AAABG 2023 Animal Breeding at the Crossroads

Dr Helen Newton Turner AO OBE

Dr Helen Alma Newton Turner (15 May, 1908 - 26 November, 1995) is rightly regarded as one of Australia's foremost geneticists. Her career with CSIRO was dedicated to research into the genetic improvement of sheep for wool production and had a large impact on animal breeding research and application in this country and beyond through her participation in overseas research. For her services to animal breeding, the AAABG elected her to a fellowship of the Association in 1990. At the time of her death, then AAABG President Dr Roger Barlow spoke for the Association in saying: "She was truly a great lady who impacted on most of our lives and careers."

Helen Turner is one of the very few Australian scientists who can be said to have profoundly influenced the course of one of this nation's major primary industries, that of sheep breeding. This fact is the more surprising in view of her early training as an architect and statistician, in either field of which her career could well have been equally long and distinguished.

On completion of B. Arch (Hons) at Sydney University in 1930, she worked for a short period in her original field, but then joined the CSIRO as secretary at the McMaster Animal Health Laboratory. During that period she became fascinated by the rapidly developing field of statistics. Her potential was recognised by Sir Ian Clunies-Ross, who made arrangements for her to spend a period of training in the U.K. with R.A. Fisher and Frank Yates, two of the world's leading statisticians.

She returned to the CSIRO in 1939 as a consulting statistician to the Division of Animal Health and Production, but was employed by the Division of Mathematical Statistics. She returned to her previous post with CSIRO in 1945 after secondment to other departments during the war.

Gradually, her interests became focused on sheep breeding applications, and in 1956 she was appointed Leader of the Animal Breeding Section, Division of Animal Genetics, in charge of CSIRO's sheep breeding research.

The period from 1956 until she 'officially' retired in 1973, was a golden period in sheep breeding research in Australia and the world. With S.S.Y. Young. A.A. Dunlop, C.H.S. Dolling and others, she laid the foundations for an objective, measurement-based approach to sheep breeding. The techniques they pioneered now form the basis of most sheep breeding in Australia, and have been of very great economic benefit to the country.

Towards the end of her 'official' working career, she began to participate in a wide variety of overseas research and consulting activities, which took her all over the world. She has an abiding interest in the welfare of developing countries, and has devoted a considerable part of her life to overcoming their animal and food production problems. In all these activities, her input has been highly valued by each of the participating countries, and has made her a most successful ambassador of her country.

She has been an inspiration to a generation of quantitative geneticists and sheep breeders and is rightly regarded as a world expert in her field. This has been recognised by election to Fellowships of numerous professional societies, and by the awards of an OBE in 1977 and an AO in 1987. Internationally she is recognised not only for her contributions to the Australian Sheep Industry, but for her generous efforts to assist the welfare of third world peoples by improving the productivity of their domestic animal populations.

Footnote: The above is an adaption of the Citation made on 27 September, 1991 at the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Macquarie University. It was first published in this form in the AAABG Newsletter in December 1995.