Harold William Bennetts is another of the diminishing group of dedicated investigators who have come under the direct influence of Gilruth, and have been inspired by the dynamic energy and directness of approach which characterized that great man. As an undergraduate in Melbourne, Bennetts was profoundly influenced by two of Gilruth’s former associates and disciples, Dr. Georgina Sweet, doyen of systematic parasitology, and H.R. Sedden, then deeply immersed in his researches into brucellosis and botulism. He also owed much to Gilruth’s successor in the Chair, Prof. H.A. Woodruff, so renowned both as a thorough teacher of pathology and as an implanter and encourager of the seed of research in the young mind. In this propitious atmosphere, Bennetts graduated as B.V.Sc. in 1919, and, having determined to embrace the scientific life, further equipped himself by graduating as M.V.Sc. next year. A short period of service in World War I was followed by two years in the Commonwealth Department of Health, first as Bacteriologist in charge of the emergency laboratory at Cairns, Queensland, during an outbreak of bubonic plague, and then as Microbiologist at Townsville. With this broadening experience behind him, he returned to Melbourne in 1923 to become Professor Woodruff’s Lecturer and Demonstrator in Pathology and Bacteriology, and to prepare himself still further for his chosen vocation.
His long apprenticeship over, he left Melbourne in 1924 to accept the newly-created post of Veterinary Pathologist to the Western Australian Department of Agriculture in Perth, where he was to carry out the brilliant series of investigations which have made his name famous. Much of this work was carried out under conditions of professional isolation, and of lack of facilities and assistance, that would have deterred and indeed defeated a less tenacious character. Recognizing the calibre of their man, and the difficulties under which he then worked, his Department agreed in 1928 to his secondment to the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (now the C.S.I.R.O.), which was in a position to provide better financial material and advisory assistance, an association which lasted until 1935.
In 1929, Gilruth rejoined C.S.I.R., first as Advisor and then as Chief of the Division of Animal Health, and Bennetts came under the full impact of his personality. When Gilruth died in 1937, Bennetts had already displayed a degree of energy, pertinacity and insight, which earned his liveliest praise: he had successfully investigated the aetiology of two major sheep disease problems in Western Australia, namely, enterotoxaemia and enzootic ataxia, and had brought them under control. The results of these investigations have been of immense value not only to Australia but to many sheep-raising countries of the world, and they introduced two new concepts into pathology–diseases due to the absorption of bacterial toxins from the bowel, and diseases due to deficiency of essential “trace” elements. Since then he has extended still further the frontiers of knowledge of copper deficiency states in ruminants, and has carried out successful work on vaccination against botulism, on poison plants of stock, and on urinary lithiasis in sheep; and he has played a major role in unravelling the aetiology of ovine fertility due to the consumption of a particular strain of subterranean clover, again introducing a new concept, diseases due to the absorption of naturally-occurring oestrogens in pasture plants. Three new concepts introduced by one man is no mean record, and this “Triad of Bennets” will long remain in the text books and treatises of the world as an inspiration. His mounting prestige and the demonstrated value of his work were largely responsible for the provision of better facilities when a modern Animal Health and Nutrition Laboratory was built by his Department in 1947, and he was made Principal. During a world trip in 1948, he addressed many learned Societies, and made a strong impression.
There we have an incomplete record of the achievements of this outstanding man’ achievements which have been recognized by the conferring of the Doctorate of Veterinary Science in 1931, appointment as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1948, Fellowship of the Australian Veterinary Association in 1954, Honorary Membership of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1950, and election recently as a Foreign Corresponding Member of the Veterinary Academy of France; achievements which were won at great cost of his health; but achievements which have earned him the admiration of his colleagues and the gratitude of his country. Council has therefore unanimously decided the Harold William Bennetts, C.B.E., D.V.Sc., shall be awarded the Gilruth Prize for 1957.
The Australian Veterinary Association and farming community of Western Australia mourn the loss of one of the most illustrious veterinary scientists in Australian history with the passing, after a long illness, of H. W. Bennetts at the age of 72 on August 27th, 1970. He died at the Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital just a short distance from his old laboratory in Hollywood, WA which he had designed himself and where his last professional years were spent.
Dr. Bennetts was born in Melbourne in July 1898. Following secondary education at Wesley College, he graduated B.V.Sc. from Melbourne University in 1919. He had decided to pursue a scientific career and, in preparation, took an M.V.Sc. in veterinary pathology the next year. His first professional appointments were as Bacteriologist in Charge of the Commonwealth Department of Health Laboratory in Cairns, Queensland, during an outbreak of bubonic plague and then as Microbiologist in Townsville. In 1923, he became lecturer and demonstrator in Woodruff's Department of Pathology and Bacteriology at Melbourne University.
