In their country, by their country, for their country and the world

Chapter 4 | Previous | Next

Canberra was in the grip of a heatwave, the longest in its recorded history. After two weeks of hot weather, the temperature once again topped the century, as 800 visitors swarmed into town for the opening of the 1939 congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS). All accommodation was booked; delegates were billeted to homes in Canberra and Queanbeyan, and some of the more adventurous took to camping, creating ‘a miniature scientists’ settlement’ on the banks of the Molonglo River. As well as the heat, visitors grappled with the city’s unusual layout. ‘Even members of the geography and astronomical sections lost their bearings’, reported the Canberra Times. 1 But despite the difficulties, the ANZAAS invasion was a ‘signal event’ in the history of ‘the world’s youngest capital city’. 2 Science had come to the nation’s new heart.

ANZAAS was celebrating its jubilee, having been founded in 1888 as the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 3 With the sesquicentenary of European settlement recently past, the 1939 meeting was a time to reflect on the achievements of both science and nation. In keeping with the occasion, it was a historian, Ernest Scott, who rose to deliver the Association’s presidential address. Scott traversed the history of Australian science from Cook and Dampier, through to the recent successes of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Across the span of years he detected a welcome change in attitudes towards science. In recent times there was, he noted, ‘a keener desire to make use of the trained man of science’ than ever before. This change brought promise of even greater advance, for ‘the future of Australia’ was, Scott argued, ‘bound up with the progress of science’. 4

But dreams of progress were clouded by the memory of depression and the possibility of war. Opening the congress, the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, struck a sombre note, recounting the horrors of the Great War, and pondering the inability of nations to settle their differences by anything other than ‘wholesale international slaughter’. Science had greatly increased humanity’s capacity for destruction, he argued, but ‘political mentality had not kept pace’. Action was needed to ensure that the fruits of science were ‘utilised for the benefit and not the destruction of mankind’. 5 It was a timely speech, as ANZAAS was, for the first time, hosting a forum on the social dimensions of science. While the congress celebrated Australia’s achievements, it was hoping also to chart a new relationship between science and the state.

The AAAS was established in 1888 to draw the activities of isolated colonial outposts into a lively community of scientific interchange and ideas, one that would encourage original research and foster public interest and support. While the colonies remained bogged on the road to political federation, science simply forged ahead. The AAAS provided ‘splendid evidence of the true spirit of Federation’, proclaimed the Hobart Mercury, ‘Science can do for itself… without much fuss or delay, what politicians are unable to accomplish with infinite talk and delay’. 6

Scientists enjoyed the collegiality of ‘federated’ science, but even after the achievement of nationhood, they seemed reluctant to speculate on how science might be made truly ‘federal’. 7 Although the AAAS established research committees to explore issues of topical import, and made periodic recommendations to government, there was little attempt to define a national research agenda, or to develop new federal institutions. As Littleton Groom found to his frustration, science remained the province of the states, and it was progressive enthusiasts, rather than scientists, who fought to apply it to the needs of the nation.

Progressive reformers looked to science and technology to overhaul the minds and methods of a failing system. Many scientists were amongst them, possessed of a vitalist spark that inspired their quest for truth and affirmed their belief in the liberating power of rational thought. 8 But amongst the tensions and contradictions inherent in progressivism was a tendency to assert the importance of applied or practical knowledge over purely theoretical research. While scientists were eager to portray science as the wellspring of national prosperity, they were wary of focusing too much on practical outcomes lest they undermine their own research ambitions. No AAAS meeting was complete without a hearty avowal of the value of ‘pure’ research. ‘It is a popular idea that any applied science pays, while a pure science does not’, argued the geologist, Edgeworth David, in his 1904 presidential address, ‘that is a pernicious fallacy fatal to the true interests of national progress’. 9 What was self-evident to scientists was potentially confusing to the public, muddying the role of science in the design for nation building.

Education offered safer ground for scientists wishing to stake a claim on the national stage. ‘The advance of education should be our grandest ideal’, Edgeworth David announced. 10 The improvement of science teaching was deemed essential if Australia was not to be dwarfed by the burgeoning industrial and military might of countries like Germany and Japan. David quoted Norman Lockyer’s influential 1903 address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), entitled, ‘The influence of brain-power on history’. 11 In a play upon AT Mahan’s imperialist primer The influence of sea power upon history, Lockyer argued that to keep pace with Germany Britain needed more than battleships, it needed new universities to train its people in the ways of science. But if Great Britain lagged behind Germany, then Australia trailed by further still. The neglect of science teaching imperiled the nation’s future.

