Australian Biography

Sir Marcus Oliphant - full interview transcript

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Sir Mark, you're always on lists of Great Australians. Australia has claimed you as one of its great sons, and yet your relationship with Australia has had a couple of strands to it. You were really inspired and excited by the intellectual life of Cambridge, and when you were approached to come back to Australia, how far did a feeling of connection with Australia - how much did that play a part in making you decide that you wanted to come back?

I felt that I owed Australia something. I felt that I owed my own country something. My mother and father were still alive at that time, and my brothers, four brothers that I had and they had families, and I felt that, that it would be nice, apart from feeling the Australian atmosphere and experiencing once again places where I grew up, that it would be nice to be with brothers whom I hadn't seen for twenty years or more, and talk about things, and so on. It was, it was - I think that was the only thing that was positive in my mind.

Coming home.

Coming home, and a sort of debt that I owed to Australia I felt for my education, for my - everything up till where I went to Cambridge and so on.

You were strongly warned not to come back, and some of the difficulties that you would face were prophetically described to you. In retrospect, do you think you should have heeded those words?

Yes, I think I was a fool to come back, from the intellectual and professional point of view. I was told that I would ruin my research career and I certainly did because there was so much administration, so many problems of finding members of staff and so on, for an outback place like Canberra, that it absorbed the whole of my time for twenty years.

But you created an environment in which others were able to flourish, you must have taken some satisfaction from that.

Oh this is true, this is true, there's some satisfaction in that.

Did a similar sense of public service and concern for your country influence your decision to become Governor of South Australia?

I think so yes, but it was mainly the fact that I was born in South Australia, and here I was in Canberra, and here was a chance perhaps to do something in South Australia, for South Australia. I warned Mr Dunstan when he asked me whether I would - he could put my name forward to the Queen as Governor, that I wasn't prepared to be a military type Governor, that I was would only go there if I was as free to speak on public questions and so on, as I had been in Canberra.

And he accepted you on those terms?

Yes. Yeah and indeed seemed to want me to do that.

Do you think he lived to regret it?

Yes I'm afraid he did.

Could you tell us something about how that evolved?

Well I'd rather not go into it because personalities were involved and ...

Without going into it in a sort of too personal a way, what was the essence of the difficulty you found yourself in when you were operating in that job?

I found myself utterly opposed to some of his views on social questions, not on - I admired him enormously, he was a great orator, he - to hear him you know, do a bit of Shakespeare was really a you know a delight, and he did that sort of thing so perfectly he had a great appreciation of the arts, and of course it was during that time that the Festival Theatre was opened in Adelaide, and of course I played a part in that, which gave me great satisfaction. In that sense I have a great regard for him, he built up art and appreciation of music and of drama in Australia - in South Australia - in a way that'd never been done before, but he had views about life in general with which I was not in sympathy.

What what were the - what was the main philosophical difference?

Well I don't want this to appear on the - in the thing but the main position was that well when I really parted company with him was when he admitted on television that he was a homosexual. I thought that was a pretty bad thing for a Governor - for a Premier to do. I didn't think that it mattered from you know the general point of view, but to be a sort of advocate of aberrant behaviour seemed to me to be ... I was old-fashioned I suppose. And I didn't appreciate it.

The job itself, did you enjoy it, did you enjoy being Governor of South Australia?

I enjoyed the first two or three years. One met so many people and one had, of course, to put up the Royal family when they visited Australia and other famous people who came along. [INTERRUPTION]

I remember. Did you enjoy being Governor of Australia - of South Australia?

For the first two or three years it was fun, meeting all sorts of people. Of course Government House is a sort of hotel, Government Hotel, and so that one had to put up distinguished visitors - not only Australian, but the Royal family and so on. And this was quite good fun, and one got to know them very well, and to ... in a different sort of way from otherwise. But also it was - it enabled me to get about the place. You see I could go wherever I wanted to, explore at every corner of the State, and even into places like Western Australia and Queensland, I was able to go because of the connections between the States.

And did - what did you think of the Royal family?

Well I liked them all very much indeed - with one exception I won't mention that ...

And were you impressed with the job that they did?

Very impressed indeed. I thought that Prince Phillip in particular was a great favourite of both my wife and myself. He was always a welcome visitor and we had him three or four times to stay with us.

