in memoriam - Ray Isbell (1928-2001)
18 Dec. 1928 – 28 Dec. 2001
Ray Isbell died after a long illness in December 2001. He was born in Rockhampton on 18 December 1928, the eldest of three sons of Fred and Olive Isbell. He grew up on the family cattle property, ‘Havilah’, outside Colinsville and was educated by correspondence and coached by Olive who had taught at Bowen High School. Although Havilah was an hour from Colinsville, the bush roads and poor transport of the time made the property very isolated. With no telephone and no young friends, Ray’s young life would have been lonely by today’s standards. There were few comforts on the station and everything that could be was reused. Ray became a hoarder in later life and was reluctant to throw anything away; he also developed a love of reading during these years.
Olive was always concerned about Ray’s social isolation and sent him to Rockhampton Grammar School in grade seven. He found it difficult to adjust to boarding school and, in 1942, he was transferred to the Church of England Boys Grammar School, ‘Churchie’. He liked to recall his first day at the school when he was given a pick and shovel and told to dig an air-raid trench on the school oval, he said it was his first real pedological experience.
Ray did well academically at Churchie and was dux of grade eight (the old scholarship year) and is recognized on the school Honour Board. He then studied science at the University of Queensland and lived at Union College. He followed his first degree with a Masters Degree in Science, majoring in geology. Ray frequently recalled how much he enjoyed his university life.
Ray and his brother, Graham, started buying property in the Boonah district in 1973 so they could apply their love of the land and they set up Fig Tree Droughtmaster Stud to breed fine cattle. The properties became an absorbing interest and Ray’s expertise in soils made a big impact on the success of the venture. He introduced grasses such as Callide Rhodes to the district and the first dung beetles were also released in the late 1970s through Ray and Graham’s friendship with Angus McQueen, a CSIRO entomologist in Rockhampton.
Ray’s first job, in 1952, was with the Bureau of Investigation in Brisbane which later became amalgamated with the Department of Primary Industries. Early in 1958, he joined CSIRO as a Research Scientist, initially working in the old CSIRO laboratories in the city. His work focussed on the soils and land use of the Brigalow region of eastern Australia and these studies and his previous work with the Queensland Bureau of Investigation resulted in his receiving the Edgeworth David Medal in 1962.
He was moved to Townsville in 1963 to set up and lead the Division of Soils at what were later called the Davies laboratories. He remained there for the rest of his career.
Initially he was responsible for collation of major parts of Sheets 4 and 7 of the Atlas of Australian Soils. The Townsville program expanded under Ray’s leadership and vision to include studies of the distribution, morphology and chemical and physical fertility of tropical soils. By the mid-1970s, he was nurturing an internationally respected team of chemists, physicists and pedologists committed to studies and management of the soils of the semi-arid tropics. During this time too, his influence and authority were such that he was awarded the Australian Medal of Agricultural Science ; he became a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in 1979. He never married and his commitment to CSIRO, and his young team was total. The Townsville group became his second family and his descriptions of the activities of ‘that Williams’ or ‘that Coventry’ had elements of exasperation and affection that were peculiarly parental. The team reciprocated and the quality of the soils research in Townsville over almost 3 decades is testament to his judgment of young people, his great influence as mentor, and the great affection that he generated.
He was also participating at this time in international initiatives in South America and, in collaboration with the USDA, in the application of Soil Taxonomy to the characteristically highly weathered soils of the tropics.
Ray Isbell’s enduring legacy, however, will be his wider influence on Australian soil description and classification. As an influential member of the old Soil and Land Resources Sub-Committee of the Australian Committee of Soil Conservation, he perceived that agreement was required between the fiercely independent state authorities responsible for land resource management if any nationally agreed ways to describe and classify soils was to develop. Ray’s persistence and personal authority was central in the conception of the Australian Soil and Land Survey Handbooks that ensured that methodologies were agreed and common across Australia. The new classification of Australian soils, which he initially drove almost single handedly, was then based on the methods of these handbooks.
Development of the national soil classification system was grueling and technically demanding but Ray was a good listener, and he communicated regularly with pedologists not only in Australia and New Zealand but also across world. in his quest to devise the classification. He built networks and established a rapport with a younger generation of pedologists as he tested the classification during its three approximations. Always ready to share his knowledge, he inspired colleagues during his field visits to assess the many classification challenges presented. One of his golden rules was to describe and interpret the soil profile accurately so that it could be classified with a minimum of fuss. The result was a unique personal understanding of Australian soils and this knowledge, combined with his great diplomacy and excellent judgement, has produced the best and, to date, most widely accepted national classification of Australian soils.
In retirement, but supported by CSIRO, Ray worked tirelessly to share his knowledge of Australian soils and landscapes. He continued to publish and maintained an active dialogue with soil scientists around the world. He continued to refine the Classification and, although clearly ill and almost totally dependent on his friends for personal help and transport, he actively contributed to the Australian Collaborative Land Evaluation Program. During this time he adopted the CSIRO Canberra pedology group and again became a valued mentor, teacher and friend.
During this time too, he contributed significantly to ‘Australian Soil’, a book to be published later this year.
Hari Eswaran, USA