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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Ian Gordon Ross (1926–2006)

by Ben Selinger

Ian Ross, by Marie Colvill, 1990

Ian Ross, by Marie Colvill, 1990

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-1070

Ian Gordon Ross was born on 5 July 1926 in Sydney, the son of Gordon Rowland Ross and Isabella Monica Ross. He lived in Alpha Road, Lane Cove, near a bush-clad valley running down to the Lane Cove River near its junction with the Parramatta River. This beautiful valley would have triggered Ian’s lifelong passion for bushwalking.

He was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), and topped the state in the Leaving Certificate. At Shore, he encountered Alec Boden’s just-published school chemistry text. (Boden was probably Australia’s first and most successful industrial chemist entrepreneur, a major producer of DDT and textbook publisher.) Being Ian, young Ross contacted Alec Boden to discuss with him some inaccuracies and this encounter started a lifelong friendship and cooperation between them.

Ian studied science at Sydney University and was a research student, teaching fellow and temporary lecturer between 1947 and 1948. He completed a master’s degree in 1949 with Raymond J.W. Le Fevre. He was involved in teaching the huge post-war first-year classes, where a student was lucky to be able to see a lecturer at a distance but seldom heard him. He had a small lab/office in what was once the Bank Building and is now part of the Pharmacy Department.

Between 1949 and 1952, Ian went to University College London (on an ANU travelling scholarship) to complete a PhD (not then possible in Australia) with David P. Craig. This was followed by a postdoctoral fellowship (1952– 53) at Florida State University at Tallahassee with Michael Kasha.

In 1954, Ian returned to the University of Sydney to take up a Lectureship in Chemistry. He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1957 and Reader in 1964. In 1956, he was President of the Sydney University Men’s Union; in 1965, he was President of the Sydney University Association of University Teachers and a member of committees of FAUSA (the then Federation of Australian University Staff Associations). Between 1964 and 1972, he was a member of the editorial committee of the Current Affairs Bulletin, published twice a week by the University of Sydney.

Opposite the campus there was a public house, the Lalla Rookh, that was heavily frequented in equal numbers by university staff and working men, from which originated many fables. Blue Singlet having an argument, turns round to Ian: ‘What do you think?’ Ian: ‘Sorry, I wasn’t listening.’ Blue Singlet, with scorn: ‘Oiy I know what you are—yer one of them THINKING bastards.’ This pub became an extension of the Chemistry Department and Ian had a pewter drinking mug inscribed with the names of all his research students ending with an epitaph: ‘The Lalla Rookh in City Rd at Codrington St was destroyed by vandals, 1966’. (It was in fact demolished to make way for another University Union.)

His academic day began early, solving the Sydney Morning Herald cryptic crossword puzzle with researcher Lorraine Tonnet, moved to solving cryptic spectrograph photographic plates and ended late in smoky and alcoholic seminar circumstances. Ian’s genetic make-up included a legendary powerful alcohol detoxification enzyme never matched by any student. Along with his research interest in Max Planck, it is recalled in a literary work by co-chemical bushwalker (later Nobel laureate Sir) John (Kappa) Cornforth:

A physical fellow named Planck
Used to set up nine beers in a rank
And quantum by quantum
Proceed to decant ’em
Till under the table he sank.

There is a thumbprint on the grating (the crucial, sensitive, ultraclean heart) of a 3-metre Jarrell Ash spectrograph that was assembled after Lalla Rookh one evening, which has been spoken of in awe by generations of students since. This large spectrograph (complete with thumbprint) entered a second-floor window on a crane at ANU in February 1968, when Ian took up the professorship and headship of the Department of Chemistry in the then School of General Studies.

Viola Stella Bartlett was the smiling welcoming face of Sydney University Mens’ Union—to the students ‘the sheila with the purple hair’. She and Ian were married on 10 September 1975 and he took her from urban(e) Sydney to his lovely gentleman’s bush estate on the heights above the Molonglo Gorge. He and Viola wined and dined and accommodated countless overseas scientific colleagues and their families.

Ian expanded physical chemistry at ANU and became world-renowned for his work on the fine detail of molecular spectroscopy aimed at unravelling the movement of energy at an atomic scale. He developed such a close relationship with overseas researchers that they exchanged students as postdocs with him, in the manner of European royal households exchanging marriageable daughters to cement alliances. The building of strong and lasting friendships with students and colleagues was a hallmark of Ian’s style.

Ian wrote scientific papers with attitude, his personality oozing through in a manner contrary to traditional academic writing in the physical sciences. In due course, he moved more into administration, becoming Dean of the Faculty of Science, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor. This left less time for the Chemistry Department, as recorded in a clerihew:

Ian Gordon Ross
was a helluva boss.
It was terrifying when he was there.
Which thankfully,
was now rare. (Anon)

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (1960) and awarded that institute’s H.G. Smith Memorial Medal (1971); and in 1973 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

At ANU, Ian Ross initiated a series of fundamental changes, among them the University’s first Engineering Department in 1982, the Department of Systems Engineering, with a highly innovative engineering program. Another Ross creation was the Centre for Information Science Research. The building housing the Faculty of Engineering and Information Science now bears his name.

Ian Ross also recognised the need for outreach by the University and was instrumental in the inception of its commercial arm, ANUTech. In government, he played a significant role in science and technology policy, being for example one of the longest serving members of the Australian Research Grants Committee and its chairman for three years. He led government enquiries into Commonwealth laboratories and facilities (1982–83) and higher education libraries (1990). From 1990 until 1995, as Chair of the Physical Sciences Panel of the Cooperative Research Centres Committee, he led four rounds of assessments of new proposals. He still found time to be president of ANZAAS, the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1984–86), and a member of the Canberra Development Board (1986–90).

This record of public service both inside and outside the University was formally recognised in 1994 by his appointment as an Officer in the Order of Australia.

Viola, his irrepressible wife, died in November 2005.

Ian Ross was the academic polymath, strong in research, teaching and administration, and the very best of company. After a short illness, insisting as always that no fuss be made about him, he died peacefully on 14 November 2006.

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Citation details

Ben Selinger, 'Ross, Ian Gordon (1926–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 June 2024.

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