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Sir Rutherford Ness Robertson (1913–2001)

Sir Rutherford Ness (Bob) Robertson was one of Australia's most influential, best loved and respected scientists in second half of the last century. Descended from a dynasty of ministers of religion, Bob's tolerance, unselfishness, and unswerving sense of duty is legendary. His wisdom and generosity touched thousands of Australians now eminent in all walks of life. He served the ANU as Master of University House (1969-1972), as the second Director of the Research School of Biological Sciences, retiring in 1978, and as Pro-Chancellor from 1984-86.

Born in Melbourne, schooled there and in Christchurch, New Zealand, Bob took an Honours degree in botany at the University of Sydney that earned him an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship and entry to St. John's College Cambridge as a PhD student in 1936. There, in 1937, he married Mary Rogerson, a Sydney botany/geology major, and is survived by Mary, their son Rob and family.

Returning to teach at Sydney University in 1939, Bob researched grain and food-storage problems throughout the war and later joined CSIRO Division of Food Preservation and Transport. There he built a joint CSIRO-University research unit that trained and mentored a generation of plant scientists who were responsible for much of Australia's pre-eminence in this field today. After the war, Bob quickly reestablished links with leading US and British scientists, and his personal research began to attract international attention. Bob's influence is perhaps first evident in an Annual Reviews chapter (1952). His renowned, pragmatic style is most evident 40 years later in a prefatory chapter for the same series that concludes with acknowledgement to Mary "who not only played a major role in shaping my life, but helped me write about it".

His research was recognised in the first election of Fellows to the Australian Academy of Science (1954), as a Fellow of the Royal Society (1961) and as a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Science (1962). Bob was among the first to appreciate the nexus between respiration and ion-transport across membranes, presaged by Lundegårdh in the 1940s.

In Sydney, Adelaide and Cambridge, Robertson and his colleagues provided stoichiometric and structural evidence that led, via Philosophical Reviews, to his monograph Protons, Electrons, Phosphorylation and Active Transport (1968).

Experiments with plant roots, carrot disks, and later with plant chloroplasts and mitochondria, provided the clean experimental proofs for the chemiosmotic hypothesis, so eloquently espoused by Mitchell (Nobel Prize 1978). With typical generosity Bob detailed his long correspondence with Mitchell in a chapter for the History of Biochemistry (1995). Again and again others have watched askance as Antipodean and Eastern Hemisphere achievements have been discounted by the distance from Stockholm.

An outstanding administrator and executive who admitted that he was not always "temperamentally suited to such activities", Bob maintained active research groups while serving on the Executive of CSIRO (1958), after he became Professor of Botany in the University of Adelaide (1962), and at the ANU.

Along the way he established the Australian Research Grants Scheme at the invitation of John Gorton, and served as President of the Australian Academy of Sciences, for which he received a knighthood. He played major roles in the adoption of the "Web of Life" school biology program, the establishment of ABC Radio science reporting and the opening of scientific and cultural exchanges with the People's Republic of China.

Family connections in the Binalong/Yass area led Bob and Mary to a very active retirement adjacent to the national capital. They retained close links with the Academy and the University.

Bob was an active participant in the international Robertson Symposia sponsored by the Research School of Biological Sciences. These often seemed to coincide with his birthday and the AFL grand final, events that presented scheduling difficulties and (opportunities) for the organisers. Inevitably, he conveyed the excitement of his distinguished research career in these meetings and always challenged participants with "original thoughts that stretched their thinking abilities".

In 1998-2000 Bob Robertson was at it again, as the prime mover for another adventure in blue skies research.

His "Dare to Dream" manifesto brought 25 researchers to RSBS on March 19 to discuss their progress in the biomimetics of photo synthesis.

Travelling to Sydney with Bob for a previous meeting of the group, through the valley mists of Yass and Gunning, into the most incredibly beautiful sunrise imaginable, has left his agenda indelible.

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Citation details

'Robertson, Sir Rutherford Ness (1913–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 September, 1913
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


6 March, 2001 (aged 87)