Tuesday, 6 April 2010


At 23 years old, John Philip Baxter (known as Philip) graduated from the University of Birmingham with a PhD in chemical engineering – a field so new in 1928 that no university yet offered a course in it. On the recommendation of his supervisor, Baxter took up a position at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) where, by 1935 when he was thirty he was research manager for the chemicals division, consisting of twelve thousand people. After patenting several chemical-based inventions (such as the neurotoxin Lindane, used as an insecticide) Baxter’s attention, when the possibility of a super-bomb had been presented to him, shifted to uranium. As well as participating in British government research on a possible atomic bomb, a short secondment to Oak Ridge Tennessee in 1944 to advise on the extraction of enriched uranium resulted in his employment in the United States for the remainder of the war.[1] Philip Gissing, whose Science and Technology Studies PhD was a biography of Baxter, says that Baxter was thereafter deeply dissatisfied with work in the UK: unhappy with the impediments to further post-war nuclear research due, perhaps, to his lack of political clout. Gissing suggests that Baxter longed for a ‘dominion’, a kind of deserted island where he could implement his ideas for an integrated industrial and defence strategy that centred on atomic energy.[2]  He chose Australia.

While Baxter was assisting to develop the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australians were starting to think that they needed more universities. In particular, the demands of the Second World War on technological education, as already seen in chapter one, highlighted both a lack of capacity and a lack of experience in teaching the types of knowledge the changing world required. The Australian National University, as we have seen, was designed to fulfil this purpose. Patrick O’Farrell has shown that the NSW government, like leaders in Canberra, were keen to expand Sydney’s Technical College to focus on education to fulfil local industrial needs. In order to attract suitably qualified staff and, in the belief that Australians did not understand any other terminology, the institution they developed was called a university: The NSW University of Technology, which after the Murray review would be re-named the University of NSW.[3] The controversies surrounding this new university were a concentration of the issues faced by the whole system. The distinctive approach to scholarship, teaching and research that that university took, particularly under Baxter’s leadership from 1952, pre-empted the relationship between university-based knowledge and the economy that would shape the higher education sector for decades.

[1] Philip Gissing, "Baxter, Sir John Philip (1905 - 1989)," in Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, c.2000).
[2] Philip Gissing, "Sir Philip Baxter, Engineer: The Fabric of a Conservative Style of Thought" (University of NSW, 1999), 82, 92, 94.
[3] Patrick O'Farrell, UNSW: A Portrait. The University of New South Wales 1949-1999 (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999). 


Dave said...

"The bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki" is a bit of a platitude! But really good.

Hannah Forsyth said...

yeah, I don't think that will pass the supervisor test. Pity.

Hannah Forsyth said...

This question received by email: "Just a quick question: how exactly do you manage to get a PhD at age 23? Are you sure you got the calculations right? Or was the chemical engineering course a 2-3 year degree? Or did people start uni at age 15 back in 1928?"

According to the ADB, Baxter matriculated at 14, passed the entrance exam to university at 16, had his BSc at 20, his MSc at 21 and his PhD at 23.http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A170072b.htm?hilite=baxter Hereford High School for Boys must have been quite a place!