Walter Stern interview, 30 May 2012

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Walter Stern interview, 30 May 2012




This is an interview with Emeritus Professor Walter Stern. Born in Egypt in 1927, Walter traveled to Australia with his family during World War Two. The family lived in Sydney and Walter was educated at North Sydney primary school, New England University College and Sydney University. He worked for the CSIRO in Katherine during the 1950s and Waite Agricultural Research Institute Adelaide, and in the Kimberley during the 1960s. He was appointed Foundation Professor in Agronomy at the University of Western Australia in 1969.
During the interview Walter discusses numerous topics relating to his career in the field of agriculture. He speaks of his career at the University of WA between 1969 and 1991. He recalls the important work of people associated with the Faculty of Agriculture at UWA, including Professor Eric Underwood, Professor David Lindsay and Professor Reg Moir among others. He served on numerous committees including the CSIRO State Committee and chaired the Agricultural Education Committee and the Research Committee. Walter felt that it was important for the University to have connections to the farming community and worked extensively in the field and was involved in coordinating numerous research stations throughout the state.
Walter relates many stories associated with his experience at UWA from work he conducted and oversaw, to his aims for the direction of agriculture at the University. He gives his impressions of the direction the University has taken in a competitive academic playing field and speaks of the sense of community he experienced working at UWA.


Stern, Walter


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


John Bannister


Walter Stern


Interview 1: 51 minutes, 42 seconds
Interview 2: 54 minutes, 37 seconds
Interview 3: 1 hour, 2 minutes, 3 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 48 minutes, 22 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Track 1
00:00:00 Introduction. Walter Stern - born in Cairo 3 Sept. 1927. Background career outline: Sydney University agriculture 1949, AIAS, CSIRO, Katherine Research Station. PhD Adelaide. Underwood and Agricultural Departments at UWA. Professor Holdsworth. Department of Soil Science, Agronomy, Animal Science, Agricultural Economics. Attracted to the West and the potential for agriculture.
00:06:30 Underwood asks WS to consider the chair at UWA. Ralph Slayter. Ralph and ANU. Discussions of career and UWA. Underwood interviews Stern. Impressions of UWA. Complicated study on the Ord River development. John Brody. CSIRO on campus. Facilities at UWA on arrival. Paper bags and mice. Securing money from Fielders. John Millington’s standing in the agriculture community. Underwood and the Federal Wheat Council. Reduced grants and field stations.
00:14:00 Fielders and the donation of money to UWA. Concern in agricultural press. Underwood has some concerns. Money and appointments. Study and plant breeding. John Gladstone’s clover breeding. Hank Greenway and teaching and field work. Waterlogging and salinity. Noel Thurling, a Melbourne graduate, good at guiding students. Personal aims for the department. Working on the most practical problems at the most scientific level. Doing field and laboratory work. Building up equipment at the University.
00:21:06 Using and administering funds obtained from grants. The minimum standard at UWA. Departments vary considerably. Establishing recognition for the Agricultural Department. Underwood Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Institute. Numbers at UWA. Impressions of Underwood. Regrettable aspects of Underwood’s character. Andrew Stuart memorial lecture.
00:27:17 Strong interest in field work. Examples of field stations. Superintendent of field stations. UWA science and the farming community. Learning about the farming community. Changes in climate patterns. Farmers’ concerns. ICI sowing practice. Farm advisers. Henry Shepherd. Links at various levels. Working on farming committees. Impressions of the concerns of farmers in WA. Waterlogging and infertility. Great disappointments and Jim Quirk and joint supervision. Students and technical assistants and learning.
00:36:11 Inheriting the clover breeding programme. Striving for improvements in yield. Discussion of Greenway, Thurling and Marcus Blacklow and Ralph Sedgley. Avoiding position of Dean. Views of UWA academic standing in the field of agronomy.
00:42:57 International standing. Getting people to come to University. Fellowships. Sir Joseph Hutchison. Improvements in University’s international standing. PhD students from interstate. Serving on the PhD and Research committee. Harry Webb zoology. Mike Buckingham. Agricultural Education Committee report. Education of farmers’ sons and daughters. Haydon Williams, Noel Fitzpatrick, Sir Don Eckersley, and Noel Monks.

