Friday, May 8, 2009

SA Greats 2 - Howard Florey, Mark Oliphant, Don Dunstan

Back to some pretty awesome scientists

Howard Florey

Howard Florey assembled and lead the team that developed penicillin for clinical use. The fact that mould inhibited the growth of bacteria had been observed by Alexander Fleming a decade previously, but it was the work of Florey and his team that turned an observation into a life saving treatment. Although Florey's work was conducted in Britain and the United States, Australia was the first nation to make penicillin available for civilian use and it was mass produced by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories.

The amazing efficacy of penicillin contributed to a population explosion. One of Florey's other life long interests was contraception and population control!

The abc website has a very interesting and accessible article Maker of the Miracle Mould covering the whole story of the development of penicillin and some interesting information about Florey's life and personality.

Sir Mark Oliphant

Sir Mark Oliphant's outstanding international reputation was based on his pioneering discoveries in nuclear physics in Cambridge in the 1930s and his remarkable contributions to wartime radar research and to the development of the atomic bomb. In 1950, after an absence of 23 years, Oliphant returned to Australia, where he founded the Research School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University and pioneered the creation in Canberra of a national university dedicated to the conduct of research at the highest international level.

To the layman, Mark Oliphant was well known for his often outspoken comments on those matters about which he felt so strongly: social justice, peace, atomic warfare, the environment, academic freedom and autonomy, to name a few. The scientific community will remember him as a physicist for his pioneering experiments with Ernest Rutherford during momentous years that saw the birth of nuclear physics, as a physicist/engineer for his ingenuity and determination as one of the pioneers of high-energy particle accelerators, and as a science administrator and public advocate for science.

Oliphant had style and dignity. White-haired from an early age, he retained his distinctive, upright stature to the end of his long life. These features, together with his booming laugh, gave him a 'presence' in any gathering. His personality was such that even his opponents had to like him. He was richly endowed with natural talents. His leadership qualities, ingenuity, originality, idealism, courage and zeal, to mention but a few, served him well.
He was a natural risk-taker who never hesitated to rail at what he believed was excessive caution, continually exhorting his team to 'stick their necks out'. Oliphant was a skilful and persuasive speaker and writer who could 'think on his feet'. He was quick-witted, enjoyed argument and debate, and never missed a chance to take a rise out of the bureaucracy when it seemed to him foolish or pompous. Along with these skills in the spoken and written word went salesmanship, which enabled him to sell ideas and elicit funds and materials for their realisation. Oliphant was forthright and passionate in his belief in the benefits that the world, especially Australia, could gain from application of the physical sciences.

Mark Oliphant also had a leading role in the Australian Academy of Science "No other physicist has made a greater impact on Australian science than Professor Sir Mark Oliphant."

He also became the Governor of South Australia, another appointment by Don Dunstan.

Speaking of Don Dunstan.....

I hope dear readers you have been noticing South Australia's tendency to providing leadership when it comes to issues of equal opportunity, human and civil rights. It is reflected in things like the fact that women have had the right to vote in SA since 1894 the first jurisdiction in Australia to grant female suffrage.

Aboriginal people have always had the right to vote in SA, albeit it was perhaps somewhat accidental and they haven't always been able to exercise that right. During the constitutional convention preparing for the establishment of the Australian federation, SA argued for the counting of aboriginal people in the census and protection of their existing right to vote. SA lost the argument and aboriginal people were not able to vote in federal elections until 1962.

Well, SA kept it coming in their support for Don Dunstan. So, have a look at this summary (thankyou wikipedia - full article is linked in the title of this section):

Donald Allan Dunstan ..... was Premier of South Australia between June 1967 and April 1968, and again between June 1970 and February 1979.

A reformist, Dunstan brought profound change to South Australian society. His progressive reign saw Aboriginal land rights recognised, homosexuality decriminalised, the first female judge appointed, enacted consumer protection laws, relaxed censorship and drinking laws, created a ministry for the environment, enacted anti-discrimination legislation, and implemented electoral reforms such as the overhaul of the upper house of parliament, lowered the voting age to 18, and enacted universal suffrage. He established Rundle Mall, and encouraged a flourishing of the arts, with support for the Adelaide Festival Centre, the State Theatre Company, and the establishment of the South Australian Film Corporation. Federally he assisted in the abolition of the White Australia Policy. He is recognised for his role in reinvigorating the social, artistic and cultural life of South Australia during his nine years in office, remembered as the Dunstan Decade. His departure from the Premiership and politics in 1979 was abrupt after collapsing due to ill health, but would live another 20 years.

State premier perhaps but I do clearly recall him being very popular in my home state of NSW and we were all deeply saddened when he became ill and had to resign the Premiership. For leadership is not something that can stay contained in one State. It has a trickle effect. With Don Dunstan SA kept right on punching above it's weight.

I really don't want to trivialise Don Dunstan's achievements, but let me ask you, how many places on earth have a pair of pink shorts as an historic political artifact?

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