[Go to Australian Academy of Science Home Page]
Bright Sparcs Logo
Australian Academy of Science
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

Frederick William George White 1905-1994


By H.C. Minnett and Sir Rutherford Robertson

Sir Frederick White was one of the most influential men in Australian science during and after the Second World War. At the comparatively early age of 39, he resigned from his chair of physics at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand, to become an Executive Officer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Australia. Many years later he was to write 'In doing so I abandoned any future personal activity in scientific research. I have never regretted doing so.' His acceptance of the challenge to participate in leading CSIR had a profound influence on the advancement of Australian science and on the professional lives of the scientists involved.

Family Background and Early Life

Frederick William George White was born on 26 May 1905 at Johnsonville, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. His mother had gone there to be with her sister because her husband, a seaman, was often away from their home in Wellington with the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand.

Frederick's grandfather, William Henry White, was born in Shadwell in the East End of London in 1864 and had married Rebecca Sims, the daughter of a sea captain. They had six children and by the time Frederick's father, also called William Henry, and his younger brother, Edgar Horace, were born, the family was rather poor. Both boys went to sea when aged 18 and both were to become chief stewards. Some of their voyages brought them to New Zealand where they later settled, William in Wellington and Horace in Auckland.

Fred's maternal grandparents, Nathaniel and Agnes Dunlop, migrated with one daughter from Ayrshire in Scotland to Geraldine in the South Island of New Zealand. Two more girls including Fred's mother, Wilhelmina, were born in Geraldine. Fred's father William was 39 when in 1903 he married Wilhelmina (Mina), who was 26. The wedding took place in Johnsonville, from the home of Mina's elder sister Mary, wife of Finlay Bethune, a migrant school teacher from Skye, who eventually became a headmaster. Finlay and Mary, a gifted couple with no children, took a great interest in Fred and had considerable influence on him.

The Whites moved from Wellington to Dunedin when Fred was five. However, his attendance at the local school was shortened by a serious illness and did not begin properly until he was nine. This was to be a serious handicap later, when he was too old to qualify for some government bursaries. During the 1914-18 war, hie parents moved back to Wellington, where his father was transferred to the overnight Wellington-Lyttleton ferry. Fred and his two sisters, Florence and Kathleen Rebecca, attended the local Te Aro government school. It was then that the rather shy lad, who avoided games as much as possible, was found to have such bad eyesight that he sometimes walked into posts in the street! He wore spectacles for the rest of his life.

In 1920, Fred entered Wellington College, a private school, and his parents had difficulty finding the fees needed until his secondary education was completed in 1925. He did not regard himself as a noteworthy academic scholar. Science was clearly to his liking, due largely to the senior science master, an enthusiastic man from Cambridge with a deep interest in astronomy. With another student, Fred helped to look after the science laboratory and the small college observatory.

During this period he was to find his real interest in the school's Wireless Club. He built a transmitting and receiving system for his home and communicated in morse code with New Zealand amateurs and occasionally with others in the USA and England. He had little idea of what he wanted to do after school, though he was vaguely attracted to engineering. Fortunately, his parents, especially his mother, thought it important that he qualify for university entrance.

Victoria University College, Wellington

Fred joined the Wellington Tramways as an apprentice in their tool room, while doing a part-time University course in science as required for engineering courses, then conducted in Christchurch. In 1925, when his parents were able to find the funds, he enrolled in a full-time science course at Victoria College, studying physics, mathematics, chemistry and one year of geology. He quickly became absorbed in physics under Professor D.C.H. Florance, who had been with Sir Ernest Rutherford in Manchester in 1914. Fred found physics easy, with the result that he was always top of the class of about twenty.

While at Victoria College, he developed an interest in walking and in climbing mountains, which was to become one of his most important recreations. The social life of the walking and camping parties was very significant in his development. In January 1929, he climbed the then-quiescent volcano Ngauruhoe (7515 ft.). This resulted in his first scientific paper entitled 'The Crater of Ngauruhoe'.

Fred graduated with a BSc in 1928 and was Senior Scholar for New Zealand in physics. Scholarships and a job as a physics demonstrator enabled him to study for his Master's degree. In his thesis, he investigated the vibration modes of quartz crystals and developed a standard frequency meter. He graduated with a first class honours MSc in 1929 and, after Florance wrote to Rutherford, was accepted as a postgraduate student in the Cavendish Laboratory and as a member of St John's College, Cambridge University.

Cambridge and the Cavendish

At St John's College, White's tutor was the former Antarctic explorer, the geologist James Wordie. It was an exciting time for White to be joining the Cavendish. Its director, Rutherford, had continued the traditions of his predecessor, J.J. Thomson, who was still to be seen there most days. Experimental research into the structure of the atom was soon to culminate in a sequence of momentous discoveries.

White had come to work with J.A. Ratcliffe, distinguished for his research on wireless wave propagation. Ratcliffe had recently formed a small group to work in this field and, at White's initial meeting with Rutherford, it was confirmed that he was to join this group as one of its first members.

An understanding of wireless wave propagation was of fundamental importance in geophysics and of great practical significance for wireless communications. Attenuation of the ground-wave component by losses in the earth was only partially understood at that time. The upgoing component was returned to earth by complex processes in the ionized regions of the upper atmosphere, the existence of which had been confirmed by Appleton and Barnett only five years earlier.

Ratcliffe asked White to investigate a curious anomaly in the ground-wave propagation from a long-wave transmitter at Daventry, reported by Ratcliffe and Barnett in 1926, and at a much shorter wavelength by Ratcliffe and Shaw in 1929. Near the transmitting aerial the signal amplitude, after allowing for the inverse law, increased with distance. This represented 'negative attenuation' by ground losses, as predicted by Sommerfeld's theory for certain values of the electrical parameters of the soil. In the Cavendish 'string and sealing wax' tradition, White built a field-strength receiver, an exacting task in those days. He also made laboratory apparatus to measure the parameters of soil samples, for comparison with theory, and confirmed that they were very frequency-dependent. With the new receiver, White found no evidence of negative attenuation and showed that the apparent anomaly had been due to a non-linearity in the original receiver used for the long and short wave measurements.

There was considerable scientific interest at the time in whether electrons or ions were responsible for refracting the upgoing wireless waves back to earth. Appleton and Ratcliffe had studied the problem and White was asked to take part in further measurements. The waves were found, in general, to be elliptically polarized, with a left-handed sense of rotation, consistent with Appleton's magneto-ionic theory and confirming that electrons were the responsible agent.

Whenever his work allowed, White took the opportunity to explore Britain and Europe with university friends, sometimes in the car of Hugh Webster, an Australian physicist. On a walking tour in the Austrian mountains with a party of students, White first got to know his future wife, Elizabeth Cooper, an English honours graduate in medicine from the University of London.

King's College London

During 1931 White became interested in the amplitude of ionospheric reflections. His studies, however, were interrupted late in 1931 when his scholarship ended. Rutherford suggested that he apply for a teaching post at King's College London, where Appleton was the Wheatstone Professor of Physics. He was appointed Demonstrator in Physics and Assistant Lecturer in 1932 and was able to resume work for his PhD.

Appleton asked him to lecture on elementary physics to a large class of medical students, many of whom considered physics an imposition. White soon learned how to cope with unruly students. This was a confrontation suited to his imperturbable, good-humoured and direct manner, and good training one suspects for the pressures he was to face a decade later. He also gave lectures on electromagnetic theory to the most advanced physics students; this he particularly enjoyed.

