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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kelley, Ralph Bodkin (1890–1970)

by Lorna L. McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Ralph Bodkin Kelley (1890-1970), veterinary scientist, was born on 15 December 1890 at Preston, Melbourne, second son of Alfred Aldridge Kelley, a Victorian-born clerk, and his wife Margaret Jane, née Charles, from Ireland. Ralph attended Caulfield Grammar School and went jackerooing before entering the University of Melbourne (L.V.Sc., 1914; B.V.Sc., 1930; D.V.Sc., 1937). He won (1914) the Australian Veterinary Association's [J. A.] Gilruth prize and the medal of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria.

On 30 January 1915 Kelley was appointed captain in the Australian Army Veterinary Corps. That year he took three shiploads of horses to Egypt and was the veterinary member on a remount purchase board, an experience which taught him that horse-trading was 'a very specialised game of catch-as-catch-can'. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in March 1916, he served in the Middle East, mainly with the 12th Light Horse Regiment and as officer in command of the 9th Mobile Veterinary Station. His appointment terminated in Australia on 21 June 1919.

Kelley then took a post with a firm that sold livestock; for two and a half years he took shiploads of thoroughbred horses to Asia. In 1922, in Melbourne, he joined the Department of Lands, teaching the care and management of farm animals to 'rookie' soldier settlers. He described their hardships as 'a repetition of the pioneering days . . . only those who had lots of guts . . . came through'. Three years later he became a soldier settler and veterinarian on a dairy farm at Tatura. On 5 March 1927 at Camberwell, Melbourne, Kelley married Edith Eileen Malcolm with Presbyterian forms. Lacking sufficient capital, he was forced to sell his farm. In 1928 he was appointed livestock foreman at the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works' sewage farm, Werribee, which ran 30,000 sheep and 12,500 cattle. In January 1931 he joined the division of animal health and production, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization from 1949), as animal geneticist. Asked by Gilruth to investigate the cross-breeding of Zebu (Brahman) cattle in the United States of America, Kelley also undertook refresher courses in animal breeding and genetics in that country and in Britain. On his return in 1933, he was stationed at the Oonoonbah Laboratory, near Townsville, Queensland.

During his American visit he had selected Zebu cattle for a syndicate of Queensland pastoralists. He played a leading role in experiments to cross that stock with British breeds in the hope of producing beef-cattle able to withstand tropical conditions and resist tick infestation. Despite positive findings, the programme remained controversial with many cattlemen until the 1950s. In 1935 Kelley was transferred to Sydney to investigate fertility in merino sheep. He developed the F. D. McMaster field-station at Badgerys Creek and was its officer-in-charge (1938-53). While planning genetic work at the National Sheep Breeding Research Station, Gilruth Plains, Queensland, Kelley remained committed to the cross-breeding of Zebu cattle. By 1952, when C.S.I.R.O. and the Australian Meat Board established the National Cattle Breeding Station at Belmont, near Rockhampton, some cattlemen had been 'converted'.

In that year Kelley and R. S. Wilson selected Brahman and Africander cattle in the U.S.A. for Belmont, but Kelley's request to organize the research programme was refused and he was appointed assistant-chief, division of animal health and production. Suspecting a 'kick upstairs', he resigned early in 1954 to become a director and part-owner of Tropical Cattle Pty Ltd, North Queensland. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1954. At the Federal government's invitation, he visited Burma, Singapore and Malaya to encourage support for the Colombo Plan. Returning to Singapore as a research specialist, he obtained leave in 1958-59 to fulfil an assignment in Pakistan. Kelley was subsequently foundation professor of animal science at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. About 1967 he retired to Nambour, Queensland. He contributed numerous papers to scientific journals and wrote several monographs, among them Principles and Methods of Animal Breeding (Sydney, 1946), Native and Adapted Cattle (Sydney, 1959) and Sheep Dogs, Their Breeding, Maintenance and Training (Sydney, 1947).

Survived by his wife and son, Kelley died on 13 February 1970 at Nambour and was cremated. His portrait by Norman Carter, entitled 'The Squatter' (1939), is held by the State Library of New South Wales. By the 1980s almost all of Queensland's northern herds of beef-cattle were either fixed hybrid breeds or pure Brahman.

Select Bibliography

  • C. B. Schedvin, Shaping Science and Industry (Syd, 1987)
  • L. McDonald, Cattle Country (Brisb, 1988)
  • R. A. J. Neville, Faces of Australia (Syd, 1992)
  • Australian Veterinary Journal, 46, Mar 1970, p 113
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 14 Feb 1970
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 14 Feb 1970
  • Queensland Country Life, 19 Feb 1970
  • R. B. Kelley, Reminiscences (manuscript, no date, privately held)
  • minutes, TCRAC/QAIC, 1932-52 (CSIRO Archives, Canberra)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lorna L. McDonald, 'Kelley, Ralph Bodkin (1890–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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