A vast laboratory

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The continent of Australia was rich in the raw material of scientific endeavour. Everywhere was novelty. ‘No country’, wrote the naturalist PP King, ‘ever produced a more extraordinary assemblage of indigenous productions—no country has proved richer than Australia in every branch of natural history’. 1 There were plants to be pressed, animals to be shot and skinned, as collectors set about transforming this array of biological wonders into the artefacts of scientific study. But European invaders brought more than bottles and pins to hold their specimens in place, they brought a new system of classification and nomenclature to embed such novelties firmly within the corpus of science. 2 Collection was just the first stage in a complex system of knowledge production, where ultimate authority usually rested in the scientific centres of Europe. Local naturalists exchanged their specimens for patronage, fuelling the careers of the eminent few who pronounced from afar upon the meaning of antipodean experiments in creation. 3

By the early years of the twentieth century, other forms of novelty were being observed upon the Australian landscape. Political and social innovations such as female suffrage and industrial arbitration were hailed as intriguing ‘experiments’ in the very nature of democracy. Australia developed a reputation as a ‘social laboratory’ where the powers of government and organised labour were being directly employed in the interests of welfare and justice. 4 The labels were not simply metaphors. Much of the reforming energy derived from activist creeds like ‘new liberalism’ and progressivism, creeds that sought the broader application of scientific methods to problems of human society. Sociologists, as Helen Bourke describes, sought to ensure that the results of these ‘experiments’ were properly investigated and analysed. 5 ‘It has been a standing reproach to the Universities of Australia’, remarked W Harrison Moore, professor of law at the University of Melbourne, ‘that in a country that is recognised as the greatest laboratory of economic experiment in the world, they have done so little to influence those experiments or to test these results’. 6 Social innovation might yield not only a better life, but a better understanding of society itself.

Experiments in nation building, however, were not limited to the adjustment of social and political institutions. The progress of Australia was also an experiment in the settlement of land, the experience of climate, and the adjustment of race. The White Australia policy embodied some of the most cherished ideals of the would-be nation builders, but it also demanded a stern test of British manhood. In 1913, Littleton Groom introduced a lecture by Anton Breinl, the director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine. ‘Australians had taken upon themselves the task of settling the northern parts of their continent’, Groom noted, though ‘it had yet to be proved that that was a policy which, according to the laws of nature, could be justified’. 7 Could white civilisation flourish in the tropical north? Were people of British stock able to live and work in the heat and humidity without suffering degeneration and disease? 8

Breinl surveyed the factors affecting white settlement in the tropics. He noted that conditions were generally more favourable in northern Australia than in other tropical regions, but argued that ‘knowledge of the effect of climate was still fragmentary’, and that ‘careful and detailed research’ was necessary before a firm opinion of the nation’s prospects could be given. Australia’s hopes for ‘effective occupation’ constituted ‘one of the most far-reaching experiments of modern times’, Breinl suggested, ‘an experiment that certainly justified the application of unlimited effort’. 9 Breinl’s successor at the helm of the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Raphael Cilento, similarly described Australia’s attempts at settlement of the north as ‘a huge, unconscious experiment in acclimatization’. 10 While the precise outcomes of this experiment were unknown, there was growing confidence in the ability of medical science to meet the challenge of public health. 11 ‘Science would come to their aid’, Groom confidently predicted, ‘the settler would not go out alone, but accompanied by the best scientific brain that could be sent with him’. 12

Like any other experiment, Australia’s development would proceed under scientific direction, learning from its errors, and building on its gains. The difficulties facing the nation, HW Gepp insisted in January 1930, could best be understood by visualising the country as ‘a vast laboratory where one of the most virile races on earth is engaged in experimenting with almost unknown resources in an attempt to develop a new tradition of national prosperity and social freedom’. 13 Gepp had been appointed chairman of the Development and Migration Commission, established in 1926 to ‘co-ordinate the whole of the developmental activities of Australia’. 14 He was also, gushed Science and Industry, ‘a brilliant metallurgical chemist, an engineer of considerable attainments, and a leader of men’, who had forged a substantial reputation in the successful development of the Electrolytic Zinc plant near Hobart. 15 A strident advocate of scientific methods and ‘national efficiency’, Gepp actively contributed to the government’s efforts to harness science to national goals. 16 ‘The settlement and growth of Australia’ was, he argued, ‘a scientific proposition’. 17

But if the aims of the experiment seemed clear enough, what of methods and results? As ‘daring adventurers’ who had ‘opened up many avenues of human progress’, Australians had not been inclined towards a careful weighing of options. ‘Some of our experiments have been wise and brilliantly successful’, Gepp reflected, ‘others have been foolish and wasteful’. An honest assessment of the national scorecard revealed that ‘when technical, political and social experiments have been made in the true scientific spirit, they have reaped a splendid reward’. On the other hand, Gepp concluded, ‘when action had been taken without sufficient forethought, we have gone hopelessly astray’. Australia’s bold experiment, ‘one of the most courageous spectacles in the modern world’, demanded imaginative leadership, detailed planning, and scientific expertise. 18 Gepp might have expected his Commission to help lead the way, but within a few months it was gone, dismantled by the incoming Scullin government.

