Story: Whitehead, Hugh Robinson

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Whitehead, Hugh Robinson

1899–1983

Biochemist, microbiologist, scientific administrator

This biography was written by P. S. Robertson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Hugh Robinson Whitehead was born in Hunslet, Leeds, England, on 11 November 1899, the son of Annie May Robinson and her husband, John Hanson Whitehead, an electrical engineer. He was educated in Leeds and graduated BSc (1921) and MSc (1922) from the University of Leeds. He then worked as a biochemist in the College of Medicine of the University of Durham at Newcastle upon Tyne. On 4 July 1927 he married Ellen Wormall in Leeds. The following year they emigrated to New Zealand, where Hugh took up his appointment as chief bacteriologist at the Dairy Research Institute in Palmerston North. By then he had published important work on bacterial nutrition and blood complement (a substance that aids the immune response) in a number of scientific journals; this led to the award of a DSc by the University of Leeds in 1931.

Whitehead was one of the three foundation staff of the institute, established in April 1927 as a joint venture between the government and the dairy industry. When he arrived, temporary laboratories were still being built. A rather dapper young man, he earned the enduring nickname ‘Tonky’ from workers on the construction site, although he was almost invariably ‘Doctor Whitehead’ to his face. As a townsman with no knowledge of dairying, he made contact with practical men in the industry and learned their problems first-hand. This proved crucial in developing a successful relationship with an initially sceptical manufacturing dairy industry that had little faith in science. He recognised that his expertise might be of greatest relevance to cheesemaking, which depended on micro-organisms during both the manufacturing and maturing process.

Foremost among Whitehead’s outstanding contributions was the demonstration, in the mid 1930s, that the sudden failure of acid development during cheesemaking was caused by virus-like particles known as bacteriophages, which selectively destroy bacteria. This was the first evidence of bacteriophages outside the field of medicine. Although the particles were too small to be seen in the best microscopes of the day, he was able to deduce many of their characteristics and, more importantly, develop methods to combat the problem. It was a development of great economic significance, because failure of acid production was costing the New Zealand cheese industry thousands of pounds a year.

Whitehead’s other achievements included the introduction of selected single-strain cultures for cheesemaking, the demonstration that cultures can have a pronounced effect on cheese flavour, and the partial characterisation, in 1933, of an antibacterial substance that is produced by a lactic acid bacterial species found in some milk. This substance was responsible for the then serious problem of non-acid milk, and later, known as Nisin, was used in processed cheese to control spoilage. Whitehead’s single-strain cultures gradually replaced the earlier mixtures of unknown composition, and when selected to avoid the corresponding bacteriophages they made cheesemaking much more consistent and paved the way for mechanisation of the process. He also played a significant part in the development of mechanised production methods.

After initial scepticism, even antagonism, the work of Hugh Whitehead and his co-workers was quickly taken up by the dairy industry. He became revered by cheesemakers as he helped transform their work from an art to a science. His ideas were eventually adopted by dairy industries around the world, though as late as the 1960s he was accused by some, notably in North America, of having ‘invented’ the scourge of bacteriophages.

Whitehead became director of the Dairy Research Institute in 1959 and continued to preside over the growing establishment until his retirement in 1964. A longstanding member of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1950, and in 1957 received the gold medal of the Australian Society of Dairy Technology. He was made an OBE in 1964, and in 1967 was given the Distinguished Service Award of the New Zealand Society of Dairy Technology. He was the author or co-author of more than 60 scientific and technical papers. A gentle, friendly man, in his spare time Whitehead enjoyed golf and contract bridge.

Four years into retirement, in 1968, he rejoined the institute on a part-time basis to help with editorial and administrative work. His contributions in the next 15 years were much valued because of his flair for lucid, concise writing. He was still working the day before he died, in Palmerston North on 13 March 1983. He was survived by his two sons; his wife, Ellen, had died the previous year.