Ronald Harry Wharton 1923-1983

Written by J.F.A. Sprent.

On a fine afternoon, 18 September 1983, Harry Wharton was slashing with his tractor on his beautiful property at Billinudgel, near Mullumbimby in northern New South Wales. No one knows what caused the accident which killed him. His family, friends and colleagues were suddenly and tragically bereaved.

Ronald Harry Wharton was born on 14 April 1923 in the small village of Arding, near Armidale in northern New South Wales. His father, William Frank Wharton, was the teacher in the one-teacher school at Arding, where Harry spent his early childhood days. In 1933 the family moved to Dunoon, near Lismore in the Northern Rivers District of New South Wales and he attended the Lismore High School until 1939. These were happy days, spent mainly in the bush – walking, fishing, swimming, shooting and cycling – with his four brothers and sister. It was probably at this time that he began his lifelong interest and enthusiasm for sport, especially cricket. Indeed, to play cricket where he lived, one had to be keen, because first one had to clear the land to make a pitch.

When the Second World War started Harry was attending the New England University College in Armidale as a sponsored student. The college was still in its infancy, with fewer than 200 students. He is remembered as an outstanding student in the Faculty of Science, president of the Students' Association and, as it was to be throughout his career, also remembered for particular activities, not necessarily related to his studies or his work. For example, he is remembered at Armidale also for the establishment of the first college shop, located initially in a cupboard in the Student Common Room.

It was probably at the New England College that Harry became interested in zoology, another lifelong interest no doubt engendered in the first place by his teachers, especially Dr H.F. Consett Davis, with whom he studied zoology in the first year. Up to this time he had not appeared to show any particular interest in this direction, but he was immediately successful, gaining a High Distinction and the Slade Prize in practical zoology. When Dr Consett Davis joined the Armed Services, Harry's zoology teacher was Mrs Margaret Spencer (née Cumpston) and it is probably due to her influence that Harry became an entomologist. He became so interested that he decided to take an honours course in entomology. As this course was not available at the New England College, he transferred early in 1943 to the Sydney campus of the University of Sydney to undertake an honours course in entomology in the Zoology Department. Here he came under the influence of Mr David J. Lee, later associate professor in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, but at the time a Commonwealth Research Fellow. Both the professor of zoology, W.J. Dakin, and the lecturer in entomology, Dr Anthony R. Woodhill, had been seconded elsewhere on war work and David Lee had been requested to supervise the entomology honours students. Harry also received guidance from Associate Professor E. A. Briggs, acting head of the department.

His work for his honours degree as outlined by David Lee comprised: (a) a taxonomic survey of the mosquito subgenus Finlaya, then about 25 species, including the preparation of a key to identification of the adults; although too tentative for publication, it was used by others in later attempts to clarify the subgenus; (b) observations on the bionomics of Aedes aegypti, including a comparison of the effect of winter temperatures (ambient in Sydney) with simulated summer conditions in the insectary, on the hatching of eggs, the duration of larval instars, and pupation; if this work had been published, it would no doubt have saved much speculation in later years concerning A. aegypti in Australia; (c) maintenance of a laboratory colony of A. aegypti and other species which had not previously been colonised. He was the first person to colonise Aedes notoscriptus, albeit briefly. The clue to success was provided by his colleague, Murray Wallace, who observed that oviposition took place on the rough surface of the fish-pond at his home. Harry then put a piece of sandstone in a Petri dish with water and got oviposition about the meniscus. This led to later studies by A.K. O'Gower at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine on oviposition responses to various surface textures.

By all accounts, Harry's years as a student were very happy. This was especially true in Armidale where the small close-knit group of students and staff in the old mansion 'Booloominbah' (which later formed the nucleus of the University of New England) maintained their friendships for many years. At Sydney, he and Murray Wallace (M.M.H. Wallace of the CSIRO Division of Entomology in Canberra) worked together in an old building, separated from the main Zoology Department in Science Road. The laboratory had a door at each end and a set of three cupboards in the middle. Harry and Murray became very expert at throwing dissecting needles over the cupboards and into the doors. There was also plenty of field work and when they were not on the roster for air-raid watch on the roof of the zoology building, the summer evenings were spent collecting mosquitoes with David Lee in the bush at Narrabeen. Lunch hours were spent mainly in the Union playing billiards.

