Jim Vincent: Research Pioneer

Interview with Jim Vincent, Friday April 6, 1990

Dr Jim Vincent  made a fleeting appearance in Australian literature  as  the model for the schoolteacher 'Bill Sinclair' in Kylie Tennant's prize winning 1935 novel Tiburon.  This was set in a small country town where the P&C of the school wanted more emphasis on cultural studies rather than the practical arts  championed by 'Bill Sinclair'. In real life Jim Vincent's first job after graduating from Sydney University in 1933 was to teach Agriculture at Canowindra in the central west of NSW.

In 1986 Vincent's colleagues honoured his 75th birthday with a conference and the  papers were collected in a memorial volume.  This is a testament to the world-class achievements of Australian research in microbiology, and also to the impact of a fine teacher and researcher who provided inspiration and guidance for much  of the local work in this field.

In soil-plant relations and agricultural science generally Australian researchers have a wonderful record.   Their efforts have fed through into practical developments and farming practice has been transformed by successful research and development, with massive implications for the economy and thus for the welfare of all Australians.  It is widely known that the Australian economy rode on the sheep's back (and lately on the backs of wheat farmers and miners as well) but it is not equally well known how much this ride depends on applied scientific research by Vincent and others like him.

Those who think that Australian farming is based on soils of great natural fertility need to think again. Much of the continent can be described in the terms applied to the site of the first farm in the colony "the bulk of the soil is shallow and sandy with outcrops of rock at too frequent intervals". Almost all the soils in Australia are low in natural fertility, lacking nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, the three major nutrients needed for plant growth. Many also lack one or more 'trace elements', which, like vitamins, are required in minute quantities for healthy plant and animal growth.

Phosphorus in the form of 'super' (superphosphate) is provided out of a sack but nitrogen has so far been too expensive to supply in this manner over large areas.  The answer has been provided by   special strains of bacteria which colonise the roots of legumes such as subterranean ('sub')  clover and extract nitrogen from the air for the use of the plant. This 'fixed' nitrogen then builds up the fertility of the soil when the clover dies or is eaten by animals.

Some decades elapsed between the discovery of the potential benefits of sub clover and its widespread use in improved pasture  because the performance of  the  clover was at first highly unreliable. This  is where Vincent and his colleagues came in. The situation improved dramatically when   the role of the bacteria in the root nodules came to light, followed by  techniques  to inoculate the seed with compatible varieties of bacteria.


Jim, the purpose of this interview is to draw attention to some of the outstanding Australian work in rural research and to some of the distinguished agricultural researchers who are only known to the narrow circle of their associates.

Well I don't regard myself as especially distinguished, just a good middle of the road scientist.

In any case, the work of "good middle of the road" biological scientists does not get the public recognition it deserves.

Yes, and this lack of recognition is reflected in recruitment. Agriculture just does not have the financial pull of accounting and law. This is shown in the cut-off mark for entering schools of Agriculture and the situation with Science is worse. Vetinerary science is not so bad because people expect to make a good living in private practice.

How did you come to be recruited into agriculture? Did you come off the land like so many of our rural researchers?

I didn't actually come off the land, though I was born at Narrabri [a small country town]in 1911. My parents had a small shop that was burnt out in a big fire and they came to Sydney when I was a few months old. Some of my mother's relatives share-farmed and we stayed with them sometimes so I got to know about the hard lot of the share farmer.

I went through Parramatta High School and I don't recall having any special interest in agriculture. Late in my final year Waterhouse (Professor of Agriculture) sent out letters to all the high schools to tell prospective university students about his department. This letter was posted on the board at school and it took my fancy. So along with three other students on teachers scholarships I went off to study Agriculture at the University of Sydney.

Most successful people can look back and identify a "significant teacher" early in their career.

At Sydney University it was Waterhouse. He was not only a very good teacher but he was very good at research on the applied side.

And in due course you became a school teacher.

After graduation I was posted to teach Agriculture at Canowindra District Rural School. This was a lower level high school which did not take people through to matriculation, though they may have taken a certificate at  the end of year 9.

Your career as a school teacher did not last very long.

In a little under 2 years I was back to fill a vacancy for a lecturer in Biology at the Teachers College. This was just one of the many fortunate events in my life. At the time I was the youngest lecturer ever appointed.

