Dennis Leslie Watson
Tertiary education and early career
Dennis completed his undergraduate studies in Agricultural Science at the University of Sydney in 1967 and was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to do a PhD, however, he was called up for national service. After a 2 year delay, Dennis commenced research in 1970 on the immune system of dairy cows with Professor Alick Lascelles who was to later become Chief of CSIRO Division of Animal Health (1973-1983). These studies launched the next 25 years of Dennis’ career looking at ways to harness the immune systems of sheep and cattle to control bacterial infections and improve health.
Dennis graduated with a PhD from the University of Sydney in 1973, his thesis title “Local production and selective transfer of immunoglobulin by secretory organs in ruminants”
After his PhD, Dennis spent three years with NSW DPI at Glenfield Veterinary Research Station and four years as a Lecturer in Veterinary Immunology at James Cook University.
Time at CSIRO
In mid-1979, Dennis was appointed Senior Research Scientist in CSIRO’s Division of Animal Health to work at its Armidale Pastoral Research Laboratory, known as “Chiswick”. Writing about the move 20 years later, Dennis said “Within a few weeks of my arrival at ‘Chiswick’ I was in no doubt that I had made the right decision – this was easily the best research environment I’d experienced since my PhD days at the University of Sydney”. Dennis had found his science home.
The 1980s and 1990s were golden years for veterinary immunology and Dennis was at the front of the pack. Dennis undertook pioneering research on expression of virulence factors in the mammary gland during staphylococcal mastitis in sheep and cattle, and developed a vaccine adjuvant to target host defence mechanisms against these antigens leading to the patenting of a vaccine to control staphylococcal mastitis.
Dennis was a fine mentor and treated his students as family. He had a deep commitment to social justice and a fierce loyalty to his staff, to ‘Chiswick’ and to CSIRO. He was appointed officer in charge for the Animal Health scientists at ‘Chiswick’ in 1986 and for the whole site in 1993. Dennis set extremely high standards and expected others to do likewise and to put their shoulder to the wheel. A typical day would see Dennis in the morning, working with experimental animals, and in his office or the lab in the afternoon. He continued this practice when officer-in-charge and delighted in telling the story how one day he was in his overalls driving a ute when a visitor pulled up. Pointing at the office building, the visitor said, “I don’t want to talk to any of your desk jockeys, where can I find the farm manager”.
The mid-1990s were turbulent times for the Division of Animal Production and ‘Chiswick’ came under threat of closure on several occasions. Fighting these battles took its toll and Dennis left CSIRO in 1996 aged 50 to pursue interests as an industry consultant and in raising cattle at Pipeclay Ridge, New South Wales. Dennis had a passion for writing and published well over 100 scientific papers. He wrote a long article on the plight of the family farm for the Sydney Morning Herald and two unpublished novels. His research has left a strong legacy. In the mid-1990s he teamed up with NSW DPI to develop a Health and Welfare Program in the Beef CRC. Through this program, immunology skills were applied to assess the impact of husbandry and environmental stressors on immune competence. The initiative laid the foundations for the next two decades of research at ‘Chiswick’ on animal welfare and immune competence. This has led to the recent release of genomic breeding values for immune competence (ImmuneDEX) to improve health and welfare which are now in use in the Australian Beef Industry.
Dennis’ deep commitment to Australia’s agricultural industries and his joy in the endeavour of science are a continuing source of inspiration.
Honours and awards
|1973||Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from University of Sydney.|
Adapted from a eulogy written by Ian Colditz for the CSIRO Alumni website on 18 July 2023.