Modern man looks towards the stars

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Regeneration might come not only to the land, but to its people. As evolutionary ideas took hold in the late nineteenth century it seemed that the human species itself might be capable of further adaptation and improvement. A nation’s inheritance could be found in its biology as well as its geographical possessions; its progress measured not just in the life and works of its citizens, but in the vigour of its race. Such beliefs found expression in the idea of the ‘coming man’, a new ‘type’ supposedly being created at the nexus of European civilisation and Australian environment. The ‘coming man’ combined masculine virtues of courage, initiative and mateship, with a sense of youth and destiny. In his hands he held the future of his race, in his heart the dream of a strong Australia, pure and white. 1

‘For a nation to be strong the best life is a country life’, asserted CEW Bean. 2 The chronicler of the Anzac legend observed the characteristics of the ‘coming man’ in the young Australians fighting on the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Belgium. They were characteristics born of the land, the air, the fields and the forests. Soldiers who came from ‘big crowded cities’ tended to be ‘little, white-faced, stunted, narrow-chested men’, Bean argued, not like the big, healthy Australians with their love of sports and outdoor adventure. 3 However, sturdy Anzac warriors were not bred solely on fresh air and freedom, they needed the hardships and disappointments of rural life to temper their endurance. ‘It is the difficulties of our country that have made our character—not its ease’, Bean noted. 4 ‘The Australian is always fighting’, he commented elsewhere, fighting droughts, fire, nature itself, had made the Australian ‘as fine a fighting man as exists’. 5 The land had created a race of heroes; the hardships of the bush had ‘hammered out of the old stock a new man’. 6

Frontier life was a test of character and physique. For all her bounties, EJ Brady admitted, Australia challenged her would-be settlers with ‘a series of physical and climatic paradoxes’. The continent’s ‘ancient lineage forbids the familiarity of the unworthy’, he argued, its ‘paradoxes and difficulties’ demanded ‘mental and bodily activity’ to overcome. Through workings of evolution, this ‘strenuous environment’ would produce an ‘enduring type’ to conquer the land and secure ‘the future of European civilisation in the Southern Hemisphere’. 7 But the frontier was also a place of uncertainty and contradiction, where dreams of progress met the brutal realities of failure. Nature at its most wild and primitive could forge the race anew, but it could also eat away at civilisation, draining the will and dragging the race back along the evolutionary scale. 8 In lonely country north of the Simpson Desert, Ion Idriess heard the tale of an ‘educated, cultured’ and ‘fine-looking’ man who suddenly decided to live with the local Aborigines. It was an ‘unexplainable reversion’, a rejection of progress. While ‘modern man looks towards the stars’, Idriess observed, ‘our man looked back down to the primal depths’. 9

Even as the new nation celebrated the emergence of an Australian ‘type’ to carry it forth in achievement and renown, it was haunted still by the possibility of degeneration. Asia pressed oppressively near upon a continent whose north seemed alien and unhealthy. Droughts repelled the advance of settlement, while the ‘remnants’ of a ‘primitive’, ‘Stone Age’ culture wandered the land in disquieting counterpoint. Sprawling cities spawned disease and poverty, and the rise of class conflict threatened the very notion of unity. Beset by threats and potential crises, progressives sought to marshal the resources of a modern, scientific state against the possibility of degeneration. Legislators erected racial barriers to preserve the integrity of white Australia, and called medical scientists into battle against tropical disease. Town planners argued the benefits of decentralisation and imagined healthy cities, full of space, light and life. Reformers pursued the betterment of public health and hygiene, while educators and sociologists charted the course of social evolution in an attempt to foster moral and intellectual fulfilment. A strong, healthy and vital race could not be guaranteed through the workings of nature alone. The future Australian had to be shaped and nurtured. 10

‘We can improve or degenerate… we must do one or the other, as it is impossible for us to remain always as we are’, the Australasian Manufacturer quoted approvingly from the work of business writer Herbert Casson. ‘No human being has ever been found who was not improvable’, the extract continued, ‘ mentally, most of us are the merest beginnings, compared with what we might be’. 11 In the early decades of the twentieth century, progressive reformers sought to find the means to release an individual’s potential, to unlock the vital energies of a nation, and strive onwards to greater heights of cooperation and efficiency. Indeed, efficiency was their ultimate aim, an efficiency measured not just in improvement or adjustment, but in transcendence. Efficiency promised to banish the spectre of degeneration by enabling the full expression of a nation’s resources and capacities. ‘National efficiency’, proclaimed FW Hagelthorne the Victorian Minister of Public Works, connotes ‘above all… that our people shall be men and women of the highest rank as human beings’. 12

