Maxwell ("Max") John Whitten graduated with first class honours in Biological Sciences in 1963. The first of the Sydney geneticists to use the insect Drosophila as the major subject of his early research, he continued to contribute to an understanding of entomological genetics throughout his career. During his PhD thesis years at the University of Tasmania he developed an interest in asymmetry and developmental stability; these studies gave a better idea on how insects buffer environmental stresses during development.
Max was first appointed to the CSIRO Division of Entomology in 1966 and spent 10 years working on the cytogenetics and population genetics of blowflies. He attained international renown by developing techniques based on chromosome rearrangements and genetic mutations for the reduction of insect pest populations, especially the Australian sheep blowfly. He also commenced research on the genetic basis of insecticide resistance. Max was one of the pioneers of the concept of pesticide resistance management.
From 1976-81 Max held the position of Professor of Genetics and Chairman, Department of Genetics, University of Melbourne, where he pursued pesticide resistance genetics. In 1981 he returned to the CSIRO Division of Entomology as its Chief, retiring from the position in 1995. He established a molecular laboratory within the Division and under his leadership the Division conducted innovative work on biological control of insect and weed populations, and on the reduction of pesticide dependency in grain storage. During this time a major initiative on invertebrate biodiversity was established in the Division linking taxonomy, ecology and sustainable agriculture.
Based on his vociferous and persuasive advocacy his Division obtained one of the highest per capita levels of external funding in CSIRO.
Max worked on many entomological community issues, such as chairing the Honeybee Research and Development Council from 1984-92. Since 1996, Max has worked with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in Southeast Asia assisting rice and vegetable farmers to become experts at crop management. Farmers learn the principles of Integrated Pest Management to reduce pesticide dependency, and to make more informed decisions about other farm inputs.
Throughout his career Max has held fellowships and visiting Professorships, given many keynote lectures, and served on both national and international scientific committees. He is an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Biology.
In 1994 he was admitted to membership of the Order of Australia for his services to entomology.