Not the time for dreamers

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In January 2003, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) launched a campaign ‘to end the use of the word “boffin” in media headlines’. The word ‘bordered on the offensive for many scientists’, explained FASTS president Chris Fell, ‘it conjures up images of weird old men in flapping lab coats, pouring strange chemicals into test tubes’. 1 Not the kind of image likely to attract young students.

Physicist David Martyn was also concerned about the effect of negative images on the recruitment of young people to science. ‘It is only when the current popular conception of the scientist as a soulless and dangerously unpredictable robot is replaced by the human reality’, he argued in 1956, ‘that adequate numbers of young men and women will come forward to fill our dangerously depleted ranks’. 2 Elsewhere Martyn suggested that television programs and comic strips should feature scientists as heroes, rather than villains, in order to attract children to science. ‘The scientist is always mad, or wants to blow people up’, he noted of the current crop of children’s entertainment. 3 But the ‘human reality’ was not always attractive. Martyn was an embittered and sometimes obsessional man, whose hatreds coloured his scientific dealings. His latter years were consumed by depression, fed by his fear of an impending environmental catastrophe. No heroes came to the rescue. David Martyn committed suicide in 1970, while serving as president of the Australian Academy of Science. 4

‘Boffins’ were first identified during the Second World War, working in the ‘backroom’ on war-winning weapons such as radar and the bomb. 5 But scientific stereotypes have infested popular culture for much longer. 6 ‘The average idea of a scientist is a bespectacled old gentleman with long hair’, commented JH Maiden at the 1921 AAAS congress, ‘but I think we are pretty normal’. 7 AAAS gatherings, in particular, provided press and public with a chance to test Maiden’s hypothesis by observing the habits and markings of the scientific family. Reporting on the 1911 congress, one journalist attempted to build his own taxonomy of scientific types. The ‘David type’, he noted, was ‘thin and keen with peering eyes and bird-like appearance’, quite unlike ‘the Masson type of calm stolidity’, and of course there was the familiar ‘Liversidge type…so absorbed in his work, that he cares nothing for and forgets all else’. 8

Remarkably though, many observers found that scientists did exhibit a number of human traits. They were not ‘terrifying’, noticed the Sun in 1935, nor were they all ‘grim men scientifically determined to tear apart the last speck of the atom’ — some were even women! 9 A correspondent for the Sydney Mail quickly surveyed the prevalence of grey hair to disprove the ‘popular superstition’ that the majority of scientists were old. Nor were they predominantly ‘untidy fellows’. Indeed, one professor, ‘with tie and handkerchief of the same hue and pattern’, was ‘the very glass of fashion’. 10 But he was from Sydney, of course.

Every well-meaning denial merely brought the ‘spectacled and bald-headed personage of advanced years’ once again to the fore of public expectation. 11 In literature, too, he was a familiar foil, often at odds with the character of Australian bush life. Banjo Paterson relayed the cautionary tale of ‘the great Professor Brown’, well-known for his ‘Treatise on the Morals of the Red-eyed Bulldog Ant’. Leading the ‘Ladies’ Science Circle’ on a ramble through the countryside, Professor Brown chances upon an ‘old selector’ and remarks on his intention ‘To investigate your flora / Which I hear is very choice’. Unfortunately ‘Flora’ happens to be the name of the selector’s daughter, and the confrontation ends with the angry stockwhip-wielding father chasing Professor Brown and his party into the bush. As night falls and the dingoes howl, the Ladies Science Circle is lost and, presumably, doomed: ‘For the hapless old Professor / Hasn’t sense to guide ‘em back’. 12 Scientists, explained Jasby in the Bulletin, ‘publish theories and formulae, quote figures and facts that the ordinary man is unable to refute, and speak a jargon which no one else can understand’. 13

Common scientific stereotypes were not always negative. The ‘boffin’, at least initially, commanded respect and admiration; scientists were eccentric but determined individuals, wholly dedicated to the war effort. 14 Perhaps a campaign to ‘bring back the boffin’ as portrayed in stirring wartime sagas such as ‘The Dam Busters’ would do more to attract young people than attempts to blot the lab coat from our memory. Even the absent-minded duffer could be regarded with a certain amount of affection. But such images also drew upon deep cultural currents, dredging up fears and anxieties, warnings of the dangers of prideful curiosity and forbidden knowledge, expressed most clearly in a host of instructive fables from Pandora to Faust and Frankenstein. 15

