For the service of science and the credit of Australia

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Four relays of pallbearers were needed to carry the coffin half a mile along the rocky, winding path to the gravesite atop Mount Stromlo. Standing in the drizzling rain, more than 150 mourners watched as the remains of Walter Geoffrey Duffield were interred beneath a large she-oak. 1 The site had been carefully chosen. Close by were the first buildings of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO), founded by Duffield only a few years earlier. 2 But the gravesite also looked out over the growing city of Canberra, a city whose civic and cultural life had been greatly enriched by the efforts of Duffield and his wife, Doris. Duffield had been ‘a great believer in the capital’, the Canberra Times reported, and ‘one of the best known figures in Canberra’. 3 He would be remembered, the newspaper maintained, as ‘the very antithesis of the scientists which fiction often portrays’, for rather than being isolated and indifferent to the needs of society, ‘no man in Canberra was closer to his fellow man in thought and deed than the citizen who has passed on’. 4

The gravesite was consecrated by the Bishop of Goulburn, who recalled a similar occasion some fourteen years ago. After being killed by a sniper at Gallipoli, the commander of the first AIF, General William Bridges, had been laid to rest on Mount Pleasant overlooking the military college he had established at Duntroon. ‘In the one grave… they had a great soldier who had given his life in defence of his country’, the Bishop noted, ‘whilst here they had a distinguished scientist who had devoted his life in pursuit of information for the guidance and benefit of those seeking to develop the country’. 5 The two gravesites were as sentinels overlooking the growth of the capital, securing the promise of nationhood. To Bridges’ spirit of courage and endurance, Duffield added a thirst for knowledge, a vision of progress.

Both the military college and the observatory traced their origins to the capital’s earliest days, back before the city was planned, before its name was fixed. In September 1911, a temporary observatory was set up on Mount Stromlo to test the site’s suitability for scientific purposes. 6 Although Duffield was not directly involved in these early operations, he was already at work behind the scenes, gathering political and financial support for the project. His was a saga of scientific entrepeneuralism, a carefully managed campaign that blended imperial hopes and national needs, idealism and pragmatism; a campaign that would, after twenty years, finally deliver his observatory. 7 Duffield arrived in Canberra in 1924 to launch the CSO. He died just five years later, his research program barely begun.

Duffield became interested in the study of the sun in 1905 while he was a research student in England. An international program of observation and collaboration was gathering momentum, and Duffield recognised that a solar observatory in Australia, his home, could make a significant contribution to the global research effort. For the next few years he busily gathered support for his proposal from a range of scientific organisations, including the Royal Society and the BAAS. Although his initial approach to the Australian government was unsuccessful, he journeyed home in December 1908 to enlist the AAAS and to continue his lobbying in person. Perhaps the high point of his crusade came in October 1909, when the Governor-General led a barrage of speakers arguing the case for a solar observatory before a public meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall. 8 The press responded enthusiastically, with the Argus insisting that Australia should take up this ‘duty to mankind’ both ‘for the prestige of our country’ as well as for potential benefits ‘of a more practical and utilitarian character’. Knowledge of the sun promised a greater understanding of ‘weather conditions and climatic variations’. 9

Duffield also managed to earn the favour of Alfred Deakin, who, in June 1909, became Prime Minister for the third time. Deakin developed a personal and continuing interest in the project, attracted perhaps by the combination of intellectual obligation, imperial duty and national self-interest. 10 ‘The Commonwealth ought to do its share in this matter’, he told parliament in November, noting that his government was prepared to maintain a solar observatory ‘for the sake of science and Australian meteorology’. 11 But the turbulent politics of the era complicated Duffield’s task. Deakin was out of office within twelve months, and while the incoming Labor government established the temporary observatory on Mount Stromlo, they were less enthusiastic about committing to Duffield’s scheme.

The BAAS tour of Australia in 1914 provided Duffield with the opportunity to press his case. He assembled a stellar cast of scientific notables to wait upon the unfortunate Prime Minister, Joseph Cook. 12 And just in case the weight of scientific authority could not carry the day alone, the delegation also included Cook’s former leader, Alfred Deakin. The Prime Minister was outgunned. ‘I am inclined to think we cannot over-estimate the value of the inquiry you are suggesting today’, Cook admitted, ‘If I can, with these war obligations, spare a little money for this purpose, you may depend upon it I will do so’. 13 His conversion to the cause was encouraged within Cabinet by Littleton Groom, whom the Acting-Secretary of Home Affairs noted was ‘very active in [the] matter’. 14 The Commonwealth moved immediately to accept a number of instruments provided through Duffield by private donors, though war delayed further action. 15 Reporting on the delegation, the Argus saw a link between science and the nation’s call to arms: ‘Just as it is our pride to do our duty in matters militant when the Empire calls, so should it be our pride to do our duty when the world calls us to labour for the advancement of human knowledge’. 16

