James Arthur Prescott
James Arthur Prescott was born on 7 October 1890 at Little Bolton, Lancashire, England, eldest of seven children of Joseph Arthur Prescott, machine-fitter, and his wife Mary Alice, née Garsden. James attended school in France in 1897-1901, while his father was working in the textile industry there, and remained fluent in French for the rest of his life.
Completing his schooling at Accrington, Lancashire, he studied science at the Victoria University of Manchester (B.Sc., 1911; M.Sc., 1919), where he gained first-class honours in chemistry. He undertook postgraduate research on phosphate in soil at Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire.
On 12 October 1915 at the Wesleyan Chapel, Accrington, he married Elsie Mason (d.1972).
From 1916 to 1924 he was employed as chief chemist at the experimental station of the Sultanic Agricultural Society, Bahtim, Egypt; his work was mainly concerned with nitrogen in fertilisers and soil.
On the recommendation of Sir John Russell, the director of Rothamsted, Prescott was appointed to the chair of agricultural chemistry at the newly established Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide. He arrived in South Australia in 1924 and, in his first years, travelled widely to familiarise himself with Australian soils. Influenced by Russian work on soil genesis, he interpreted the effect that climate, vegetation and other factors had on soils. He drew a map of the major soil zones of the continent and in 1931 published The Soils of Australia in Relation to Vegetation and Climate (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Bulletin no 52). This work contributed to a D.Sc., conferred by the University of Adelaide in 1932, and established him as the leading authority on soil science in Australia.
Meanwhile (Sir) David Rivett [q.v.11], chief executive officer of CSIR, had sought Prescott’s advice on a proposed investigation of the soils of irrigated areas of the Murray River system, and in 1927 had named him head of the Murray River Soil Investigation Unit and chairman of the CSIR irrigation research station committee. In 1929 Prescott was appointed part-time chief of the CSIR division of soils, with headquarters at the Waite Institute. Under his direction, soil surveys by CSIR and laboratory investigations by his university group advanced soil research in Australia. In 1944 he published A Soil Map of Australia (CSIR Bulletin no 177).
From 1938, when Prescott succeeded A. E. V. Richardson as director of the Waite Institute, he administered research and education in a wider field of agricultural science.
President of the Royal Society of South Australia (1932-33), the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute (1936-37) and the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science (1940-41), Prescott was awarded the Royal Society of South Australia’s (Sir Joseph) Vercoe medal in 1938, the Farrer memorial medal in 1948 and the Mueller medal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1954.
He was appointed CBE in 1947.
He retired from the Waite in 1955 and was appointed emeritus professor. Next year the University of Melbourne conferred on him an honorary doctorate of agricultural science. In 1956-70 he was a council-member of the Australian Wine Research Institute. The Australian Society of Soil Science established the J. A. Prescott medal for outstanding contributions to soil science and climatology in 1971.
To celebrate Prescott’s ninetieth birthday the Waite Institute and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization arranged a symposium on a major soil group that he had defined.
On 6 February 1987 he died at Glen Osmond, Adelaide, and was cremated.
His son, John Russell Prescott, professor of physics (1971-89) at the University of Adelaide.
James Prescott is commemorated by a plaque in the pavement of North Terrace, Adelaide, and by a building at the Waite Institute, named in his honour in 1994.Biographical SourceTaken from Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012