Australian Academy of Science|
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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'.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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
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.
|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
* 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,