For lack of space, research was relegated, along with the workshop, to basement rooms below the lecture theatres and teaching laboratories. In winter, according to White, 'fog obscured the view along the corridor, which seemed to stretch the whole length of the College from the Strand to the Embankment'. There he met Edward ('Taffy') Bowen, who had arrived as a PhD student. Bowen was later to join Watson Watt to become one of the pioneers in the development of British radar. He was also destined to play a prominent role in postwar Australian science.

Appleton suggested that White study diurnal variations in the amplitude of ionospheric reflections to establish the relative importance of losses by absorption and transmission through the layers. Measurements were made by the frequency-change method at first, but later the relatively new pulse technique was employed to distinguish different components of the downcoming wave and their changes at sunrise.

James Clerk Maxwell's famous electromagnetic theory of light had been perfected when he was Professor of Natural Philosophy at King's College between 1860 and 1865. To mark this connection, Appleton formed a Maxwell Society with White as secretary. Meetings of the Society, open to all interested in the physics of the upper atmosphere, were very popular. Among those who came was E.B. Moullin from Oxford. He inspired White to study the propagation of high-frequency currents on a length of radiating wire, an important problem in the electromagnetic theory of aerials at that time.

In September 1932, Frederick White and Elizabeth Cooper were married, with Ratcliffe present, in the Church of England in Fitzroy Square, destroyed during the Second World War. Their honeymoon was spent in the Lake District, walking and climbing, an enthusiasm they shared throughout their lives. Afterwards Elizabeth continued her study of puerperal fever at Queen Charlotte's Hospital Research Laboratories and published several papers in The Lancet on the spread of the disease.

During 1932, King's College was given a large house in Hampstead by a wealthy benefactor, Sir Halley Stewart. Appleton and his family moved into the upper floor, and the ground floor and basement were available for research. The Halley Stewart Laboratory was opened by Rutherford in May 1933 and Appleton put White in general charge of activities there, Sadly, in that year, he received news that his father had died after being hit by a car in a Wellington street.

The completion during 1933 of White's research on diurnal variations of the ionosphere marked the end of his thesis work. The year 1934 was auspicious for White, with his PhD (Cantab) degree conferred and his monograph, Electromagnetic Waves, published in the Methuen series. This little book, based on his lectures on electromagnetic theory to advanced students, was so popular that it ran to four editions, the last in 1950. A paper on the automatic registration of ionospheric reflections was also published in 1934. The pulsed system provided records of the first and second reflections and the equivalent height. Observations of reflection coefficients with this equipment, carried out with a postgraduate student, continued until the end of 1935.

The following year, White was visited by D.F. Martyn, who had won international recognition for his ionospheric research in Sydney with Professor J.P.V. Madsen's section of the Australian Radio Research Board (RRB). In a letter to Madsen, Martyn wrote that White 'is very able' (Evans 1878).

By then White's career was about to take a fresh turn. During 1936, he applied for the chair of physics at Canterbury University College, Christchurch, New Zealand. With impressive references from Appleton, Halliday (Principal of King's College), Ratcliffe, Moullin and Flint (Reader in Physics), he was interviewed in London and was successful.

On their voyage to New Zealand, the Whites spent some time in Sydney in January 1937. There Fred visited Madsen's RRB group at the University of Sydney, a most important contact, for both Madsen and Martyn thereafter kept in touch with him. During a short stop in Wellington, he was reunited with his mother and sisters after seven years.

Canterbury College, Christchurch

After their arrival in February, the Whites had no difficulty in settling into the social life of Canterbury College and made many friends. They were fortunate in having a very keen young philosopher from Vienna, Karl Popper, join the staff of the Philosophy Department. He fitted into their group of university people and they profited from his theories of the philosophy of science.

The Whites' son Peter was born in 1937 and their daughter Jane in 1939. Elizabeth, busy with two young children, does not seem to have had any formal medical appointment during their years in New Zealand. She was able to join in the walking and climbing activities and a skiing holiday in 1939, when O.H. Frankel (later a colleague of White's in Australia) was a member of the party. White later described these years at Christchurch as 'full of fun'.

Soon after his arrival, he was asked by Dr Hugh Acland to help the British Empire Cancer Society by providing facilities for making radium needles for medical purposes and by setting up high-voltage X-ray equipment for calibrating commercial units. The system was installed in the basement of the Physics Department by G. Roth, an Austrian member of the staff. It was a very successful arrangement and Roth ultimately became head of a new laboratory established in Christchurch for the work.

White started at once to organize ionospheric research in his department. The year 1937 was a propitious time to initiate the programme. In January of that year Madsen had strongly supported Ernest Marsden, Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), in urging the New Zealand government to revive and extend radio research there. As a result, the government agreed to reorganize he existing Radio Research Committee (RRC) along the lines of the Australian RRB and to provide assured research funding, derived from broadcasting licence fees.

As well as representatives from the Defence Forces, the Post and Telegraph Department, DSIR and the Broadcasting Service, the RRC included the professors of physics of New Zealand's four university colleges. Thus White went directly into a position of influence on the body responsible for co-ordinating and stimulating radio research in New Zealand and for liaising with similar organizations elsewhere.

During his visit to Madsen's group in Sydney, White had ordered a commercial version of an automatic pulsed ionosonde developed in the group by F.W. Wood. He had also obtained components for constructing a manually-tuned model in Christchurch. Now, with a grant from the RRC, he hired a full-time assistant, C.J. Banwell, to undertake the work.

Meanwhile, he studied the behaviour of the ionosphere using data on aurorae, radio fadeouts and magnetic storms published by the Magnetic Observatory in Christchurch. During January 1938, intense upper atmosphere activity was experienced there and White, in collaboration with the Observatory, studied the connection between radio fadeouts, due to solar radiation, and the aurorae and magnetic storms, which began about 30 hours later when particles arrived from the sun. This phenomenon had been first recorded by Appleton in Norway the previous year.

For an ionospheric observatory in New Zealand, its position relative to the Antarctic zone of maximum auroral frequency was of considerable interest. White assembled observations of Aurora Australis logged by early navigators to the Antarctic, beginning with Cook in 1773, Combining these with data from the auroral reports of British, American and Australian expeditions that had wintered on the continent after 1901, White was able to establish the first reasonably accurate position for the zone.

By October 1937, the manually-tuned ionosonde was ready and observations were made of the critical frequencies and maximum electron density of the F2 region. These systematic measurements of ion content at Christchurch, then the world's most southerly station, were among the first made in the southern hemisphere. Subsequent observations, covering the period up to April 1939, correlated with similar observations by G.A. Peddie at Victoria University College, Wellington, soon confirmed the anomalous diurnal and seasonal variations of the F2-region ionization, previously noted in northern-hemisphere studies.

Measurements were also made at a series of fixed frequencies of the total absorption of waves reflected from the F-region during the southern winter (1938) and summer (1938/39). The diurnal variation generally agreed with Appleton's theory of absorption, both in summer and winter, but there was a difference in the ratio of the summer to winter absorption.

During 1939, White published a theoretical paper on the dispersion of radio echoes from the ionosphere, which established that the dispersion produced no difficulties in interpreting experimental results. In the same year, he showed that the communication conditions over an ionospheric circuit could be predicted and set out the principles to be followed. By 1939 the possibility of using ionospheric data in this way 'was known, but not widely appreciated'. Such prediction techniques were to become very important to the Armed Services in the impending war.