He boarded at Moore Theological College during his undergraduate days and it is related that Harry, ever considerate, when he came back late used to relieve himself from the first floor balcony to avoid waking the principal by flushing the toilet. According to residents on the ground floor this was even more disturbing.

He graduated with First Class Honours at the end of 1943. His first professional assignment was a mosquito survey of the site of the Warragamba Dam. He and Murray Wallace delved into tunnels, wells and excavations in search of mosquitoes, and for the joint report they received the equivalent of about $12.00 each.

After graduation Harry joined the Royal Australian Air Force and served in a malaria control unit. He undertook a short course on mosquito control given in the Department of Entomology at the University of Queensland by Mr F. Athol Perkins and it was here that he first heard about DDT. He was posted to Darwin, then Milne Bay, New Guinea, and later to Morotai Island in the Moluccas. He had attained the rank of flying officer on discharge in 1945.

After the war, he returned to the Department of Zoology, University of Sydney, to work with David Lee as a teaching fellow in zoology. It was during the tenure of this position in the Department of Zoology that he became acquainted with several other entomologists who were to influence his scientific interests and work in later years, and who no doubt further strengthened his particular interest in the Diptera, especially Ian and Josephine Mackerras, and Elizabeth (Pat) Marks. Some of the mosquitoes and simuliids he described in his first three papers, he had collected while in the RAAF in Darwin and New Guinea. It seems likely that this work directed his interests toward a career in the tropics, no doubt amplified by a collecting trip with David Lee in New Guinea for the Department of External Territories. This was planned as an initial exercise for a proposed biological survey of Papua and New Guinea, but though officially approved, the proposal still had not received the minister's signature before the change of government in 1949.

In June 1948, Harry entered the British Colonial Service, taking up an appointment as entomologist at the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) at Kuala Lumpur in the Federated Malay States. He was put in charge of a field laboratory in a rubber plantation at Tampin, Negri Sembilan, Malaya, which was set up for the purpose of conducting field trials on the effectiveness of DDT and BHC as residual insecticides for the control of malaria.

Before the war, malaria control measures had been almost entirely directed toward the larvae and pupae of Anopheles mosquitoes. The new insecticides offered the possibility of control measures directed against the adult mosquitoes by spraying the walls of houses. The initial experiments were conducted in huts specially designed to allow mosquitoes to behave as they would in a domestic dwelling, the mosquitoes being caught as they left the hut through window traps. His early observations, in collaboration with Dr J.A. Reid, were published in Nature.

He spent his first leave (1952) in the United Kingdom continuing these studies in collaboration with Dr J.R. Busvine, at the Entomology Department of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His observations had shown that marked variation in susceptibility in insecticides was manifested by different species of mosquitoes. For example, Anopheles maculatus was found to be much more susceptible than Culex fatigans. Field experiments showed that these differences were related to several factors such as innate susceptibility and behavioural characteristics influencing frequency and duration of contact. For these observations and experiments he was awarded an M. Sc. by the University of Sydney. The degree was awarded in 1958 and his thesis was entitled 'The use of residual insecticides in Malaya, with supporting papers on the systematics of Australian Culicidae and Simuliidae'.

On his return from England to Malaya on board SS Himalaya, Harry met Helen Pulling and they were married in Sydney on 6 June 1953. After a short stay in Tampin they set up house in Kuantan on the east coast of Malaya. These were the days when the communist insurgency was at its height and both Tampin and Kuantan were hotbeds of communist activities. Despite this, Harry did his field work taking long treks in the bush at considerable risk of ambush. In the early days, the people working at the IMR had been encouraged to volunteer in the local police activities, but later the director, Dr. J.W. Field, forbade them to undertake such activities. Indeed, Harry told his brother Alan that the communists recognised him as a scientist and, approving of his mosquito-catching activities, let him alone.