‘True efficiency’, argued the Australasian Manufacturer, required ‘persistent training and patient effort from childhood to manhood, …from the cradle to the grave’. 13 This was perhaps a rather conservative prescription as many efficiency advocates looked beyond childhood to the key moment of conception. The influence of eugenics was keenly felt throughout the progressive movement as reformers sought means to engineer a stronger, more resilient populace. With the comparative influence of environment and heredity still uncertain, solutions ranged from improved sanitation and nutrition, through to plans for the sterilisation of the ‘unfit’. 14 Leadership, it was assumed, would come from the professional middle-classes, backed by the power of the state. Emboldened by science, and energised by a sense of racial destiny, experts pronounced upon the ideal citizen, the ideal mother, and the ideal home. Efficiency demanded babies conceived in wedlock by worthy, responsible parents, born under the close supervision of the medical profession, and raised according to the regimens of ‘mothercraft’ specialists. 15 Modern methods would make modern men and women, heirs to a new world of progress.

The problem with utopias, argued Jane Clunies Ross in 1942, was their insistence on ‘the importance of the intelligence and rationality of mankind’. 16 Progressive reformers sought to manufacture a modern citizenry through consensus and self-discipline: they assumed that people would, on the whole, recognise what was best for themselves and the nation, and respond accordingly. It was the only rational thing to do. In the 1940s, as a new generation of reformers pondered the challenges of postwar reconstruction, they looked with hope not to the possibilities of rational persuasion, but to the power of psychology, the mass media and public relations. 17 The minds of the people had to be won to the cause by strategically planned interventions. As the Committee on Civilian Morale underlined in its report to the Curtin government, ‘it is impossible to run a planned economy on a laissez-faire psychology’. 18

Emphasis shifted from healthy bodies to healthy minds, from the prospect of self-realisation to the need for psychological adjustment. The meaning of any ‘new social order’ would be greatly clarified, Jane Clunies Ross suggested, ‘if people could realise that the world is not unhappy but there are many unhappy people in it’. A ‘psychologist’s utopia’, she continued, would be free of any such ‘misfits’. Instead, ‘psychologically trained parents’ would raise children to be ‘fearless, confident, independent in thought and deed, socially at ease and willing to co-operate’. 19 The new order could not be built with old minds. Science answered the call once more with a range of modern therapeutic techniques, ranging from psychoanalysis to psychosurgery. The most radical of these, pre-frontal leucotomy, surgically severed the brains frontal lobes. First performed in Australia during the Second World War, leucotomies gained in popularity through the late 1940s and ‘50s, and were used to treat a variety of seemingly ‘hopeless mental cases’, including schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. 20 The results were often dramatic. The patient ‘may emerge from the theatre a completely different person’, reported the Sunday Herald, ‘his old personality can vanish… his former self may have gone’. 21

The atomic bomb, Albert Einstein famously remarked, had ‘changed everything but our way of thinking’. The release of atomic energy confronted the world with a ‘supreme moral and intellectual test’. 22 Humankind had to demonstrate that the ‘vast powers’ of atomic energy were not ‘in the hands of moral and physical pygmies’, argued the Age: ‘Unless man can control his own impulses and use the powers of science for beneficent purposes, his life becomes a brutish affair’. 23 The new age demanded a ‘change of heart’. What was needed, suggested zoologist WJ Dakin, was ‘a rebirth in education and morality’. 24 His colleague at the University of Sydney, Sir Henry Barraclough, also pondered this ‘vitally urgent’ problem. ‘The secrets within the mind and spirit of man are more subtle, more difficult to unravel, and immensely more important than any hidden in the atom’, the engineer reflected. A ‘new engineering’ was necessary ‘to design and operate the social machinery’, and to overhaul ‘our defective educational and cultural equipment’. 25

In his poem ‘Atomic bomb’, Ernest Briggs wondered whether the world would succumb to ‘a new brutality’ or be uplifted by ‘a new surge / of the regenerated spirit that shall bring / the revelation of a new nobility’. 26 The need for spiritual regeneration was vigorously proclaimed by a number of church leaders who saw the bomb as evidence that ‘the world’s mind is outrunning its conscience’. ‘We shall have to match the huge forces released by this discovery with man’s inner forces of wisdom and judgment’, commented the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Queensland. 27 Reason alone could not control the headlong rush of science, asserted the Rev. Alan Walker, humanity’s only hope for salvation lay ‘in a new release of world spiritual energy’. 28 But the idea that the Church could revive a failing social structure and instill a new sense of purpose in people and nation had arisen much earlier in response to the Great Depression. 29 Christian notions of regeneration also shaped discussion of the ‘new social order’ that was expected to emerge from the war. In 1941, the theologian Samuel Angus considered the problems of ‘Man and the new order’. The ‘new world with its kaleidoscopic changes will demand new hearts as well as new opinions and new forms of social cohesion’, he suggested, the new order had to made ‘not around us, but within us’. 30