Duffield’s victory was confirmed in 1923, when the government announced it was proceeding with construction of a solar observatory on Mount Stromlo. 17 There were those, however, who had hoped for something more. The Commonwealth Meteorologist, HA Hunt, immediately wrote to the secretary of the department to remind him of the ‘original proposals’ regarding the Mount Stromlo site. 18 As early as 1909, Hunt had suggested that the seat of government should include a scientific compound, incorporating a ‘meteorological research observatory’, as well as ‘other observatories for Astronomy, Solar Physics and Geodesy’. A single, shared location that encouraged cooperation ‘would tend to the breeding of a virile scientific community’, Hunt maintained, and ‘would place the scientific results obtained to the practical and economic use of the public at the earliest possible moment’. 19 Mount Stromlo, he hoped, would be the focus of the nation’s research effort, the source of its scientific renown.

Hunt, of course, was determined that his own, young organisation would not be left behind by any government commitment to the solar observatory. But he was not alone in his belief that the national capital should boast a centre of scientific achievement. The site on Mount Stromlo was selected early in 1910 by a committee that included Hunt, Pietro Baracchi, Victoria’s State Astronomer, and Charles Robert Scrivener, the District Surveyor. 20 They set about their task with a dual purpose, to find a suitable setting for ‘the Astronomical and other Scientific Observatories’, and to determine thereby the ‘Initial Meridian’—the starting point for all surveys in the Federal Territory and, ultimately, the Commonwealth. 21 The centre of science would be aligned with the centre of cartographic possession, brought together on a mountaintop to survey the entire nation. Baracchi reported that a ‘solitary tree’ on the highest point of Mount Stromlo had been specially marked: ‘I trust that through this spot will pass in due course the Prime Meridian of the Commonwealth, and that around it will be clustered all other Government institutions for the service of Science and the credit of Australia’. 22

David Miller, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, took a keen interest in plans for the site. He was concerned, like Hunt, that too eager a commitment to Duffield’s scheme might limit the Commonwealth’s options. In September 1912, he advised the government against accepting Duffield’s offer of instruments, arguing that the organisation of the ‘Scientific Observatories’ should ‘be left in the hands of those who… may at some future date be appointed to take charge of them.’ The Department, he insisted, should have an ‘absolutely free hand’. 23

Miller was a Boer War veteran, who ruled his public service dominion in a strict and vigorous fashion. He was intimately involved with the development of Canberra, and, in 1912, became one of its first residents, taking up the post of Administrator of the Federal Capital Territory. 24 Miller’s hopes for the growth of the capital were reflected in his opinions on the use of the Mount Stromlo site. He reported to the Minister in 1914 that an ‘Astronomical Observatory’ had been included in plans for the seat of government ‘for reasons scientific, educational and national’. With the advice of the world’s leading astronomers, this new Commonwealth Observatory would be equipped to pursue ‘the highest and most important aims of modern Astronomical Research’. But it would do more. Miller argued that the observatory should have the resources to ‘serve the popular or national in addition to the scientific purpose’. It was to be a symbol of Australian pride and aspirations, an embodiment of the national ideal. ‘I believe that the people of the Commonwealth will not be content with a purely practical observatory’, Miller argued, ‘they will demand more—consequently I hold that this institution will eventually be created on an elaborate scale in which its great instruments would be named with the great instruments of the world’. 25

The establishment of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory was not just a reward for Duffield’s initiative and persistence, it was also an expression of the idea that Canberra, the nation’s capital, should be a centre of culture and learning—home to science and the arts, as well as politics. This vision of Canberra was generously endowed by the anatomist William Colin MacKenzie, who in 1923 offered the Commonwealth his extensive collection of preserved specimens of Australian fauna as the basis of a ‘National Museum of Australian Zoology’ to be constructed in the capital. 26 The ‘donation of such a gift at a time when our fauna is rapidly becoming extinct’, noted Senator Pearce, ‘constitutes an act of practical patriotism the merit of which it would be hard to over-estimate’. 27

MacKenzie’s specimens were a vital record of an animal population that seemed doomed to oblivion. ‘The animals’, MacKenzie gravely warned, ‘are rapidly following the fate of the Tasmanian aboriginal nation, which was completely obliterated by the white man’. But if they could not be saved, the animals could at least be preserved. It was a national responsibility to ensure that a representative collection was maintained. ‘We hold these animals and the specimens in the Museum in trust for the rest of the world as well as for future generations of Australians’, MacKenzie proclaimed, for they ‘will not have the privilege of seeing them in their native state’.