Two years later Waterhouse had another hand in my career.  He recommended me for one of the  Pawlett Scholarships that were awarded for studies overseas.

I was supposed to do a post-graduate diploma course in Soil Microbiology at Kensington but when I arrived the course was no longer running.  They sent me on to the School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine where I took on  a new and demanding discipline of semi-micro analytical work. 

In the second year I did the Postgraduate  Diploma in Bacteriology. This was a very prestigious school with two world leaders, Topley and Wilson on staff. At the time they were developing serological techniques to classify the various strains of Salmonella. (Salmonella was a big public health problem at that time).

When did you start work on root nodule bacteria?

My interest in Rhizobium firmed when I went from London to spend a semester at the University of Wisconsin which was then a leading area for the study of root nodule bacteria. Two of the staff, Baldwin and McKay, wrote the standard text for the area and some good early work on the biology of nitrogen fixation was done in the department.

How did you find Sydney when you came home?

Back in Sydney in January of 1939 there was a heatwave. The roads were melting when I reported in to Sydney University and nobody much was there. I had a small financial problem, with no pay until the end of the month and daily expenses to meet. Waterhouse lent me some money to tide me over.

The question was, what sort of work to get on with? It had to be simple because the universities had next to no research money in those days, just a lot of manpower (your own). Waterhouse helped out, yet again, by giving me a small centrifuge, not a very sophisticated machine but it was my pride and joy.

For teaching purposes I wanted to demonstrate various serological tests that I learned in London and but I didn't want students playing about with Salmonella so we moved over to Rhizobium.

What was the focus of this work?

I concentrated on root nodulation work, improvising a greenhouse by stacking tubes by the window and so on. I grew Rhizobium on slopes during the day, harvested in the afternoon, took the material home and did tests in the evening. This involved carting tubes and serum around, and an agglutination bath borrowed from the medical school (it never went back). My mother was staying with us at the time and she helped by washing out the tubes during the day so they were dry for the evening.

What was the purpose of the tests?

To rapidly establish the compatibility of various strains of clover with different strains of Rhizobium.

Can you explain a little more about the importance of compatibility between the plants and the bugs?

To obtain nitrogen fixation in the field the clover plants must first of all be infected (invaded) by Rhizobium bacteria. Then these have to form active colonies in nodules on the roots.  This is where the actual nitrogen fixation occurs. A natural soil may contain up to twenty varieties of Rhizobium and only a few may be compatible with a particular species of legume. In addition to the matter of compatibility, infection depends on adequate numbers of Rhizobia and on various characteristics of the soil, especially on its degree of acidity, which must not be too high.

The immunological techniques that I learned in London were important to rapidly establish which strains of Rhizobium were compatible with various plants such as white clover or sub clover.

I understand that you had to stop this line of research during the war.

Early in the war there was a certain amount of agitation especially among young scientists to be put to work more effectively in the war effort. This intensified after the bombing of Darwin as the Japanese seeemed to be coming rapidly closer on all fronts and Australia suddenly became very civil defence minded.

Eric Ashby, later Sir Eric, was then Professor of Botany at Sydney. He egged on the Government to do something and one of the results was that I went to the Research and Experiment section of the Commonwealth Department of Home Security.

My job was to go around and talk to scientists and get them involved in various committees where their expert advice could be useful. A great deal of material was coming from the UK on civil defence precautions but a lot of it had to be modified for local conditions.

For example you wanted engineers, physicists and human physiologists to work on slit trenches. The thermal and ventilation requirements for trenches here are quite different from Britain. It was very hard to work out the heating-up characteristics of air-raid shelters because  the temperature gradients in the vicinity of shelters are described by very complex mathematical equations. Fortunately we found a man in Tasmania called Jager who knew all about these things.

I gather from your Noel Foldsworthy Memorial lecture "Lab Coat and Gum Boots" that not all scientists are equally at home with the "gum boots" of applied research.

The lab. coat is often the more favoured attire. It was interesting to see the differences between scientists in their capacity to grasp the essence of practical problems that required quick and simple solutions. Some had a quick practical focus, others just wanted to do esoteric research on what they regarded as the fundamentals. Of course what is required is a balanced dual contribution between fundamental investigation and application. These two sides of our science are needed, like the head and the tail of a coin, for it to have value.

