Story: Dry, Francis William

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Dry, Francis William

1891–1979

Geneticist, biologist, university lecturer, wool researcher

This biography, written by A. L. Rae, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Francis William Dry was born in Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England, on 23 October 1891. He was the elder son of Frank Dry, a master draper, and his wife, Mary Avis Corke. William attended the Driffield Board School, and was awarded a scholarship to attend Bridlington Grammar School. He went on to the University of Leeds, from where he graduated BSc (with first-class honours) in 1913 and MSc in 1914. Dry was awarded a Carnegie scholarship to visit research institutions in the United States. From 1917 to 1921 he served as assistant entomologist in Kenya. He married Florence Wilson Swinton at Saginaw, Michigan, on 18 May 1921; they were to have a daughter and a son.

The award of an Ackroyd Memorial Research Fellowship at the University of Leeds was a turning point in Dry's scientific career. From 1921 he carried out research in the Department of Textile Industries on the hairs in the coat of the mouse and their pattern of growth. Published in 1926, it remained definitive for many years and led to the award of a DSc degree in 1925; he then studied the inheritance of black fleece colour in Wensleydale sheep, his first research in genetics.

In 1928 Dry accepted an appointment as senior lecturer in agricultural zoology at the newly founded Massey Agricultural College in Palmerston North, New Zealand. At that time, excessive hairiness was considered by wool buyers and manufacturers to be the major fault in the New Zealand crossbred wool clip, and farmers were keen to produce less hairy sheep. In 1929 Dry established a flock of very hairy Romney sheep for experimental purposes. He focused his attention on the coarse hairy fibres (called halo-hairs) in the birthcoat of lambs. After many years of planned matings and detailed recording of the progeny by Dry and his students, it became clear that the high proportion of halo-hairs was genetically determined. In one stock it was controlled by a single dominant gene (the N gene); in another, less hairy stock by a recessive gene. This work was finally reported in detail in 1955.

Interwoven with the genetic investigation was a detailed study of the fibres in the birthcoat of the Romney lamb. In this work, Dry's approach was to study the size and shape of the fibres and their pattern and succession in the birthcoat. His objective was to deduce from the growing fibre the nature of the forces that had shaped it in the skin. He developed a classification of the birthcoat fibres to achieve this end.

The fleece of mature sheep carrying the dominant N gene has the characteristics needed for a specialty carpet wool. In the late 1940s an attempt was made to establish its production in New Zealand; the project failed, mainly because of the rapid rise in wool prices in the early 1950s. On his retirement from Massey at the end of 1956, Dry returned to the University of Leeds to take up an honorary fellowship in the Department of Textile Industries. There he organised manufacturing trials with wool from his research flocks which confirmed its suitability for carpet manufacture. In 1961–62 speciality carpet-wool production was established under the control of Massey Agricultural College and resulted in the development of the Drysdale breed.

Dry was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. Apart from an interest in cricket, he was almost totally absorbed in his professional activities. He was not a good lecturer to large classes and was at his best in discussion with small groups; he devoted time without limit to his postgraduate students. As a scientist, he was meticulous in the collection and recording of his research data and placed great emphasis on the need for theorising or speculation in scientific studies. His concentration on the purely scientific aspects of his genetic work, rather than on the practical problems of sheep breeding, irritated some farmers. He was sometimes at odds with the college's principal, Geoffrey Peren, and its council, particularly when his flocks threatened to overrun the campus. There was some pressure on the college to dispose of Dry's sheep for fear that they posed a threat to the purity of New Zealand sheep stocks.

In 1963 Dry and his wife returned to their home in Palmerston North where he continued with his work on fibre types. A detailed account of these studies was published in 1975 as The architecture of lambs' coats: a speculative study. In his later years, Dry received a number of honours: honorary DSc (Massey University, 1966), honorary fellow of the Textile Institute, Manchester (1971), OBE (1973), and fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural Science (1976).

Francis Dry was a tall, slender, bespectacled man. He was quiet and unassuming, but if his interest was aroused, a source of fascinating conversation with a sense of humour. He died on 14 July 1979 in Palmerston North; Florence Dry, an expert on the work of the Brontë sisters who published studies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, had died the previous year. Dry was survived by his two children.

How to cite this page:

A. L. Rae. 'Dry, Francis William', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4d21/dry-francis-william (accessed 16 December 2019)