He was by all accounts an extremely able field worker and observer and amassed a wealth of new information on the biology and behaviour of Malayan mosquitoes. His observations on feeding habits, nesting, and house-entering of vector mosquitoes have served as a basis for the control of both malaria and filariasis.

In July 1953, Harry turned his attention to the mosquito vectors of filariasis. Whereas malaria is transmitted only by mosquitoes in the genus Anopheles, the carriers of filariasis in Malaya belong in both Anopheles and Mansonia. At one time, only one form of filariasis in man was recognised in Malaya, the so-called Bancroftian filariasis caused by Wuchereria bancrofti. Its distribution extends throughout the tropical areas of the world, but it is quite scarce in Malaya. It was later recognised that in South-East Asia, another form of filariasis occurs, so-called Brugian filariasis caused by Brugia malayi. This latter form was found to be endemic in the swamp forest areas of Malaya, especially along the lower reaches of the Pahang River which enters the China Sea just south of Kuantan.

Species of Mansonia were suspected to be the main vectors of this form of filariasis and as these mosquitoes were found to be susceptible to dieldrin sprayed on the walls of houses and as the micro-filariae (larval forms of the parasite found in the blood of patients) were highly susceptible to treatment with diethylcarbamazine, it was expected that these two control measures (i.e. spraying and treatment) would be effective in controlling the overall incidence of filariasis. Such measures were, however, found to be non-effective in reducing the infection rate in trapped Mansonia mosquitoes, thus indicating a source of infection other than man.

It had been discovered earlier that monkeys harboured the microfilariae of B. malayi, but Wharton and his colleagues, especially Dr J.F.B. Edeson, provided the basic studies which established that sub-periodic Brugian filariasis in the Pahang swamp forests is a zoonosis. They found that Brugia spp. occur widely in animals, especially monkeys, and that Mansonia mosquitoes tend to bite people at ground-level and monkeys in the forest canopies. This work forged a vital zoological link in the understanding of the epidemiology of filariasis in the region.

This collaboration between Wharton the biologist and his medical colleagues, especially J.F.B. Edeson, T. Wilson and A.B.G. Laing, involving field observations and laboratory experiments on the one hand, with diagnosis, clinical observations, and chemotherapy on the other, will long be remembered as a classic group study in the highest tradition of tropical medicine.

The first leave since their marriage was spent in Sydney at Palm Beach in a new house which Helen had designed. Their stay received some local interest because Harry was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 November 1960 as stating that Palm Beach's mosquitoes were far more annoying than those in Malaya.

The observations and studies undertaken in Malaya were collected in a monograph comprising Bulletin No. 11 of the IMR and entitled 'The biology of Mansonia mosquitoes in relation to the transmission of filariasis in Malaya'. This report was submitted to the University of Malaya in Singapore as a part requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy under the supervision of Professor A.A. Sandosham. The degree was awarded in 1960.

In the early 1960s Harry Wharton and his colleagues became involved in studies on simian malaria. It was already known that Malayan monkeys harboured malaria parasites, but through their observations, led by D.E. Eyles of the U.S. Public Health Service, five new species were discovered and the complete development of two species was followed in Anopheles mosquitoes. Their studies showed that although malaria was highly prevalent amongst the monkey population in the jungle, it was not a significant source of human infection, though it has been subsequently shown that man can be infected from monkeys. During these malaria investigations Harry performed pioneer studies on the biology of Malaysian species of Anopheles and supplemented and confirmed his earlier studies on the effect of residual insecticides. He was the first to discover the daytime resting place of Anopheles maculatus and upset the long-held belief that this mosquito preferred human blood. With Dr D.E. Moorhouse, organiser of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Malaria Eradication Pilot Project, he obtained new and important information on the behaviour of anophelines.

The fifteen years he spent in Malaya were a source of very considerable fulfilment. Working conditions were no doubt difficult and, especially in the early days, there must have been problems with inadequate equipment. There must also have been anxiety for Harry and Helen over raising a family in a land far from home. Their daughter Robin was born in 1954 and their son Geoffrey in 1957. But there were many compensations and when the family moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1960 when he was promoted to senior entomologist, life must have been extremely pleasant in all respects.