So I take it I'm not speaking to an Australian Republican.

No, you're not. No, you're not; I can see no advantage in having an elected President because it'd be all this party politics involved, and the same sort of thing as one has with electing the Federal Parliament, and choosing the Prime Minister. It's - it's better to have it I think, something where the person has a duty to do, which is defined, and carries it out and is not mixed up with politics ... or political decisions.

So you're in favour of us remaining with the British Royal family.

I think I am yes. I think I am. In some ways I'm an Australian and rather resent the intrusion as it were of anything else. But on the whole I feel that we gain more from the connection than we lose, and in particular we avoid the terrible business of having a President like the United States. Of having one man with that sort of power, with that sort of political influence, both nationally and internationally. I think it would be very bad for Australia.

What's been suggested, of course, is a model where you would have somebody operating rather like the governor-general does now, and not being a political President. Would you feel more comfortable with that sort of model, or would you feel that the loss of connection with old Britain was a was a negative?

(interrupting) I don't think it would have much meaning under those circumstances. I mean what would be the job of the governor-general, why have him?

I suppose a bit like your job as Governor of South Australia.

Yes but what would - what's the point? No at least in the name of the Queen you do things, you sign laws and they're not laws until you've signed them. In the name of the Queen you do oh, various other things, and you can always, if you felt like it, do a John Kerr you see, but it's ...

Were you ever tempted?

No. No no no I ... despite the fact that I didn't get on too well, and in the later part of time with Don Dunstan, I respected him too much to ...

Despite this attitude to the Queen, I understand that when you were first offered a knighthood you refused it.

Yes.

Why was that?

Because I felt that the work we'd been doing for which it was offered, the war work, was the work of a team and not of me, and to honour me without honouring the rest of the team, was oh, was wrong.

But five years later you did accept it.

Well Mr Menzies got me into a corner, actually at a party at the National University in University House, and persuaded me that I should accept, that it was my duty to accept.

And that was a word you found a bit hard to resist: duty.

That's right. Oh, well I admired Mr Menzies very greatly and I - he 'cause he was a great admirer of the British system, Westminster System, and I think rightly so. And so in the end, after I'd talked to my wife - I told him I'd have to talk to my wife first - she was a bit reluctant but agreed in the end.

When you were Governor was there any aspect of the job that you really didn't like?

I didn't like?

Hmmm hmm.

Yes. One of the first things I discovered was that every lease on a piece of Crown Land in the State, had to be signed by the Governor, and that this lease had already been signed by nine people, you know, the Ministers and the various officials in the Department that were involved in the land transaction, and I felt that to - there were hundreds of them every week you see - I felt this was just wasted time. I asked first of all whether I could use a rubber stamp, but I wasn't allowed to do that. Then I pointed out to the Government that this is already being signed by ten people who knew what they were doing, and for me to sign it and know nothing about the place, or the conditions of the place or anything else was just being a rubber stamp, so it might as well be a rubber stamp, I said.

Did it do any good or ...

Oh yes, I was let off in the end, they decided it - the Attorney General decided that it wasn't really essential under law for me to sign it.

Otherwise you would have needed a cure for writer's cramp from the sound of it.

Yes and it was a - you had this great box of leases came in a red box you know, like they send around documents in government circles.

Did your wife enjoy the period?

She enjoyed some aspects of it and she was - I must say was a wonderful wife to me as Governor. She did what was expected of her, and she didn't always enjoy it, but she was a marvellous hostess and knew how to seat people at dinner for instance, which I didn't understand at all, who should be next to whom and so on. And she also was a very gracious person, so that it really worked out from her point of view, and mine not too badly, but I think she was as glad as I was when we left and it was over, the formalities were over.

The formalities bothered you?

Yes in the end, bothered me very much. And some of it seemed rather ridiculous like for instance, standing absolutely still for one and a half hours while the the ANZAC Day Parade went past.

As Governor you represent the major power in the State. Did you feel that you were in charge or did you feel at times that you - other people were in charge of you?

No I felt that I was - I was a puppet after a time, and I was that's all, I was. In the morning at breakfast time, beside my place - we had breakfast always in our own room upstairs - there was a a foolscap piece of paper headed 'Orders of the Day', which told me exactly what I was doing, and that at 10:10 you see, the Rolls would be at the front door, and I would be going to such and such a place to do this - give a speech or to open a building or something of that sort. And that sort of formality got me down a bit.

