Vale Malcolm J Wright (1935 – 2024)

June 12th, 2024

Malcolm Wright – a distinguished pedologist who contributed much to knowledge of Australian soils and landscapes died in Adelaide on 19th May 2024, aged 89.

If you would like to add your own stories of Malcolm to this tribute, please email


Prepared by Rob Fitzpatrick, CSIRO Mineral Resources and The University of Adelaide (with assistance from Tony Milnes, previously CSIRO Division of Soils)

Malcolm graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College with a Diploma in Agriculture and began his career at CSIRO Division of Soils in Adelaide in 1955. He was based in CSIRO Division of Soils for 40 years until his retirement in 1995.

Malcolm Wright

Malcolm standing on the cricket pitch of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in 1993 when we were commissioned by MCG management to source “black swelling clay material in Victoria” for the cricket pitch as they had exhausted their supplies.


At CSIRO he became a member of a group of pedologists recruited by J.A. Prescott and J.K. Taylor, and at that time led by C.G. Stephens, who had established soil survey as a basic tool for the assessment of land capability, especially in relation to irrigation. This group, together with pedologists in the other regional laboratories of the Division, were major contributors to the program.  Between 1955 and 1957 Malcolm undertook soil survey investigations in a wide range of environments including Barossa Valley, Murray mouth lowlands, Tasmania, Mount Crawford Pine Forest, northern South Australia and central Australia. Based at Alice Springs from 1957 to 1962 he completed several projects including soil mapping, soil stratigraphy, weathering and research on the irrigation requirements of lucerne, as well as advisory work on soils and agronomy.  Malcolm subsequently worked on projects in diverse landscapes in Gippsland, western Victoria and Yorke Peninsula, and continental-scale soil mapping in the Kimberley region for the Atlas of Australian Soils (1962-1968). This was followed by a period of intense activity leading up to 9th International Soil Science Congress in August 1968, with preparation and deputy leadership of Pre- Post- and Mid-Conference Tours and the perfection of techniques to produce almost 100 soil monoliths for permanent display at the Congress opening: these are currently still on display in CSIRO’s Waite Campus laboratory.  Central to the Congress Tours he led a study of the stratigraphy of arid zone soils at Whyalla. Malcolm continued soil survey and site investigations for several major CSIRO initiatives such as the National Soil Fertility Project as well as continuing work in western Victoria, soil surveys in the Mt Lofty Ranges and contract surveys in the arid zone near Alice Springs for research purposes and mapping soils and landscapes of north-west Eyre Peninsula.

Malcolm was always more interested in the practical use of soils and how this was influenced by their origin, rather than in their formal classification. His work on “red-brown hardpans” and associated arid zone soils in Australia was triggered by his broad knowledge of soils across the Australian arid zone. He established the mode of “red-brown hardpan” formation and discovered novel, hitherto unsuspected processes at work in them requiring a new terminology. He also assisted with research into: (i) soil abrasiveness as it affects ground-engaging tool performance; (ii) impact of swelling soils on optical fibre cable routes and assessment of the suitability of particular routes, as well as research into methods for amelioration of such soils; and (iii) suitability of soils for vineyard establishment for quality wine production.

Malcolm was a powerful champion for people who needed help, which included being a great mentor of young scientists.  He also played an active role in a number of professional scientific societies notably, The Royal Society of South Australia (Council Member), Australian Society of Soil Science (Past Secretary; Council Member) and Australian Clay Minerals Society (Council Member). He was author and co-author of 120 publications, including major chapters on “Soils” for the Royal Soc. S. Aust. Natural History series, namely: Eyre Peninsula Region (1985) and North-East Deserts Region (1990).

Malcolm was also passionate about running two rural properties, one of which was devoted to raising beef cattle in the high rainfall zone (800 mm) of the southern Mt Lofty ranges, and growing pistachios in the moderate rainfall zone (500 mm) of the northern Mt Lofty Ranges.  He was a member of the Pistachio Growers Association Inc.

I, along with others are missing a colleague from whom we have learnt so much and our scientific careers would have been poorer if we had not had the chance to work with him.

He is survived by three sons and four grandchildren.


Tribute from Jock Churchman CSIRO Soils and Land and Water, 1989-2003.

I never actually worked with Malcolm, but I was also in CSIRO Soils and Land and Water Division during the latter parts of his career (from 1989 on). Rob Fitzpatrick has written well about his career and qualities as a pedologist.

I was not a pedologist, actually a mineralogist with a speciality in clays and in that guise was at the MCG when he examined the soil there and stood on the centre spot in that photo Rob included. He was at home there as a former footballer and cricketer, apparently of some note.

I was also on a field trip with Malcolm to examine opals in the South Australian outback together, with a visiting French female student and about 6 or so other colleagues. Undoubtedly, he was at home in the outback, with well-hone skills like cooking a roast on an open fire. He was also great on plant identification.

I was also one of the customers for pistachios from his orchard in the country near Adelaide. He did a regular round of his colleagues selling these, and they were always very good quality and value.

In the outback, I’m sure he told a few jokes. He was good on jokes, not necessarily very clean, as befitted the rough diamond soil scientist that he was. Didn’t do it often, but I am sure he liked to shock, with a smile.

In responding to one of his jokes on the internet, I discovered something else about Malcolm. He was quite a contrarian. He was strongly at philosophical odds with our political masters and their enablers, like the Murdoch Press. Quite left-wing.  I liked that as I had come from Wellington, New Zealand, where, although also in a government scientific institution, people generally were much more willing to show their true political colours than in CSIRO.  It may have been because Wellington, but not Adelaide is a national capital, where politics is more a part of day-to-day discourse. Malcolm’s views would have shocked many of his former classmates from the establishment St Peters College. He had truly worked out his own philosophy. He was always genuine.