On the basis of the research carried out at Kuantan, he had submitted proposals for the control of filariasis and these had been accepted by the director of medical services, a source of considerable satisfaction to Harry. He had been deeply absorbed in his studies for their own sake, but now he had the added satisfaction that the studies had a social impact; they had provided basic epidemiological knowledge to be used for the control of a distressing disease. It is probably true to say that from his work was derived the basis of the control program against both malaria and filariasis subsequently undertaken by the Malaysian Government. By 1963 he was recognised as a world authority on the vectors of malaria and filariasis in South-East Asia.

Harry enormously enjoyed the social life, the tennis, cricket and golf, as well as all the other amenities offered by K.L. and the Royal Selangor Golf Club. There was an active community of research workers at this time in Kuala Lumpur, not only at the IMR, but also at the medical departments in the universities. Moreover, the IMR had established collaborative projects with the WHO, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit, and the Hooper Foundation in California. All these collaborations meant more personnel and more funds for research. South-East Asia was fast becoming one of the most active zones in the field of tropical medicine, with other centres of investigation operating in Bangkok, Manila and Singapore.

Nevertheless, in spite of these interesting developments, working conditions in Malaya were changing. After Independence in 1957, the government had announced that British Colonial office personnel would gradually be replaced by Malayan staff, so that there occurred a gradual exodus of British officers from Malaya.

In 1963 Harry, Helen and their two children returned to Australia where Harry took up an appointment in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) at the Veterinary Parasitology Laboratory, Yeerongpilly, Brisbane. This laboratory was transferred to Indooroopilly on completion of the Long Pocket Laboratories, where he had put much time and thought into the design of the buildings and surrounding grounds. His initial appointment was as principal research officer in charge of research on cattle-tick in the Division of Entomology. He was reclassified to senior principal research scientist in 1965 and to chief research scientist in 1968, when he also became officer in charge of all research activities of the Division of Entomology at the Long Pocket Laboratories.

It was not easy to change from being a research officer in the colonial service in Malaya to a CSIRO officer in Australia, and for several years both Harry and Helen found it difficult to adapt to the new life in Brisbane. An important difference was that in Malaya he had been involved with the main thrust of the research from the beginning and was part of a single team. By contrast, in Brisbane he came on the scene at a time when research on ticks had been long in progress, not only in CSIRO but also in the State Department of Primary Industry and in the University of Queensland.

His brief from Dr D.F. Waterhouse, chief of the Division of Entomology, was to lead a group of research workers investigating the serious problem of cattle-tick infestation. This involved the development of a broad study involving, on the one hand, the ecological factors influencing tick survival and dispersal and, on the other, the physiological and biochemical factors influencing their susceptibility to insecticides. This required a very wide spectrum of knowledge and only a person with an intuitive mind and propensity for leadership could have led so effectively this interdisciplinary field of research. He had of course had extensive experience in Malaya with the factors affecting susceptibility of arthropods to insecticides, but at the time of his arrival in Australia a new problem was posed by development of resistance to insecticides. It was therefore this aspect which occupied most of his attention.

Up to this time, control of the cattle-tick had mainly depended upon a combination of 'strategic ' dipping with acaricides and pasture 'spelling' (alternate grazing in separate paddocks, a control measure developed by Dr Paul Wilkinson at the Belmont Station of CSIRO). Such methods were however proving ineffective owing to development of acaricide resistance in the ticks, and to the long pasture spelling periods needed for effective control being not conducive to the most effective use of pastures.

As soon as he commenced his work at CSIRO, Harry's attention was focused on two main aspects of tick control: (1) the nature and heritability of resistance to ticks manifested by individual cattle among European breeds and by certain breeds, especially Zebu cattle; and (2) the recognition that ticks on certain properties in Queensland showed resistance to various acaricides which had come into use following the ban on the use of DDT on cattle in 1962. For both of these aspects of the tick investigation it was fundamental to develop first of all an accurate method of assessing tick populations on their hosts. The ensuing study of the engorgement of the cattle-tick on its host and its final detachment, when related to the assessment of tick numbers actually counted on the cattle, was directly applicable not only to field evaluation of acaricides, but also for comparing different control regimes, determining effects of ticks on cattle, and selecting and breeding for tick resistance.

