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Kenneth James (Ken) Le Couteur (1920–2011)

by Rodney Baxter

Kenneth Le Couteur, 1986

Kenneth Le Couteur, 1986

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-176-3

Kenneth James Le Couteur was born in Jersey in the Channel Islands in 1920. It was there that he learnt carpentry from his builder father and acquired a taste for sailing and fishing, hobbies he was later to enjoy with his family in Australia.

He left the Channel Islands in 1938 to go to St John’s College (Cambridge), where he read mathematics and rowed for the college. After war broke out, he was recruited to the intelligence establishment at Bletchley Park, along with many other mathematicians, notably Alan Turing. There thousands of people worked on decoding the German military messages sent via what we now know as the Enigma machine. The various German codes were given the names of fish: Kenneth was in a group led by Max Newman, working on the ‘tunny’ code.

Naturally, Bletchley Park was top-secret. In fact, its vital role during World War II was not revealed until 1974. Until then, if you asked Kenneth what he did during the war, he would reply that he worked at the British radar establishment at Malvern. Presumably all those involved had similar cover stories. After the existence of Bletchley was declassified, he told me how the introduction of so many men into a small English town created various problems, one of which was that they sent so much washing to the local laundry that the residents had difficulties getting their washing done. They complained to their local Member of Parliament, who asked a question in the House of Commons on why all these young men were in Bletchley, somehow avoiding the call-up and straining the laundry facilities. One can imagine the government’s embarrassment and see the problems of running a democracy in wartime.

After the war Kenneth completed his PhD at Cambridge and then went to the University of Manchester, where he began his work on the evaporation theory of nuclear disintegration, work that was to be much cited in the scientific literature over the following years. This was an important move personally, for at the university he met Enid Domville, who was working in the library.

In 1949 he moved to Liverpool and, the following year, he and Enid married. Liverpool was particularly significant for his scientific career. He established a high international reputation for work carried out in several diverse areas of theoretical physics: relativistic wave equations, meson field theory, scattering theory and the statistical theory of nuclear reactions. The university had a synchro-cyclotron, which is a machine for accelerating atomic particles, sending them out in a beam and observing the effect of their collisions. Working with the experimental group, Kenneth perfected the ‘regenerative’ method of extracting the beam of particles from the machine. This collimated the beam, increasing the intensity of the particles available by a factor of more than a thousand, an enormous improvement.

In Canberra, with the support of the prime minister, Bob Menzies, The Australian National University was being set up as a national research centre. Mark Oliphant returned from England to found the Research School of Physical Sciences. Oliphant must have heard of Kenneth’s achievement, for Kenneth was visited by Ernest Titterton and recruited to join the school. He arrived in 1956 to head the new Department of Theoretical Physics. At that stage it had just two members: Le Couteur and Fred Barker, who had arrived at the school in 1951. There were three other departments in the school: Particle Physics, Nuclear Physics and Geophysics, led by Mark Oliphant, Ernest Titterton and John Jaeger, respectively

Everything was being built from scratch on bare paddocks. There is a film, I think of the inauguration of the first Vice-Chancellor in the Albert Hall, which opens with a close-up of the university mace, then opens up a little to show the Vice–Chancellor in his ceremonial robes walking behind, and then suddenly pans out to reveal a small band of academics in their robes walking across an empty paddock! The Physics School was adjacent to the old Canberra racecourse, so in the early days one’s theoretical contemplations could be disturbed by the sound of horses’ hooves pounding past the building.

Kenneth was one of the first members of the Australian Mathematical Society and, in 1960, was elected to the Australian Academy of Science, which was then only six years old and much smaller than it is now, with only 90 or so Fellows. Over the years, he built up the Department of Theoretical Physics until it included 10 tenured theorists, working in atomic, nuclear, particle and plasma physics, as well as statistical mechanics and condensed matter. He was proud of its international reputation and believed that theoretical physics was a discipline in its own right. Members of the department were not constrained to pursue narrow areas of research, but were free to work on any interesting ideas, often with excellent results. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a steady stream of young people coming through the department as students and research fellows, many of them from overseas. Most went on to pursue academic careers, but not all—one notable exception became the public service head of the Commonwealth Department of Industrial Relations.

