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Huxley, Sir Leonard George Holden (1902–1988)

One of Sir Leonard Huxley's favourite authors was Francis Bacon, and a quotation from Thomas Sprat's The History of the Royal Society, referring to Bacon's defence of the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, expresses Huxley's own attitude to research and learning.

'It is strange', writes Sprat, 'that we are not able to inculcate into the minds of many men, the necessity of the distinction of my Lord Bacon's, that there ought to be Experiments of Light as well as of Fruit. It is their usual word, What solid good will come from thence? — But they are to know that — there are many degrees of usefulness: some may serve for real, and plain benefit, without much delight: some for teaching without apparent profit: some for light now, and for use hereafter; some only for ornament and curiosity.

Never one to underestimate the importance of the application of knowledge to the needs of society (he was a long-serving member of the Council of the CCAE and one of its strong supporters), nevertheless he held fundamental research and scholarship to be the raison d'etre for the existence of universities. He was himself first and foremost a scholar whose interests ranged far outside his own field of physics, to which he made numerous important contributions both directly and through his support and encouragement of others. He will be remembered not only for his accomplishments as a research scientist, which were recognised by his election as a Founding Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, but also for his service to tertiary education and science administration in Australia, for which he was knighted and honoured by the award of Doctor of Science (honoris causa) by the University of Tasmania and this University.

Huxley's Australian origins were often masked by his speech and his reserved manner, both perhaps a consequence of a long period in England from 1923 to 1949. But this absence from Australia was not entirely unbroken, and his residence in Canberra from 1960, when he took up his appointment as Vice-Chancellor of the ANU (one day before the formal establishment of the University in its present form), was not his first sojourn here. Born in England, but spending his formative years in Tasmania, he won a Rhodes scholarship in 1923 which he took up before completing his first degree. It was on gaining his DPhil from Oxford, and following his marriage to Molly Copeland, that he returned briefly to Australia to an appointment with the Radio Research Board. This took him first to Sydney, then to Mt Stromlo, on a program of research on the origin and nature of 'atmospherics', the disturbances that interrupt radio communications. Here perhaps began his lifelong amateur interest in astronomy, and later his enthusiastic advocacy of the establishment of the Anglo-Australian telescope during his term as Physical Sciences Secretary of the Academy.

Returning to Britain, he held academic appointments at the Universities of Nottingham and Leicester before joining many of his academic colleagues in wartime service at the Telecommunication Research Establishment (TRE) at Swanage and Malvern, where he headed a staff of 20 in the outstandingly successful school that introduced over 7000 service and other personnel to the mysteries of the newly developed radar. This experience provided the material for his lucid account of the theory of electromagnetic wave propagation in waveguides which he published as a book, written during his subsequent appointment as Reader in Electromagnetism at the University of Birmingham.

In 1949 he returned permanently to Australia, this time to the Elder Chair of Physics at the University of Adelaide. With him he brought a commitment and enthusiasm for teaching, developed during his academic and wartime appointments in England. During his eleven-year tenure of the Chair he saw the department more than double in size and the establishment of four vigorous research groups. Growth was also a feature of his term as Vice-Chancellor here, where his seven years saw the student numbers treble, 11 new teaching departments formed, and the establishment of the Research School of Chemistry.

Though a conscientious administrator, administration was not his first love. Nevertheless his position, his wisdom, and his catholic interests saw him on numerous boards and committees. Among these his membership of the Council of the National Library and, through it, his membership of the Trust to establish the National Photographic Index of Australian Birds, gave him great pleasure, bringing him into close contact with two of his great interests: books and birds.

There is no space to elaborate on his other services to science and education: as first President of the Australian Institute of Physics, first Chairman of the National Standards Commission, Chairman of the Board of the Australian/American Education Foundation. These few indicate the breadth of his contribution; to list the many more would run the risk of omission.

Sir Leonard will be remembered by many, for different qualities: for his intellectual honesty, the warmth of personality that lay behind a somewhat formal exterior, his generosity — and his delight in words and puns! Those from his Adelaide days will remember him for his spirited defence of academic self-determination, a principle he continued to stress as Vice-Chancellor of this University. He will be remembered for this, for his interest in, and respect for, staff at all levels, and for his work to weld the two halves of the University into a harmonious whole. In this he received the wholehearted support of Lady Huxley, whose contribution to this phase of the University's life is commemorated by the naming of the meeting room of the ANU Club for Women. On his retirement he returned with great enthusiasm to physics, joining the Research School of Physical Sciences as a Visiting Fellow to write a second book.

As distinguished academics themselves, the Huxleys took great pride in the careers of their children: George as an eminent classicist, and Margot embarking later in life on a professional and academic career in urban studies. They and their families, and Sir Leonard's many friends in Canberra and overseas, will miss him greatly, but rejoice that he died (at the age of 86) with the same youthfulness of spirit and keenness of intellect that had marked a long and distinguished career. A memorial service will be held at St John's Church, Reid, on 11 October at 10.30am. All are invited to morning tea afterwards in the Drawing Room, University House.

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'Huxley, Sir Leonard George Holden (1902–1988)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 September 2017.

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