The most crucial move of his career came in 1925 when he was appointed the first Veterinary Pathologist in the Department of Agriculture in Western Australia. In 1928-35, Bennetts was seconded from the Department to the CSIR in order that the greater facilities available in the latter organisation could be utilised in the solution of important animal disease problems. In l947 upon the completion of the Hollywood Laboratory, he was created Principal, Animal Health and Nutrition Laboratory, a position he occupied until his resignation in December 1959.
The years between 1925 and 1950 saw the flowering of a remarkable career noted not only for extraordinary achievements in veterinary science but especially for the handicaps overcome in the process.
His first laboratory in Perth, located in the basement of the Department's building in St. George’s Terrace next to Government House consisted of two small rooms with a total floor space of 240 square feet and his post-mortem room was in the adjoining lane. One of the more poignant sights around Government House in those years was Bill Bennetts doing a post-mortem examination on a sheep and many a citizen in the vicinity had reason to know Bill was at work. There was little real improvement in facilities and resources until his hopes were finally realised in 1947 in the Hollywood building.
Despite these obstacles, Bennetts achieved world recognition as a veterinary scientist and was the leader in the solution of three major diseases of sheep. The first of these was enterotoxaemia, or Beverley disease as it was locally called, and the second was enzootic ataxia. Both of these conditions precluded successful sheep farming over wide areas of the agricultural country of Western Australia, and the discovery of their causes had a tremendous impact on agriculture not only in Western Australia but throughout the world where sheep raising was an important industry. Bennetts' finding in conjunction with Chapman and Beck that copper deficiency was the cause of enzootic ataxia of lambs was one of the first reported diseases due to trace element deficiency.
Shortly after the elucidation of enzootic ataxia, Bennetts and his colleagues were able to show that falling disease in cows in the south-west of the State was also due to an acute deficiency of copper in pasture of the region.
Bennetts’ third significant work, the identification of clover disease of sheep as an oestrogen disease, was also a new concept in veterinary science.
Dr. Bennetts became closely involved in the investigation of lupinosis of sheep during his last decade of active work, but the frustrations of his earlier years which continued to some extent even at the Hollywood laboratory, together with the burden of mounting ill-health, led to his resignation at 60 before he could get fairly into this intriguing pathological problem.
However, his investigations of the toxic plants of Western Australia culminated in 1956 in the publication, with C. A. Gardner as co-author of the book "Toxic Plants of Western Australia," a work of great and lasting value to agriculturalists throughout the State.
Many honours came to Bennetts during the 35 years of his active professional life in Western Australia. He was awarded a D.V.Sc. from the University of Melbourne in 1931, and was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1948. He became an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, in 1950, and a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, being President of Section L in 1946, and in 1954 he was made a Fellow of the Australian Veterinary Association. He was Kelvin Medallist of the Royal Society of Western Australia in 1955, and he received the Gilruth Prize in 1957. A year later he was awarded an Honorary Associateship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
There have been few veterinarians in modern times who have done so much for veterinary science under conditions as poor as those under which Bennetts laboured for the first 20 years of his career in Western Australia. That he did so is an enduring tribute to his sense of dedication and fixity of purpose which, in the last analysis, have won for him a permanent place among the renowned of the veterinary profession and in the hearts of all those who have been privileged to know and work with this very remarkable man.
Further appreciations have been written by two colleagues who worked with Dr. Bennetts for many years.
Dr. Bennetts was a man of great kindliness and consideration. The writer joined his copper deficiency investigations in 1938 at a time when analytical methods for copper were not standardised. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Dr. Bennetts for his patience and cooperation as satisfactory techniques were worked out under appalling laboratory conditions. He was never the big research chief type and always treated all his staff as colleagues. He had a flair for asking the right questions and planning the right experiments.
It has been a great privilege to have worked with Dr. Bennetts over a period of 22 years and to have known him as a friend.
Dr. Bennetts was a revered Chief and a dear friend whose passing leaves a void not easily filled. I worked with Dr. Bennetts from 1937 to 1959 as his first technical assistant, and later as chief technologist. His kindliness and consideration to all enabled him to work with people of many temperaments, and have them working together in a harmonious group for a long time. He was most approachable to all his staff, who were made to feel part of the team on research projects.
Such was his reputation that while at the old Nedlands Laboratory hardly a week went by without notable scientists from overseas and interstate calling to see Dr. Bennetts. Several young scientists came "west" to work under him.
All who worked with him were inspired by his humility and friendliness and he will be sadly missed.