Dr Peter May AM

Dr Peter May AM (1922-2007)

Peter was the founding Editor of the Australian Journal of grape and Wine Research, and his diligence set this journal on very firm foundations. He contributed to several landmark texts, and produced monographs on grapevine rootstocks and flowering and fruitset in the grapevine.

Peter was Hungarian by birth (Budapest 1922), and spent his early formative years in Vienna. World War II saw him working on a number of different farms in Switzerland, and those experiences led him to study for a tertiary qualification in Agricultural Science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology on 1950. Following those studies, he migrated to Australia that same year, and after a brief sojourn in Gippsland, was appointed to the CSIRO Commonwealth Research Station – Merbein in 1952, as a technical assistant.

Viticulture, and in particular the physiology of Vitis vinefera L.cv. Sultana, quickly became his professional passion. Driven by a meteoric rise in his standing within  the global viticulture community from work at Merbein, he was awarded a CSIRO Postgraduate Scholarship in 1963 to complete his Doctorate dissertation at his alma mater in Switzerland. Equipped now with totally original insights into grapevine reproductive biology, and especially the drivers of bud fruitfulness, he returned to the newly –created CSIRO Division of Horticultural Research in Adelaide to build on those experiences. His insightfulness and practical skill as a researcher, his infectious enthusiasm and his boundless energy, all contributed to a lasting impact on viticultural practices that became widely adopted within the industry. Those impacts to continue to this day.

In Adelaide, Peter was promoted to Assistant Chief of Division, and served as Acting Chief for lengthy periods. As a senior administrator, he became mentor to many – especially younger scientists; a source of inspiration; a stern critic with an eye to rigour, and divisional advocate for all. Those lasting contributions to viticulture, and his efforts in promoting viticultural research worldwide, were recognized with the award for the prestigious Urrbrae Medal in 1977, and a medal from the University of Bourgogne in 1985. As further recognition of his generous personal and professional life, Peter was invested as a Member of the Order of Australia in 1996, and as a Life Member of ASVO in 1997.

It came as no surprise that retirement from CSIRO as a Chief Research Scientist heralded the start of a whole new career as educator, editor and consultant. Freed from administrative constraints, Peter’s activities blossomed. Indeed, as family, friends and colleagues readily attest, he seemingly tapped into fresh sources of energy that sustained his endless quest for new knowledge in human affairs, plant science generally, and viticulture in particular. During that period, he spent three years as Visiting Professor of Viticulture ant the University of Burgundy, and had a tour of two years as Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of Agriculture, Universitas Brawijaya Fakultas Pertanian – Malan, East Java, Indonesia.

Peter May Peter with Professor Roger Bessis, with whom Peter worked for a time at Dijon in France. Also shown in that Photo is Dr John Stocker, former CEO CSIRO, former AWRI Chair and (from memory) former GWRDC Chair. In the background of that photo are the two original mechanical harvesters on which all the initial trials of mechanical harvesting were done in Australia.
L-R Dr Peter May, Professor Roger Bessis, Dr John Stocker

Returning to Australia, he became Founding Editor for the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research in 1995, and applied his prodigious energies to this new task of establishing a peer-reviewed journal. His standing in global viticulture, and especially this knowledge of European vine science plus his facility in both French and German, were decided assets in this regard. Peter not only undertook the usual editorial responsibilities, but took great interest in the readability and appearance of the journal; at one stage he even taught himself the essentials of page-layout software to ensure the quality of the publication. The present team of three editors understand only too well what an amazing single-handed achievement those early issue represent. As a tribute to Peter May’s life in science, and the multiplicity of his enduring contributions to viticulture, a symposium entitled ‘Reproductive Biology in Grapevines’ was held at Merbein on 22-23 June 1999, with extensive sponsorship from industry and research agencies. Proceedings from that symposium were published as a special issue the following year (Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research 6(2), 70-188, 2000).

Paul Kriedemann, as the second Editor of the Journal, coordinated a special tribute Symposium to Peter on 22-23 June 1999. Dr Rob Walker & Paul Kriedemann arranged a workshop which was held at the former Merbein Laboratory of CSIRO. The Proceedings of the Symposium were published in a Special Issue of the Journal volume 6, number 2, 2000.

While it is relatively easy to catalogue Peter’s professional achievements it is harder to give a sense of what he meant to his colleagues and friends in a more personal terms. Peter was unfailingly modest, and never one to trumpet his own achievements. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the help he offered to other researchers. Many of today’s researchers can look back and say things like ‘Peter taught me everything I know about viticulture ‘or ‘Peter taught me how to be a rigorous researcher’. And his energy was inspiring and infectious. As one colleague once remarked, Peter was the only person he knew ‘who could hop on a horse and ride in four directions at once! He had an amazing capacity to canvass a wide range of issues at the one time, and it was often hard work keeping up with him!’