The new institution, finally opened in 1930 as the Australian Institute of Anatomy, was not, however, ‘a Museum in the ordinary sense of the word’. Rather than being ‘a place for sight-seers’, it was ‘a place where research work will be carried out on basic principles affecting the future of the human race’. 28 MacKenzie firmly believed that the anatomy of Australia’s ‘primitive’ fauna, held vital insights into the functioning of the human body. 29 He envisaged an active research centre, attracting scientists from around the world. His institute would arm the nation with ‘a powerful weapon, not only in fighting disease, …but also in maintaining and improving the general efficiency of the human body’. 30

The Australian Institute of Anatomy was also an expression of Canberra’s destiny. ‘It is hoped that Canberra will be not merely the Washington of Australia’, MacKenzie noted, ‘but the Oxford’. The Institute could be regarded ‘as the first unit’ of a ‘National University of Australia’, in a city which MacKenzie hoped ‘will later become the great centre of medical research in the Pacific’, as well as ‘the cultural centre of the Commonwealth’. 31 Canberra developed rapidly in the late 1920s, with science playing a prominent role in defining the national ideal. As well as Solar Observatory, an Australian Forestry School was opened in 1927, and CSIR began construction of two laboratories at the foot of Black Mountain. At an Institution of Engineers conference in 1928, Prime Minister Bruce urged ‘all great, national organisations of art, science and industry’ to hold their deliberations in the capital, for ‘here above all places they would be able to visualise national problems in a truly national spirit’. 32

MacKenzie moved to Canberra with his specimens, acting, without salary, as the Institute’s Director. Like Duffield, he was an active contributor to the cultural life of the capital, and his ‘imposing building’ was made available to a range of community organisations, from the Canberra University College to the Canberra Repertory Society. 33 When queried by departmental officials, MacKenzie replied that the Institute’s lecture theatre had been built ‘to forward anything of a cultural nature in the National Capital’. 34 But while the Institute contributed much to the local community, its research program foundered. Comparative anatomy had lost its sense of promise, and the medical world moved on. The nation was left with a collection of uncertain purpose, containing a number of animals who steadfastly refused to become extinct. The Institute of Anatomy increasingly became ‘a place for sight-seers’, with the displays of zoological, medical and anthropological specimens proving so popular with tourists that the Institute was eventually forced to open on weekends and public holidays. 35

MacKenzie’s vision brought together past and future. The fading remnants of Australia’s fauna promised new realms of exploration and achievement; Canberra itself would be steadily raised from sheep farm to cultural centrepiece. In a building deliberately designed to be ‘monumental’, MacKenzie sought to anchor his hopes of future greatness in a celebration of science’s heroic past. 36 Glowering from the walls of the entrance hall and one of the galleries, face masks of ‘distinguished men’ who had ‘advanced the cause of medical science’ were mounted like prize specimens. 37 Amidst the dissected animals, severed limbs, and Aboriginal skeletons, the evolution of science itself was exhibited for the edification of visitors. Upon his death in 1938, MacKenzie himself was added to the collection. His ashes were set within the building behind a plaque that borrowed Christopher Wren’s famous epitaph: ‘If you seek his monument, look around’. Like Duffield on the mountaintop, MacKenzie was bound in death to his own creation. An institution conceived of national ambition, an institution that promised to lift the nation’s capital to the heights of scientific preeminence, lived on as a memorial to a kindly, generous man whose dreams remained ever out of reach.