The cattle-tick is distributed over a more or less defined area of Australia ranging from the Kimberleys in Western Australia, following roughly the curved line of the annual 20 inch (508 mm) isohyet, extending across the Northern Territory and Queensland to Lismore in New South Wales. One of the first successes in the ensuing campaign of CSIRO was to show that, although the attempts to eradicate the tick from New South Wales in 1956-57 had failed, ticks could be eradicated from an isolated area, such as Magnetic Island, off the coast near Townsville, in spite of the presence of native fauna. Over the next 15 years there followed a series of publications by Wharton and his colleagues, especially W.J. Roulston, B.F. Stone, R.W. Sutherst and K.B.W. Utech, which can mainly be classed into two groups.

In the first group were those directed toward the quantitative assessment of resistance of ticks to acaricides, especially in relation to methods of application and the various physiological and ecological considerations involved in the effective use of acaricides, the heritability of acaricide resistance in tick populations, and the distribution of strains of resistant ticks.

In the second group were those directed toward the understanding of tick resistance in cattle: 'how it is acquired, how expressed, how inherited'. It was this second series of investigations that appeared to Harry to hold the most promise in controlling the cattle-tick. Indeed, by 1970 he had despaired of control methods based on chemicals, because they had proved not only too expensive, but also ineffective owing to rapid development of resistance by the ticks.

The aim was to control tick populations by utilising host resistance as the acaricidal factor so as to establish in Australia the kind of host-tick equilibrium that prevails in areas of the world where the association has evolved, such as in South-East Asia where ticks do not reach infestations that are detrimental to cattle but are prevalent enough to immunise against tick fever. Two approaches to improving tick-resistance in the herd were followed: (1) selective breeding in a herd of European (Bos taurus) cattle of tick-resistant animals; and (2) the introduction of tick-resistant Zebu (Bos indicus) cattle into the herd. A simulatory model was constructed with a view to analysing all the factors that might influence the host-tick equilibrium.

This was a long-term investigation and took many years to yield quantitative results. It was continued by Harry's colleagues, especially R.W. Sutherst and K.B.W. Utech, while he was in Bogor. The work was successful and by 1982 it had been shown that a definite improvement in tick resistance in the Bos taurus herd had been achieved by yearly introductions into the herd of tick-resistant individuals and by culling tick-susceptible individuals. It was moreover demonstrated that genetic improvement for resistance to ticks was possible without affecting other factors such as milk yield.

In 1978 Harry was appointed as officer in charge of the Centre for Animal Research and Development at Bogor, Indonesia. This was a development project arising from an agreement between Australia and Indonesia to establish an institute for the purpose of conducting research in the field of animal health and production. The aim was eventually to staff the centre exclusively with Indonesian scientists trained in Australia to carry out first-class research. Harry went to Bogor with high hopes. He was ideally suited to the job, with his previous experience in Malaya, his ability to speak the Indonesian language, and his knowledge and experience in biological research. Preliminary planning of the project had proceeded for several years. The centre was to be financed through the Australian Development Assistance Bureau and to be managed by CSIRO, yet integrated with the Indonesian Government. The problems associated with launching this project were complex and the writer can only relate the impressions he received from Harry that there was failure on the part of the organisers to seek advice from the right quarters in the preliminary stages and that the managerial set-up was over-complicated, the Indonesian authorities were not fully conversant with the modus operandi, and communication between Bogor and Canberra was not as good as it might have been. Be these as they may, Harry was assailed from the outset by a multitude of administrative problems, when his real desire was to concentrate on training and research, and on furtherance of the primary aims of the project. So often he would be elated by the discovery of a promising recruit, only to be baulked by a tangle with Customs officials over the arrival of new equipment or by some delay over obtaining a decision from Canberra. Although he maintained his basic confidence in his staff and students until his term of office expired, he had many moments of disillusionment.

