Protection · Prologue

Chapter 7 | Previous | Next

At about 11.30pm on 5 October 1948, a student walking through the grounds of the University of Melbourne noticed a fire in one of the ex-army huts used by the physics department. He raised the alarm, but little could be done to save the building or its contents. The results of two years research into cosmic rays were destroyed, along with much valuable equipment. 1 This was the third fire at the university in the space of just three months, still the chief fire officer believed there to be no suspicious circumstances. Instead he criticised the university for housing such work in a ‘highly-inflammable hut’. 2 The wiring in these huts was notoriously bad, and it seemed that this fire had simply been caused by a fault in one of the electrically-driven recording instruments. 3

In Canberra twenty-four hours later, the Opposition member, WJ Hutchinson, rose to speak on an issue which he believed to be ‘of sufficient importance to warrant a reply…even at this late hour’. 4 Hutchinson drew attention to the fire at Melbourne University, and quoted from a newspaper report that claimed that the facilities destroyed ‘were used by the CSIR and the university in carrying out vital defence experiments in nuclear physics’. Leslie Martin, the professor of physics and the scientist in charge of the work, was quoted as describing his laboratory as ‘the main Commonwealth defence research centre and the only one in Australia undertaking such work’. Given these facts, the fire could be seen in a rather more sinister light. Hutchinson argued that communist fifth columnists were attempting to infiltrate defence research activities around the world, why then was this hut not guarded? Was the fire really an accident or was it sabotage? ‘If the laboratory at the University of Melbourne could be burnt down because no-one was on guard’, he thundered, ‘it was equally possible for the records to have been stolen from the building’. 5

JJ Dedman, the minister responsible for CSIR, sought to deal with the matter swiftly. It was well known that CSIR was funding research into nuclear physics at the University of Melbourne. Under Martin’s direction, this work had been proceeding for a number of years. Only a week before the fire, Dedman had described the research in parliament as comprising ‘experiments of a fundamental character’ designed to give Australian scientists some experience in the field. 6 Responding to Hutchinson’s insinuations, Dedman reminded his parliamentary colleagues of his previous statements, decrying the tendency of the press ‘to create the impression that all scientific research in Australia is connected with defence’. In the space of a few minutes, he repeated again and again his one central point: the experiments had ‘no connexion whatever with defence’, ‘no defence significance’, they were ‘not a defence project at all’, involving ‘nothing that is secret’. He concluded: ‘The experiments, I repeat, have no significance whatever from a defence, or security, point of view’. 7 The matter was closed and the house adjourned.

Closed, that is, until the following day, when HL Anthony resumed the Opposition’s attack, claiming that the arrest of ‘atomic spies’ operating in Canada had revealed that the Soviet Union was desperately seeking to obtain the ‘secrets’ of the atomic bomb through its espionage network. Australia was not immune to such infiltration, Anthony argued, ‘I desire to show that there is a connexion between the Communist organization in Australia and the destruction of a defence laboratory in Melbourne. 8 It seemed more than coincidence that Australia’s only atomic research laboratory had gone ‘up in smoke’. ‘Did the records which it contained go up in smoke?’, he asked, or ‘were they purloined and was the fire then deliberately started in order to destroy evidence of the theft’? Anthony was worried by a number of similar ‘strange events’, and went on to recount a bizarre tale of a communist arrested at Brisbane station with a quantity of explosives, apparently on his way to blow-up Mt. Isa.

Dedman was clearly exasperated, ‘The honorable member for Richmond has been indulging in utter drivel’, he began. 9 But he could do little else save repeat his assertions of the previous night that the laboratory had no connection with defence work. The following day he attempted to round off the matter by quoting from a statement issued by Martin, who was ‘quite sure’ that there had been no sabotage. According to Martin, contrary to initial reports, the work was not defence related but simply ‘straight-ahead fundamental physics’. Furthermore, ‘secret papers could not have been stolen for the simple reason that there were no secret papers there to steal’. 10

The tone of the Opposition attacks was perhaps best captured by the student newspaper, Farrago, which printed a front page expose based on ‘usually unreliable sources in Canberra’. The university was ‘the scene of a vast plot’, the article revealed, ‘whose object is said to be the erasure of Western culture from the campus and to compel a reversion to the wilderness of alien barbarism’. 11 However, some of the claims made by the Opposition members were not quite as hysterical as they might at first seem. Dedman was frustrated by their apparent inability to see that research into nuclear physics need not have defence connections. Yet only a week before the fire he had commented in parliament that ‘anyone who knows anything of atomic energy must realize that information intended to be used for industrial purposes could also be used for war-like purposes’. ‘The uses of atomic energy in peace or in war are so inter-linked’, he added, ‘that it would be foolish to permit the release of information for only one purpose’. 12

Martin had argued that he was involved in fundamental physics research, yet later that same month, he was appointed Defence Scientific Adviser and chairman of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee. He was offered the position specifically ‘in view of the great importance of developments in atomic warfare’. 13 The whole question of what areas of scientific research were defence related was becoming more and more complicated as the relationship between science and the military underwent wholesale changes in response to the perceived needs of the postwar world. Science had always been seen as being dependent upon the free interchange of ideas, yet the new scientific age, the Atomic Age, had been brought into being by the most highly secret scientific project ever undertaken.



Notes:

  1. Herald, 6 October 1948, p.3
  2. Herald, 6 October 1948, p.1; SMH, 7 October 1948, p.3
  3. Argus, 7 October, 1948, p.5
  4. CPD, vol.198, 6 October 1948, p. 1317.
  5. CPD, vol.198, 6 October 1948, p. 1318.
  6. CPD, vol.198, 30 September 1948, p. 1036.
  7. CPD, vol.198, 6 October 1948, p. 1319.
  8. CPD, vol.198, 7 October 1948, p. 1332.
  9. CPD, vol.198, 7 October 1948, p. 1334.
  10. CPD, vol.198, 8October 1948, p. 1398.
  11. Farrago, 12 October 1948, p. 1.
  12. CPD, vol.198, 30 September 1948, p. 1031.
  13. Memo from Sir Frederick Shedden (Secretary) to Minister of Defence, 21 October 1948, NAA: A816, 9/301/163 Part 1.

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