The tendency of scientists to describe their calling in transcendent, almost mystical, terms, did nothing to distance them from this ancient, disturbing lineage. Delivering the Presidential Address to the 1902 AAAS congress, Captain FW Hutton drew from the font of Baconian tradition, affirming that the devotee of pure science was ‘helping to solve the riddle of the Universe’. 16 This sacred quest was conducted, not in a spirit of pride or arrogance, CO Burge told the Royal Society of NSW, but in ‘reverent wonderment’. The true scientist must cultivate ‘the spirit of a little child’, he added, ‘if he is to coax from the great powers of nature their inmost secrets’. 17 Edgeworth David agreed, arguing that ‘science expects every man in this world to learn in the simple way that a child learns the great lessons of the universe’. 18 Curiosity was thus invested with a sense of innocence and purity; it was, Orme Masson declared, the ‘elementary quickening of the universal spirit that seeks to soar into the unknown’. 19

Nor was the scientist apparently much interested in earthly rewards or recognition. He ‘cares little for the opinion of the world’, observed Greig-Smith, ‘and lives entirely in his work’. 20 ‘Scientists who love their science place it above money’, FM Gellatly confirmed in Science and Industry, ‘the reward of the investigator was not necessarily expressed in the augmentation of his banking account’. 21 Edgeworth David emphasised that the scientist was driven by ‘the glamour of the unknown’, and did not desire payment ‘beyond the irreducible minimum for satisfying simple needs’. 22 Such homilies offered instruction in the scientist’s life of service and duty, but they also emphasised the gulf that separated the man of science from the concerns of the everyday world.

An apparent lack of interest in money was hardly a useful selling point as scientists sought to demonstrate their value in fostering industrial innovation and efficiency. Nor would a public, repeatedly warned of the importance of science in modern warfare, be reassured by the thought that such knowledge was in the hands of zealots aspiring to a life of childlike simplicity. Surely devotion could lead to obsession. Might not the unswerving quest for enlightenment blind the scientist to the needs of the nation? As debate on the Institute of Science and Industry commenced, the question was not so much whether science could contribute to the task of national progress, but rather who was best qualified to direct its application. Could scientists be trusted with the task?

Billy Hughes himself had doubts. In July 1917, he met with the Advisory Council for the first time since its establishment. He apologised for his lack of attentiveness, but then added ‘although some of you live in those quiet back-waters of science where everything goes very well, I have been otherwise engaged’. In his meeting with the Council and in earlier discussions with the Executive Committee, Hughes argued forcefully that it would be impossible to find scientists with the necessary business and organising abilities to direct the Institute. He began quizzing Council members on what was meant by their recommendation that two of the three directors should be appointed ‘on account of scientific attainments and wide experience’. Most scientists, he suggested, had no knowledge of ‘affairs’. Where could you find such a ‘happy blend’? Which was more important—‘the scientist or the man of affairs?’ ‘We have got to make this succeed’, Hughes asserted, ‘ and we shall not make it succeed by putting science on a pedestal—to be held inviolate, beyond criticism, as she is now’. 23

Hughes’s concerns were echoed by many in parliament. Even supporters of the Institute, such as Senator Pratten, urged the government to make ‘practical’ appointments, arguing that it was ‘ not the time for dreamers’. ‘We hope that in this Institute they will not be looking for the philosopher’s stone or the elixir of life’, he added, ‘but will come down to the consideration of the practical wants of the nation’. 24 WO Archibald declared that the Institute had no need of men ‘with a tremendous lot of letters at the end of their names—men who are so wonderful that it is difficult to get near them and learn whether or not they really know anything’. 25 While Arthur Rodgers argued that the ‘best financial results’ could not be expected from such an undertaking ‘when the full control rests with a body of men with professorial minds’. 26 Science was too important to be left in the hands of scientists.

The attacks in parliament were rarely personal, aimed broadly at ‘faddists’, ‘theorists’, ‘academicians’ and ‘university professors’. However, one scientist, John Anderson Gilruth, attracted particular criticism when rumours began to fly of his impending appointment to the Institute. Gilruth was a veterinary pathologist who accompanied Baldwin Spencer on a scientific survey of the Northern Territory in 1911. 27 He returned proclaiming the north’s ‘enormous and almost unlimited’ possibilities, inspiring a hopeful government to enlist him as Administrator. 28 Gilruth’s veterinary training and knowledge of agriculture, the Argus suggested, ‘specially fitted’ him to succeed in this ‘stupendous and arduous task’. 29 The development of the north would proceed at last under skilled, scientific direction.

