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Jenkin, John Grenfell (1938–2020)

by Rod Home

Wallabies will be saddened to know that our much loved and greatly esteemed former President John Jenkin died on 12 July 2020, aged 82, after a long (and for a long time reasonably successful) battle against cancer.

John was born and raised in Adelaide, graduating from the University of Adelaide in 1960 with first-class honours in physics. Proceeding to the Australian National University in Canberra, he completed a PhD in low-energy nuclear physics in 1964. Post-doctoral appointments followed, first at Britain's Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell and then at the University of Minnesota in the USA, before John joined the Physics Department at Latrobe University in 1968, one of the wave of talented young staff appointed to that university in the first years after it was established.

John remained at Latrobe for the rest of his career, establishing a research programme in the electronic properties of materials, rising in due course to the rank of Reader and eventually serving a term as Head of the Physics Department. In the early 1980s, however, a growing interest in the history of his discipline, especially in Australia, led to a change in direction that saw him gravitating towards the University of Melbourne's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, where there was an active group researching various aspects of the history of science in Australia that he found very congenial to work with. With his Adelaide background, John had become fascinated by the life and work of William Bragg, professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Adelaide for 23 years before he returned to England with his family in 1909, and of his son Lawrence Bragg, born in Adelaide and, like John, educated at the university there before accompanying his family to England. Just six years after this, in 1915, father and son shared the Nobel Prize for physics for their invention of what came to be known as X-ray crystallography, the technique from which the kind of research that John himself did as a physicist later evolved. At first a hobby, John's pursuit of the Braggs soon became a passion. While he kept up his teaching and administrative commitments to his department at Latrobe, in his research, his historical investigations supplanted his earlier commitment to experimental physics. It wasn't long before he started publishing high-quality historical papers, and he also engaged with his new field in other ways—serving, for example, as book reviews editor for the journal Historical Records of Australian Science, 1985-1999, and standing in for me as acting editor of the journal on a couple of occasions during that period while I was away on study leave. He was, in addition, co-author (with Trevor Ophel) of "Fire in the Belly": The First 50 Years of the Pioneer School at the ANU (1996), a valuable study of Australia's leading physics school. Eventually, in 1993, John found a new academic home in Latrobe's Philosophy Department, which at that time housed a strong programme in History and Philosophy of Science in which he taught until his retirement in 2000. By the time his wonderful book, William and Lawrence Bragg, Father and Son: The Most Extraordinary Collaboration in Science, was published by Oxford University Press in 2008, he was generally recognised around the world as the authority on the Braggs, and he was heavily involved in the commemorations in 2013 marking the centenary of their epoch-making research on X-rays. His last work as an historian of science, a yet-to-be-published extended entry on Sir Mark Oliphant for the Australian Dictionary of Biography that he and I co-authored, took John back again to his roots in Adelaide, where Oliphant also grew up, and the start of his academic career, as a PhD student at the ANU at a time when Oliphant was Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences there. As in everything John did, he threw himself into this project with enormous gusto, and he wrote the first draft of our article.

John joined the Wallaby Club in 2005 and was a very energetic President following his election to that office in 2012. A particular concern of his, wholly characteristic of his approach to life in general, was to help Wallabies who were no longer physically capable of participating in walks to maintain contact with the club by, for example, arranging for other Wallabies to transport them to functions. He was also the driving force behind the hugely successful 2013 tour to Turkey in which a number of Wallabies and their partners took part, during which a new Wallaby Stick was secured on which the names of Presidents can continue to be recorded, far into the future.

John is survived by his wife Constance (Consie), well known to many Wallabies through her regular participation with John in Wallaby Club events, their children Mark and Astrid and son-in-law Hamish, and their four grandchildren. He will be sorely missed.

Original publication

  • Wallaby Club Newsletter, no 9, July 2020

View the list of ADB articles written by John Grenfell Jenkin

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rod Home, 'Jenkin, John Grenfell (1938–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jenkin-john-grenfell-30876/text38237, accessed 26 November 2020.

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