You also moved into other areas, like the milk supply.

Milk and also the microbiology of food preservation. One of the senior men in London had worked on the quality of British milk. Back in Sydney I inquired about the local situation and I was horrified to learn that they only tested an occasional sample using methods that were many years out of date. I wrote to the Milk Board and at first received no response but I kept at them and a couple of years later they helped to set up a Milk Board Research Scholarship. The first incumbent was Bob Morton, just back from the Navy and one of the most brilliant students we ever had.

You mentioned that Waterhouse obtained research money from the millers and the wheat growers. It seems that the rural industries have been quite good at supporting R&D in contrast with the general failure of business to back these things.

The Commonwealth Bank had a section to foster rural research. When there was not enough money in the wheat pool to be worth distributing to farmers they would allocate the interest and some of the capital to research, some of which came to our  projects at Sydney University. Other funds came more directly from the various industry levies - wool, wheat, meat, dairy. I managed to obtain grants from most of these.

You were good at writing grant applications?

Maybe. More to the point, I was fortunate in being able to show a striking response to innoculation of legume seed on the North Coast and the North-west  area. After that  my work was not limited by funds. It was small budget work and at that stage in the 1950s it was possible to do a lot of work with simple equipment.

What was the nature of your work on the North Coast?

In the Lismore area they were introducing sub clover by seeding directly into the established Paspalum grass.  If the sub did not form effective nodules to fix nitrogen from the air then it had no chance in competition for soil nitrogen against  the grass. It was quite easy to pick the plants that did not have nodules because  they turned red or yellow with the classical nitrogen deficiency symptoms.

Where did this lead?

It led to the major innovation of innoculating clover seed with a suspension of the appropriate Rhizobium.  Then the seedlings did not have to depend on bugs from the soil.

Innoculation of clover seed with Rhizobium was a step in the right direction but it did not always work?

I was called in to help with a problem where supposedly inoculated clover seed failed to form nodules.  Nobody had checked the quality of the inoculum. The strain in use by the Dept tended to mutate to a non-nodulating strain and over a period of time the cultures became practically useless.

The valuable lesson that emerged from this was the need for continuous quality control on the inoculum. This recognition led to the establishment of an agency to regularly test the inoculum being provided by commercial firms to the farming community. Some of the standards devised in the course of this work became accepted world wide.

Three commercial seed firms provided funds, the State Department did the field testing and obtained material. The University of Sydney housed the facilities and one or two people were employed to work in the agency.  After ten years or so the whole unit moved to the Department and assumed Australia-wide responsibilities for testing and quality control on Rhizobium.

You worked in an area where Australia had a high international profile.

There was a time in the 1960s when Rhizobium work in Australia was leading the world. The monographs produced during this period were dominated by Australians.

The US pioneered much of this work but they did not need to set the same standards because their soils are naturally richer in Rhizobia and there is less  need for inoculation. During the time of "the great antibiotics hunt" the American micribiologists all went looking for new antibiotics and the area of nitrogen fixation fell into a rather sad state. Since then the US has caught up due to weight of numbers and funding.

The Rhizobium Newsletter was a significant innovation, first edited by Kevin Marshall in  1956. He is at present in the Chair of Microbiology at the University of NSW. This was a vehicle for informal communication of preliminary findings and work in progress. At first it circulated locally and later it went world wide. The last edition was in 1981 when cost increases, especially in postage, helped to kill it.

You and your colleagues had a hand in the International Biological Programme.

This was the biological counterpart of the International Geophysical Year, except that it ran for more than a year. The subject was defined as 'The Biological Basis of Productivity and Human Welfare' and a major aim was to lift agriculture in the countries of the Third World.

Biological nitrogen fixation had a good representation in the programme with two major volumes of papers. I also wrote a little book (IBP Handbook No 16, A Manual for the Practical Study of Root-Nodule Bacteria). This was  published in 1970 and was later translated into Spanish and Chinese.

All of this is a fair record of achievement. Do you have any general thoughts on the attitudes and habits required?

I suggest that young graduates need to be prepared to adapt and develop into areas of responsibility quite different from those envisaged during their time at university.

When I went into teaching I had no idea that I would do anything different. And I threw myself into it. When I went back to the Teachers College that was tremendous and things just fell out of that.