Unfortunately, Gilruth’s training did little to prepare him for the political complexities of the position. His authoritarian style and antipathy towards union preference fomented ill will amongst the residents of Darwin. In December 1918, tensions reached their peak in the ‘Darwin Rebellion’, when an angry mob took to the streets demanding Gilruth’s resignation. He was recalled by the government a few months later. 30 Suggestions that Gilruth might be afforded a position with the Institute as something of a consolation for the loss of his well-paid NT berth, outraged Labor members. It was evidence not only that the aims of science were being perverted by patronage, but also that the government was to place the Institute in the hands of scientific men lacking in experience and judgement. ‘Dr Gilruth’, WG Higgs remarked in the Institute debate, ‘is better able to handle horses than he is to handle men’. 31 Gilruth’s scientific abilities were not in question, but the ‘lamentable failure’ of his Darwin administration proved that book learning and laboratory skill were no substitute for practical wisdom. 32 Gilruth had left the safety of science to trespass upon the realm of politics.

Confined within their natural habitat, scientists could be afforded respect, their eccentricities observed with polite amusement and perhaps affection. But once they ventured beyond the walls of academe, and sought to pronounce upon the ways of the world, they were exposed to public scrutiny and criticism. The Age congratulated a number of speakers at the 1935 ANZAAS congress for addressing matters of public interest. It was, however, disappointed that in tackling the supposed deficiencies of the nation’s political and economic systems the scientists had not shown themselves to be ‘more original, more constructive’. Was the ‘scientific attitude upon politics’ to be expressed merely in ‘caustic sneers’ or ‘derisively cynical’ asides? Scientists had suggested that if they were in control of the nation’s affairs they would organise a systematic ‘attack on human problems’. But where were their plans, the newspaper inquired, ‘no hindrances are being placed in the way of the scientists indicating what they would do’. Instead of ‘practical, constructive’ suggestions, they offered ‘childish’ criticisms and shallow carping that seemed ‘at variance with what should be the calm spirit of science’. 33

The 1951 ‘Science in Australia’ symposium provoked similar concerns from the Canberra Times. In the glare of the bomb, scientists gained new authority and prestige, but the risks of transgression were also heightened. The assembled ‘galaxy of scientists’, the newspaper noted, might usefully be reminded ‘how undesireable it is for specialists in some leading branches of science to imagine that their ability to harness potent natural forces qualifies them automatically also for untrained and dangerous meddling with political and international affairs’. 34 At a time of ideological conflict, scientists had to be reminded that their first loyalty was to their nation. Naïve pronouncements upon the necessity of international cooperation and the freedom of research only demonstrated the inability of scientists to grasp the deadly reality of the communist threat. David Rivett’s moderate urgings on behalf of a science unhindered by political control singled him out for special attention in parliament. 35 ‘I am not implying that Sir David Rivett is a Communist’, EJ Harrison declared in 1949, as the Liberal-Country Party coalition continued its raucous scare campaign, but ‘I understand the attitude of scientists and the academic mind’. ‘Scientists, from their lofty mental pinnacle, consider that research discoveries should be made available to other nations’, he concluded, ‘but the Government must take a more practical view’. 36

Scientists who, by innocence or arrogance, presumed to privilege the pursuit of science above the earnest strivings of the unenlightened, only encouraged hostility and suspicion. In a public lecture in 1915, WA Osborne contrasted science’s innate ‘truthfulness’ with that demonstrated in politics, business, or even, after some prompting from the audience, religion. 37 The Argus, normally a keen science sympathiser, took umbrage at Osborne’s conceit. ‘It is always hard for the specialist to avoid the error of over-emphasising the reach and importance of his own particular form of knowledge or activity’, it began. Science was certainly essential to society’s continued progress, but Osborne had been overwhelmed by hubris in claiming for it ‘a supreme right to the homage of mankind’. Furthermore, although a certain ‘innate conservatism’ did slow the acceptance of scientific ideas, there was no hostility towards science in the Australian community. However, the editorial warned, ‘hostility may be provoked… if scientists are mistaken enough to assert that science is the only channel of truth’. 38

Even the most eminent of scientists could be disciplined for overstepping the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Mark Oliphant’s comment to a management conference in 1951, that sheep were ‘the curse of Australia’, brought angry demands for him to ‘stick to atoms’. 39 ‘Has ever a scientist made a less scientific statement…?’, asked one correspondent, ‘No doubt it would be good stuff for a publicist, but surely not for a man of science’. 40 Oliphant’s bold challenge to accepted verities recalled the attempts of geographer, Griffith Taylor, to puncture the overblown optimism of ‘Australia unlimited’. Taylor is remembered as a martyr and prophet for daring to chart the climatic limits of Australian development against the outraged denials of popular opinion. 41 Amidst widespread condemnation, Taylor championed the scientific study of settlement over the efforts of the ‘haphazard observer’, who ‘forecasted the future in terms which expressed merely his illogical hopes’. 42

