Science history: William Ian Clunies Ross, leader of note
A passionate advocate for science who inspired and supported others.
By Jeff Glorfeld
The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering recently announced that nominations for its prestigious Clunies Ross Awards would be open until 8 January 2020.
The awards are named for Sir William Ian Clunies Ross who, according to an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “more than any other Australian scientist, symbolised the hopes and aspirations of a generation”.
And yet he was, according to his own son, a man with “no major scientific advance to his credit”.
But that needs some context. This is what Anthony Clunies Ross, then a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, wrote in an article published in the Records of the Australian Academy of Science in 1977.
"When the Australian 50-dollar note was issued in 1972, it bore the heads of two scientists. On one side was Howard Florey, co-discoverer of penicillin. On the other side was Ian Clunies Ross.
Clunies Ross, though active for some years in productive research, had no major scientific advance to his credit. The strange honour of being imprinted on the currency… came to him because of the special public position he had come to occupy by the time of his death as spokesman for Australian science, champion of research and promotion for the wool industry, and steady advocate of an open and generous view of Australia's destiny.”
This “strange honour” was well earned.
Clunies Ross was born on 22 February 1899 in Bathurst, New South Wales, and grew up in the countryside around Sydney.
He attended Newington College in western Sydney and in 1917 enrolled in agricultural science at the University of Sydney. The following year he transferred to veterinary science, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1921.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry describes how, in 1922, he was appointed a Walter and Eliza Hall research fellow, studying parasites at the Molteno Institute for Research in Parasitology, a biological research institute in the University of Cambridge, and at the London School of Tropical Medicine.
“It marked a crucial phase of his life. For the next 15 years the seemingly prosaic subject of parasitology was to enable him to build a national reputation as an applied scientist and one of Australia's best scientific communicators.”
In 1926 the Australian Parliament passed the Science and Industry Research Act, establishing the new Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). One of its top priorities was research into the health and nutrition of animals, particularly sheep, and Clunies Ross joined the organisation as a veterinary parasitologist.
“His early research focused on two of the most severe health problems of the pastoral industry, the liver fluke, Fasciola hepatica, and the hydatid parasite, Echinococcus granulosus,” the Australian Dictionary of Biography says.
“In co-operation with graziers, he established field-stations to test ways of controlling parasites and to gather information about the incidence of disease. Research was also undertaken to investigate the dog tick, Ixodes holocyclus, prevalent in the bush around Sydney, and a reasonably effective method of immunising dogs was developed.”
The article says that during his career as a researcher, he published more than 50 scientific papers and a book and that one of his “outstanding qualities was that of leadership”. He could “identify and nurture the strengths of those around him” and influenced the careers of many prominent wool researchers.
He completed his doctorate in veterinary science in 1928.
In 1947-48 the CSIR was reorganised and in 1949 it became the CSIRO, with Clunies Ross soon taking over as chairman.
His son Anthony writes: “Ian Clunies Ross was a good, but not a great, scientist. His reputation must rest principally on what he did as a scientific administrator and as a leader of opinion.”
He cites one of his father’s CSIRO colleagues, Sir Otto Frankel, who said, “As a rule, few if any appreciative thoughts go out to the administrator from his colleagues at the laboratory bench or the experiment station; but in this, as in so many other ways, Ian Clunies Ross was an exceptional person. They were grateful for his interest in their work and in their progress; for his tremendous effort in bringing CSIRO before government, industry and the public; and for securing the moral and material support without which their work could not prosper. In their eyes – and I believe this was true of one and all – he was an excellent leader.”
Clunies Ross died on 20 June 1959 in Melbourne. The National Science Centre in Melbourne was designated Clunies Ross House in 1968.