  1. Canberra Times, 6 August 1929, p. 1.
  2. For biographical details see CW Allen, ‘Duffield, Walter Geoffrey (1879-1929)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981, pp. 351.
  3. Canberra Times, 2 August 1929, p. 1.
  4. Canberra Times, 6 August 1929, p. 4.
  5. Canberra Times, 6 August 1929, p. 4.
  6. Pietro Baracchi, ‘Progress report of the Mount Stromlo Observatory’, 30 June 1913, NAA: A1/15, 18/6038.
  7. Rosaleen Love, ‘Science and government in Australia, 1905-14: Geoffrey Duffield and the foundation of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 1985, pp. 171-88; Raymond Haynes, Roslynn Haynes, David Malin, and Richard McGee, Explorers of the southern sky: a history of Australian astronomy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 152-8.
  8. Details of Duffield’s lobbying are provided by Love, ‘Science and government in Australia, 1905-14’.
  9. Argus, 29 October 1909, p. 6; see also, Age, 29 October 1909, p. 6.
  10. Love, ‘Science and government in Australia, 1905-14’, p. 185.
  11. CPD, 4 November 1909, vol. 53, p. 5333.
  12. A transcript of the meeting lists those attending as: Professor Dyson, Astronomer Royal; Professor Turner, International Bureau of Solar Research; Professor Abbot, Director of the Astro-Physical Observatory at the Smithsonian Institute; Professor Masson; Sir Oliver Lodge; and Mr Alfred Deakin. ‘Proposed solar observatory – Transcript of notes of deputation which waited on the Prime Minister…, Tuesday, 18th August, 1914’, NAA: A1/15, 18/6038
  13. ibid.
  14. Letter from WD Bingle (Acting Secretary, Home Affairs) to Colonel David Miller (Administrator, Federal Territory), 22 August 1914, NAA: A 202, 1914/3272.
  15. Letter from Joseph Cook (Prime Minister) to WG Duffield, 20 August 1914, NAA: A 202, 1914/3272.
  16. Argus, 18 August 1914, p. 8.
  17. ‘Establishment of solar observatory at Federal Capital’, press release, 17 April 1923, NAA: A 202, 1914/3272.
  18. Letter from HA Hunt (Commonwealth Meteorologist) to Secretary, Home and Territories, 2 May 1923, NAA: A 202, 1914/3272.
  19. Memorandum by HA Hunt (Commonwealth Meteorologist) for Minister, Home Affairs, 28 March 1911, NAA: A1/15, 18/6038.
  20. ‘Preliminary report of the committee appointed to select a site within the Federal Territory suitable for the location of Astronomical and other scientific observatories’, NAA: A1/15, 18/6038.
  21. Letter from CR Scrivener to Secretary, Home Affairs, 11 January 1910, NAA: A1/15, 18/6038.
  22. Letter from Pietro Baracchi to Secretary, Home Affairs, 27 March 1911, NAA: A1/15, 18/6038.
  23. Copy of memo by David Miller (Secretary, Home Affairs), 25 September 1912, NAA: A202, 1914/3272.
  24. Peter Harrison, ‘Miller, David (1857-1934)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 505-6.
  25. Memo from David Miller (Admistrator, FCT) for Minister of Home Affairs, 25 March 1914, NAA: A1/15, 18/6038.
  26. For biographical details see Monica MacCallum, ‘MacKenzie, Sir William Colin (1877-1938)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 306-8. For plans to establish a ‘National Museum’ see: Ian McShane, ‘Building a National Museum of Australia: a history’, Public History Review, vol. 7, 1998, pp. 75-88; Libby Robin, ‘Collections and the nation: science, history and the National Museum of Australia’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 14, no. 3, 2003, pp. 251-89.
  27. CPD, 16 August 1923, vol. 105, p. 2839. See also, letter from SM Bruce (Prime Minister) to WC MacKenzie, 22 August 1923, NAA: A457/1, E553/1.
  28. ‘National Museum of Australian Zoology’, note for Cabinet, NAA: A431, 1959/450.
  29. See for example: William Colin MacKenzie, ‘Functional anatomy and medical practice’, Medical Journal of Australia, 6 October 1928, pp. 422-30.
  30. WC MacKenzie to JE Fenton (Acting Prime Minister), 5 November 1930, NAA: A2644, 70.
  31. ‘Australian Institute of Anatomy’, NAA: A2644, 70.
  32. Canberra Times, 7 February 1928, p. 1.
  33. ‘Australian Institute of Anatomy’, NAA: A2644, 70. For details of organisations using the Institute’s building see: NAA: A1928, 695/3 Section 2; NAA: A2644/1, 20/1.
  34. WC MacKenzie to Director-General of Health, 26 May 1933, NAA: A1928, 695/3 Section 2.
  35. The question of opening hours was raised a number of times until they were finally extended in 1938, see: NAA A659/1, 45/1/2167; NAA: A 1928, 695/3 Section 2; NAA: A 1928, 695/3 Section 3.
  36. Early designs of the building were deemed to be insufficiently monumental for the site and the purpose, see, for example, memo from JH Butters to Minister, Home and Territories, NAA: 431/1, 1959/450.
  37. WC MacKenzie to Neilson Hancock, 18 February 1936, NAA: A2645/1, 50/1/7 Part 1. For a list of the subjects, see draft notes, ‘The face masks at the Australian Institute of Anatomy – “Let us now praise famous men”‘, NAA: A2645/1, 50/1/7 Part 1.

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