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Sir Frederick William (Fred) White (1905–1994)

by Dennis Young

Sir Frederick White, KBE, FAA, FRS, died in Melbourne on 17 August this year. Not only was he a distinguished scientist, but he had taken a leading role in the management of scientific research in this country for many years, particularly as Chairman of CSIRO from 1959 to 1970.

He also had a long association with the ANU, extending over almost 20 years, as a member of the University Council.

Fred was born in Johnsonville, New Zealand, on 26 May 1905, the eldest of three children. Soon after commencing at Wellington College, he developed an absorbing interest in amateur radio and astronomy - perhaps an early indication of what was to occur in the years ahead.

On the completion of his college education, Fred had a rather vague idea that he wanted to study engineering, and for about a year he was an apprentice at the Tramway Workshops. Although he did quite well, he did not find it entirely satisfying, and it was decided he should enter university. He commenced at Victoria University College, later to become Victoria University. In those days the final examinations were set and marked in England, and Fred was examined by Professor Stoner of Liverpool University. As he had apparently achieved good marks, he was recommended for the Postgraduate Scholarship in Science, given by the University of New Zealand. The award of this scholarship took him to Cambridge, where he entered St John's College.

At this time Fred also commenced research in the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rutherford. After gaining his PhD, he joined Sir Edward Appleton's department at King's College, London, in 1932 as lecturer in physics. He held this position until 1937, when he was appointed Professor of Physics at Canterbury College in New Zealand. It was one of four colleges then making up the University of New Zealand, the others being Auckland, Wellington (Victoria) and Otago in Dunedin.

It was also in 1932 that Fred married Elizabeth Cooper. This was the start of their long and happy married life together, during which they had many shared interests, including their fond appreciation of the outdoors. Fred had developed his interest in ornithology from Elizabeth's love of bush walking and bird watching. Elizabeth died in 1992.

The outbreak of war had a decisive influence on Fred's future. At this time Sir David Rivett was the Chief Executive Officer of CSIR, and Sir John Madsen, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Sydney University, was Chairman of the Radio Research Board. The Government accepted the recommendation of Rivett and Madsen to establish the Radiophysics Laboratory in 1939, although not officially announced until the end of the War. This was to be the laboratory in which Australian radar research and development would be concentrated.

In 1941 Fred was advised that Australia had formally requested the NZ Government for his temporary release from the University for three months, to enable him to go to Australia to participate in the secret development of radar, a significant impact on the war effort. Because of the nature of the work it would have been unknown to the general population, but it probably did much to enhance the later relationship between science and industry.

In 1942 Fred was appointed Chief of the CSIR Division of Radiophysics, and he held this position until early 1945, when he joined the Head Office of CSIR. He became a Member of the Executive of CSIR in 1946, and continued in that role when CSIRO was established in 1949. He was appointed Deputy Chairman in 1957 and Chairman from 1959 until his retirement in 1970.

CSIRO achievements during the years of Fred's leadership bring many to the view that these were the most distinguished in CSIRO's proud history. Significant among them were the successful establishment of the Wool Research Laboratories, the pioneering role in the development of radio astronomy with the construction of the radio telescope at Parkes and the radio-heliograph at Narrabri, and advances made in meterological and atmospheric physics.

Fred was a firm believer in the relative freedom of science, and in an article written in 1987 said: "The discoveries which initiate major advances in science and lead inevitably to startling changes in industrial technology occur at random, usually in those centres in the world where individual freedom is encouraged and financed. This is clear and irrefutable to those experienced in the power of science and easily proven by considering the unusual and sometimes strange influence on industrial practice of the quantum theory or the discovery of the structure of DNA. These truths lack conviction to politicians or leaders of industry who, in their daily lives, attempt not always successfully to achieve progress through the execution of conceived objectives."

Fred's contribution to the ANU started with his appointment to the Council in 1960, and continued until 1979. In addition, he was Chairman of the Committee on Salary Loadings for Medically Qualified Staff in the JCSMR and a Member of the General Policy Advisory Committee. Among his honorary degrees was a DSc from the ANU.

Although remembered predominantly for his leadership of CSIRO, Fred was also active in the affairs of the Australian Academy of Science and had served as Chairman of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science for some years.

With his generous financial support, the Australian Academy of Science awards the Frederick White Prize "to recognise the achievements of scientists who are currently engaged in research of intrinsic scientific merit which also contributes an understanding of natural laws and new concepts that are important to the well-being and civilised progress of society."

With financial provision made available by Sir Frederick and Lady White, the Academy also conducts the Elizabeth and Frederick White Conferences, a series of research conferences in the physical and mathematical sciences related to the solid earth, the terrestrial oceans, the Earth's atmosphere, solar-terrestrial science, space sciences and astronomy.

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Citation details

Dennis Young, 'White, Sir Frederick William (Fred) (1905–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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