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Science in Australia

Australian scientists

One of the first-recorded Australian scientists was botanist Allan Cunningham.

Image of Sir Joseph Banks.

Charles Etienne Pierre Motte (1785 - 1836) Sir Joseph Banks, Bart., P.R.S., 1829, engraving. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an9288549.

Sent to New South Wales by the famous English botanist Sir Joseph Banks in 1816, Cunningham joined the explorer John Oxley's expedition to the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers in 1817. He was botanist on the Mermaid's survey voyages of the Australian coast from 1817 to 1820, and also made inland explorations of New South Wales.

In fact, the early Europeans' exploratory expeditions of the Australian continent were often accompanied by scientists. The German naturalist Friedrich Leichhardt may be most well-known for his explorations of inland Queensland in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was his passion for the natural sciences that motivated those journeys.

Similarly, the German mineralogist and geologist Johann Menge did much of his work in Australia on exploratory trips undertaken to gain a better understanding of the natural features of the country. Menge made frequent excursions into South Australia from 1836 to 1838 to study soils and minerals in the region.

Many Australian scientists have achieved international recognition for their work, including a number of Nobel Prize laureates. These prizes are given to those who, during the preceding year, 'shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind'.

Australians who have been honoured with a Nobel Prize include:

  • Sir William Bragg – Nobel Prize for physics, 1915. Bragg shared the prize with his son (also Sir William Bragg). It was awarded for 'their services in the analysis of crystal structure by the means of x-rays'.
  • Sir Howard Florey – Nobel Prize for medicine, 1945. Florey shared the prize with Ernst Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming, both of England. The prize was awarded 'for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases'.
  • Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet – Nobel Prize for medicine, 1960. Burnet shared the prize with Peter Medawar from England. It was awarded 'for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance'.
  • Sir John Eccles –Nobel Prize for medicine, 1963. Eccles shared the prize with Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, both of England. It was awarded for 'their discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane'.
  • John Cornforth – Nobel Prize for chemistry, 1975. The prize was awarded for 'his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions'. Cornforth shared the prize with Vladimir Prelog of Switzerland, who was honoured 'for his research into the stereochemistry of organic molecules and reactions'.
  • Peter Doherty – Nobel Prize for medicine, 1996. Doherty shared the prize with Rolf Zinkernagel from Switzerland. It was awarded for work they completed together in 1973, which led to 'discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell mediated immune defence'.
  • Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – Nobel Prize for medicine, 2005. Marshall and Warren received the prize in 2005 for their discovery of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium in 1982. This bacterium causes stomach ulcers and gastritis.
  • Elizabeth Blackburn – Nobel Prize for medicine, 2009. Blackburn shared the prize with American scientists Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.
  • Brian Schmidt – Nobel Prize for physics, 2011. The prize was awarded jointly, one half to Australian Brian Schmidt and Adam G Riess, and the other half to Saul Perlmutter 'for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae'.
Photo of Sir Douglas Mawson.

Sir Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914 and leader of The British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition 1929-30. Photo by
Frank Hurley 1885-1962. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

However, a list of esteemed Australian scientists is not complete without mentioning the renowned Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson, and Dr Karl Kruszelnicki who, because of his work with media, has arguably done more than anyone to make science interesting in the eyes of the general public.

Science in education

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has a wide range of science education programs, which provide an excellent resource for students in both primary and secondary school.

On television, these have included:

Radio programs include:

Of course, one of the best-known science educators was the visiting American scientist Professor Julius Sumner Miller, who began bringing science to the people of Australia in the 1960s.

A national research institute

After more than 100 years of scientific exploration and discovery in Australia, discussion began in the late 1890s about the need for a national institute. However, it was not until 1926 that legislation was passed to establish the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). It was to become the CSIRO, one of the most comprehensive and well-known scientific organisations in the world.

The Council began making valuable discoveries almost immediately upon its inception, by discovering how to avoid bitter-pit in apples. This was a serious problem in the 1920s, and was the main reason Australian apples were spoiled upon arrival at London ports. This discovery saved apple producers 100,000 a year.

CSIRO has now been established for almost 80 years. It has conducted research to support a wide range of Australian industries, which has included the development of sheep vaccines, innovative food preservation methods, radar, solar energy, rainforest ecology, cheese-making technologies, and polymer banknotes.

Australian science calendar

The annual calendar of science events is a busy one. Along with the major events like the Australian Innovation Festival, Australian Science Festival, National Science Week, announcement of the Eureka Prizes and the Prime Minister's Science Prizes, there is also a wide variety of regional events. These are listed on the ABC's science event diary.

National Innovation Statement

In 2001 the (then) Australian Government announced a National Innovation Statement called Backing Australia's Ability . The program was dedicated to generating new ideas and developing them into exciting new Australian products, processes, services, and businesses.

A five-year strategy, the Statement brought together the collective energies of Australia's business, education and scientific communities.

Science organisations

The list of Australian organisations dedicated to science in both government and private sectors is extensive. It includes:

Useful links

History of science

Last updated: 14th February 2014