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Titterton, Sir Ernest William (1916–1990)

by T. R. Ophel

Sir Ernest Titterton, by Peter Luck, 1978

Sir Ernest Titterton, by Peter Luck, 1978

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3158619

Sir Ernest Titterton CMG, MSc, PhD, Dip Ed (Birm), FRSA, FAA, died on February 8 at Jindalee Nursing Home in Canberra. After a serious car accident in September 1987, Sir Ernest was severely disabled and spent most of the subsequent time at Jindalee. He remained intellectually active until the time of his death and had almost completed his memoirs using a voice-activated recorder.

Before his appointment to the first chair in nuclear physics at ANU in 1950, he played a significant role in the two major developments undertaken during World War II, first as a research officer with the British Admiralty working on radar and then at Los Alamos as a member of the British mission collaborating with the Manhattan atomic bomb project.

While he gained fame as having 'pushed the button' to initiate the first atom bomb test at Alamagordo, the consequences of his time at Los Alamos were more profound. It made him a member of an old boys' network of virtually every leading nuclear physicist, both experimental and theoretical, in the Western world.

Most of them had lived and worked in an isolated, close knit community for a number of years. Such contacts proved invaluable in establishing a new department in the Acton bushland and were readily evident from the calibre of visitors and staff he attracted to work in the laboratory and to attend local conferences.

Moreover, graduates from the Department were readily accepted at the leading research laboratories.

Sir Ernest came to the ANU after a short term as head of a research group at Harwell. There and over many years in Canberra, he developed techniques using nuclear emulsions to study rare modes of fission and the photo disintegration and spectroscopy of light nuclei. He was a prolific author of books and articles relating to the effects of radiation and the risk factors associated with reactors.

Always a controversial figure in Australian affairs because of this uncompromising support for nuclear energy, Sir Ernest made many outstanding contributions to the Australian National University. As head of the Department of Nuclear Physics he established a world-class laboratory based around several accelerators but culminating in 1975 with the completion of the 14UD Pelletron, then the highest voltage electrostatic accelerator in the world. The 14UD has proved to be an outstanding success, continuing to provide the basis for productive mainstream research. Selection of the 14UD, with much new but largely unproven technology, reflected his remarkably bold but soundly based judgment. Completion of the project stemmed from his enthusiasm and drive. He expected no less from his staff and technical group than he gave the Department himself. This approach may not always have made him popular but he never failed to maintain the deep respect of those working with him.

During the time of his appointment as Dean and then Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences, his initiative led to substantial enhancement of facilities and establishment of new research departments that have contributed much to the present stature of the School.

Sir Ernest retired in 1981 but maintained a lively interest in nuclear physics and the University until the time of his death. The retirement period was marked by further controversy during and after the McClelland Royal commission.

As chairman of the Australian safety committee appointed to monitor the British tests during the 1950s, Sir Ernest was sharply criticised and accused of near treason in the final report. Rarely has it been more evident that the past is the proper territory of thoughtful histories. Hindsight, conditioned by political and scientific changes evolving over a 30-year period, cannot and should not be used to judge the past.

A private funeral was held on February 10. His ashes will be scattered along the Channel cliffs. He is survived by his former wife, Lady Titterton, and three children.

The Department of Nuclear Physics has suggested that Sir Ernest's many friends and colleagues make a contribution to TADACT in his memory. This organisation provides technical assistance to the disabled in the ACT region. Donations (tax deductible) should be sent to Mr D. Wrigley, RMB 901, Burra Road, Queanbeyan, 2620.

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Citation details

T. R. Ophel, 'Titterton, Sir Ernest William (1916–1990)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/titterton-sir-ernest-william-973/text974, accessed 25 June 2016.

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