In the same year, the automatic ionospheric recorder was installed at Christchurch, but by then White had become involved in more urgent work. Early that year Britain decided to inform Australia and New Zealand about its secret radar work and Martyn and Marsden were sent to England for this purpose. On his way back to Australia in August, Martyn spent a short time in New Zealand and suggested that White should join the urgent radar programme to be set up in Sydney (Evans 1973).

However, when Marsden returned in October, White was asked to develop a gunnery radar for the New Zealand Navy and to train radar scientists, a tall order for the small Christchurch team which, in addition to White, consisted only of an engineer and two technicians (Atkinson 1976). This work, with university teaching, completely occupied White for the next fifteen months, when it was overtaken by events that were to change the future course of his life.

War Years in Australia

In January 1941, the Australian government, acting on the advice of Madsen, requested the New Zealand government to lend White's services for three months in connection with the development of radar. For this work the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had set up the Radiophysics Laboratory (RPL) in August 1939 within the grounds of the University of Sydney, with Martyn in charge. A Radiophysics Advisory Board (RAB) was also established to recommend research policies and priorities and to provide co-ordination and liaison with the Fighting Services. Chaired by Madsen, its members were: Sir David Rivett, Chief Executive Officer of CSIR; Daniel McVey, Director-General of Posts and Telegraphs; and the Chiefs of the three Defence Forces.

Because it was assumed that security over Britain's most vital defence weapon could be more readily enforced in government agencies, Australia had decided to exclude private industry from the manufacture of radar systems. Instead the task was entrusted to the Research Laboratories and workshops of the Post-Master General's (PMG) Department in Melbourne. By the end of 1940, this arrangement was not working very well, partly due to Martyn's administrative weaknesses. In addition, rapid advances overseas in microwave radar required urgent reorganization of CSIR's London liaison office and the setting up of an office in Washington, To address these problems, the RAB had decided initially that Martyn should spend three months overseas investigating the new technical developments, while White ran the Radiophysics Laboratory. A senior physicist, L.H. Martin of the University of Melbourne, was to be appointed for the liaison task.

By the time White arrived in Sydney in March 1941, however, this plan had changed drastically. Martyn's trip had been cancelled, pending the outcome of an urgent security investigation into an indiscreet friendship he had recently formed with a German woman, suspected by Military Intelligence of fascist sympathies (Schedvin 1987). Martyn was eventually cleared, but the inquiry took some time. Meanwhile, Madsen had decided to go to London himself, after L.H. Martin had declined the liaison role. The RAB accepted Madsen's strong recommendation that White should be appointed as Acting Chairman during his absence and the New Zealand government agreed to extend the secondment period to nine months.

'Into the Maelstrom'

White's new role was challenging for a relatively young academic scientist without any previous experience in a high-level administrative position. His nearest ally was now Sir David Rivett at the CSIR Head Once in Melbourne. Many years later White wrote: 'I was thrown blind into the maelstrom within a few weeks of my arrival'. Madsen had to take a calculated risk in recommending White to chair this important Board, but his judgement had been sound. White's strength of character and flair for practical administration were to be major influences in the affairs of the Board.

He was soon grappling with deteriorating relations between RPL, the PMG and the Services. Systems based on a complex new technology had to be developed rapidly to meet Service requirements and then integrated into a major production effort. Lack of experience with these problems and the pressures of wartime led to tensions between the parties and, unfortunately, Martyn's personality often exacerbated rather than calmed the situation. As a result the very successful Shore Defence (ShD) gunnery radar suffered severe production delays. White sought to maintain the lines of communication with the PMG by meetings with McVey and with Witt, director of the PMG Research Laboratories. Gradually during 1941 he won their trust and was able to arrange temporary staff exchanges.

With the Services, White achieved the establishment of a system of agreed priorities to end the wasteful inter-Service rivalry. Dismayed at the lack of knowledge and understanding of radar and its potential in the upper ranks of the Services, he persuaded the Army to appoint two radar liaison officers to RPL. In mid-1941, he convened a conference of Professors of Physics with the aim of enlisting science undergraduates and giving them a concentrated course on electromagnetic waves and radar electronics. A school, vigorously developed by Professor V.A. Bailey at the University of Sydney, started in September 1941. By 1943, the school had trained some 150 RAAF officers, who commanded the stations of the vital air-warning system (Simmonds & Smith 1995). In these and other problems, White made the time to deal with the day-to-day detail himself. This brought to the RAB a much-needed element of continuity and his apparently imperturbable temperament was a steadying influence.

Martyn's relations with the PMG and the Services had deteriorated by August to such an extent that administrative reorganization of RPL was inevitable. The CSIR Executive, having decided to remove Martyn as Chief, accepted a plan by White early in September 1941 to divide the work of the Laboratory into three sections. Martyn was made responsible for research on long-wave radar. The development of microwave radar was entrusted to J.L. Pawsey, who had been in the USA for several months to study the latest work. White himself, as Acting Chairman of the Board, took on full responsibility for the Laboratory, including liaison on production.

Because of the still unresolved security concerns, it was not until May of the following year that a more satisfactory outlet could be found for Martyn's scientific talents, when he was seconded to form an Army Operational Research Group. Meanwhile the outcome for one of Australia's most gifted scientists was particularly hurtful. Martyn blamed White for much of what had happened to him. It was the start of an animosity that time did little to heal.

White now intensified his efforts to deal with the obstacles hindering production. As early as May 1941 he had been convinced that excessive secrecy was a serious impediment and sought to persuade others that commercial firms should be given development work. He also proposed a much closer association with the Ministry of Munitions and Supply and the fullest possible use of the design and production facilities of the New South Wales Railways. As a result, a special annex was set up at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, Redfern, not far from RPL, to manufacture large aerial array structures and rotary mountings, designed under the direction of J.G. Worledge in the Electrical Engineering section of the Railways. This became one of the most successful production teams in the Australian radar programme. An able and experienced engineer in Madsen's department, D.M. Myers, was brought in to liaise between RPL, the PMG and the Railways group.

In August 1941 White had become concerned that the development of air warning (AW) radar systems had low priority in Australian defence strategy. At the RAB meeting that month, he pointed out that three British AW equipments were already held by RPL and also offered to develop an Australian AW radar. Although his plan for a British set in Darwin was later cancelled (on the grounds that the system could not give warning against ships as well as aircraft), his persistence was eventually rewarded. In October the Services' Joint Policy Committee (JPC) accepted the need for AW stations to supplement the ShD defences against ships and identified 32 locations, with Darwin as top priority. Although the JPC recommendations were not approved until November 1941, White had anticipated the outcome and had started development of AW in September, but the work was slowed by manpower shortages.

War in the Pacific

White's prescient AW initiatives had prepared the way for a rapid response to a dramatically increased threat to Australia, following the Japanese air attack at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. An Australian AW set, based on converting the ShD system to one optimized for air warning, was designed and tested by a team led by J.H. Piddington and installed at Dover Heights, Sydney, by 12 December. Manned by Army personnel and maintained twenty-four hours a day by RPL staff, this improvised model provided the only radar air warning for the Sydney area over the next six months. Six sets were ordered by the RAAF, including one for Darwin. These were manufactured jointly by RPL and the Gramophone company (HMV). Stringent secrecy had at last been sacrificed for speed of production.

During December, Sir John Madsen (knighted mid-1941) was on his way back to Australia for a brief visit, leaving Honolulu only hours before the Japanese bombing. At its December meeting, the Board endorsed his recommendation that White's secondment should be extended for the duration of the war. A Technical Committee of the Board was formed with White as Chairman and with representatives of the Navy, the Army, the Air Force and the PMG's Department.