Improved facilities for higher education were necessary but not sufficient. Science had to extend its reach through the schools, through society. David drew from George Knibbs’ report on primary education in NSW to argue ‘it is requisite that the people as a whole should have some idea of the significance of science for daily life and ordinary avocations’. Such learning had to begin at primary school, under the guidance of specially-trained teachers. ‘The child properly taught the elements of science’, Knibbs argued, ‘has a far more intelligent outlook upon the world and a better understanding of its present activity than he has where the subject is neglected’. 12 Both the message and method of science were important in building an educated citizenry. Scientific habits of experiment and observation developed character as well as understanding. Bringing his address to a final, lyrical crescendo, David invoked the ideals of science: science wanted ‘every man in this world… to learn well that he might live well; to learn by experiment rather than wholly through the experience of others, so that he may be self-reliant and think for himself’. ‘Thinking of this kind brings discovery’, David concluded, ‘and the discoveries of science uplift humanity’. 13

But could science serve both the cause of humanity and the needs of the nation? Orme Masson pondered this question in 1911, addressing the AAAS congress in Sydney. ‘It is often said that science knows no nationality’, he noted, but this did not mean that the scientific worker was ‘so inhuman a thing as to be devoid of national sentiment and find in it no inspiration for his special calling’. Truth itself was universal, ‘a principle unassailable’, but great men like Pasteur, Kelvin and Huxley were ‘moved by the love of their country as well as of science’. Masson looked proudly to the example of the AAAS’s own parent organisation, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The BAAS was composed of British workers ‘determined that scientific progress should be made in their country, by their country, for their country and the world’. 14

AAAS delegates had especial cause to be mindful of their British forbears, for, as Masson explained, the BAAS was coming. Much to the excitement of the Australian scientific community, the British Association was planning one of its periodical treks to the dominions; first Canada, then South Africa, and now at last—Australia! With the generous support of state and federal governments, the British scientists were to descend upon the nation in 1914, travelling from state to state in a scientific road show that would, Masson presumed, ‘prove a great event in the history of Imperial unity’. 15 The BAAS visit offered Australians the chance to contemplate their growing cultural maturity, their ‘scientific coming of age’, all the while basking in the comforting paternalism of the imperial connection. Edgeworth David, elected once more to the presidency of the AAAS, hoped that Australian scientists would be ‘strengthened and confirmed’ in their work and ideals, reaffirmed through the ‘inspiration which comes alone from personal contact with master minds’. 16

Australia’s scientific workers imagined themselves as ‘soldiers in the army of science under the Southern Cross’, pledged to the service of truth, nation, and empire. 17 Their achievements reflected the inexorable advance of knowledge, the pride of the young Commonwealth, and the glorious destiny of the British race. And yet, science’s contribution to Australian nationhood was expressed most clearly not in the steady march of a conquering army, but in the dazzling heroics of a few. Amongst the most prominent was geologist Douglas Mawson, who returned from a harrowing Antarctic campaign early in 1914. Mawson had studied under Edgeworth David, and the two had accompanied Ernest Shackleton to the icy south in 1907. But Mawson was determined to exert Australia’s presence in the vast southern continent, and with the assistance of the AAAS, had raised funds for a new expedition—an Australian expedition. 18 As Mawson’s party prepared to set sail in November 1911, the Argus declared the enterprise a ‘landmark in the upward path which Australia is treading towards a fuller and broader national life’. 19

The people of Adelaide gloried in their hero’s return. Large gatherings were held at the university and the town hall, where the Governor-General led assorted dignitaries in round upon round of enthusiastic acclamation. Masson, who had chaired the AAAS Antarctic committee, was amongst the speakers, representing his association in the absence of Edgeworth David. Joining him on stage was the Commonwealth Minister for Trade and Customs, his old friend, Littleton Groom. The people of Australia, Groom proclaimed to the cheering crowd, were glad to know that their country ‘had played her part in continuing the record of splendid achievements of the race from which they had sprung’. Mawson’s efforts had made it clear that Australia would not ‘lag behind other nations in the great matter of scientific investigation’, Groom continued, and his heroism had proved that ‘the British race was not yet effeminate’. 20 Australia was taking up the responsibilities of nationhood, carrying the mission of science, race and empire onwards into the most desolate and forbidding lands on earth.

But soon there were battlegrounds aplenty, as war called scientists to the cause of empire, to the defence of the nation. Although he was in his fifties, Edgeworth David headed for the Western Front with a corps of miners and engineers. 21 Mawson was keen for active service, but was diverted into technical liaison and munitions production. 22 Thousands of chemists and engineers journeyed to Britain to bolster the mother country’s industrial capacity, David Rivett amongst them. 23 The prophesies of public scientists like Huxley and Lockyer seemed to find fulfilment, as the empire’s brainpower was mobilised to meet the looming crisis.

