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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Alan Weatherley (1928–2012)

by Bondon Durnota

Alan Weatherley passed away on 1 September 2012 at Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, after a brief illness. He was born in Sydney and was a third-generation Australian. In his childhood, Sydney was already a city of a million and a half, but with its warm temperate climate, its airy spaces, the proximity of its great harbour and splendid ocean beaches, it provided a uniquely open environment. Like many boys of his time, Alan roamed the spacious parklands and hills of its eastern suburbs. He loved the outdoors and developed an early fascination with nature, taking particular interest in ants and various intertidal organisms within Sydney Harbour.

When he was five, he fell seriously ill, taking a long time to recover and did not commence formal schooling until the age of nine. During his period of recuperation, he developed a voracious appetite for reading, reading anything that he could lay his hands on. So by the time that he did commence schooling he was well in advance of his peers in his reading skills. He maintained this love of the written word throughout his life, reading everything from light-hearted novels to philosophical works, the arts, film and theatre through to technical materials. His breadth of knowledge never failed to amaze his students. While at The Australian National University during the 1960s, his ability to discuss in detail topics such as the life and music of then contemporary musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the Beat Generation writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, or New Left writings of Herbert Marcuse was inspirational. He was a walking Wikipedia, willingly sharing and passing on his knowledge and ideas to his students.

This insatiable curiosity and search for knowledge came through in his studies at Sydney University, especially under the influence of the late Professors Frank Cotton and Charles Birch. The influence of these two teachers stayed with Alan throughout his career. Much of his early learning and formative experience as a scientist is documented in his book A Conservationist Perspective.

After graduating with a BSc in 1949, Alan moved to Hobart to work in the CSIRO’s Fisheries and Oceanography laboratory under the direction of Dr Aubrey Nicholls. This group was investigating the ecology of Tasmanian trout populations and aquaculture potential. Alan was given the task to carry out follow-up studies of a major experiment (1948–52) (probably the first in Australian limnology) in which a lake (Lake Dobson) was fertilised and the responses in water quality, sediments, macrophytes, phyto- and zooplankton, benthos and trout growth were determined for the next three years. Subsequently, in 1959, Alan received his MSc from the University of Tasmania with a thesis entitled ‘Tasmanian fish cultural studies’, a study of the aquaculture potential of fish (trout, tench) in Tasmania.

From Tasmania, Alan went in 1957 to the University of Glasgow, where in 1961 he was awarded his PhD for his study of the thermal biology of perch (Perca fluviatilis) and the role of the interrenal tissue (source of corticoid hormones) in thermal stress. Knowledge of the thermal biology of perch provided a clear depiction of its invasion in Australia.

In 1961 Alan took up a Lectureship in the new Department of Zoology at the ANU. He taught courses in vertebrate biology, comparative physiology and freshwater ecology. Shortly after his arrival he was requested by the National Capital Development Commission to investigate the chronic heavy metal pollution of the Molonglo River, which flowed into the almost completed Lake Burley Griffin. This study documented the chemistry of the pollution (with Roy Beevers, Bureau of Mineral Resources) of the river and its toll on both fish and invertebrates (the latter with P.S. Lake)—a pollution that still persists. From 1963 to 1966, Alan published among others three papers in Nature, and in 1965 he began drawing together reviews for the book Australian Inland Waters and their Fauna: Eleven Studies (ANU Press, 1967). With John Lake (NSW Fisheries) he studied the distribution and ecology of introduced freshwater fish (published in the aforementioned book) and in 1972 with Tim Berra (Tulane University) the split between Murray cod and Trout cod was published. Simultaneously to this research, Alan was working away on his book Growth and Ecology of Fish Populations (Academic Press, 1972). This book received the Publication Award of the Wildlife Society (USA) and became a Current Contents Citation Classic. During his time at ANU, Alan moved from being a Lecturer to a Reader in Zoology.

Alan was a co-founder in 1962 of the Australian Society for Limnology (ASL), was on the initial committee and was elected the first editor of the newsletter. In 1965 he became the third President of ASL and was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal. He was also Secretary of the Ecological Society of Australia and a member of the Executive Committee of the Great Barrier Reef Committee.

In late 1973 Alan moved to the University of Tromsø, Norway (inside the Arctic Circle), to become Professor of Fishery Biology. His charter was to develop a project to examine the feasibility of fisheries ‘based on fiord-inhabiting species to replace the formerly lucrative herring fishery that had been ruined by many years of overfishing against the strong advice of Norwegian fishery biologists’. After a year and a half, Alan accepted the offer of a full professorship at the University of Toronto. The move was no doubt coloured by the strong influence on him of Professor Fry of Toronto University, who was a highly productive pioneer of fish ecophysiology, and who was then close to retirement. Alan established a research group working on fish growth and metabolic activity. A major task was the successful development of telemetry to such a refined level that it was possible to monitor metabolic activity in free-living fish. From 1975 to his retirement in 1993, he and his colleagues (e.g. H.S. Gill, S.C. Rogers) published numerous papers and a book, The Biology of Fish Growth.

Whilst in Toronto, Alan and his wife, Robena Weatherley, were active members of Science for Peace prior to his retirement in New Brunswick. From his early days in Canberra, he was involved in conservation problems as reflected in his first novel The World that Is (2002) and in the treatise A Conservationist Perspective. Alan’s second novel, Something Lovely, embraced another keen interest, aviation. He continued to work seriously in conservation with Robena, centred on the area where they lived in a picturesque setting alongside a tributary of the Saint John River, New Brunswick. They were early members of Washademoak Environmentalists and later were co-founders of the Canaan-Washademoak Watershed Association. Alan was keenly interested in painting, and during his retirement became a serious painter producing many evocative waterscapes among other scapes.

In all intellectual matters that interested him, Alan maintained a critical and often sceptical approach and looked for strong, reliable evidence. During his life he was active in recreational sports, including cricket, tennis and squash, and remained very interested in participating as a spectator when unable to participate actively. His love of the outdoors, nature and scenery continued.

A final memorial gathering was held on 17 September in Cambridge- Narrows on Washademoak Lake, New Brunswick, where Alan and Robena lived following his retirement as a zoology professor at the University of Toronto.

A large number of friends, neighbours and colleagues from miles around and farther afield attended. Speakers recalled the many contributions by Alan and Robena to conservation, environmental and community projects during the two decades since Alan’s retirement from the University of Toronto, including the Canaan-Washademoak Watershed Association. Tributes on Alan’s research and teaching in limnology and fishery biology by international collaborators and former students were read. Speakers noted Alan’s integrity, strength of character and consideration for others, as well as his love of sports and the natural world. His stepdaughter and University of Toronto mathematics professor Lisa Jeffrey recalled family life, and Robena closed the evening with an expression of appreciation to all participants. Several of Alan’s landscape paintings and literary works were on display and helped emphasise his ongoing presence and significance in the community.

Alan Weatherley is survived by his wife, Robena of Cambridge-Narrows, New Brunswick, his stepdaughter, Lisa Jeffrey of Toronto (Robena’s daughter), and his two children from his first marriage to Jacqueline Robin (Katherine of Canberra and Robert of Sydney) as well as his granddaughters, Kylie of Canberra (Katherine’s daughter) and Eleanor (Lisa’s daughter).

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Citation details

Bondon Durnota, 'Weatherley, Alan (1928–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

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