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Kenneth George (Ken) Eldridge (1934–2010)

by Peter Kanowski, Colin Matheson, Alan Brown and Chris Harwood

Ken Eldridge, n.d.

Ken Eldridge, n.d.

Ken [Kenneth George Eldridge] was prominent in forest tree breeding, nationally and internationally. From a career of more than 50 years he will be particularly remembered for two achievements of enduring worth: the conception and conduct of a cooperative systematic collection of seed from the natural stands of radiata pine that now provides a broad international base for the breeding of that species, and a major contribution to a classic reference on eucalypt breeding.

Ken received his primary and secondary education in Victoria with the aid of a Junior Government Free Place in 1948 and a Commonwealth Scholarship from 1952 to 1954. He began a Melbourne University BSc course in 1955 majoring in botany, and completed an MSc at the same university in 1957 on the fungal pathogen Diplodea pinea (also called Sphaeropsis sapinea) on radiata pine. He held Caroline Kay and Howitt Natural History Scholarships from 1955 to 1957. He was offered an appointment by the Commonwealth Department of the Interior as a Research Officer (Forestry) just before Christmas in 1957. A condition of his appointment was that he complete a Diploma of Forest Technology from the Australian Forestry School in Canberra, which he did in 1958. He undertook a PhD at the ANU Department of Forestry from 1966 to 1969. When the Forest Research Institute, part of the Forestry and Timber Bureau, became the new CSIRO Division of Forest Research in 1975, he became a Senior Research Scientist and then in 1978 Principal Research Scientist before retiring in 1991. In 2008, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southern Tree Breeding Association, the STBA—the pine and eucalypt breeding cooperative that he helped to form in the 1980s—acknowledging his contribution to tree breeding over the five decades since he began work at Traralgon.

Ken’s first permanent job, in Traralgon, began in 1958, with work on breeding pines and eucalypts in cooperation with Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd. He set up one of the very first genecological trials of a eucalypt species, using seed of Eucalyptus regnans he collected along an altitudinal transect up nearby Mt Erica. He used the latest incomplete block designs to establish the experiments, the results of which formed the basis for his PhD, published as Bulletin 46 of the Forestry and Timber Bureau in 1972. The tedium of analysing cubic lattices using mechanical hand calculators is memorable!

Ken’s initial post-PhD work focused mainly on the breeding of radiata pine, establishing progeny tests in both ACT and NSW which eventually fed results into the STBA information system in use today. While in Traralgon, he initiated genetic gains trials to demonstrate to unbelievers that breeding works. He established large genetics field trials in the Tallaganda and Bondo State Forests near Canberra to demonstrate genetic gains and identify the best trees for further breeding. While travelling to and from Tallaganda and working there, Ken became aware of native forest harvesting practices that he believed damaged soils, streamflows and wildlife corridors. He provided information about this to Richard and Val Routley, who used it in their book The Fight for the Forests. Public acknowledgement of his assistance when the book was published in 1973 brought Ken into conflict with both local foresters and management of the Forestry and Timber Bureau. He was banned by the Bureau from visiting his own experiments at Tallaganda, and advised that perhaps he was in the wrong job. Fortunately he did not heed this advice; he continued to oppose what he saw as poor forestry practices but kept a lower public profile until his retirement from CSIRO.

As the 1970s progressed, Ken became concerned with the state of radiata pine breeding in Australasia, believing that the genetic resources available to breeders could well be far too narrow (he used to say ‘our best is none too good’). The direct evidence relating to the introduction of radiata pine to Australia in the mid-19th century was then, and remains, sketchy, and it is quite possible that we received a very reduced subset of the genetic resources of the species in California and two Mexican islands. He set about drumming up support in both Australia and New Zealand, and in California with his friend Professor Bill Libby, for a new, range-wide seed collection. This collection took place in 1978 in the three mainland localities (Año Nuevo, Monterey and Cambria with Tony Firth of NZFRI) as well as on Guadalupe and Cedros Islands in Mexico. His account of the collection is lively and very readable, noting the help the expedition received from a local prison population as well as interested children and well-heeled private individuals (particularly on the Mexican islands). This collection was established in stands not only in Australia and New Zealand but around the world where radiata pine is grown. With his long-standing collaborators Rowland Burdon and Bill Libby, he also worked on the manuscript for a book on the domestication of radiata pine. The radiata pine genes Ken brought back to Australia will continue to contribute to plantation productivity for as long as the species is grown here.

