eventually going to Sicily, taking part in the Salerno landings, and suffering many dramatic and traumatic episodes. One such was a severe bout of malaria, during which he emerged from unconsciousness to hear medical orderlies discussing whether he should be given water: ‘Don’t bother,’ one said, ‘He’s not going to survive anyway.’ He did survive and returned to his dull pre-war clerking job. He was now in competition with hordes of ex-servicemen, all looking for a better life, but his pre-war BSc gave him an edge, entitling him to apply for a further-education scholarship. He became an undergraduate in Manchester University, aged 30, a belated start to his academic career. His schoolboy interest in natural history led him to choose zoology, but at the end of his first year he was persuaded by Professor Eric Ashby (pre-war Professor of Botany in Sydney University and later Baron Ashby) to take up botany instead.

His undergraduate years must have been ferociously competitive, indeed with hindsight this may have been very character-forming. At least four other future professors of plant science in the UK were among his fellow mature-age classmates. Nevertheless, Denis prevailed, winning a succession of prizes and awards and emerging with a first-class honours degree in botany. At that time, it was possible for a bright graduate to combine lecturing duties with a PhD project. Ashby persuaded him that this was a promising career path and appointed him to a Junior Lectureship in Ecology. He started research on the control of flowering by daylength and won a scholarship that took him to a well-equipped lab in a Max Planck Institute in Tubingen. There he met many senior German scientists, and learned German fluently enough to be able, much later, to give lectures in it as a Visiting Professor in Berlin. He also acquired a deep knowledge of classical European literature—which is one reason why the ANU library is so well-endowed with historical books and journals in plant science; he later served as Chair of its Library Committee and helped to build its collections.

Denis continued his research on flowering during his stay in Melbourne and supervised many students who subsequently rose to senior positions. Perhaps because he felt driven to succeed by his late start in academia, he worked excessively long hours in course preparation and research. At one stage he designed a long-term experiment that was so demanding that an imminent nervous breakdown forced him to abandon it. He had risen to a Readership and had been awarded an Honorary Master of Science degree when a chance meeting at a conference led him to apply for the Chair of Botany in Belfast. His impact there was immense. By the end of his seven-year stay, the department had grown under his energetic championship to be one of the best equipped in the UK, and he had propelled another crop of staff and students towards advancement in the field.

At ANU he recapitulated his history of department-building, in this case from scratch in the new Research School of Biological Sciences, and yet again he focused on equipping and nurturing his staff and students. Long afterwards in retirement he said that helping others had given him his greatest satisfaction, and it is undoubtedly true that many can look back with gratitude on his intellectual and practical help, and his untiring work in creating opportunities to further their careers. It is easy to count at least ten Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science and Fellows of the Royal Society who benefited, to greater or lesser degree, from having come under his positive (sometimes forthright!) stimulation. To one of his early colleagues, he was ‘a pioneer who encouraged students to achieve great heights, while standing back in the shadows himself, looking for new areas in which to inspire others to make a move’. He described himself as a generalist, which, as he realised full well, meant that he did not concentrate for sufficiently long enough to become recognised as the world leader in any one area. Regrettably this, and perhaps what Maisie called his propensity to ‘blow-up’, which did not endear him to everyone, probably resulted in academic honours going to those he had influenced, rather than to him.

His researches were original, significant and wide-ranging. In Manchester he had been among the first to find evidence for a ‘flowering hormone’. Continuing this line at Melbourne University, he established and used the first facility in Australia for growing plants in controlled daylength and temperature regimes, and in Belfast he succeeded in obtaining active extracts that could induce flowering in vegetative plants and interact with a class of plant hormones, the gibberellins. Only in recent years with the advent of new molecular approaches are the details of these phenomena being fleshed out. Other projects included the distribution of water in leaves and its influence on drought tolerance, the physiology of seed-filling and germination, the sources and transport from root-to-shoot and from cell-to-cell of plant hormones, and their mode of action—this latter area involving pioneering studies of how genes function in plant development, an area that, with great foresight, he selected as a focal activity for his new department in ANU. In parallel with these physiological and biochemical projects, he collaborated with Maisie in long-term studies of Eucalyptus, compiling vast amounts of data on morphology, anatomy, ultrastructure, germination and history, leading to new understanding of taxonomic relationships and evolution within the genus.

Along the way, he made many contributions in administration and teaching. He served as Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor in ANU, as Acting Director of his research school, was a Visiting Professor in Berlin and Harvard, gave numerous lectures in many countries, including a scholarly and passionate advocacy of fundamental research using as its title the ANU motto (translated as ‘First Know the Nature of Things’). His books (with Maisie) on People and Plants in Australia and Plants and Man in Australia (Academic Press, 1981) are wonderful social histories related to utilisation of plants. Other books concerned Eucalyptus, plant hormones and plant development. One of his most beautiful (and challenging to produce) volumes was on Sydney Parkinson: Artist of Cook’s Endeavour Voyage— possibly the last book to come from the original Australian National University Press (1983). After retirement he continued to publish on taxonomy of Eucalyptus and descriptions of new-to-science bryophytes, which he and Maisie had collected in their Melbourne days. His last major work, at age 89, was A Book for Maisie, a compilation of letters and reminiscences in honour of his wife, and his last paper, one year later, was as co-author of a biography of a Polish scientist who in the 1880s had made the first observations on the structural basis of intercellular communication in plants. Aside from these academic achievements, his accomplishments as a gifted pianist, a fascinating and witty raconteur, bibliophile, talented linguist and historian deserve much more space than can be given here.

He claimed that he had had a fortunate life. It was also long, eventful, influential and productive, and it was a shame that its academic phase started so late. The ANU motto Naturam primum cognoscere rerum would be an apt epitaph, and the quotation ‘When an old man dies it is like a library burning to the ground’ could well have been written for him. He lives on in those whom he helped. I was one of them, and I will always be grateful, and will treasure memories of a truly charismatic, supremely gifted and generous man.

Citation details

Brian Gunning, 'Carr, Denis John (1915–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Denis Carr, 1983

Denis Carr, 1983

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-198

Life Summary [details]


15 December, 1915
Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England


19 July, 2008 (aged 92)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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