But Taylor’s crusade against ignorance and irresponsibility, was complicated by his own ambitions. He was a young scientist in a hurry, keen to win for his discipline a major share in the process of ‘nation-planning’. 43 His innovative use of diagrams and comparative statistics offered a simple assessment of Australia’s options, but his continental-scale appraisal abandoned local experience to the dust of the ‘hopeless’ deserts that sat heavily at the nation’s heart. 44 Taylor was confident and combative, eager for publicity, and ready to drive deluded ‘boosters’ before the sharpened steel of science. It was not a strategy of gentle persuasion or inclusion; nothing short of victory would suffice.

It is easy to cast Taylor as the brave defender of science struggling with an anti-intellectual culture unwilling to give up its dreams of continental conquest. And yet, the ‘boosters’ could equally claim to march beneath the banner of enlightenment. Many, like EJ Brady, looked to science to solve the problems that slowed the expansion of settlement into Australia’s ‘empty wastes’. After the miraculous discoveries of recent decades, after endless reminders from scientists that it was knowledge that fuelled the engine of national progress, why shouldn’t the ‘boosters’ have felt optimistic? ‘Is it beyond the bounds of hope’, the Sydney Morning Herald pleaded in response to one of Taylor’s sorties, ‘that the advance of science in directions unsuspected to-day may eventually render the settlement of these idle lands a practical proposition?’ 45 Who should be believed? Taylor offered detailed arguments, but received little public support from within the scientific community. 46 Only twenty years earlier, Taylor’s mentor, Edgeworth David, had highlighted the latent fertility of large tracts of semi-arid land as ‘very encouraging for the future’. 47 Where was the truth?

Taylor compounded his provocation by suggesting that white settlement was unlikely to thrive in tropical climates, and by favouring intermarriage with the Chinese as an alternative to the doomed White Australia policy. 48 He was lambasted by Smith’s Weekly as ‘counsel for the yellow streak’, in an article that defended the benefits of racial purity against any ‘piebald human cocktail’ that Taylor could conceive. But the article, under the byline ‘HCM’, was mainly concerned with Taylor’s over-reliance on recent American theories of climatology; theories that amounted to little more than ‘a amusing bit of special pleading for their own pneumonia and blizzards’. America was no bastion of culture, no home of science. ‘The mass of the nation is merely a dollar-making machine’, the article asserted, ‘and her only use for science is as a stepping-stone to “inventions” out of which money can be made’. 49 ‘HCM’ was undoubtedly Hugh Cleland McKay, and his argument was not with science, but with failings of scientists who promoted fashionable theories without testing them against local conditions. For the errant Taylor, McKay prescribed ‘a “walk” through the Territory, a yarn with the local settlers and with the Institute of Tropical Medicine’.

Recent years have brought attempts to celebrate Australia’s ‘tall poppies’, to recognise scientific ‘heroes’ long neglected by a culture blinkered by its anti-intellectual and utilitarian prejudices. But in the images of scientists played out in public debate there is no simple rejection of science, no denial of its role in progress. A distrust of scientists does not necessarily imply a distrust of science. As scientists venture into public debate, their perceived foibles provide an opening to consider the nature of scientific authority and the limits of participation. Whose knowledge counts?