Similarly, there had been warnings for many years that the progress of science had outpaced humanity’s capacity for moral judgment. In 1931, the physicist TH Laby noted that ‘science has greatly increased man’s power for good and evil, and the future of mankind depends on the use to which that power is put’. 31 Reflecting on Laby’s comments, the Sydney Morning Herald invoked a familiar image: ‘We resemble small children who have broken into a carpenter’s shed and have been playing with sharp tools’. 32 From the plans of the progressives to the architects of the new social order, progress could be measured in the human capacity for development and improvement. Old habits, old ways of thinking, would pass as modern men and women strode forward to meet the dawning of the new age. The destruction of Hiroshima inspired cartoonists to portray humanity as a baby playing recklessly with its new toy, the atomic bomb. As Australians pondered the image, they were reminded that progress was about growing up.


  1. White, Inventing Australia, ch. 5.
  2. Bean, In your hands Australia, p. 22.
  3. ibid. For more on the supposed benefits of frontier life, see Brigid Hains, The ice and the inlad: Mawson, Flynn and the myth of the frontier, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002, ch. 5.
  4. Bean, In your hands Australia, p. 92.
  5. Quoted in White, Inventing Australia, p. 126.
  6. ibid.
  7. Brady, Australia unlimited, p. 636.
  8. For a discussion of frontier anxieties and the possibility of degeneration see: Hains, The ice and the inland, ch. 6; Tom Griffiths, Hunters and collectors: the antiquarian imagination in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 186-92.
  9. Idriess, The great boomerang, p. 27.
  10. For more on the progressive reform movement see Roe, Nine Australian progressives. For a discussion of Australian fears of Asia and tropical climates and disease, see: David Walker, Anxious nation: Australia and the rise of Asia 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999; Warwick Anderson, ‘Geography, race and nation: remapping ‘tropical’ Australia, 1890-1930’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 11, no. 4, 1997, pp. 457-68.
  11. ‘The law of progress in business and men’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 4, no. 184, 11 October 1919, pp. 26-7.
  12. F Hagelthorn, ‘Introduction’, in F Hagelthorn (ed.), National Efficiency, Victorian Railways Institute, Melbourne, 1915, pp. 1-2.
  13. ‘The need of scientific thinking’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 1, no. 31, 28 October 1916, p. 9.
  14. On eugenics in Australia, see: C L Bacchi, ‘The Nature-Nurture Debate in Australia, 1900-1914’, Historical Studies, vol. 19, no. 75, 1980, pp. 199-212; Stephen Garton, ‘Sound minds and healthy bodies: reconsidering eugenics in Australia, 1914-1940’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 26, no. 102, 1994, pp. 163-81; and the papers in Martin Crotty, John Germov, and Grant Rodwell (eds), ‘A Race for a place: eugenics, Darwinism and social thought and practice in Australia, Proceedings of the history & sociology of eugenics, Faculty of Arts & Social Science, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, 2000.
  15. Kerreen Reiger, The disenchantment of home: modernising the Australian family 1880-1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985.
  16. Jane Clunies Ross, ‘O, brave new social order!’, Australian Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 4, December 1942, p. 83.
  17. Rowse, Australian liberalism and national character, pp. 147-76.
  18. ‘Report of the Committee on Civilian Morale made under direction of the Prime Minister’, 4 April 1942, NAA: A1608/1, AK 29/1/2.
  19. Jane Clunies Ross, ‘O, brave new social order!’, p. 85.
  20. ‘Brain surgery is last resort for the insane’, SMH, 17 September 1952, p. 2; Milton Lewis, Managing madness: psychiatry and society in Australia 1788-1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, pp. 67-9.
  21. ‘Changing a human brain’, Sunday Herald, 8 June 1952, p. 7.
  22. Herald, 13 August 1945, p. 4.
  23. Age, 8 August 1945, p. 2.
  24. Listener-In, vol. 21, no. 36, 1-7 September 1945, p. 6.
  25. SMH, 16 November 1945, p. 2.
  26. Ernest Briggs, ‘Atomic bomb’, Meanjin, vol. 4, no. 3, Spring 1945, p. 175.
  27. SMH, 10 August 1945, p. 5.
  28. Listener-In, vol. 21, no. 36, 1-7 September 1945, p. 6.
  29. Alomes, ‘The 1930’s background to Post-war reconstruction’, pp. 29-31.
  30. Samuel Angus, Man and the new order, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941, pp. 28, 70.
  31. SMH, 19 August 1931, p. 12.
  32. SMH, 22 August 1931, p. 12.

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