Track 2
00:00:00 Quality of students and attracting students. Staff/student ratio. Friends, relationships and community at UWA. Changes. Review of courses and procedures. The student/client situation.
00:07:50 Reading from book Agriculture in Western Australia by Burvill. Discussion of writing and the responsibility to managing landscape. Students qualified to handle growing problems. Close association with the UWA and the producer - farmer. Geoff Gallop government reviews. Shifts in the partnership between the University and the Department of Agriculture.
00:14:36 Involvements with research and PhD Promotions and scholarship committee. Underwood and higher degrees. Chairman in the PhD committee including Harry Waring, Mike Buckingham. Secretaries and organisation. John Ross. Committee requires enormous amount of detailed work for quality etc.
00:21:10 Examples of the over-bureaucratisation of UWA and academic life. Changes. Chancellor. Two Vice Chancellors stand out: Prescott and Robson.
00:27:40 Promotions committee. Peter Tannock (Notre Dame University) and Don Watts (Curtin University). Robson going up for promotion.
00:33:20 Scholarships committee. Jim Quirk the faculty mile runner. New deal for agriculture. Finding funds. John Millington and Jack Lonergan in Soil Department. Stern’s approach in creating department. Memories of Reg Moir.
00:44:54 Sense of camaraderie at the University has changed. The University treated Moir very badly. Moir’s promotion to chair. Underwood’s failings. Andy Stewart runs the show. Underwood and community funding. Rural Reconstructions Report. Memories of Underwood’s reputation and big failing. Continuity in a faculty in disarray. Stability with David Lindsay.

Track 3
00:00:00 Staffing situation and the Department of Agronomy. John Millington, Gladstones, Roger Boyd. Clover wheat, Lupin and Barley. Money scrounged from farmers groups by Underwood. Erwin Watson. Variety of Gamenya, Hybrid of Gabo, Mendos and Yalta. Cereal breeding. Environment, plant physiology and crop improvement.
00:05:42 Gladstones leaves the university. Gladstones’ breeding programs are under threat. Gladstones’ work ethos. Boyd’s attitude to Walter Stern. Commercial firms and the science of breeding. Plant variety rights - a commercial proposition. Boyd and PhD students.
00:11:15 Gladstones and Noel Thurling. Sedgley and environmental studies at Merredin. Technical equipment and study at Merredin Research Station. Fitzpatrick the climatologist and Marcus Blacklow. Blacklow and weed ecology.
00:15:55 Experiences of sabbatical in Cambridge plant breeding institute in 1973. Michael Kirby. Bringing back techniques learned. Margaret Thatcher and funding cuts in Britain.
00:21:40 Brian Trenbath and discussion of WASP wheat and sheep pasture. Computing and technology. Editor of Forage and Fuel Production from Salt Affected Waste Lands.
00:29:00 Seeing the University’s work benefits the producers and the wider community. International grant from UNESCO. Cunderdin seminar 1984. University work and the lot of the producers. Hank Greenway and salinity. Clive Malcolm. Rewriting international papers. Attracting students from elsewhere. Sending students out to study elsewhere.
00:35:30 Benjawan Rerkasen – honours student - one of the most travelled and sought-after people. Discussion of other PhD students from around the world. Ephraim Whingwiri.
00:42:05 UWA’s isolation and the world wide network. Interactions mentioned. Changes to the sabbatical system. Discussion of the Malaysian experience. Australian Asian University Co-operation Scheme.
00:55:12 The Faculty today and the Department of Agriculture. The function of government and research. The finest Department of Agriculture in Australia. People in the department very capable. Retirement and expansion of the department. The university activity has changed. Interactions with PhD students. Final words.



Stern, Walter, “Walter Stern interview, 30 May 2012,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,