You're not - you weren't used to following orders.

No, and nor was I used to being on time. I like to turn up at things you know, when I felt I wanted to.

So finishing that time was really a period of freedom that you were sort of let out.

Yeah that's right yes.

Your wife, you said, supported you well through all of that even though she wasn't all that keen on it. Did you feel that about her all through you life? At times she really did have quite a difficult job to do. When you were off doing war work was when she was raising young children.

Oh she did, she did. She had, she - well, we were married for 63 years and I can say with my hand on my heart that there was never any problem between us at all in the whole of that time that - mainly because she was such a wonderful mother and wonderful wife.

Were you aware when you were going away for long periods and pursuing your work and your career, what that meant to her holding the home front.

Oh yes, oh yes, and I wrote a very great deal. I wrote letters and she wrote back and sent me snapshots of the children when I was living in America and things of that sort, that sort of kept things rolling and ...

Because men of your generation often just took it for granted that the woman was there holding the fort.

Oh I don't think I did you see, because I'd been brought up in a family where the mother was a very important person indeed and indeed for us the children were (sic) much more important than our father, so that I had no feelings of that sort at all.

Were you always on hand when there was a crisis at home?

No, unfortunately: we had a baby of our own, a boy, who at the age of two and a half died of meningitis while I was away in Europe. John Cockroft, one of my great friends got them to broadcast, in several of the stations in Europe, a message for me, and of course it was all just ... there was no television or anything then, saying that would I please return home at once. And a waiter who heard this message came and spoke to me in Cologne I think it was, and I immediately went and found an aircraft flying and went back, but by that time the little boy was dead. My wife had to go through that on her own. But it was very quick, he was alright the previous day, and alright when he was put to bed, and then it developed during the night.

What impact did this personal tragedy have on your life? What impact did this personal tragedy have on your life?

Well it was very tragic for me, but it was of course most tragic for my wife. I was so upset that I hadn't been there to help her at that time, and it was ... I don't know, when one cares for somebody one shares - we always shared so that ...

Did you have more children after that?

No, unfortunately, it didn't work. Ah, as a matter of fact the first one was born, you see, four or five years after we were married, and there was [sic] no children after that, and then we decided to adopt. We adopted first of all a boy, Michael, was a great success, and then I thought that it was wrong to have an only child so we adopted Vivienne our girl. They both turned out wonderfully. Unfortunately Michael's no longer with us but Vivienne is a great tower of strength.

So you've ... you've lost two sons really ...

That's right.

... in your life. Does - did this affect the way that you felt about the future? Was that - was that a big blow, to not have ...

Oh it was a terrible blow because once again Michael died, I was in Canberra, he was in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne in his last days and he died there in the night when I was in Canberra.

As a public man with major obligations all through your life, you always had a public or a job or a war that you had to do your duty by. Did you feel ever that you neglected you personal life, or your ...

Oh yeah.

... private feelings for that?

Yes, but one had to, you see this is - I'm afraid that's part of life. That in scientific work, experimental work you can't abandon an experiment right in the middle just when it's showing promise of success particularly, or when there's something exciting turning up, and you have to work long hours, and you have to be very dedicated in order to do such work and be a success. It's rather like being a musician really, and you just so rapidly get stale if you're away from it for any time. So that of necessity it does mean a full-time job. One has vacations of course, and we took advantage of those, particularly with the children when they were young. Spent a lot of time exploring England and the Continent with them, and this sort of thing that would happen whilst I was invited to give a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and I decided that we'd all go to Paris. So when I told the children that we were going to Paris, Vivienne burst out crying, and oh, she was inconsolable, and I couldn't get out of her for a time, I said, (telephone rings) 'What's the matter?' She said, 'There mightn't be a loo on board'. [INTERRUPTION]

Looking back over your long life, ninety years of life, you've done so many things, you've been a world-class creative scientist, you've participated in work that changed the course of the Second World War, you've achieved so much and then you came to Australia and you were one of the founding fathers of a whole new effort in high level scientific research in the country, and you've been the Queen's representative. It's an amazing history of achievement. Is there any one thing that you would like to be remembered for out of all of that, that you feel stands out for you?