Resuming his role as Chairman of the Board in January 1942, Madsen was generous in his praise of White's handling of the position in his absence and it was agreed that he should become Deputy Chairman. Another important innovation in January was the formation of a Ministry of Munitions section to expedite radar production by placing and supervising manufacturing contracts. The year 1942 was to be the most traumatic in the Board's history. Under the looming threat to Australia as the Pacific war rapidly drew nearer, the Curtin government, elected three months earlier, had to take whatever actions were necessary to achieve full industrial mobilization. Madsen, as Chairman, had to face a searching cross-examination on radar production by the War Cabinet on 26 January. It was clear that still more was expected of the Board.

On 19 February 1942, Japan launched a massive and devastating attack on Darwin by carrier-borne aircraft. In spite of White's repeated urging during the previous six months, Darwin was still without an operating air-warning radar and there were heavy losses of life, shipping and installations. The government at once set up a commission of Inquiry. Some in the RAAF, earlier sceptical about the new weapon, now blamed the Laboratory for the lack of radar warning.

The Inquiry's report found otherwise. All three AW radars initially ordered from RPL had been delivered to the RAAF by 4 February. The equipment for the Darwin station was flown in several loads, the first arriving on 9 February, together with the radar mechanics. But over-confident of its ability to instal and adjust the system in the field, the RAAF had declined assistance from RPL (Moran 1980; Schedvin 1987).

It was expecting much of the RAAF men, with limited training on the new system, to bring the station quickly into operation, especially when 3,000 kilometres from expert technical advice and help. Beset by local problems and without lifting equipment, they were unable to erect the large aerial array. Only after the Japanese raid was it lifted from the ground into position with the aid of a US mobile crane. Further difficulties were then encountered in adjusting the array for optimum performance (E.W. Simmonds & N. Smith 1995).

When help was eventually sought from RPL in mid-March 1942, J.H. Piddington, B.F.C. Cooper and the RAAF crew had the system operational by 22 March. An incoming enemy raid was immediately detected, intercepted and dispersed. One bomber was shot down. The high performance of Australian radars helped eventually to bring Japanese raids on Darwin to an end. The AW radar, further developed as a light-weight air-transportable system, became Australia's most enduring radar achievement and was widely used by Australian and US Forces for the rest of the war.

The intensified war situation and the growing appreciation in the Services of radar's capabilities brought fresh demands on the RAB and RPL for equipment. White successfully countered a Services' plan for RPL to be transferred to the Ministry of Munitions. Instead, a Directorate of Radio Signals and Supplies was set up there to supervise manufacturing, so that RPL had to develop radar designs only up to the prototype stage. Madsen, whose contributions had been profound, realized that White had a firm grip on the Laboratory's programmes and its external relationships. He accepted that there was no longer a role for him and, with dignity, he resigned. McVey succeeded Madsen, with White as Deputy Chairman and also Chairman of the Technical Committee. In October 1942 he was formally appointed Chief of the Radiophysics Laboratory.

The number of radar types under development in RPL grew steadily through the latter part of 1942 and during 1943. White formed a Radar Counter Measures (RCM) group to develop equipment for detecting and jamming enemy radar and to devise means for countering similar enemy action. In June 1943, his heavy work load was relieved by the appointment of J.N. Briton, the factory manager of the Gramophone Company, as Deputy Chief (Engineering) for the duration of' the war. Two applied mathematicians, J.C. Jaeger and T.M. Cherry, were attached to RPL and this gave White the opportunity to be involved in some studies of propagation.

Collaborative Research

At the end of June 1943, White left to visit radar centres in the USA and UK. At the MIT Radiation Laboratory he was delighted to meet Taffy Bowen again. As one of Britain's leading radar experts, Bowen had been a prominent member of Sir Henry Tizard's mission to the USA in 1940. White persuaded him to join him at RPL on secondment. In the USA, White also called on Karl Compton, President of MIT and a member of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. As a result, Compton came to Australia at the end of 1943 and arranged for US scientists to collaborate with RPL on radar programmes for the South-west Pacific.

When in Britain, White made a comprehensive survey of the latest radar and RCM developments, including new radar aids for the precision navigation of bombers. He noted the distinct differences in the equipments needed in the Pacific war, as compared with those in the European theatre. In December 1943, he reviewed these developments in a talk at the Allied General Headquarters in Brisbane (text reproduced in Evans (1970), pp. 145-153).

Bowen arrived in Sydney in January 1944 to take up his appointment as Deputy Chief (Research). White now had two very experienced deputies. His Technical Committee, with its more frequent meetings, gradually assumed many of the functions of the RAB which, after early 1944, met only twice before the end of the war. In that period, radar development in RPL centred mainly on the needs of the RAAF. A high-power 25 cm magnetron, designed and produced in Australia, formed the basis of a new and sophisticated long-range air-warning system, which provided height information and good coverage against low-flying aircraft. It was perhaps the outstanding technical achievement of the Laboratory, but came too late in the war for production (Mellor 1958).

As the war receded north, White was able to divert scientific effort into some basic propagation problems in radar and radio communications. Pawsey formed a group to study atmospheric superrefraction, with contributions from H.G. Booker on a visit from the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Britain. The group also collaborated with US teams organized by Compton to study such anomalous propagation effects in northern areas of Australia, as well as radio noise levels and ground-wave attenuation in jungle.

International collaboration by RPL on research for the South-west Pacific region culminated in October 1944, when R. Watson Watt (UK Ministry of Aircraft Production) invited White to a meeting in Washington with Compton and himself. They discussed the division of responsibility for scientific research on radar and communications when Britain moved into the region, after the end of hostilities in Europe (Evans 1970).

When he had arrived in Australia in 1941, White had been plunged at once into the tough problems of managing the development of a vital and secret new weapon at a critical time in Australia's history. In these testing circumstances, he had discovered an innate ability to simplify complex problems to expose the basic issues without losing sight of the objective. His direct no-nonsense approach inspired confidence and his strength and integrity enabled him to relate easily to men at all levels from the Chiefs of Staff to his young research assistants, who referred to him as 'The Prof'. This combination of attributes had established White as the dominant figure in Australian radar.

After the war, the US government wished to honour White with the Medal of Freedom for his contributions to the American war effort, but this was vetoed by the Australian Labor Government, because of its policy of not bestowing honours on civilians (Cockburn and Ellyard 1981). Ironically, Bowen, a British subject, was able to accept the Medal. By then, however, White's wartime reputation for strong leadership and skilful management had been recognized in another way.

CSIR Executive Committee

As early as 1943, the CSIR had begun to consider research programmes and policies needed for Australia in the post-war world. At the end of 1944, White was invited to join the Executive Committee in Melbourne and participate in this task as an Assistant Executive Officer, with special responsibility for the physical sciences. It was a challenging prospect that he found more attractive than returning to his academic post in Christchurch, and he accepted 'with enthusiasm'.

Since the foundation of CSIR in 1926, the governing Council of nine members had met two or three times a year. Between meetings three of the members, comprising the Executive Committee, were authorized to exercise all the powers of the Council. When White joined the Committee at the start of January 1945, its three members were the part-time Chairman, Sir George Julius, the C.E.O., Sir David Rivett FRS (both foundation members) and Professor A.E.V. Richardson who had joined in 1927. With their different abilities and experience, they had been extraordinarily successful in founding a major scientific enterprise. Rivett is credited with setting the standards of excellence for which it became famous.

