Henry Nix (8 July 1937 – 2 February 2022)

1 April 2022

By Michael Hutchinson

Henry Nix was a consummate environmentalist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Australian landscape and an abiding passion for the conservation of Australia’s unique flora and fauna. After a distinguished career at the CSIRO Division of Water and Land Resources Henry served as Director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (CRES) at the Australian National University (now the Fenner School of Environment and Society), from 1986 to 1999. His contributions to both CSIRO and the University leave an indelible record as a pioneer of computer-based methods of land resource evaluation and as an inspiring academic leader. He directly enabled the development of world leading researchers and contributed mightily to the awareness of environmental issues across the ANU and the wider community.

Henry grew up in the industrial city of Ipswich in Queensland and developed a keen interest in Australian birds, watching the changes in their occurrence and abundance as the seasons changed. Indeed, in 1951 at the age of 13, he became a member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union, a predecessor of Birds Australia. Henry attended the Queensland Agricultural College at Gatton before completing a degree in Agricultural Science at the University of Queensland in 1960. He joined the CSIRO Division of Land Research and Regional Survey in Canberra in 1964. Henry thrived in the practical, down to earth atmosphere of this Division that took him to many parts of northern Australia, and briefly to Papua New Guinea.

Henry rapidly progressed, leading the Land Evaluation Group, when the Division became the Division of Land Use Research in 1973. He came to the realisation that climate was a key factor in the agricultural landscape and built on this realisation in ways that set him apart from his peers. He became a leading participant in the International Benchmark Sites for Agrotechnology Transfer (IBSNAT) project that aimed to apply systems analysis and simulation to problems faced by resource-poor farmers in the tropics and sub-tropics, specifically in the area of evaluating new and untried agricultural technologies. This involved a collaborative network of an interdisciplinary team of scientists from more than 25 countries. This no doubt built the foundations for his advocacy for interdisciplinary approaches to addressing complex environmental issues during his later years as Director of CRES. Henry became a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science in 1979.

The realisation of the fundamental importance of climate inspired the development by his CSIRO colleagues of new quantitative methods for accurately describing climate across the Australian continent. These methods were world leading at the time and Henry saw the potential to apply them to map the distributions of plant and animal species based on their dependence on monthly mean climate. Thus was born BIOCLIM in the early 1980s, a bioclimatic prediction system that revolutionised species distribution mapping worldwide. It turned traditional practice on its head. In former times natural vegetation distributions were often used to imperfectly infer the climate of a particular region. The new paradigm delivered unprecedented spatial accuracy from minimally sampled species data. The bioclimatic prediction method and its key underpinning bioclimatic parameters are used to the present day. They have become a key plank in multifactor assessments of landscapes in the now wide ranging field of landscape ecology.

Henry maintained a wide range of interests, not least his interest in Australian plants and birds. He maintained an impressive garden of Australian plants and was an active contributor to both the local branch of the Society for Growing Australian Plants (SGAP) and the Canberra Ornithological Group (COG). He served as President to both organisations in the 1970s and made ongoing contributions to both well into his retirement. He was elected as President of Birds Australia Council in 2001. He is remembered for being able to rise above the details and minutiae to look at the ‘big picture’, believing that ‘A continental perspective on our birds and their habitats is a necessary condition for effective conservation’. He was awarded Fellowship, the highest honour of Birds Australia, in 2006.

Henry also devoted his annual leave, in full partnership with wife Katharine, and aided by various colleagues, to conducting an annual survey of fish and riparian birds and their habitats across Northern Australia. This annual survey continued for over a decade from 1985. It generated a unique set of Australian biological and habitat data and gave his colleagues and friends warmly appreciated insights into outback life and the environment of Northern Australia.
Henry brought a new energy to CRES when he moved to the Directorship in 1986. His wide-ranging knowledge enabled him to meet each of his new academic colleagues on their own terms and to offer valuable insights to each. It was often the case that Henry was more keenly aware of the wider implications of a person’s work than the person themselves. This was a source of great encouragement for colleagues and students alike. Henry encouraged his colleagues to publish their work in public journals rather than in the grey literature and PhD numbers at CRES grew substantially. Henry, and his generous fund of ideas, led the way, maintaining a substantial supervisory load along with his duties as Director.