I don't think so, I - I'd like to be remembered just as a good Aussie bloke. I ... I can't ... I mean if you were to ask me a slightly different question, what part of my life have I enjoyed most, or something of that sort or what part of my life was most creative, then I'd have to say the Cambridge period. That was, I think that was the happiest time of my life.

Why do you think that was the happiest time of your life?

Oh, because of the whole spirit of the place and of course of the attitude of Rutherford and his friendship, and the fact that one was discovering, every day, new things about nature. And when I came out here I found myself, for such a long time, just an administrator which I'm not good at and I don't like, I don't do well but it had to be done, and I hated it.

Was it too late for you to change your mind?

Well no, I could have changed my mind I suppose, and I was tempted to by Florey particularly but I did give my word that I would come out to Nugget Coombs, and so I - I thought I ought to ... stick by it.

But once you were here, and you discovered that you didn't enjoy administration, did ...

No I - I knew that beforehand and I was ah ...

But it hadn't got any better ...

As ah ...

... let's face it.

... as Rutherford's offsider I had a lot of administrative duties, but they were mixed up with creative work you see, it wasn't continuously administrative, and it was the sort of administration I quite enjoyed as administration for scientific research, not buildings and grounds and council meetings and discussions with Premiers and Ministers and so on.

But you did undertake some of your own scientific research nevertheless ...

Oh yes ...

... during that time.

... Oh yes. Oh yes.

What was the major thing that you were involved in scientifically during your period in Australia?

Well - I set out to try and bring Australia into the the age of modern physics, and I ... and that meant of course trying to do experiments that were of the kind that were going on in Europe and America. But it turned out to be too difficult a task, we didn't have in Australia the engineering companies to make the sort of equipment that was really required. I had to abandon that. But I stuck to my old last which I'd done in - begun in Adelaide before I went to Cambridge, which I continued in Cambridge for a time, before I joined Rutherford in nuclear physics, and which was the effects of the collisions between positive ions, positively charged atoms and a metal surface, and the phenomenon that took place, the particles, of course, some of them penetrate and are lost, some of them bounce off and you can measure the angles and the energies with which they come off, and some of them cause phenomena, come off with in excited states for instance so that they emit light, emit radiation, and it was all you know, all very exciting - still is. Ah it still is a - a very interesting line of a work.

But you were frustrated in that work because you didn't have enough time to spend on it?

Oh and yeah well at first it - the administration really took almost all my time, and I - but I did have a research student who worked with me on it when I got back from Adelaide, and that was a great help, I ... see I'd by that time I was retired as Director of the School, and I just had my own room, and I had my own secretary and research assistant, we got on very well, with the work.

Your efforts to build a really big cyclotron here were frustrated because of lack of funds and because of engineering ...

And yeah and lack of funds and lack of ah - of the necessary engineering and ...

expertise ...

and other facilities in Australia.

Was that a very big disappointment to you?

Well it became apparent slowly, so that in the end when I decided that it wasn't worthwhile trying to do this in Australia, it wasn't as great a disappointment as it might have been if it had been cut off suddenly. But I slowly became aware of the fact that we weren't getting very far.

And because of the time delay, some of the work that you were doing was overtaken by new technology ...

That's right yes. Yes.

... that was occurring overseas. Yes. It seemed to be a whole project that was just beset with difficulties. There was a - there was a very horrible accident too ...

Yes a very nasty ...

... wasn't there in the course of the ...

... accident that led to the blinding of a man who - it was - we were using an alloy of sodium and potassium - they're both alkaline metals, very caustic metals - which when they react violently with water producing caustic soda and and caustic potash. And so that there's an almost an explosive reaction between them and water, and [the] young man who was a research assistant was cleaning up after some of this stuff had been spilt, and it was - the waste was put into a drum, and people were supposed to be very careful you see about this, about emptying the container that they had in their hand into the drum, and avoiding ever being with their head over the drum, but this chap looked over the edge of the drum to see how much stuff there was in it, and whether a tear out of his eye went or something onto the material I don't know, but there was an explosion and he lost the sight of his eye and was terribly disfigured in the face.

How did you feel about that?

Oh dreadful of course. It's a terrible thing for that to happen.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 8