Research for Secondary Industry

The Science and Industry Research Act authorized CSIR to conduct researches beneficial to primary and secondary industry. In the early years CSIR's research was devoted almost entirely to rural industry, but by 1936 there were economic and political reasons for development of the nation's industrial capacity and with it the need for supporting research. The National Standards Laboratory was set up in Sydney and the Aeronautical Research Laboratory, the Division of Industrial Chemistry and a small Lubricants and Bearings Section were established in Melbourne.

The CSIR professional staff had increased during the war by a factor of three to about 600, more than half of whom were engaged in research for secondary industries. Planning for peacetime research was a major task and the appointment of White to the Executive Committee at this time was particularly opportune. R.W. Home (1988) wrote: 'He proved a veritable powerhouse in this role, and under his leadership substantial planning documents were produced by the Divisions concerned'.

White also reported to Council on a variety of measures for Divisions to provide direct support to industry which, however, was expected not to depend on CSIR for routine calibration and testing or the introduction of techniques based on existing knowledge. Problems of technology transfer and the stimulation of research within industry itself remained enduring problems in the years ahead.

CSIR research in the area of White's responsibility continued to grow in the postwar period. Severe shortage of materials for domestic and commercial buildings led to the formation of a new section, which developed ultimately into the Division of Building Research. The Lubricants and Bearings Section experienced major growth. It had played an important wartime role in Australia's aircraft manufacturing industry and in 1948 became the Division of Tribophysics. The Aeronautical Research Laboratory, which had been renamed the Division of Aeronautics in 1940, also expanded steadily.

During 1945, White crystallized his ideas on the best ways of organizing new research to produce maximum practical benefits in the long term. He noted that the Executive Committee in its early years had spent much time identifying problems that needed attention. Often planning had failed at this point because suitable scientists were not available. White was clearly in favour, where possible, of a second method in which a first-class scientist is appointed 'to undertake fundamental research in an area likely to lead to applications of great originality. This is, if successful, the most profitable. It is at the same time an approach most difficult to sell to governments, for no promises can be made in its early stages'.

While building materials research was clearly at the applied end of the spectrum, White's approach to meteorological research was firmly fundamental. Atmospheric phenomena were important not only to rural industries, but also to aviation and shipping. Bowen, now Chief of the Radiophysics Division, was urging the formation of a meteorological section in Sydney to collaborate in his study of the Earth's atmosphere using radar. White embraced the new task with enthusiasm, but he realized that there was a broader national need to be met. He was convinced that only the CSIR could offer the conditions and resources essential for the success of the venture, rather than the service-orientated Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau or the University of Melbourne, which supported a Readership in Meteorology. Pressing the case for a CSIR programme of fundamental meteorological studies, White achieved agreement with the other parties after careful definition of the interests and responsibilities of each of the three groups.

The Minister approved the formation of a CSIR Meteorological Section early in 1946, but the search for a first-class leader took some time. Research meteorologists were scarce, but finally C.H.B. Priestley was selected and arrived in Melbourne at the end of 1946. After endorsing his proposed research programme, the Executive Committee gave him virtually complete freedom. But, as he recorded in his reminiscences (Priestley 1982), White 'was to become my permanent counsellor and supporter'. The section, which became a division in 1954, played a crucial role in the development of meteorological science, both in Australia and internationally. The depth of understanding of atmospheric physics created by the basic research led to many applied projects, often arising from environmental concerns (Priestley 1972). The achievements of this group were a tribute to the foresight and wisdom with which White had guided its foundation and amply justified his years of support.

One division, very directly related to a major industry, developed from the realization during the war that there was a serious lack of basic scientific knowledge about Australia's vast coal resources. Mining methods at that time were extremely crude and in 1947 the Prime Minister, J.B. Chifley, asked CSIR to investigate the poor working conditions caused by coal dust. With advice from a British expert on the use of watering systems, the problem was brought under control.

With coal industry experts, White began exploring the desirability of a CSIR coal research programme. After much discussion with the Joint Coal Board and the New South Wales Department of Mines, a Coal Survey Section was formed in CSIR under H.R. Brown from the University of Leeds. The initial task was to study the chemical and physical properties of all Australian coal deposits. During the 1950s, research was extended into coal preparation, coal processing and the use of by-products. In 1960 the section became the Division of Coal Research.

Changes in Organization: CSIR to CSIRO

In December 1946, Julius retired and Rivett became Chairman of the Executive Committee, with Richardson as Chief Executive Officer. In recognition of the increased postwar burdens, the Committee was enlarged to five members. White was the first new member appointed, in January 1946.

The selection of the second full-time member was of great importance. The qualities of Ian Clunies Ross, 46, then Professor of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, were well known. Previously Officer-in-Charge of the CSIR McMaster Animal Health Lahoratory and Chairman of the International Wool Secretariat in London, he had become wartime Director of Scientific Manpower. He was appointed to the Committee in May 1946 to look after the biological sciences under Richardson's direction.

These changes were a first step, but the great growth of CSIR during the war and its expansion into industry-orientated and defence research all indicated the need for a more basic examination of the management structure. Any orderly and comprehensive consideration, however, was overtaken by the dramatic and turbulent events of 1948-49, in which White was to become deeply involved.

Rivett believed passionately in the classical ethos of science: freedom to search for and exchange fundamental knowledge, from which technological progress followed. He believed that any secrecy would poison the spirit of science and that defence projects should be kept clear of CSIR and the universities (Rivett 1947). White and his colleagues on the Executive Committee were in agreement. The problem was that pockets of secret work still remained in CSIR, the major one being the Division of Aeronautics which, involved in defence projects, needed close collaboration with its British counterparts.

Although adequate security was in place, in the atmosphere of the time, this was not enough. Cold War tensions were nearing a peak with the Berlin blockade, and Rivett and CSIR were subjected to ill-informed and personal newspaper attacks. In this difficult time, White assisted Rivett wherever possible and supported him on several occasions in interviews with the Minister-in-Charge of CSIR, J.J. Dedman. The difficulties of this period have been recounted by Schedvin (1987), Rivett (1972) and White.

In the heat of the political debate, there was a grave danger that the government might have to bring CSIR under the Public Service Board to achieve swift and rigid security. The matter came to a head in August 1948 in a meeting between Rivett, White and the Prime Minister, J.B. Chifley. It was agreed that, in peacetime, CSIR could concentrate on supporting primary and secondary industry 'under conditions of complete scientific freedom' and that defence-related research would take place in separate laboratories, to which the Division of Aeronautics would be transferred.

However, the Prime Minister insisted on an external review of CSIR's management structure and appointed H.C. Coombs, Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction, and W. Dunk, Chairman of the Public Service Board, for this task. Their report (Dunk and Coombs 1948) endorsed the principle of separating defence and civil research and advised against the transfer of the whole of CSIR into the departmental system. The report proposed that the Executive Committee should become the governing body, with the Council reduced to an advisory role.

The Government accepted the Coombs-Dunk proposals and, under strong Opposition pressure, became anxious to have the bill passed before Parliament rose at the end of March 1949. However, the detailed drafting of a new Bill for the reorganized CSIR, to be called the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), required much work and care. White was determined to take an active part in the drafting process and spent a hectic two weeks with the parliamentary draftsman. He was anxious to ensure that only essential changes were made to CSIR arrangements existing under the old Act. In the end, he was satisfied that he had achieved all that was possible. Of his contribution, Schedvin (1987) writes: 'Fred White played a crucial although unseen role in rendering the 1949 legislation reasonably acceptable to the scientific community and to the organization. Most of his work was in the hothouse atmosphere of the parliamentary draftsman's office. Once again he had shown his great quality of steadiness under pressure.'

