Wilfred Eade Agar

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Wilfred Eade Agar FRS[1] (27 April 1882 – 14 July 1951) was an Anglo-Australian zoologist.[2][3]

Private life[edit]

Agar was born in Wimbledon, England. He was educated at Sedbergh School, Yorkshire, and at King's College, Cambridge, where he read zoology.[4] He served at Gallipoli in World War I. His father was a solicitor and businessman and he was the first to find a hockey game in its modern form.

In 1908 Agar had married Elizabeth MacDonald in Glasgow. Together with his family Agar lived on the university campus until his retirement in 1948, then they moved to Kew. Being retired he continued to do researches and write but was extremely worried about his poor health. He had suffered from a coronary thrombosis in 1947 and on 14 July 1951 he died at Kew; survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he was cremated.


In 1904 Agar was declared as a demonstrator in zoology at University of Glasgow, where he put down roots in teaching and research. His work on the embryology of the lungfish Lepidosiren and Protopterus caused a fellowship at King's College, Cambridge; this did not make an impact on his leaving Glasgow, for he had to continue academic and research work.[5]

The work on Lepidosiren was very precious for him. The cells of this fish, being unusually large, offer favourable material for the study of chromosomes and in 1907, aided by grants from the Royal Society and the Balfour Fund at Cambridge, Agar made an expedition to the almost unreachable Gran Chaco, Paraguay, to collect material for cytological study. His intensive study of spermatogenesis in Lepidosiren represented critical confirmation that the chromosome mechanism could provide a physical basis for Mendel's laws. Another meaningful contribution to Mendelian theory arrived at his work on inheritance in parthenogenetic crustacea. He found out that apart from rare mutations, the genetic constitution of these crustacea remained unchanged, generation after generation. This work provided the first direct evidence from animals that the segregation of genes is according to the segregation of homologous chromosomes at meiosis.

In 1919, he accepted the chair of zoology at the University of Melbourne; his notable projects concerned marsupial chromosomes and inheritance in cattle. Doing it, he was afraid of giving up most of his ambitions; his anxiety seemed justified when he realized that he was to give all the lectures and conduct a big amount of the laboratory classes without help. He successfully challenged the Lamarckian findings of William McDougall relating to the inheritance of the effects of training in rats. Agar offered the newer disciplines of cytology and genetics and these remained his principal teaching interest. However, his courses were the first of such kind in Australian universities. He established the studies on marsupial chromosomes and his paper on inheritance in cattle is considered to be the earliest in Australia to introduce genetical techniques to animal-breeding.

From student days, Agar had taken an interest in the problem of Lamarckian inheritance. Like a majority of biologists he turned down the theory that acquired characters are inherited, but it kept on receiving support. The most crucial of Agar's contributions to this dispute was his repetition of an experiment which the psychologist William McDougall proclaimed had demonstrated the inheritance of the effects of training in rats. It was the most significant evidence published in support of the Lamarckian theory and not many criticisms treated it seriously weakened McDougall's claim. However, the results of Agar's properly checked the experiment, continued over twenty years, completely rejected the Lamarckian interpretation of McDougall's experiment.

He was elected to the Royal Society in 1921.

In 1938 Agar was elected president of the Eugenics Society of Victoria. He said "it was a disastrous state of affairs that size of families was usually in inverse ratio to intelligence."[6] Although Agar was retired, he devoted himself to administrative work at the university. He was a council-member during a great deal of years, twice dean of the faculty of science, and chairman of the professorial board in 1931-34, regulating the cogitations that happened before the appointment of a full-time vice-chancellor. His services to science and to the university were recognized by an O.B.E. in 1939 and a C.B.E. in 1948.


In his early years in Melbourne, Agar got interested in animal psychology and implemented experiments on the capacity to learn by experience of a range of animals from amoeba to crayfish and snails. These studies during a long period were a source of great enjoyment for him. They gave few publications but created in return for a background for his increasing preoccupation with wide biological concepts and the philosophy of science which was represented in A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism (Melbourne, 1943; second edition, 1951). Agar devoted this book to undoubtedly his most important contribution to biological theory. The book was based on the system of Whitehead's philosophy of the organism and argued for a form panpsychism.[7]


Agar was awarded the Clarke Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1944 and elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society[1] Agar's scientific achievements were greatly recognized. His scholarship and balanced judgment gained him the respect and faith of his colleagues,students and acquaintances. His distinctive traits of character were kindness, determination and courtesy. Except of his scientific interests, he was deeply interested in philosophy, enjoyed poetry and drama and sometimes drew some water-colour sketching.

Agar Street in the Canberra suburb of Bruce was dedicated in his name.[8]



  1. ^ a b Tiegs, O. W. (1952). "Wilfred Eade Agar. 1882-1951". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 8 (21): 2–11. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1952.0001. JSTOR 768796.
  2. ^ http://www.unimelb.edu.au/150/150people/agar.html Wilfred Eade Agar at the University of Melbourne
  3. ^ F.H. Drummond, 'Agar, Wilfred Eade (1882–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, MUP, 1979, pp. 16–17
  4. ^ "Agar, Wilfred Eade (AGR900WE)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ F.H. Drummond, 'Agar, Wilfred Eade (1882–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, MUP, 1979, pp. 16–17
  6. ^ The Age, 27 April 1938
  7. ^ A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism by W. E. Agar. (1953). A. R. Bios. Vol. 24, No. 1. pp. 63-64.
  8. ^ ACT Planning and Land Authority. "Street and Suburb Names - Agar Street, Bruce". Retrieved 8 July 2013.
Preceded by
Walter Lawry Waterhouse
Clarke Medal
Succeeded by
William Noel Benson