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Waring, Hugh Douglas (1917–2010)

by Alan Brown, Partap Khanna, Sadanandan Nambiar, John Raison and Peter Snowdon

Hugh Waring, n.d.

Hugh Waring, n.d.

Hugh Douglas Waring was born in Croydon, a suburb of Sydney. He left school in his early teens in order to be certain of getting a job during the depression years—young employees were paid minimum wages. Hugh worked first as a messenger boy and then as a clerk. He developed a love of the bush on fishing and hunting trips with his family and through his friendship with an old bushman who lived on the outskirts of Sydney.

He enlisted in the AIF in September 1940 and was posted to Malaya, where he was commissioned as an officer two weeks prior to his capture in Singapore by Japanese forces in February 1942. As a prisoner-of-war he spent some time in Changi before being transferred to Sandakan in Borneo where he was set to work on the construction of a military airfield. He resigned himself to work as a coolie and determined to keep out of trouble. As a POW he met Australians from all walks of life; strong bonds of mateship were formed and he was encouraged to better his education once the war was over. Most officers in the camp were moved to another camp at Kuching, Sarawak, in August 1943 and almost all troops remaining at Sandakan were killed ( The war ended in August 1945 with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; his commission and the timing of the bombing of Japan had both saved his life.

In 1946 Hugh joined a large number of others—whose education had been curtailed by depression or war— attending university as serious, mature-age students. These were students who, in the ensuing decades, made an outstanding contribution to Australia. While studying, he married Del and began a family. He graduated from the University of Sydney with first-class honours in agricultural chemistry in 1950, studying the soils of the Pilliga cypress pine forest in his honours year. Following graduation he was appointed to the expanded research staff of the Forestry and Timber Bureau (transferred to CSIRO in 1975), initially in Sydney but before long moving to Canberra. Soon after appointment, he won a Harkness Fellowship from the Commonwealth Fund in New York. This enabled him during 1952 and 1953 to spend semesters at UC Berkeley and Duke University, to visit research centres in the UK and to forge enduring international contacts.

He worked for three decades as a forest soil scientist, contributing to seminal advances in forest nutrition, site management and silviculture, particularly of radiata pine. Throughout his professional life he stuck to the bench, and was able to make a pioneering contribution. At the start of his career, knowledge of forest science in Australia was very limited. We were using undomesticated species whose requirements for water and nutrients were poorly understood, and the tools available for research were simple. Quantitative data on water, and on soil and plant chemistry, were very laborious to obtain.

Hugh began work on plantations of radiata pine, seeking explanations for poor growth, dieback and death. Commencing in 1955, he established a series of major field experiments in the ACT and adjacent NSW that greatly expanded understanding of the factors needed for rapid growth of young trees. These experiments were well-designed, meticulously established and rigorously maintained. Hugh always sought the best statistical advice when establishing experiments. He was probably the first to use complex factorial designs for field experiments in forestry; he pioneered the use of close planting (0.9 x 0.9 m) to reduce experiment size and thereby minimise site variation; he used covariates to improve precision; and he measured his experiments frequently to better understand the patterns of growth and other responses. He was perhaps the first to use forest biomass as a measure of growth response.

Instrumentation for chemical analysis advanced rapidly, and Hugh introduced the first AutoAnalyzer in an Australian forest research laboratory in 1964. This enabled rapid analysis of large numbers of samples often required in forest research, leading to greatly increased knowledge about foliar nutrients and enabling the fate of fertiliser in soils to be tracked. Advances in computing allowed the complex relationships between tree growth, nutrient content and soil factors and climate to be examined more readily. By the time he retired in 1982 understanding of forest soils, nutrition and tree growth had been transformed.

In the early 1960s Hugh established a series of experiments at normal espacement designed to measure the effects of establishment practices on growth throughout the rotation. They incorporated some of the first Australian studies of fertiliser application at the time of thinning. These studies, which have few equals in the world, were maintained for decades by inspired staff and ultimately provided important data for general models of forest growth and the development of the widely acclaimed concepts of Type 1 and Type 2 responses to silvicultural treatments.

In 1967 a series of Research Working Groups (RWG) were established to improve communication among Australian forest researchers. Hugh was the inaugural secretary of the Soils and Nutrition RWG and organised the Australian Forest Tree Nutrition Conference in Canberra in 1971. He was awarded a UN FAO Andre Meyer Fellowship in 1972 to undertake international studies of the nutrition of tropical pines. Following international consultancies in 1968 and 1970, at the invitation of FAO, he and two European colleagues (Professors Tamm and Zottle) planned the FAO–IUFRO International Symposium on Forest Fertilisation held in Paris in 1973. A decade later he had another invited role in an FAO–IUFRO meeting that examined forest research needs in the Asia–Pacific region in preparation for the establishment of the Center for International Forest Research in Bogor.

In 1954 Hugh and Del began a family tree-growing project on a 14-ha site at Robertson that became a focus for family and friends alike in ensuing years; it now contains an outstanding collection of some 200 tree species and a magnificent patch of native rainforest. An account of the project was published in Think Trees Grow Trees (1985, AGPS, pp. 1 63–173). Hugh actively promoted farm forestry and made many like-minded friends in Australia and New Zealand. From 1982 he assisted the new National Tree Program and Greening Australia, and was a judge in the national annual Tree Care Awards for the four years 1985–1988, a competition the results of which were presented by ABC TV.

In parallel with his work on forestry, Hugh had a significant role in public education in Australia over 32 years. This had its genesis in the Parents and Citizens Associations and boards of the schools and colleges that his children attended, but it extended to roles in the parent organisations at a territory and national level, and to membership of the ACT Schools Authority until 1985. He sought equitable, high-quality education for all children, and strongly advocated that public education should afford opportunities for children to pursue academic excellence and to develop social skills and values vital to their full development and their success in later life. Another aspect of his social interests was his participation in staff association efforts to obtain equal pay for women.

Hugh and Del were active in international student exchange through the Field Service Scholarship scheme—two of their children won places in the USA and the family hosted visits of foreign students to Australia as well as contributing to the management of and fund-raising for the scheme. His daughter, Joan, attended university in Japan. Before her untimely death she fostered reconciliation between prisoners-of-war such as her father and their former Japanese guards.

His contributions to soil science, forestry and education were fittingly recognised in 1991 by the award of a Medal of the Order of Australia.

Hugh relished a vigorous debate, and with a great sense of humour often baited friends for an argument even when he was well past 90 years of age; he derived great pleasure in challenging dogmas. He was richly endowed with integrity; generous in sharing his experiments, knowledge and time, and in his mentoring of young people. He was an inspirational leader to many. Hugh paid tribute to the enormous contribution of Del to his professional career, to his interests in civil society and to his private life. Long-term friends who valued close contact with the family were inspired by the depth of their love and the power of their life-long companionship.

Hugh loved his family and his forest. He treated every day of his long life after the war as a bonus—with humour, great humanity and a zest for life. He is survived by Del and six of their seven children and grandchildren, who loved him deeply.

Original publication

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Citation details

Alan Brown, Partap Khanna, Sadanandan Nambiar, John Raison and Peter Snowdon, 'Waring, Hugh Douglas (1917–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 3 August 2021.

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