Rivett, disillusioned by the Government's changes to CSIR, retired when the new Act was proclaimed in May 1949, though he continued with the Advisory Council until 1958. Richardson retired at the same time. Some in CSIRO felt that the institution had suffered a major setback with the new legislation. White strongly disagreed and emphasized that the Executive now had responsibility for policy and management of the Organization's affairs. 'In my view the new CSIRO acquired an enhanced opportunity to fulfil its appointed purpose rather than the reverse'.

The CSIRO Executive

Following the retirement of Rivett and Richardson, Clunies Ross was appointed Chairman of the first Executive of CSIRO, with White as the Chief Executive Officer. Although disappointed at missing the top post, White loyally supported the decision, writing in later years: 'The Minister, very sensibly appointed Clunies Ross'. They shared the scientific responsibilities between them in accordance with their backgrounds and experience: agricultural and biological divisions to Clunies Ross and the physical and industrial ones to White.

They soon established an excellent working relationship founded on mutual trust and respect and a strong belief in national progress based on scientific knowledge. In other respects their skills and interests were complementary. Clunies Ross, with a clear and positive vision of the scientific future, was a tireless and brilliant public speaker, a communicator of science and CSIRO's role. With these and other activities, he preferred to delegate much of the detailed planning and implementation. White, much less of a public figure, readily shouldered the extra tasks. He had the determination, toughness and capacity for work necessary to achieve agreed objectives, allied with a genuine interest in people. The combination of the two men was to be a potent factor in the successes of CSIRO over the next decade.

Clunies Ross and White were ably supported by Stuart Bastow, the third full-time member of the Executive. Chief of the Division of Tribophysics when recruited by White early in 1049, Bastow was a talented physicist/chemist from the Universities of Tasmania and Cambridge. The remaining two members of the Executive were part-time appointments and included A.W. Coles, appointed in 1956 after a highly successful career in business and public affairs.

The Minister-in-Charge of CSIRO from March 1850 was R.G. Casey. Trained as an engineer at Cambridge, he was interested in scientific discoveries and their applications in the national interest. For the next ten years, CSIRO had a senior and persuasive advocate in Cabinet. Its growth in the 1950s was one of impressive and sustained progress. Early in the decade many new research sections were set up to explore areas of national importance and all grew eventually into divisions.

From the mid-1950s, Clunies Ross became increasingly involved in issues of wider significance. As a member of the Murray Committee of Inquiry into the needs of Australia's universities, Clunies Ross undertook a heavy load of work during 1957 at a time when his health was unfortunately declining. White, appointed Deputy Chairman of the Executive in January of that year, took greater responsibility for the Organization as a whole and, with Bastow as Chief Executive Officer, was de facto Chairman for much of the time.

During the decade, White was involved in nearly every aspect of CSIRO's growth. Some disappointments were inevitable, such as Bowen's programme for artificially stimulating rainfall, which did not live up to its early promise. Of the many successful developments for which White had special responsibility, it must suffice here to mention just two.

Wool Textile Research

Prior to the war, CSIR policy in wool research was to concentrate on improving the quality and quantity of wool production. Wool textile research was left to English scientists. In 1944, prompted by the rapidly emerging threat from man-made fibres, the Curtin government decided on a large-scale, wool textile research programme, partly funded by a levy on wool growers. However, efforts to attract an overseas director failed.

White became responsible for the programme in 1947. He proposed three separate research groups, with leaders selected from Australians of proven research ability and willing to accept the challenge of the new field. One of these groups was to be in Sydney and one in Melbourne, both with easy access to other scientists in CSIR and the universities. The third was to be located in Geelong, a major centre for the wool processing industry. White brought these ideas to fruition in 1950 with the founding of the Wool Textile Research Laboratories.

He transferred F.G. Lennox and his biochemistry group from the Division of Industrial Chemistry to form the Biochemistry Unit in Melbourne (renamed the Division of Protein Chemistry in 1958). The group's previous research had included a basic study of fellmongering; in the new Division it became renowned for fundamental work on protein structure.

White persuaded V.D. Burgmann, an engineer in the Division of Radiophysics, to give up his post-war work on aircraft guidance systems and to establish the Physics and Engineering Unit in Sydney (renamed the Division of Textile Physics in 1958). The group made fundamental studies of the physics of wool fibres, processes and products and developed textile testing equipment.

M. Lipson was appointed to lead the Developmental Processing Unit in Geelong. He had extensive experience of wool science in industry, CSIR and the University of Leeds and, with M.R. Freney, had developed an early CSIR shrinkproofing process. The activities of the new unit later extended beyond wool processing to include developments in wool textile machinery and, in 1958, it was renamed the Division of Textile Industry.

White's programme for wool textile research became one of CSIRO's most important post-war activities. Early successes at Geelong included non-staining sheep-branding fluids and improved chemical processes for cleaning raw wool. In the longer term, fundamental studies of the physics and chemistry of wool fibres contributed to improvements in wool processing and the properties of wool garments. Methods and machines developed for the objective measurement of wool revolutionized the classification and sale of wool. Major processing developments led to non-shrink, machine-washable, light-fast fabrics, capable of permanent creasing or pleating. Faster and cheaper spinning methods and a continuous printing process also helped to maintain the position of wool in competition from synthetic fibres.

The CSIRO work was promoted, with White's active support, by an International Wool Textile Conference in Australia in 1955. Subsequently, similar conferences were held every five years in other wool textile countries. White had established the pattern of Australian wool textile research and had supported and encouraged the work over more than two decades. His achievements and experience were recognized internationally. In 1960 he was invited to advise South Africa on appropriate research arrangements for that country, returning some years later to open new Wool Textile Laboratories in Port Elizabeth.

Radio Astronomy and the Parkes Radio Telescope

Radio astronomy in Australia was pioneered after the war by J.L. Pawsey's group in the Division of Radiophysics with Bowen's support. For White, the group's rapid progress posed a problem. The Act governing CSIR required its research to be for the benefit of primary and secondary industry and it was difficult to make the case for radio astronomy.

Before long the Radiophysics group was attracting international recognition with its innovative techniques and discoveries. Clunies Ross, the Chairman, agreed with White that such outstanding research must be supported. They decided, however, to seek the backing of the Advisory Council and, as White later wrote: 'All members except a future Nobel Prizeman voted in our favour'. Fortunately, the Minister was supportive, although fully aware of the difficulty under the Act.

In the early 1950s, Bowen's ambition to build a giant radio telescope to extend observations further into space posed new problems. Funding such a project would not be easy and was complicated by a proposal in 1951 for the Commonwealth Observatory in Canberra to acquire such a telescope as a national radio astronomy facility. Apart from competing for scarce funds, the plan would have left the Radiophysics group vulnerable to takeover. This threat to the survival of the CSIRO group was defeated by White's resolute opposition over more than a year.

Emerging American interest in radio astronomy next threatened to lure Bowen to the USA to build its telescope there. White counselled patience and a continued search for funds. Fortunately, in May 1954, the Carnegie Corporation responded to Bowen's submissions with a grant of $US250,000 and the Prime Minister, R.G. Menzies, undertook to match such private donations, pound for pound. This was followed, in December 1955, by an equal grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. There were now enough funds to proceed. After design studies in London, a telescope 210 ft (64 m) in diameter was constructed at Parkes, New South Wales, and came into operation early in 1962 (Robertson 1992), a tribute not only to Bowen's enterprise and drive, but also to White's vision and skilful management. His tenacious support for Australian radio astronomy, started and nurtured in CSIRO, had ensured its growth to maturity.