  1. ‘Science plea: drop “boffin”‘, media release issued by FASTS, 20 January 2003, <>.
  2. SMH, 21 January 1956, p. 2.
  3. SMH, 24 January 1958, p. 4.
  4. RW Home, ‘David Forbes Martyn (1906-1970)’, in John Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 320-2; JH Piddington, and MLE Oliphant, ‘David Forbes Martyn 1906-1970’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 2, no. 2, 1971, pp. 47-60.
  5. Robert A Jones, ‘The Boffin: a stereotype of scientists in post-war British films (1945-1970)’, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 6, 1997, pp. 31-48.
  6. For a survey of scientific stereotypes see Roslynn D Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: representations of the scientist in Western literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.
  7. Argus, 12 January 1921, p. 8.
  8. SMH, 10 January 1911, p.7
  9. Sun News Pictorial, 17 January 1935, p. 7; 18 January 1935, p. 4.
  10. Observer, ‘Among the economists’, Sydney Mail, 24 August 1932, p. 9.
  11. SMH, 14 January 1911, p. 12.
  12. AB (Banjo) Paterson, ‘Investigating Flora’, Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 1034, 9 December 1899.
  13. Jasby, ‘Peeps at the professions: 15 – The scientist’, Bulletin, vol. 55, no. 2860, 5 December 1934, p. 25.
  14. Jones, ‘The Boffin’, pp. 34-40.
  15. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove. See also Spencer Weart, Nuclear fear: a history of images, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988.
  16. Captain FW Hutton, ‘Presidential address’, Report of the 9th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Hobart, 1902, pp. 1-3.
  17. CO Burge, ‘Presidential address’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of NSW, vol. 39, 1905, p. 19.
  18. David, ‘The aims and ideals of Australasian science’, p. 43.
  19. David Orme Masson, ‘Inaugural address’, Report of the 13th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Sydney, 1911, p. 6.
  20. Greig-Smith, ‘Presidential address’, p. 10.
  21. Francis Mephan Gellatly, ‘Foreword’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 1, May 1919, p. 2.
  22. TW Edgeworth David, ‘Presidential address’, Report of the 14th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Melbourne, 1913, p. xci.
  23. ‘Meeting of Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry, 9 July 1917’, NAA: AA1964/52/1, item 6. See also Currie and Graham, The origins of CSIRO, pp. 66-72.
  24. CPD, vol. 86, 2 October 1918, p. 6527.
  25. CPD, vol. 89, 13 August 1919, p. 11562.
  26. CPD, vol. 89, 26 September 1919, p. 12767.
  27. See chapter 4 for the background to this survey. For biographical details, see: Ian Clunies Ross, John Anderson Gilruth: The influence of his life and work on the development of the livestock industries of the Commonwealth, The John Murtagh Macrossan Memorial Lectures for 1954, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1956; Alan Powell, ‘Gilruth, John Anderson (1871-1937)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian dictionary of biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, pp. 17-19.
  28. Report of the Preliminary Scientific Expedition to the Northern Territory, Department of External Affairs, Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne, 1912, p. 31. For details and arrangements surrounding Gilruth’s appointment see NAA: A1/15, 30/6111.
  29. Argus, 16 February 1912.
  30. Powell, ‘Gilruth, John Anderson (1871-1937)’; HI Jensen, ‘The Darwin Rebellion’, Labour History, no. 11, November 1966, pp. 3-13.
  31. CPD, 13 August 1919, vol. 89, p. 11550.
  32. CPD, 15 August 1919, vol. 89, p. 11646.
  33. Age, 21 January 1935, p. 8.
  34. Canberra Times, 25 July 1951, p. 4.
  35. See chapter 7.
  36. CPD, 16 March 1949, vol. 201, p. 1554.
  37. Argus, 22 November 1915, p. 10.
  38. Argus, 27 November 1915, p. 18.
  39. Argus, 9 March 1951, p. 1; Herald, 9 March 1951, p. 5.
  40. Herald, 9 March 1951, p. 5.
  41. Joseph Michael Powell, Griffith Taylor and ‘Australia Unlimited’, The John Murtagh Macrossan Memorial Lecture, 1992, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1992.
  42. SMH, 12 May 1924, p. 8.
  43. Thomas Griffith Taylor, ‘Geography and national problems’, Report of the 16th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Wellington, 1923, p. 440.
  44. For Taylor’s use of ‘Griffograms’ see David R Oldroyd, ‘Griffith Taylor and his views on race, environment, and settlement, and the peopling of Australia’, in D F Branagan and G H McNally (eds), Useful and curious geological enquiries beyond the world: Pacific-Asia historical themes. The 19th International INHIGEO Symposium, International Commission on the History of Geological Sciences (INHIGEO), Sydney, 1994, pp. 251-274. For the tension between continental and local appraisals see Powell, Griffith Taylor and ‘Australia Unlimited’, p. 40.
  45. SMH, 21 May 1924, p. 12.
  46. Powell, Griffith Taylor and ‘Australia Unlimited’, pp. 26-7.
  47. David, ‘The aims and ideals of Australasian science’, p. 28.
  48. David Walker, Anxious nation: Australia and the rise of Asia 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999. pp. 192-4; Oldroyd, ‘Griffith Taylor and his views on race, environment, and settlement, and the peopling of Australia’.
  49. HCM (HC McKay), ‘The man of the week – Counsel for the yellow streak’, Smith’s Weekly, 14 July 1923, p. 2.

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