The department, under Kenneth’s leadership and with the encouragement of the early directors of the Physics School, undoubtedly helped to maintain the University’s role as a leader of Australian research and education.

He encouraged strong interactions with the experimental departments of the school, and himself at times worked closely with the nuclear, particle and plasma groups. His research work covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from purely fundamental mathematical studies on a conjecture of Bessis concerning the partition function for quantum statistical mechanical systems, through linear relativistic wave equations, the statistical model of the nucleus and fluctuations in nuclear cross-sections to the more practical considerations he commenced in Liverpool, notably the focusing and guiding of the charged particles by magnetic fields.

He played an active role in the development of the school, and once estimated that he had spent a total of four years as Acting Director (including most of 1974 and of 1978). He was liked for his graciousness and courtesy and could bring a sense of unity to the school. His first words as chair of a meeting or seminar were usually ‘Gentlemen’ or ‘Ladies and gentlemen’. He could also be a master of effective silence: one salesman is reputed to have reduced his price three times while waiting for a reply.

Le Couteur was instrumental in pioneering the development of computing within the University. The first computer in The Australian National University was an IBM 1620 computer, which Le Couteur obtained in 1962 for the department in order to perform large-scale numerical calculations. Brian Robson of the department was in charge of the computer, which was made available as a university resource from the beginning. In 1965 it formed the basis for a Computer Centre within the school. In 1968 this centre became independent of the school, serving the whole University.

He had three daughters, Caroline, Penny and Mary (born in 1952, 1953 and 1957, respectively), and a foster daughter, Marion Chester, who stayed with them during the holidays. He did not lose his love of the water—he used to fish off the rocks when holidaying at Lilli Pilli near Batemans Bay. When Lake Burley Griffin was filled in 1964, he built a boat (a Heron) in his garage so he could take his family sailing. For a brief period, there was a ferry service from Yarralumla to the Acton peninsula, and Kenneth used to enjoy using it to travel to work. He may have been one’s image of an abstracted theoretical physicist, but there was always something very practical going on at the family home. His garden had been a bare sheep paddock: he turned part of it into a large productive vegetable plot and one seldom left there without having been given a lettuce, some tomatoes or another vegetable. He built a large walk-in aviary in the garden.

To every new arrival in the department, Canberra was a new city, often in a new country. Kenneth and Enid had a gift for entertaining them and quickly making them feel at home. In many generous and practical ways, they provided the family support that was lacking in Canberra. Each year they gave a Christmas party (complete with homemade mince pies, Father Christmas and croquet on the lawn) for the entire department and their families.

Le Couteur retired in December 1985 and for some years spent more time enjoying the South Coast, where the family had acquired a house at Maloney’s Beach. His contribution to the school and the University was recognised in 1996 with the naming of the former Mathematical Sciences Building as the Le Couteur Building. In 2001 he was awarded a Centenary of Federation medal for his contribution to Australian society.

Enid Le Couteur had a major stroke in 1988 and life changed for both Kenneth and Enid. However, she was in otherwise good health and they stayed in Hutt Street until 1997, when they moved to Ginninderra Gardens Aged Care Facility in Page. He died on 18 April 2011, basically of old age, and is survived by Enid, his daughters, Caroline, Penelope and Mary (Avinashi), his foster daughter, Marion, his grandchildren, Abipsa (Ruth) and Jon-George, and his great-grandchildren, Isabella and Leny.

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Citation details

Rodney Baxter, 'Le Couteur, Kenneth James (Ken) (1920–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Kenneth Le Couteur, 1986

Kenneth Le Couteur, 1986

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-176-3

Life Summary [details]


16 September, 1920
Saint Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands


18 April, 2011 (aged 90)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

Cultural Heritage

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