White as Chairman of CSIRO

When Clunies Ross died in June 1959, at the age of 60, Casey appointed White as Chairman of CSIRO. One month later, Bastow was hospitalized with a severe heart condition, although he was eventually able to rejoin the Executive and continue for another four years. White was convinced that the task of managing the growing organization had become too arduous for only three full-time members of the Executive. The Government agreed to increase the number to five and one of us (RR) and C.S. Christian were appointed as soon as possible. The part-time members were increased from two to four and the Prime Minister suggested that Casey, who was about to retire from Parliament, should become one of these, a proposal warmly welcomed by White.

The CSIRO that White took over consisted of 29 divisions and seven independent sections. Under his leadership, the CSIRO continued to build on its impressive domestic and international reputation. Soon after he became Chairman, a number of major developments were proposed, such as the Division of Plant Industry's plan for the construction of a phytotron. This was the name for a large compartmented enclosure in which the growth of plants could be studied under a wide range of accurately controlled climatic conditions. The cost of the installation in 1962 was about $1.2 million, a large sum at that time, but the probable benefits to plant research convinced White that it should be built. The phytotron's subsequent contributions to basic knowledge and resulting practical applications have fully justified his decision.

The phytotron and the Parkes radio telescope both came into operation in 1962 and construction of another complex instrument, the Wild radioheliograph, was due to commence the following year. White agreed with A.E. Cornish, Chief of the Division of Mathematics and Statistics, that appropriate computing facilities were needed to process the large amount of data from such devices, as well as to service the growing computational needs of all CSIRO divisions. A Computing Research Section, with G.N. Lance in charge, was formed in 1962 to establish and operate a network of computers to carry out basic research in the field of computing and data processing. White entrusted the implementation of the project to Walter Ives, then an Associate Member of the Executive, in collaboration with Lance. The system began operations in 1964/65.

White became convinced that the headquarters of CSIRO should be near the Commonwealth Government and its senior bureaucrats in Canberra. His proposal for the transfer from Melbourne to Canberra was approved by Cabinet in 1964/65. After a period in temporary accommodation in Canberra with some of the Executive, he moved into a new headquarters building in 1966.

The Organization was soon confronted with financial constraints more acute and persistent than those of earlier post-war periods. Difficulties were experienced in funding new laboratories with modern scientific equipment and research programmes often had to be put aside. As he steadily gained the confidence of the Treasury and Government, White achieved a greatly enhanced building programme.

During his chairmanship, White contributed a great deal to Australian science in general. Inevitably, his views were not always in agreement with those of his colleagues in the wider scientific community. During the 1950s and 1960s he opposed the creation of a new advisory body, believing that it could become an intermediary between the CSIRO and its Minister and erode its independence (Johnson and Buckley 1988).

But the tide of change was running against White. In 1974, four years after his retirement, an OECD team visited Australia and recommended the formation of an advisory council for science and technology (OECD 1977). However, the long delay before the Australian Science and Technology Council came into existence in February 1979 was due much less to White's opposition than it was to government indecision and to changes to the party in power in 1972 and 1975.

Among the attributes that contributed to White's leadership skills was a remarkably clear and analytical mind, allied with the capacity to make tough decisions. Having made a decision, he pursued the objective with great persistence and determination. A modest man, he was known to all his associates as Fred and was impatient with pretence and self-importance. But there was never any doubt about who was in charge. His heavy workload was met with an impressive capacity for sustained hard work. Fortunately, he could also relax completely, either on walks with his wife, Elizabeth, or by trout fishing with friends. A story is told of an Executive meeting stretching into the late afternoon, with much trivial detail. Eventually Fred got up and said: 'I don't know about you chaps, but I'm going fishing'. And he walked out.

White's many contributions to Australian science during his years in CSIR(O) were recognized in 1960 by his election to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science. A previous nomination in 1954 had been strongly opposed by Martyn, then an executive member of the Academy Council, for reasons that were at least in part a rationalization of his remembered wartime animosity.* In 1962, White was knighted and four years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

An Active Retirement

Services to science

White's advice had always been sought for a wide variety of scientific activities outside CSIRO, as in his membership of the Council of Monash University (1961-67). Such activities continued well after his retirement in May 1970. Associated with the Australian National University (ANU) since 1946 as a member of the committee advising on the creation of the Research School of Physical Sciences, he became a member of the ANU Council and of its committees (1960-79).

He chaired the Radio Research Board following Sir John Madsen's retirement, and was Chairman of the committees on Antarctic research set up by the Australian Academy of Science and the Department of Science. Having been a member of the National Standards Commission, he was pleased to chair a commission established to introduce the metric system to Papua New Guinea (1972-75). He became Chairman of the Pacific Science Congress on Metric Conversion in 1974.

In the Australian Academy of Science, White was a member of Council (1974-77) and also Vice-President (1976-77). In 1981, he endowed the Frederick White Prize for scientists working mainly in Australia, with preference to younger people. Five years later, he and his wife provided funds to establish the Elizabeth and Frederick White Research Conferences.

The breadth of his interests is shown by his collaboration with the Australian Academy of the Humanities to protect aboriginal rock art, arising out of the work of his son, Peter, a Reader in Archaeology at the University of Sydney. As well as making a substantial donation to the other Academy's funds, he chaired the Joint Academies Committee for the Protection of Prehistoric Places.

White had been President (1963-64) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS), founded in 1888. After Sir John Crawford, Vice-Chancellor of the ANU, had re-arranged its affairs, he accepted the new and continuing position of Chairman and played a valued and significant role from 1970 to 1973 in giving ANZAAS a new lease of life.

Even at the age of 83, White could be a staunch defender of the scientific ethos that had motivated CSIRO for so long. In two radio talks about CSIRO, C.B. Schedvin, then Professor of Economic History at the University of Melbourne, argued that, in CSIRO's decision-making, the scientific ethic must be supplemented by other values and criteria, especially economic ones (Schedvin 1988). White disagreed and, with some of his former colleagues, had a brisk round of private correspondence with the author (F.W.G. White papers, MS111, Archives of the Australian Academy of Science).

Mountains, Fishing and Birds

Alpine excursions in Europe by Fred and Elizabeth had been succeeded by visits to the mountains of New Zealand, and walks in the Victorian hills when they lived in Melbourne. There Fred became a keen trout fisherman and, when they moved to Canberra, he enjoyed working the streams of the Kosciusko National Park in the Snowy Mountains, while Elizabeth was bird watching. These visits to the Park became the Whites' most important recreations after Fred's retirement.

Though there had been extensive studies of the songs of birds in other countries, much less had been done in Australia and Fred became interested in the scientific study of the songs of the male Olive Whistler in the Park. Over three Australian summers he made recordings of the ten principal song types in three areas. Using acoustic equipment in the Linguistics Department of the ANU to produce sonograms, he identified some of the song functions and traced the birds' seasonal migrations.

During the next two years, he examined the variations of the songs between isolated populations of the Olive Whistler over an area of eastern Australia probably larger than any previously investigated in a single country. For this work he acquired an expensive and sophisticated digital sonograph that he donated to the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Rangelands Research. He studied the variations of the songs between widely separated groups and compared them with those in adjacent groups, where he found evidence for song learning. In a final paper, he used sonograms to define the principal differences between the whip-crack calls of the Olive Whistler and those of the Eastern Whipbird. Dr R. Shodde in the Division is familiar with the field and comments that the originality of Fred's work 'had brought Australian research on bird songs into the 20th century'.

