Cyril Percy Callister (1893-1949), food technologist, was born on 16 February 1893 at Chute near Beaufort, Victoria, son of William Hugh Callister, schoolmaster and his wife Rosetta Anne, née Dixon.
After education at state schools, Grenville College, Ballarat, and the Ballarat School of Mines, he attended the University of Melbourne.
In January 1915 Callister joined Lewis & Whitty, manufacturers of food and household products. In June he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Within three months the Department of Defence withdrew him to join the Munitions Branch.
Shortly afterwards he was sent to Britain and spent the war working on explosives manufacture in Wales, and in Scotland where he met and married Katherine Hope Mundell at Annau, on 8 March 1919; they had two sons and a daughter.
On his return to Australia in 1919 Callister rejoined Lewis & Whitty where he remained until that company was taken over.
In February 1923, he was appointed to Fred Walker’s small food company to develop a yeast-extract for retail sale.
Although this product was known overseas, no information was available about the process, and Callister developed it from brewers’ yeast.
Under the trademark Vegemite it was placed on the market early in 1924 and slowly became an established item, solely through Callister’s technological skill and perseverance.
Walker was also interested in methods for preserving cheese, and involved Callister in this as well. Thus the chemist rapidly became well informed in microbiology and began to experiment with cheese-processing.
With the help of patents held by the American James L. Kraft, he made a satisfactory product and Walker used this in 1925 to persuade Kraft to grant a licence for the manufacture of Kraft cheese in Australia.
So the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. was established in 1926 with Callister as chief chemist and production superintendent.
He was the key to the increasing technical emphasis of the company. In 1925 he had sent samples of Vegemite to London to be tested for Vitamin B activity—a far-sighted move in the very early days of vitamin knowledge.
The result confirmed Callister’s confidence in the product as a valuable nutrient. In 1926-31 he carried out detailed original studies on the scientific background of cheese-making to establish the parameters of good cheese quality. Convinced that background science was essential in any industry,
Callister became a director of the company in 1935, shortly before Walker died suddenly.
He continued to build up laboratory staff and supervise production and quality as the company emerged from the Depression and shouldered unexpected demands for the production of familiar and unfamiliar products during World War II.
Under his personal direction high tonnages of service rations for the Australian and United States armies were produced; the unfamiliar technology of dehydration was undertaken for government; and scientific staff greatly improved Vegemite, developed new knowledge of cheese manufacture and processing and of the behaviour of thiamine (vitamin B1) in foods, and introduced into Australia methods of assay of the B complex vitamins.
Immediately after the war he stimulated successful attempts to diversify the source of raw-material yeasts for Vegemite. He died of heart failure in 1949.
Bizarre Fact: In the early days of Vegemite slowly making its way into the hearts of Australians, the British yeast product Marmite was released in Australia.
For some strange reason the Vegemite company got panicky over the possible sexual powers of Marmite and so renamed its product Parwill for a very short period of time.