When the AAAS finally regrouped in 1921, much had changed. ‘Never in the whole history of the world’, remarked he retiring president, Edgeworth David, ‘had the vast value of science as a means of national defence been so incontestably demonstrated as in the recent war’. 24 Delegates pondered the lessons of their recent experience in a special forum on the wartime application of chemical and physical science. Chemists may not have won the war, Norman Wilsmore, the University of Western Australia’s chemistry professor, modestly declared, but without their efforts Britain ‘inevitably would have lost it’. 25 David Rivett described his experience as a process manager in a factory producing the explosive amatol. The work was successful, he observed, ‘only because those in charge possessed sound training in the higher branches of chemical activity’. 26 The implications were clear, in peace time as in war, a coordinated system of scientific training and research was, in Edgeworth David’s words, a form of ‘national insurance’. 27

Without doubt, the organisation of science was a ‘vital question’, Baldwin Spencer noted in his presidential address, and already there were some welcome signs of progress. Before the war, the AAAS had stood alone on the national scene, but now there were three bodies devoted to the pursuit of science: the AAAS, the Australian National Research Council (ANRC), and the long-delayed Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. 28 The ANRC was established to liaise with the International Research Council, but it was hoped that it might take a broader role in promoting research and representing the interests and beliefs of scientists. 29 TH Laby, the Melbourne physicist, wanted more, arguing for an organisation that united the country’s scientific workers, an organisation with prestige and standing whose opinions would carry weight with government. Laby, in his typically far-sighted but abrasive manner, also inveighed against the the newly-minted Institute of Science and Industry, arguing that it suffered from ‘political control’. 30

Laby was right to be concerned. The Institute, under the directorship of George Knibbs, was starved of funds and unable to initiate a significant research program. It was replaced in 1926 with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). 31 The ANRC continued on, but failed to find an authoritative voice. As scientists gathered in the heat of Canberra for the 1939 congress, the question of how science might best contribute to the needs of the nation was as problematic as ever.

Scientists worldwide had responded to the disillusionment bred of the Great Depression by questioning the way in which scientific knowledge was deployed throughout society. Science promised wealth, leisure, fulfilment and happiness, but it seemed more often to add to world’s conflict and misery. Who was to blame? To rebuild trust and confidence, scientists began to wonder whether they should play a more active role within society, not just as researchers, but as planners, teachers, experts, even as leaders. 32 In August 1938, the first edition of the Australian Journal of Science carried an article by OU Vonwiller, professor of physics at the University of Sydney, that surveyed ‘The social relations of science’. Scientists were beginning to realise that their ‘duty’ to society went beyond the simple ‘acquisition of knowledge’, Vonwiller argued, they ‘must insist on being heard when policies are formulated’. 33 An editorial in the next edition took up the topic, and noted that a discussion was being organised for the ANZAAS congress in Canberra, the following January. 34

Young scientists, like Jack Legge, approached the meeting with a sense of expectation, driving to Canberra through smoke and cinders, as hundreds of bushfires raged across eastern Australia. 35 The discussion on the social relations of science promised new directions for the scientific community, new opportunities to be heard, the chance to make a difference. But the date, 13 January 1939, would not mark a new beginning, instead it would be remembered as a day of brutal triumph for an old and deadly scourge. It was ‘Black Friday’, the day when the bushfires reached their terrifying peak, in a season that saw 1.4 million hectares of Victoria burnt and 71 lives lost. 36 Nature mocked the scientists’ pretensions, unleashing its unbowed fury on a day, that Stephen Pyne suggests, ‘sucked 150 years of settlement into a colossal maelstrom of fire’. 37

There were fewer sparks at ANZAAS. The discussion on the social relations of science began well as David Rivett, Chief Executive of CSIR, argued forcefully that ‘men of science should play a huge part in the adaptation of their own work to ensure the health, physical and mental, of the race’. Rivett provocatively noted the lack of scientific credentials amongst members of the nation’s parliament, and suggested that scientists could most effectively address ‘the problem of Science and Society’ by ‘getting right into the legislative and administrative arenas’. 38 But there was little response to Rivett’s call to arms, as most speakers merely read from their prepared contributions. In the end, the feeling was ‘one of disappointment’, reported Vonwiller. 39 Few practical ideas were raised, and no clear direction was charted.