Fred's care for people is illustrated by two of his activities. When studying birds, he sometimes took blind people to hear the songs. He obtained bird specimens so that they could feel the size, shape and texture of the bird they were hearing. Another of his recreations was carpentry, which he applied with considerable skill to produce furniture for the Whites' home in Canberra and also to make wooden toys for disabled children.

In Fred's later years, his care and attention were devoted to Elizabeth as her health declined. Early in 1990 they moved to Brighton, Melbourne, to be near their married daughter, Jane Edwards, a science graduate, former teacher and an accomplished painter in oils. Elizabeth died on 9 September 1992 and, after a visit with Jane to his sisters in Wellington, Fred moved into a retirement centre the following year. There he lived happily until his peaceful death, after a short illness, on 17 August 1994.

In Retrospect

Sir Frederick White's career in CSIR(O) spanned 29 years. He had emerged in 1945 from his baptism of fire in wartime radar with a new-found talent and reputation as a leader of great scientific enterprises.

He experienced and contributed to the spectacular CSIRO successes of the 1950s, when the public attitude to science was expectant and optimistic. He underpinned the foundations of the Clunies Ross 'golden age' and was in many ways the architect of the Organization's development. As Chairman of CSIRO, he became the dominant figure in Australian science, equally at home with the leaders of government and scientists at the bench. When changes in political and public perceptions of science emerged in the 1960s, he vigorously supported the scientific ethic and the autonomy and role of the CSIRO. The OECD examining team that visited Australia in 1974 (four years after White's retirement) reported on CSIRO in favourable terms and recommended no major changes (OECD 1977).

White had a talent for selecting able people for scientific tasks and a genuine interest in their subsequent careers. He inspired loyalty and affection in his staff, who respected his straightforward unpretentious manner, strength of character and generosity of spirit. He was a constant source of encouragement and went to great lengths to ensure that worthy and successful scientists received due recognition.

Even among those in the wider scientific community who disagreed with him on CSIRO policy, it was rare to find an enemy. Fred White was deservedly popular, an unselfish man of high ideals and wide interests, a truly great leader of science in Australia.

Honours and Awards

1954 Companion of the Order of the British Empire
1960 Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science
1961 Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of New Zealand
1962 Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
1963-64 President of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science
1966 Fellow of the Royal Society of London
1969 Honorary DSc, Monash University
1969 Honorary DSc, Australian National University
1970 Honorary DSc, University of Papua New Guinea
1970 Honorary Fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics
1973 Honorary Member, Royal Society of New South Wales
1975 Medal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science


Our task was made much easier by Sir Frederick White's personal memoirs and the extensive collection of papers and documents he deposited in the archives of the Australian Academy of Science. Ms Rosanne Clayton, Librarian and Archivist to the Academy, was unfailingly helpful with these. Mrs Jane Edwards and Dr Peter White both helped to fill in gaps in our information about their father. We are also grateful to Dr G.N. Lance and H.P. Black (the first CSIRO Media Officer), who came forward with appreciative recollections, and to Dr M. Lipson who made valuable comments on a draft of the section on Wool Textile Research. Professor C.B. Schedvin generously provided us with an unpublished draft chapter on the history of CSIRO and other material. We gratefully acknowledge the following colleagues and associates, who gladly read and constructively commented on the manuscript in draft form: Emeritus Professor P.O. Bishop FRS, Dr N.K. Boardman FRS, Emeritus Professor D.P. Craig FRS, Dr M.F.C. Day, Dr L.T. Evans FRS, Professor R.W. Home, W. Ives and Dr J.P. Wild FRS.

Our special thanks are due to Ms Sally Atkinson BEM, who worked for Professor White, Chief of the Radiophysics Laboratory 1942-45, and as Secretary to succeeding Chiefs, until her retirement in 1979. She untiringly and meticulously processed a sequence of drafts and offered many helpful suggestions. The frontispiece photograph, taken in 1968, was the work of Colin Totterdell of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. [The second photograph, from 1929-31, was among Sir Frederick's papers deposited with the Australian Academy of Science.] Ms. Maureen Swanage, Managing Editor of the Academy, greatly helped with processing the memoir for publication.


* Unpublished draft chapter on the history of CSIRO, privately communicated by C.B. Schedvin.

Atkinson, J.D. 1976 DSIR's First Fifty Years. Wellington, New Zealand: DSIR.

Cockburn, S. & Ellyard, D. 1981 Oliphant: The Life and Times of Sir Mark Oliphant. Adelaide: Axiom Books.

Dunk, W.E. & Coombs, H.C. 1948 Report on Council for Scientific and Industrial Research: Organisation, Administration and Related Problems. 17 December.

Evans, W.F. 1970 History of the Radiophysics Advisory Board 1939-1945. Melbourne: CSIRO (limited edition).

Evans, W.F. 1973 History of the Radio Research Board 1926-1945. Melbourne: CSIRO (limited edition).

Home, R.W. 1988 Science on Service, 1939-1945. In Australian Science in the Making (ed. R.W. Home), pp. 220-251. Published in association with the Australian Academy of Science. Cambridge: University Press.

Johnston, R. & Buckley, J. 1988 The Shaping of Contemporary Scientific Institutions, In Australian Science in the Making (ed. R.W. Home), pp. 374-398. Published in association with the Australian Academy of Science. Cambridge: University Press.

Mellor, D.P. 1958 The Role of Science and Industry (Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series 4 [Civil], Vol. 5), Ch. 19 (Radar), pp. 423-452. Canberra: Australian War Memorial,

Moran, M. 1980 Radar Defence and the Darwin Disaster, 1942. BA (Hon.) thesis, Australian National University (unpublished).

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 1977. Reviews of National Science Policy: Australia. Paris. (The report was reviewed with an Australian delegation in Paris in October 1974.)

Priestley, C.H.B. 1972 Environmental Research: Practical Contributions from a Fundamentally Oriented Group. Aspendale: CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics, pp. 1-23.

Priestley, C.H.B. 1982 Reminiscences of 80 Years of Meteorological Research in Australia. Aust. Met. Mag., 30, 19-30.

Rivett, A.C.D. 1947 Science and Responsibility. An address to Canberra University College, 25 March.

Rivett, R. 1972 David Rivett: Fighter for Australian Science. North Blackburn, Victoria: The Dominion Press.

Robertson, P. 1992 Beyond Southern Skies. Cambridge: University Press.

Schedvin, C.B. 1987 Shaping Science and Industry: A History of Australia's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research 1926-1949. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Schedvin, C.B. 1988 History of CSIRO. Sydney: Two talks in Occam's Razor series, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Science Unit, Sydney, June.

Simmonds, E.W. & Smith, N. 1985 Echoes over the Pacific. Banora Point, NSW: E.W. & E. Simmonds (limited edition).

H.C. Minnett, OBE, FAA, was Chief of the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics, 1978-1981. Present Address: 88 Neerim Road, Castle Cove, NSW 2069.

Sir Rutherford Robertson, AC, CMG, FRS, FAA, is Emeritus Professor of the University of Adelaide and the Australian National University. Present Address: P.O. Box 9, Binalong, NSW 2584.

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 11, no. 2, December 1996, pp. 239-58 and a somewhat shorter version of this memoir appeared in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1996.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 8 April 1998
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Elissa Tenkate
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

[ Top of page | Bright Sparcs Home | Biographical Memoirs List | ASAPWeb ]