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Alan Norman Wilton (1953–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Get rid of the dingoes on Fraser Island? Hunt them to extinction? Not on your life, said Alan Wilton, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales, who devoted much of his academic life to their study, traced their ancestry and campaigned to have them recognised as probably the oldest breed of dog in the world.

In his long career, Wilton dealt with many genetic questions, some relating to human conditions, but a lot relating to genetic disorders in dogs which, once identified, could allow breeders and owners to avoid the further spread of these disorders. This had flow-on relevance to humanity, which shares over 90 per cent of canine genes.

Alan Norman Wilton was born on August 30, 1953, at Strathfield, the son of a toolmaker, Lionel Wilton, and Nellie. The eldest of three boys, he was educated at Homebush Boys High and went to Sydney University.

In 1976, he received his BSc (Hons) and in 1980 his PhD in population genetics on drosophila. He married a farmer's daughter, Eleanor Jones, and went with her to the US where he took positions at North Carolina State University and the University of California Davis.

He started working on human molecular genetics and disease gene mapping. The marriage to Eleanor did not last. Wilton took up academic posts at the University of Western Australia, University of Adelaide and Macquarie University, and in 1991 joined the staff of the University of New South Wales.

Appointed a lecturer in genetics at the NSW University school of biochemistry and molecular genetics, he became a senior lecturer in 1995. In 1997, he studied gestational diabetes mellitus, which occurs in 3 to 4 per cent of human pregnancies. He became involved in controversy about genetic manipulation: ''People talk about making a super human,'' he was quoted as saying. ''But which of those 35,000 genes and how many are you going to try to manipulate? And when you do, how is it going to affect the others?"

Wilton became involved in research of the dingo, a species so affected by breeding with domestic dogs that 80 per cent were really hybrids. The purest population was on Fraser Island, which made the population particularly important. He predicted that unless special efforts were made to protect the dingo, it would be extinct in 50 years.

Wilton became involved in other research, in particular into genetic disorders in border collies. The research had wide implications because humans and dogs share some 360 genetic diseases in common. The Border Collie Club of NSW, concerned about ceroid lipofuscinosis (CL) and trapped neutrophil syndrome (TNS), which afflicted the breed, approached him for help.

In 2005, Wilton, together with a PhD student, Scott Melville, identified the gene responsible for CL in border collies, and developed and patented a genetic test. As a consequence, he not only helped the species but gave hope to children afflicted with Batten's disease, a largely similar disorder found in humans. Then he found the gene responsible for TNS.

He carried on his research identifying rogue genes in Australian cattle dogs and Australian stumpy tail cattle dogs, delighting breeders everywhere.

Wilton played a leading role in setting up a DNA sequencing facility that ultimately led to the establishment of the Ramaciotti Centre for Gene Function Analysis at the university. Now internationally known, working in collaboration with colleagues in Sweden, the Netherlands and the US, he was named as the 1994 Australian Science Communicators Unsung Hero of Science. He served a term as secretary of the Genetics Society of Australia and as an office-holder of the Human Genetics Society of Australia. He also served as chair of the dog genetics and genomics workshop of the International Society for Animal Genetics.

The dean of the faculty of science at NSW University, Professor Merlin Crossley, said: ''He was an inspiring teacher. But most of all he was a charming, engaging and very modest colleague who contributed selflessly to the community within and beyond the university.'' In 2007, the Master Dog Breeders & Associates gave him an award for excellence in canine research.

He was an integral part of the volleyball on Coogee Beach where he lived, fond of the Blue Mountains, bushwalking and travel. Wilton was engaged to a fellow researcher, Dr Barbara Zangerl. He was patron of the dingo sanctuary at Bargo and patron of the Fraser Island save the dingoes group.

When he was appointed an associate professor this year, his publishing record was 57 refereed papers, and 15 other scientific publications, including five book chapters. He had attracted more than $1 million in external research funding. Holding other important positions, he was at the end still unravelling more about the dingo's origins, proposing that it had come on a land bridge from China and might have arrived in Australia more than 18,000 years ago.

After battling cancer for nearly two years, Wilton died peacefully at his unit at Coogee beach on October 14. He is survived by Barbara, father Lionel, and brothers Mark and Grant.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Wilton, Alan Norman (1953–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 July 2024.

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