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Ringwood, Alfred Edward (Ted) (1930–1993)

by David Green

Professor Alfred Edward (Ted) Ringwood, Professor of Geochemistry at the Research School of Earth Sciences, the ANU, died on 12 November 1993 at the age of 63, following a battle against cancer over the past 15 months. With his death, Australia has lost one of its most creative and internationally honoured scientists, at a time when his research into the deep earth and into high pressure materials is continuing to lead the world. Ted Ringwood, in his life and work, demonstrated the independence, self-reliance, and originality that is the mark of the best of Australian science.

Ted Ringwood grew up in inner Melbourne, an only child during the Great Depression. His father was a World War I veteran and his mother and wider family were strong supports through very difficult years. They encouraged his clear academic ability through Hawthorn Central School, a scholarship to Geelong Grammar at age 13 and then to Melbourne University. Between 1948 and 1956 he obtained a BSc (Hons), MSc and PhD from Melbourne University. It was indicative of his resourcefulness during his university study that his entry to the mineral industry was by carrying galena (lead-ore) by packhorse from an abandoned silver mine near Deddick (north east Victoria) and selling it in Melbourne for lead-shot manufacture in the shot-tower now preserved within the Daimaru Complex.

For his PhD studies, he turned from applied and field geology to the new geochemical concepts of V M Goldschmidt and applied them to the prediction of new mineral structures which should be stabilised by the very high pressures and temperature of the Earth's mantle (depths of 30 km to 2900 km). This research took him to Harvard in 1957-8 and then to recruitment to the ANU in 1958. He was appointed to a personal chair in 1963 and as Professor of Geochemistry in 1967. He led efforts to separate the then Department of Geophysics and Geochemistry from the Research School of Physical Sciences to create a new Research School of Earth Sciences in 1972. From 1978 to 1983 he was Director of the Research School of Earth Sciences. He remained committed to the ideal of the ANU as a distinctly Australian centre of international leadership in research, in the disciplines of Earth Sciences. He did not hesitate to support colleagues on independent research paths within the ANU where he perceived the vision and potential outcomes to be of major importance.

His published work was prolific, including over 300 papers and two books, The Composition and Petrology of the Earth's Mantle (1975), and The Origin of the Earth and Moon (1979). His major research topics include mineral transformations at high pressures and the processes within the Earth's mantle (30 km to 2900km depth); the origin of melts (magmas); the nature of the Earth's core; the chemical evolution of the planets and meteorites; and the composition and origin of the Moon. He also applied this scientific knowledge to develop and patent ultra-hard, cutting-tool materials, as well as patenting the 'SYNROC' process for the safe disposal of radioactive waste. His outstanding characteristic was that he has made original, often controversial contributions to knowledge and understanding in each of these fields. He presented speculative hypotheses, but followed up with experimental tests. It was thus characteristic of Ted Ringwood's intellectual honesty that he could change his mind and look back over a career studded with ideas, some now discarded but others forming the firm foundation to current knowledge of the deep Earth and of the origin of the solar system.

Through membership of the Australian Academy of Science and of national committees he contributed to broader science issues. More importantly, his career provides a demonstration of the wider value of fundamental research. Thus, in his work there was no gulf between basic or fundamental research directed at understanding the deep Earth or the Moon (both inaccessible for commercial return) and the same scientific knowledge directed at the safe disposal of nuclear waste, or the design and manufacture of ultra-hard industrial materials. Projects of both applied science and fundamental science were carried out in the same laboratory and with the same creative leadership. His deep theoretical knowledge and his experimental skills and technology were applied by Ted Ringwood to create opportunities for industry in his country of birth and work.

His work has been widely honoured, with 30 medals and prizes for achievement, and with election to Fellowships of the most prestigious scientific societies. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1966, of the Royal Society of London in 1972, and as a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Science in 1975. Amongst his most prized awards were the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union in 1974 (he was the youngest scientist to have received the medal), the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London and, most recently, the H H Hess Medal of the American Geophysical Union in 1993.

The Goldschmidt Medal of The Geochemical Society and the Jaeger Medal of the Australian Academy of Science were reminders of scientists on whose shoulders his own work was established and were particularly valued for this association.

Perhaps most significantly, in 1991, he was presented in the Corsini Palace in Rome with the Feltrinelli International Prize by the National Academy of Italy. This prize is awarded in a five-year cycle in the fields of Science, Medicine, Art, Literature and Humanities and previous recipients have included J B S Haldane, Igor Stravinsky, Henry Moore and Thomas Mann. Ringwood was the first earth scientist to receive the Prize since 1966 and it is a fitting measure of his stature as an international leader in science, contributing over a period of 30 years and consistently leading and challenging the earth science community with new data, new ideas and new vision.

Ted Ringwood demonstrated that there are uniquely Australian contributions to be made to international science and more widely to international culture.

Ted Ringwood frequently paid tribute to the support his work received from his research team at ANU, particularly Alan Major, Bill Hibberson, Sue Kesson, Paul Willis, Nick Ware, Peter Ringwood, and Marilyn Holloway, and a sequence of research fellows and postdoctoral fellows over a 30-year period. That team in turn acknowledged the stimulus of his leadership and shared in the satisfactions of scientific advance.

From 1960, Ted Ringwood was supported in his career by his wife, Gun, and they have two children, Kristina and Peter, whose choices of career, in economic geology and environmental management, and in chemistry and music respectively, reflect the stimulus, creativity and diversity of their home.

It is appropriate to quote Ted Ringwood's own words from his address to the President and members of the Italian National Academy, and to members of the Italian Government, on the occasion of the award of the Feltrinelli Prize in 1991. "It would be very rare that an individual scientist could claim the credit for recognition of this kind. The scientific output of an individual reflects not only his own efforts, but also, directly and indirectly, those of his colleagues, students, technicians, his institution and family. I've been extremely fortunate in all of these.

... In particular I must pay tribute to the stimulating and supportive scientific environment provided by my own University.

... I do not know of any other institution where the conditions for research would have been so favourable.

... Our understanding of the Earth in all her aspects has developed dramatically during the last 25 years. This has been an exhilarating period to have been an Earth scientist. I feel very fortunate and fulfilled to have been able to participate in some of these developments." Ted Ringwood was a great Australian. His contributions in Earth science, in the safe disposal of nuclear waste, and in the science of very hard materials will be seen as fundamental contributions leading into the 21st Century.

His premature death is mourned by family, colleagues, friends, and his University, and in learned academies and universities throughout the world, as they honour his unique contributions.

Professor Ringwood is survived by his wife Gun, daughter Kristina, and son Peter.

Original publication

Citation details

David Green, 'Ringwood, Alfred Edward (Ted) (1930–1993)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 March 2017.

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