Rachel Makinson and the science of wool

Rachel Makinson joined the radiophysics laboratory at Australia’s then Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1944, having previously worked as an assistant lecturer at the University of Melbourne and a research assistant in physics at the University of Sydney.

Rachel makinson
Credit: CSIRO Archives

The following year she moved to the CSIR-affiliated National Standards Laboratory, in Sydney, then two years later went home to England with an Imperial Chemical Industries research fellowship in electrical engineering at the University of Leeds.

The renamed Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) granted her leave and supplied some financial support.

In 1953 she returned to Australia and to CSIRO’s Division of Textile Physics, beginning one of the most distinguished careers in the organisation’s history, as she became an internationally recognised expert in the science of wool.

But what’s truly extraordinary is that for pretty much the first 20 of her years at CSIRO she was employed on a temporary basis. Each year her employers had to seek special approval to extend her service.

Born Kathleen Rachel White near London on 15 February 1917, she earned a bachelor of arts degree, taking a double first, in 1939, from Newnham College, part of Cambridge University, and won a scholarship to pursue a PhD in physics. But then she met an Australian physicist, Richard Makinson.

Moving to Australia, Richard was hired as a physics lecturer at the University of Sydney but, as a 2014 obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald explains, Rachel found “rigid barriers against the employment of women – especially if they were married – in most professions”.

The reality of World War II changed things, however, and she was put to work in a CSIR project training RAAF airmen in radio physics and radar.

CSIRO says she was one of three women among about 60 “of the country’s best physicists” who were “recruited to develop radar and make it as accurate as possible”. The others were Joan Maie Freeman and Ruby Payne-Scott.  

“They were the first women in Australia to have actual careers in physics,” CSIRO says, “and wartime exigencies required that talented young women be hired.”

The SMH obituary was written by Makinson’s son Bob. In it he describes how when she went to work in textile physics “next to nothing” was known of the physical properties of wool fibres and the processes of felting and shrinkage.

Her life work became “to systematically examine the underlying physics of wool fibres and their microscopic interactions” and she published many papers. “While her work was pure research, she wrote with a close eye to its practical uses,” the article notes.

From the early 1960s, Bob Markinson says, his mother also put a lot of energy into “the struggle for equal pay for women, helping construct arguments around work value, and developing case studies to show the systemic nature of discrimination in pay and seniority”.

In 1970 she returned to Cambridge and earned her PhD. From 1971-77 she served as a senior principal research scientist at CSIRO and, according to The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia, “became an international authority on felting, friction and shrink proofing in wool”.

In 1977 she was the first woman to be named a chief research scientist at CSIRO, and two years later she became assistant chief of division, the first woman to achieve that rank in the organisation.

In 1982, the year she retired, she was made a Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia, “for public service in the field of wool research”. In 2003, she was awarded the Centenary Medal, “for service to Australian society in textile physics”.

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