On returning in 1982 to Brisbane from his assignment in Java, Harry found himself in a vacuum. Four years is a long time to be separated from an ongoing research project in CSIRO. Excepting the position of chief of the Division of Entomology, to which position he did not aspire, he had ascended the promotion ladder as far as possible. He felt his motivation was unclear, but fortunately an interesting and worthwhile involvement with the WHO saved the situation. He had had a long association with this organisation. Since 1961 he had been a consultant on the Expert Committee on Filariasis and a member of the Expert Panel on Insecticides. In 1980 he was appointed as a member of the Expert Committee on Vector Biology and Control. This work involved ongoing consultation, preparation of working papers, and attendance at committee meetings and seminars in various countries. In 1982 he was appointed a member of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of the UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases. He became intensely interested in the work of this committee and admired the chairman, Dr A. Lucas, and his aims. All this work was pursued in addition to his full-time service in CSIRO, where he was by now transferred to the newly-formed Division of Tropical Animal Science.

In recognition of his work, Harry Wharton received many honours. The Chalmers Medal was awarded to him in 1967 by the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in recognition of his outstanding contribution to knowledge of the epidemiology and control of malaria and filariasis. The medal was presented to him at a ceremony in the library at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in Sydney arranged by Sir Edward Ford and David Lee; his mother and father were present.

In 1973 he was elected to fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science and in 1982 to the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. In the latter year, Her Majesty the Queen awarded him the honour of officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

When he came to Brisbane, Harry took an active part in the Entomological Society of Queensland, and he was elected its president in 1966. He also played a key role in the formative years of the Australian Entomological Society, founded in 1965; he was secretary from 1966 to 1969. Although he regarded himself primarily as an entomologist, he was an active member of the Australian Society for Parasitology and was elected a fellow of that society in 1981. For historical reasons, entomology and parasitology have emerged separately as disciplines in Australia. Harry Wharton, like Ian Mackerras before him, did much to draw these two aspects of zoology closer together. He was acting editor of the International Journal for Parasitology in 1977.

In addition to being an eminent and honoured scientist and an able and wise administrator, Harry possessed the type of personality that kindled instant affection. He was fond of company, easy to talk to, fun to be with, a good listener with a sympathetic and kindly manner. His handsome features and distinguished bearing imparted just that degree of self-confidence and assurance for leadership. He was immensely fond and proud of his family and liked nothing better than working on his property at Billinudgel. This is what he was doing when he died. In one way he was lucky; but it is a tragedy to those he left behind that he was not able to enjoy this new phase of his life for longer.

He was planning a book on the cattle tick and contemplating a new version of the CSIRO film on the cattle tick. Furthermore it seems certain that had he been spared for more years, Harry would have contributed increasingly to the work of the United Nations and that his advice, based on his knowledge and wide experience, would have been increasingly sought in Australia and worldwide. Perhaps, however, his greatest pleasure would have come from the relatively simple activities which had been sources of pleasure to him from the beginning: family, friends, golf and gardening.

To the writer, Harry Wharton is remembered as a person who presented all those features which turn colleagues and acquaintances into cherished friends. As was aptly said by Dr D. F. Mahoney at Harry's funeral: 'he regarded his circle of friends as an extension of his own family.' He was an outstanding scientist and a fine man.

He neverë yet no vileynye ne saydë
In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
He was a verray, parfit, gentil knyght.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.6, no.2, 1985. It was written by J.F.A. Sprent, Emeritus Professor of the University of Queensland.


The writer gratefully acknowledges help and advice provided by the following: Dr K.C. Bremner, Mr P.H. Durie, Dr J.F.B. Edeson, Associate Professor D.J. Lee, Dr D.F. Mahoney, Dr Elizabeth N. Marks, Associate Professor D.E. Moorhouse, Dr J.A. Reid, Professor A.A. Sandosham, Mrs Margaret Spencer, Mr M.M.H. Wallace, Professor T. Wilson, Mr Alan Wharton and Mrs Helen Wharton.

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