Dr Robert Smith 1915 – 2004

Originally published in the Decmber 2006 edition of the Membership Newsletter (No.41)

Dr Robert Smith 1915 – 2004

On the passing of my father, Dr Robert Smith, international consultant; Foundation Member of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in 1935 and a Member of the British Society of Soil Science.

Robert was born in the wheat belt area of Western Australia on 1st June 1915.  He was the first member of his family to reach third level education, winning a scholarship to the University of Western Australia in Perth.  There, he took up the option of Agricultural Science, becoming a Foundation Member of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in 1935 and achieving his B.Sc. (Agric) in 1937.

Robert spent the war years working for the Commonwealth Government Service C.S.I.R.O., for which he carried out soil surveys and land-use studies of various irrigation projects throughout Australia.  Already his career was biased towards pedology.  Even at this young age, Robert was a prolific writer and published many papers.  These included CSIRO bulletins regarding the development of pine plantations on the poot sandy soils of South Australia, the results of soil surveys in the Berriquin and Wakool irrigation districts of New South Wales and the possibility of horticultural/livestock projects along the Murray River in Victoria State.  Most appropriate to the times, Robert worked in Queensland, providing technical data for the construction of American aerodrome runways.  By 1951, Robert had gained approval from the University of Western Australia to submit a thesis for a DSc. (Agric).  It was entitled “The Soils of the South-western Australian Agricultural Region”, which detailed his research done in his home state of Western Australia.  The following year, Robert became president of the Western Australian Branch  of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science.

In 1952, Robert got the chance to work overseas with the FAO “Land and Water Use Branch”, based in Rome.  This would start a thirty-year international career that saw Robert travel throughout the tropics, working with various international agencies.  It consisted predominantly of consultancy work for agricultural development projects in Asia, Africa and South America.  Robert would examine proposed projects, draw up specifications for field studies, supervise both field and laboratory studies, interpret analyses, compile reports and maps and advise government departments on their research and development programmes.  For example, in 1954, during the “Suez Crisis”, Robert worked on the UNRWA Rehabilitation Programme for the proposed “Northwest Sinai Irrigation Project”, which included research for the agricultural development of sand dunes in the Gaza Strip.

Between 1955 and 1959, Robert worked with the “International Bank for Reconstruction and Development”, based in Washington DC, as well as with several British consultancy bodies. These included the “Commonwealth Bureau of Soil Science”, based in Harpenden, Herts; “Sir Murdock McDonald and Partners of London”; and “Hunting Technical Services Ltd”.  Missions took Robert to India and East and West Pakistan; to the Tigris river basin in Iraq; to the Lodwar Project in Kenya; to the Elephant Marsh Project in Nyasaland and C.D.C. Project in Swaziland.  It was at this time that he became an active member of the British Society of Soil science and was made a Life Member of the Soil Conservation Society of India.  Besides issuing project reports for governments, Robert continued to write scientific papers, many of which he presented at the following international conferences:-

In 1953, the Egyptian Desert Institution at Heliopolis hosted UNESCO’s “Symposium of Scientific Problems of Land Use in Arid Regions”, where Robert submitted a paper on the plants and soils of the semi-arid zone of south-western Australia.  The International Society of Soil Science held its 6th Congress at Paris in 1956 (Robert’s paper was “A Classification of the Saline Soils of the Old Irrigation Lands of the Middle Tigris Valley, Iraq”) and its 7th Congress  in the USA in 1960 (“A Soil and Irrigation Classification of Shallow Soils overlying Gypsum Beds, Northern Iraq”).  The International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage held its 4th Congress at Madrid in 1960, where Robert’s paper was entitled: “The Survey of Soils, Vegetation and Waters of Waterlogged and Marshy Lands before Reclamation, with special references to the Elephant Marsh of Nyasaland”.

The 1960’s saw Robert involved in several World Bank Missions to India, Pakistan and Ceylon.  There were further British consultancy visits to the Nile Valley and to Sierra Leone.  UNESCO also commissioned Robert to liaise with the Ministry for Indian Affairs of the Colombian Government regarding their “General Arid Zone Development Scheme”.  Elsewhere in South America, Robert advised on agronomy projects in Venezuela, Argentina and Cuba.

During the 1970’s, Robert had missions to South Yemen (Wadi Tuban Irrigation Progect); to Nepal (Forestry Project and Terai Land Settlement Project); and to Saudi Arabia (Agricultural Training Project).  Robert also found time to volunteer for the Onchocerciasis Control Project which met in Geneva.  His last mission was a long-term post in what was then the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), where he spent four years in Taiz, coordinating several different projects run by FAO.

By 1980, increasing health problems persuaded Robert to retire.  He did not return to Australia but settled in Southern Ireland, where he had kept a European base since 1958.  Here, Robert created a large, “Temperate Zone” garden and began writing his memoirs.  Unfortunately, he never got to complete them as a series of strokes left him paralyzed and blind.  Robert finally died on the 1st September 2004, aged 89 years old.  He is survived by his 88 year-old wife Audrey, four children, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

From my point of view, as an historian of science and technology, Robert has left me a wonderful legacy: a lift-time’s worth of field diaries, original bulletins, maps, reports, photographs and complete sets of conference notes.  I look forward to completing Robert’s biography for my own thesis!

Provided by Veronica Smith, BA (Hons)Hum (Open).