Despite his important work with Pinus radiata, Ken never lost his consuming interest in the eucalypts, and in 1977 was elected co-chair of the IUFRO Working Party on Breeding Eucalypts. The four co-chairs set themselves the task of writing a book on eucalypt domestication. In 1984, Ken took his family with him to Oxford where as a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College and at the Oxford Forestry Institute he was able to write much of the manuscript. The book had a lengthy gestation, but the seminal result, Eucalypt Domestication and Breeding, was eventually published by Clarendon Press in 1993. It is now a standard work, widely cited, and is a lasting memorial to Ken’s work, as well as a testament to the contributions of his co-authors. Ken’s interest and expertise with breeding eucalypts took him to Brazil on behalf of FAO in 1979, to Portugal in 1986, to China in 1991 and to Thailand in 1996. His high standing internationally in eucalypt breeding rested not only on his expertise but also on his ability to explain the requirements for successful breeding to those new to its complexities.

After retirement, Ken remained active as an Honorary Research Fellow, first in the CSIRO Division of Forestry and Forest Products and, when that closed, the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. Ken’s interest in people, and the community of which he was part, meant that he was keen to share his knowledge. He advised the Royal Canberra Golf Club on their trees, inherited from the Westbourne Woods Arboretum established by Charles Weston and augmented by Lindsay Pryor. He became so interested in those trees that he was one of the founders of the Westbourne Woods Action Society in 1980 and led many of the subsequent monthly Westbourne Woods walks, conducted in recognition of the importance of the collection to history and to the future of Canberra’s trees.

For the past five years, that same interest prompted Ken to contribute greatly, despite the challenges of extended hospitalisation and confinement, to the shaping of the new National Arboretum Canberra as a place of learning, beauty and enjoyment. It is very fitting that the final plantings of seedlings derived directly from his 1978 radiata pine collection were established, soon after his death, in the arboretum in a plot that will be named for him.

Late in his life Ken re-engaged with forest politics, giving evidence in 2009 to the Senate Inquiry into land use practices on Melville Island, NT. He informed himself of the issues in part by participating in an IFA-sponsored group tour of the region, and came to believe that commercial plantation forestry practices on the Island there did not sufficiently recognise the intrinsic value of the native forests nor their value to local people. He expressed these views articulately in both written and oral submissions to the Inquiry.

Many who knew Ken also knew his family. He met his future wife Marian Stockfeld at Melbourne University; they married in 1958 and their four children were born in Traralgon. As Marian’s literary career became established in the 1980s, Ken became one of the greatest supporters of her writing and that of other Australian women authors. After Marian’s death in 1997, Ken established a partnership with Nicky Coles, who also shared many of his interests and values, and who helped keep him cheerful despite the travails of ill-health in the years preceding his death.

Ken was a world authority on tree breeding. His scientific writings and teaching helped many countries to develop much more productive eucalypt plantations, and his work provided the basis for continuing genetic improvement of radiata pine in Australia and New Zealand. He was an inspirational teacher, showing great empathy with students and colleagues from around the world. He took the time to listen carefully and communicate clearly the essence of the subject, helping novices to navigate the complexities of forest genetics. He always welcomed professional visitors to CSIRO, making a point of introducing himself and helping them overcome the awkwardness of first contact in a strange place. We shall all miss him.

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Citation details

Peter Kanowski, Colin Matheson, Alan Brown and Chris Harwood, 'Eldridge, Kenneth George (Ken) (1934–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

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