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Story: Whittlestone, Walter George

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Whittlestone, Walter George


Agricultural chemist, dairy researcher, community worker, peace activist

This biography, written by Anita V. Neal, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in February, 2006.

Walter George Whittlestone, known to friends and family as ‘Wattie’, was born at Abbotsford, near Dunedin, on 2 April 1914, the son of Annie Ethel Lowe and her husband, George Frederick Opawa Whittlestone, a miner. When he was four the family moved to Kaitangata, where George became a mine manager and later a Methodist home missionary. Thereafter they shifted to Nightcaps in 1925, Waikouaiti in 1926 and to Edendale in 1929. Walter’s childhood was characterised by the family’s deep involvement with a variety of Christian organisations.

Whittlestone began secondary schooling at Wyndham District High School, and transferred to Gore High School in May 1930. He was dux there in 1931, and began study at the University of Otago the following year. He graduated with a BSc in chemistry in 1935, and an MSc with honours in 1936. He was awarded the Sir George Grey Scholarship and (jointly) the Duffus Lubecki Scholarship in applied science. While at university Whittlestone continued his involvement with the Methodist church, and joined various student organisations including the Independent Radical Club, the Public Questions Union and the New Zealand Student Christian Movement. He was also president of the Dunedin branch of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand youth group, and was briefly involved in the Movement Against War and Fascism.

In 1937 Whittlestone began work as a chemist at the New Zealand Co-operative Rennet Company in Eltham, Taranaki. Initially he worked with insulin, but later became interested in the rennet starters vital to cheese manufacture. His work helped to double the company’s production of rennet. It was in Taranaki that he met his future wife, Shirley Stewart, whom he was to marry on 28 October 1939 in Eltham; they were to have a son and a daughter. His career as a dairy scientist also began in Taranaki, when he teamed up with a local veterinarian, Allan Leslie, to investigate mastitis in dairy herds in the area. The pair identified the faulty adjustment of milking machines as a major cause of the disease, concluding that nine out of ten milking machines were being operated at too high a vacuum, increasing the risk of mastitis in those herds.

Whittlestone’s work attracted the attention of C. S. M. Hopkirk, officer in charge of the Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Laboratory at Wallaceville in the Hutt Valley, and in 1938 Walter moved there. His wartime research focused on the conservation of milking machine rubberware, and represented another step into the field of milking-machine design. His interest in mastitis continued with further research into the role of milking-machine faults. He also became interested in the process of milk secretion and the rate of flow of milk from the cow, and he designed apparatus that enabled milk-flow rates to be monitored without disturbing milking.

In 1944 many Wallaceville staff, including Whittlestone, were moved to the Ruakura research station, near Hamilton. Until his departure for Australia in 1958 he carried out pioneering research into milk secretion and ejection, using ewes and sows as well as cows. Despite personal friction, Whittlestone collaborated with Doug Phillips to design the Ruakura milking machine, which set the standard for milking technology for years to come. He also designed a breast pump for hospital use. In 1954 he received his DSc from the University of New Zealand in recognition of his published work during his years at Wallaceville and Ruakura.

The post-war period also saw a continuation of his involvement with the peace movement. Like many scientists, Whittlestone was horrified by the destructive power of atomic weapons and devoted considerable energy to campaigning against them. In 1956 he spent some weeks in India, working on a Colombo Plan project to milk water buffalo by machine. This marked the beginning of a lasting interest in humanitarian aid overseas.

Between 1958 and 1963 Whittlestone was research director of the Camden laboratory, attached to the University of Sydney’s Dairy Husbandry Research Foundation. He returned to Ruakura in 1964 to a new dairy section stocked with twins, which enabled him to eliminate genetic factors in differences in milk production. His research interests included dairy machine hygiene, mastitis and dairy cow behaviour. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1974.

During the 1970s Whittlestone became involved with La Leche League New Zealand as a lactation consultant. He improved the design of his earlier breast pump, which now reached commercial production. He was also involved with a range of humanitarian organisations including CORSO, the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, the Trade Aid movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the New Zealand Foundation for Peace Studies and the Federation of New Zealand Parents’ Centres. Whittlestone retired in 1979. He continued his connection with the dairy industry through an association with milking machine manufacturer Alfa-Laval, and maintained his interest in La Leche League, along with other humanitarian and peace activities. He died suddenly at his home in Hamilton on 26 December 1985, survived by his wife, Shirley, and his children.

Wattie Whittlestone was typical of a generation of agricultural researchers who changed the face of New Zealand farming in the mid twentieth century, as earlier farming methods based on hard physical labour and breaking in land to increase production gave way to a scientific and technological approach. Uncompromising in his beliefs and ethical values, he was outspoken and committed to what he believed. Always a very practical man, his career combined applied science with altruism, as he contributed to a wide variety of humanitarian organisations.

How to cite this page:

Anita V. Neal. 'Whittlestone, Walter George', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000, updated February, 2006. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5w27/whittlestone-walter-george (accessed 15 June 2024)