The establishment of the Woomera rocket range brought a new round of experimentation to Australia, as the inland proved its worth once again as an ‘open air laboratory’. 19 ‘Australians… have reason to be not a little grateful and proud that this vast scientific project is being so purposefully developed in their desert lands’, Charles H Holmes remarked in Walkabout. 20 While Woomera’s main purpose was to boost the empire’s flagging arsenal, its experiments promised new knowledge as well. The rocket range ‘will add greatly to our scientific prestige’, noted an article in Aircraft, ‘not to mention the valuable addition to our store of scientific knowledge’. 21 Similarly, the Minister for Supply, Howard Beale, sought to justify a new round of atomic tests at Maralinga by suggesting that they would increase ‘our knowledge in connection with the general development of atomic energy’. In particular, he explained, the tests would ‘expand our knowledge about the problems of radiation’. 22 With the supposed clean-up of Maralinga continuing to stir controversy, it seems the experiment goes on…and on.

The Australian government certainly expected that the atomic ‘experiments’ would yield valuable information, though not necessarily through the analysis of scientific data. Hopes that Australia might play a leading role in the Atomic Age were being thwarted by American attempts to lock up the ‘atomic secret’. Cooperation with Britain in a project of such significance promised to free the flow of data. But even so, the Menzies government took on its role as willing subordinate without any agreement on scientific participation. 23 Australia provided land and logistical support, Britain did the science. And so, the system of colonial exchange continued, as Australia offered its raw materials in the hope of reflected glory.


  1. Quoted in Ann Moyal, A bright and savage land, Penguin, Melbourne, 1993, p. 29.
  2. Libby Robin, ‘Natural history’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), Oxford companion to Australian history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 461-2; Colin Finney, To sail beyond the sunset: natural history in Australia, 1699-1829, Rigby, Adelaide, 1984; Colin Finney, Paradise revealed: natural history in nineteenth-century Australia, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993.
  3. Centre/periphery relationships and systems of imperial exchange have received considerable attention, see, for example, the papers in: Nathan Reingold, and Marc Rothenberg (eds), Scientific colonialism: a cross-cultural comparison, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1987; RW Home, and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (eds), International science and national scientific identity, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1991.
  4. Francis G Castles, ‘Social laboratory’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), Oxford companion to Australian history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 592-3.
  5. Helen Bourke, ‘Sociology and the social sciences in Australia, 1912-1928’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, vol. 17, no. 1, March 1981, pp. 26-35.
  6. Quoted in Bourke, ‘Sociology and the social sciences in Australia’, p. 27.
  7. Argus, 25 November 1913.
  8. For an examination of climatic anxieties see David Walker, Anxious nation: Australia and the rise of Asia 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999, ch. 11; David Walker, ‘Climate, civilisation and character in Australia, 1880-1940’, Australian Cultural History, no. 16, 1998, pp. 77-95; David Walker, ‘The curse of the tropics’, in Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), A change in the weather: climate and culture in Australia, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2003 (forthcoming); Warwick Anderson, The cultivation of whiteness: science, health and racial destiny in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002.
  9. Argus, 25 November 1913. See also Anton Breinl, ‘The influence of climate, diseases and surroundings on the white race living in the tropics’, in JW Springthorpe (ed.), Therapeutics, dietetics and hygiene, vol. 2, James Little, Melbourne, 1914, p. 996.
  10. Raphael Cilento, The white man in the tropics: with especial reference to Australia and its dependencies, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Health, Melbourne, 1925, p. 9. See also Walker, Anxious nation, p. 150.
  11. Warwick Anderson, ‘Geography, race and nation: remapping “tropical” Australia, 1890-1930’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 11, no. 4, 1997, pp. 457-68; Warwick Anderson, The cultivation of whiteness: science, health and racial destiny in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002.
  12. Argus, 25 November 1913.
  13. Herbert William Gepp, Address by HW Gepp at the Sydney Rotary Club, 21st January 1930, ST Leigh & Co, Sydney, 1930, p. 4.
  14. Quoted in Michael Roe, ‘H.W. Gepp: His Qualification as Chairman of the Development and Migration Commission’, Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, vol. 32, no. 3, September 1985 1985, p. 95. For more on the Commission see Michael Roe, Australia, Britain and migration, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, chs 4 & 5.
  15. ‘Mr HW Gepp, industrial scientist’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 4, August 1919, p. 247. For more biographical detail see Roe, ‘HW Gepp’, pp. 95-107.
  16. Gepp’s involvement in the Advisory Council on Science and Industry and the creation of CSIR are described in Sir George Currie and John Graham, The origins of CSIRO: Science and the Commonwealth Government 1901-1926, CSIRO, Melbourne, 1966, and Roe, ‘HW Gepp’, pp. 106-7. See also Stuart Macintyre, 1901-1942: The succeeding age, Oxford history of Australia, vol. 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 215-6.
  17. HW Gepp, ‘Address at the Sydney Rotary Club’, p. 4.
  18. ibid., pp. 4-5.
  19. Ivan Southall, Woomera, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962, p. 3.
  20. Charles H Holmes, ‘Half-way round the world to test atomic weapons’, Walkabout, vol. 18, no. 7, 1 July 1952, p. 15.
  21. ‘Space weapons’, Aircraft, vol. 26, no. 12, September 1948, p. 44.
  22. Howard Beale, ‘Why we hold A-tests in Australia’, press release, 6 August 1956, NAA: A6456/3 R047/011.
  23. Tim Sherratt, ‘A political inconvenience: Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons test, 1952-3’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 1985, pp. 137-52; Tim Sherratt, ‘Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons tests’, in Robyn Williams (ed.), Science Show II, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 216-9. For more on the politics of Australia’s atomic ambitions see: Alice Cawte, Atomic Australia: 1944-1990, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1992; Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000.

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