Just as the establishment of the AAAS seemed to herald the coming of Federation, so the supposed connection between the advance of science and the development of nationhood emboldened scientists to believe that their own efforts and expertise held the key to national destiny. But there was no simple formula to represent the relationship between science and progress. Despite frequent calls for efficiency and organisation, the contribution of science to the ambitions of nationhood was expressed more through the achievements of individuals than through the construction of programs and policies. Delegates disappointed by the discussion on science and society at the 1939 congress, were invited the following Tuesday to attend the unveiling of a memorial to William Farrer, a foundation member of the Association. Through the improvements he had made to Australian wheat varieties, the assembled crowd was told, Farrer had proved himself ‘a truly great man of science and a citizen’. 40


  1. Canberra Times, 11 January 1939, p. 4.
  2. ‘Science and people’, Canberra Times, 11 January 1939, p. 4.
  3. The founding of AAAS is described in Roy MacLeod, ‘Organising science under the Southern Cross’, in Roy MacLeod (ed.), The commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888-1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, pp. 19-39.
  4. Ernest Scott, ‘The history of Australian science’, Report of the 24th  meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science,  Canberra, 1939, pp. 1-16.
  5. Canberra Times, 12 January 1939, p. 2.
  6. Hobart Mercury, 6 January 1892, quoted in Roy MacLeod, ‘From imperial to national science’, in Roy
  7. For a discussion of ‘federated’ and ‘federal’ science and developments in the early twentieth century see Roy MacLeod, ‘Science, progressivism and practical idealism: reflections on efficient imperialism and federal science in Australia 1895-1915’, Scientia Canadensis, vol. 13, no. 1, 1994, pp. 7-26. See also MacLeod, ‘From imperial to national science’.
  8. MacLeod, ‘Science, progressivism and practical idealism’.
  9. TW Edgeworth David, ‘The aims and ideals of Australasian science’, Report of the 10th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Dunedin, 1904, p. 8.
  10. ibid., p. 30.
  11. ibid., p. 33-4.
  12. ibid., p. 35-7.
  13. ibid., p. 43.
  14. David Orme Masson, ‘Inaugural address’, Report of the 13th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Sydney, 1911, pp. 2-3.
  15. ibid., pp. 5. For more on the BAAS visit see: Peter Robertson, ‘Coming of age: the British Association in Australia, 1914’, Australian Physicist, vol. 17, 1980, pp. 23-7; Rosaleen Love, ‘The Science Show of 1914: the British Association meets in Australia’, This Australia, vol. 4, no. 1, 1984, pp. 12-16.
  16. TW Edgeworth David, ‘Presidential address’, Report of the 14th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Melbourne, 1913, p. xcii.
  17. ibid., p. xci.
  18. Weickhardt, Masson of Melbourne, pp. 63-7.
  19. Quoted in Brigid Hains, The ice and the inland: Mawson, Flynn and the myth of the frontier, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002, p. 44.
  20. Adelaide Advertiser, 3 March 1914, p. 11.
  21. TG Vallance, and DF Branagan, ‘David, Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth (1858-1934)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981, pp. 218-21.
  22. Roy MacLeod, ‘“Full of honour and gain to science”: munitions production, technical intelligence and the wartime career of Sir Douglas Mawson, FRS’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 7, no. 2, June 1988, pp. 189-201.
  23. Roy MacLeod, ‘The ‘Arsenal’ in the Strand: Australian chemists in the British munitions effort, 1916-1919’, Annals of Science, vol. 46, 1989, pp. 45-67; Rohan Rivett, David Rivett, pp. 58-62.
  24. Age, 11 January 1921, p. 4.
  25. Age, 12 January 1921, p. 6.
  26. Age, 12 January 1921, p. 6; Argus, 12 January 1921, p. 9.
  27. Age, 11 January 1921, p. 4.
  28. Walter Baldwin Spencer, ‘Presidential address’, Report of the 15th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Melbourne, 1921, p. lv.
  29. A P Elkin, ‘The Australian National Research Council’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 16, no. 6, 21 June 1954, pp. 203-211.
  30. Age, 13 January 1921, p. 6; Argus, 13 January 1921, p. 7.
  31. Currie and Graham, The origins of CSIRO, chs 6 & 7.
  32. See for example: Gary Werskey, The visible college: a collective biography of British scientists and socialists of the 1930s, London, Free Association Books, 1988. On the influence of such ideas in Australia see: Jean Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena: a social-intellectual history of the Australian Association of Scientific Workers’, M.Phil, Griffith University, 1983, pp. 30-7; Ron Johnston, ‘Social responsibility of science: the social mirror of science’, in Roy MacLeod (ed.), The commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888-1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, pp. 308-25.
  33. OU Vonwiller, ‘The social relations of science’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 1, no. 1, August 1938, pp. 30-32.
  34. ‘Science and society’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 2, no. 2, August 1939, pp. 15-16.
  35. Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena’, p. 39.
  36. Tom Griffiths, Secrets of the forest: discovering history in Melbourne’s ash range, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992, p. 45.
  37. Stephen J Pyne, Burning bush: a fire history of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992, p. 309.
  38. ‘Science and society – Summary of some of the contributions to the discussion held by the ANZAAS during its meeting at Canberra’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 1, no. 4, February 1939, pp. 116-7.
  39. OU Vonwiller, ‘The discussion on science and society: Afterthoughts’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 1, no. 4, February 1939, p. 119.
  40. Canberra Times, 17 January 1939, p. 3.

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