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Wesley Kingston (Wes) Whitten (1918–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

When a scientist finishes his career with observed phenomena and scientific techniques named after him or her (a curie, a roentgen, a van der Waals), it is a fair guess that he has done something. Such was the case with Wesley Whitten, a Methodist minister's son who became a veterinary scientist and did groundbreaking work on reproductive cycles, fertilisation and embryo development – and left science with the ''Whitten effect'' and the ''Whitten medium''.

His research led the way, among other things, to infertility treatment in humans. His contribution was well recognised in his lifetime. In 1993 he was awarded the Marshall Medal from the Society for the Study of Fertility and in 1996 the Pioneer Award of the International Society for Embryo Transfer.

Wesley Kingston (Wes) Whitten was born in Macksville, NSW, on August 1, 1918, one of five children of Reverend Alfred Whitten and his wife, Ethel Cock. The family moved throughout rural NSW where Alfred had appointments, and from time to time visited his uncle's farm near Quirindi, where Wes was exposed to nature and his curiosity was sparked. He was a surfer and champion swimmer and became a keen bushwalker and canoeist.

Whitten went to the University of Sydney on a scholarship and graduated in 1939 as a Bachelor of Veterinary Science with Honours. In 1940 he became a Fellow in Veterinary Science at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. In 1941 he became a Bachelor of Science and also went into military service, first as a captain in the Veterinary Corps and later as the Officer-in-Charge of the Land Headquarters Food Laboratory. In December that year, he married Enid Elsbeth Cay (Beth) Meredith.

After war service, Whitten joined the CSIRO, where he studied the effects of nutrition on the reproductive fertility of sheep. In 1949, he joined the newly-founded Australian National University as the officer-in-charge of animal breeding at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. During his time at the ANU, Whitten made significant contributions to the understanding of early embryo metabolism and endocrine control on implantation. He found the first evidence of chemical communication between male and female mice – a fundamental breakthrough in mammalian reproductive physiology. His discovery of the synchronisation of the oestrus cycle of female mice exposed to the pheromones in male mouse urine is known as the Whitten effect.

Also at ANU, Whitten developed the Whitten medium, which facilitated culturing mammalian eggs and developing embryos, and is still used worldwide. In 1958, he spent three months on Macquarie Island researching elephant seals, helping to band birds and bats and researching possum and fox reproduction.

After a sabbatical from 1960-61 at the Jackson Laboratory in Maine, Whitten resigned from the ANU to become the assistant director (endocrine products) at the National Biological Standards Laboratory in Canberra.

In 1962, he graduated with a Doctor of Science from the University of Sydney then in 1966, moved to the Jackson Laboratory in the US as a senior staff scientist and later as the associate director.

There he developed techniques for freezing and transferring embryos and worked on chimeric mice. His ground-breaking research in embryology, reproductive physiology and endocrinology and animal contraception was the forerunner of infertility treatment in humans.

Whitten returned to Australia in 1979, and on his retirement in 1980, continued his research interests. In 1982, he was inducted as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He held honorary positions in institutions in Australia and overseas, and somewhere along the way also ventured into beef cattle production in Tasmania.

Because of his lifelong commitment to the ideals of humanity and ethics in scientific and medical research, and given his expertise in the field of reproduction, Whitten was chosen for the working party established in 1988 to advise the federal minister for health on cloning. ''Dolly'' the sheep had arrived, with massive implications for the ethics of reproduction.

In the late 1990s, Whitton was a stalwart advocate for Tall Girls Inc – a group taking legal action because as girls they were growing tall and had been treated with synthetic oestrogen to stunt their growth. He was also an advocate for sufferers of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a wasting neurological condition, and their families.

In 1999 his wife Beth died, and in 2001 Whitten married Mary Taylor, a long-standing friend and colleague. In 2008, Whitten fulfilled a lifelong ambition to visit the Galapagos Islands. But his health was then failing. He divorced Mary and returned to Canberra to be nearer his family. Last year the ANU named its new purpose-built world-class animal breeding facility the Wes Whitten Building.

Wes Whitten is survived by Mary, his children Gregory, Mark, Jane and Penelope, five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and four siblings.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Whitten, Wesley Kingston (Wes) (1918–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

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