The Teachers' Guide to Bright Sparcs

Explorers and Scientists

We can all name a few explorers, but what about scientists? We can readily list wool and wheat as being crucial to Australia's economic and social development, but what about science and technology? Have you ever asked yourself ... who and what exactly were the explorers ?

In 1770 a scientific expedition to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti, also happened to explore the east coast of Australia. Included in the party of scientists was a botanist, Joseph Banks, who for decades thereafter exerted a strong influence over the development of science in Australia. Until recently, he appeared on the Australian A$5 note. Remember him?

William John Wills (usually paired with Burke) was an astronomer and surveyor, who no doubt came to wish that he was back in his former employ at the Magnetic Observatory, located on Melbourne's Flagstaff Hill. The Burke and Wills expedition was largely organised by the colony's scientific community. Particularly influential was the German-born botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, a scientist of international repute, who himself trekked widely through the rugged Australian bush, having migrated here for the sake of his health!

The Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson, who for the time being remains on the A$100 note, also happened to be Professor of Geology at The University of Adelaide and a major figure in the Australian scientific community. His successor as the figurehead of Australia's Antarctic involvement, Phil Law, is a physicist who, during the Second World War, joined a team of scientists and others (the Optical Munitions Panel) to develop optical instruments desperately needed by the Australian Armed Forces. They did so despite the doom-saying of British experts who thought it was impossible. We could go on and on ... The point is not to provide a list of scientists, but to demonstrate that science is, and always has been, very much part of the Australian experience.

It's the same story with wool and wheat. Remember William Farrer, the chap on the old A$2 note? He bred strains of wheat suitable for Australian conditions. And then there was research by the CSIR/CSIRO that restored vast tracts of grazing land lost to prickly pear, and brought the rabbit population under control. By 1952-53, the introduction of myxomatosis was estimated to have boosted wool production by more than £30 million. And these are only the obvious examples.

Australia has long been a world leader in medical research, for example, a fact attested to by Nobel Prizes to Macfarlane Burnet, Howard Florey and John Eccles. We pioneered the field of radio astronomy, and built one of the world's earliest computers. International studies have shown that, for its population, Australia ranks very highly in terms of scientific achievement.

As rich as this heritage is though, science and technology are often left out of general surveys of Australian history, in favour of artists, writers, entertainers, politicians, sports and business people. Given this competition, it is no wonder the average person is hard-pressed to come up with a name of an Australian scientist.

Perhaps as you explore Bright Sparcs and the resources available to you through The Teachers' Guide to Bright Sparcs, you may begin to learn more about Australia's rich scientific, technological and medical heritage ... and you may want to share it with other Australians too!

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 5 March 1997
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (
Prepared by: Tim Sherratt and Elissa Tenkate
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 19 February 1998

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