By the mid-1990s CRES regularly outperformed its fellow Research Schools in the Institute of Advanced Studies in terms of per capita academic output. CRES was plainly having an academic impact as well as an impact on public policy, particularly in relation to the natural environment and biodiversity assessment. This was reflected in substantial externally sourced research income earned by CRES academics and Henry’s membership of senior government advisory bodies and chairmanship of wide-ranging committees, including the UN Expert Committee on Climatic and Potential Physical Effects of Global Nuclear War and the National Greenhouse Advisory Committee.

As in his time at CSIRO, Henry led CRES with much good humour and sensitivity to the wider needs of staff and students. He was particularly understanding and supportive in times of personal need. His strong patronage of the “CREStaurant” as a venue for daily free ranging interactions across the whole of CRES contributed to the multidisciplinary ethos of CRES and helped it to become acknowledged as one of the happier Schools across the ANU. Henry was also sensitive to the challenges faced by early and mid-career staff and did his best to support them in their career aspirations. Henry extended his support across the ANU by establishing an annual CRES prize for environmental art to a final year student at the Art School. This was much appreciated by the Art School and selected works by these winners still adorn the walls of the Fenner School.

Another of Henry’s missions was to take up the merits and achievements of applied and interdisciplinary research to the University, which was traditionally discipline-focused. This had limited initial success, but the mission was more successful in later years. Henry and departmental heads also promoted collaborations in teaching and research across CRES and the Departments of Geography, Forestry and Geology in the mid-1990s. These predated the eventual merging of the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Faculties, and in particular the merger of CRES with its Faculties counterpart to form the Fenner School of Environment and Society in 2007. Though the earlier collaborations were short-lived, they contributed to the early success of the new Fenner School. Not surprisingly, Henry was the first to suggest invoking the name of Frank Fenner, the visionary inaugural Director of CRES, in choosing a name for an environmental school at the ANU.

Henry continued as a Professor at CRES until his retirement in 2002. During this time he chaired the Management Committee of the Kioloa property on the south coast of NSW which was donated to the ANU in perpetuity by Edith and Joy London in 1975. The ‘Kioloa Campus’ provided an ecologically diverse landscape to support the University’s teaching and field research programs. Henry led a successful campaign to maintain University support in the face of rising budgetary constraints. This led to a renewed appreciation of the potential of the Kioloa property for a wide range of University applications and patronage of the property strengthened over the subsequent decade. Henry also saw the potential of the ‘Edge’ bushland property near Braidwood of poet Judith Wright, who bequeathed the property to the Australian people through the ANU in 1984. He provided unwavering support to Judith during the 16 years that ‘Edge’ was in University hands.

Henry was Emeritus Professor at the ANU until 2010, when Henry and Katharine moved to Ninderry in their home state of Queensland, where he played an advisory role in setting up the Biodiversity Climate Change Virtual Laboratory (BCCVL). Henry received several prestigious awards over the years. These included the Urrbrae Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to Australian agriculture in 1988 and a Gold Medal from Ecological Society of Australia in 1994. He is the only person to have been awarded both. He became an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2000, for service to the environment, particularly the conservation of natural resources, and to land management through the development and application of simulation models for ecologically sustainable land utilization.

Henry died peacefully on 2 February 2022. He maintained daily bird counts in his garden to the last. His many colleagues and friends count ourselves fortunate for the time, the humour, the ideas and the dreams for a better future that we shared. He is sorely missed by his wife of sixty years Katharine Nix, his sons Simon, Garth and Jonathan and his wider family.