Anzac brains · Prologue

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The Gallipoli campaign was over. On the 22 December 1915, Australians learnt of the successful withdrawal of Australian troops from the Turkish peninsula. Buoyed by the news, Prime Minister Billy Hughes strode into a luncheon at the University of Melbourne like ‘a prize fighter’, ebullient and combative, determined to meet the German menace on every front. 1 Hughes was near the height of his confidence and power. He had replaced Andrew Fisher as head of the Labor government in October, and, under the provisions of the War Precautions Act, ruled the nation almost by decree. The ‘best way to govern Australia’, Hughes remarked, was to have the Solicitor General, Robert Garran, ‘at his elbow, with a fountain pen and a blank sheet of paper, and the War Precautions Act’. 2 Within a few weeks, Hughes was to embark upon a triumphant return to his birthplace, England, where his ‘fiery speeches’ would attract the attention of press and politicians alike. 3

Sir John Madden, Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, presided over the valedictory luncheon, lauding the Prime Minister’s dedication and resolve. He would arrive in England ‘as the most distinguished man who had ever left Australia’, Madden proclaimed, ‘the bearer of the glory won by Australian soldiers’. 4 But there was more than mere flattery on the minds of this distinguished gathering. Moves were afoot for the coordination of scientific research across the country. FW Hagelthorne, national efficiency enthusiast and minister in the Victorian government, had been successfully lobbying the other states, but where did the Prime Minister stand? A few days before the luncheon, Hughes had met with WA Osborne, the University’s professor of physiology, to discuss possible research schemes. Although Hughes was generally enthusiastic about the need for Federal action, Osborne left the meeting unsure of the Prime Minister’s priorities. The luncheon was hastily arranged to give Hughes the opportunity to air his views before the Professorial Board. 5 It was a meeting that would chart the future of the nation’s scientific research effort.

‘An attempt was being made to formulate a scheme by which the advancement of science could be put to its best use’, Madden informed the gathering of academics, educators and politicians, ‘the war should be a signal to them to use the brains which they possessed to quite as good a purpose as… the Germans’. 6 Hagelthorn, Osborne and others spoke in support, stressing the national significance of scientific research, especially in time of war. Finally it was the Prime Minister’s turn. This ‘was not a party question’, he began, ‘it was a question of Australia Unlimited as a business concern’. ‘There was now seething in the cauldron of this great war all the possibilities of a great and high civilisation’, Hughes continued, and ‘the idea of a national research laboratory was the corner-stone of the edifice’. As the applause subsided, Hughes affirmed the economic importance of research and promised ‘immediate action to lay the foundations’ of a national institute. Questioned further, he delighted his audience, and surprised his Cabinet colleagues, by suggesting that the government would be prepared to invest £500,000 in such a scheme. Even at such a price, he insisted, ‘they would still be getting value for every penny’. 7

Gallipoli had confirmed the strength and courage of Australia’s manhood, but the postwar world would demand more of its people. The ‘making of the future Australian and the Australian nation’ would require the ‘use of brain’, argued CEW Bean. 8 The energy and inventiveness demonstrated by the AIF had to be channelled into research. ‘It is up to the State (that is to say all of us)’, Bean insisted, ‘to see that the laboratories and research departments exist… into which our youngsters can throw their Australian enthusiasm, and where they can use their brains as much as they desire for the service of their country’. 9 Anzac brawn had won honour in war, Anzac brain would win progress from peace.

From the late nineteenth century, British public scientists had been arguing for government support of science, pointing with alarm and envy at the technological development of countries such as Germany and Japan. 10 Science was assumed to be essential to the nation’s strength and resilience, to its ability to maintain a steady rate of progress. The assumption was rarely challenged in the twentieth century, as war, economic change, and rapid technological development all heightened fears that Australia might be left behind in the manic, global rush. From plans to tap the nation’s ‘brainpower’, to visions of a ‘clever country’, from attempts to harness the bushman’s innate talent for invention, through to reverent incantations of the power of ‘innovation’, many attempts have been made to use the spark of science to jump-start the engine of national destiny. And many have failed.

The Anzac, of course, was both soldier and symbol. His wartime deeds became the framework upon which fragments of identity and meaning were stitched; a patchwork figure of masculine virtues and racial imaginings, held up to the world as the very image of Australian life and hope. But what of Anzac brains? The portrait of science as a source of wealth and power just waiting to be turned upon the needs of the nation, brings together concepts of improvement, enlightenment, expertise and inspiration. Science offers to solve the nation’s most pressing problems, to raise the quality of its cultural life, to improve the character of its democracy, and to provide symbols of unity and achievement. The Anzac brain, like the Anzac spirit, offers a compelling image of what we might be. The answer to national progress seems so simple and beguiling, just hook up the connection between science and state and push the button.


  1. Sir George Currie, and John Graham, The origins of CSIRO: Science and the Commonwealth Government 1901-1926, CSIRO, Melbourne, 1966, p. 30
  2. Quoted in Stuart Macintyre, 1901-1942: The succeeding age, Oxford history of Australia, vol. 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 162.
  3. ibid., p. 162.
  4. Argus, 23 December 1915, p. 10.
  5. These developments are described in detail by Currie and Graham, The origins of CSIRO , ch. 2.
  6. Argus, 23 December 1915, p. 10.
  7. ibid.
  8. Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, In your hands, Australians, Cassell and Company, London, 1919, p. 37.
  9. ibid., p. 84.
  10. Frank M Turner, ‘Public Science in Britain’, Isis, vol. 71, no. 259, 1980, pp. 589-608.

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