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Boas, Walter Moritz (1904–1982)

by Ian D. Rae

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Walter Moritz Boas (1904-1982), physicist, was born on 10 February 1904 in Berlin, only child of German parents Arthur Abraham Boas, medical practitioner, and his wife Adele, née Reiche. Following studies at a technical high school, Walter studied applied physics at the Technische Hochschule Berlin (Dipl.Ing., 1928; D.Ing., 1930). The research project that formed part of his physics studies, an investigation of the influence of load and temperature on the plastic deformation of metals, was supervised by Professor Richard Becker. It led to a joint publication, and set the direction for his life’s work in science. His doctoral degree was based on further work in this field conducted jointly with Erich Schmid at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Metall forschung at Berlin-Dahlem.

From 1933 to 1937 Boas worked in Switzerland, first at the University of Fribourg, and then at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich. While at Fribourg, he and Schmid published their book Kristallplastizität (1935), which continued to appear in German (and later English) for the next thirty-five years. Although he was a baptised Lutheran, Boas came from a Jewish family and so decided to leave Europe, taking an appointment at the Royal Institution in London, while he searched for a more permanent position, aided by the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. In January 1938 he accepted a two-year appointment at the University of Melbourne, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, in preference to a position at University College, London. He married Eva Orgler, from Berlin, on 22 March at the register office, Hampstead, London, and arrived in Melbourne in May.

For the next nine years Boas lectured in the metallurgy department of the university, from 1940 as senior lecturer. His book Introduction to the Physics of Metals and Alloys (1947) was based on his lectures. Although initially classified as `enemy aliens’ during the war, he and his wife were soon accorded `refugee alien’ status and naturalised in 1944. Most of his research in this period was conducted in conjunction with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s section of lubricants and bearings, set up by Frank Bowden. Boas enjoyed a part-time appointment there from 1944. The section was renamed tribophysics under Bowden’s successor, Stewart Bastow, who appointed Boas principal research officer in 1947. He succeeded, somewhat reluctantly, to the headship of the division of tribophysics in 1949, when CSIR was recast as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and Bastow joined the executive.

Boas was a friendly and hospitable man who fostered a family atmosphere in his division. He combined administration with strong leadership, nurturing the careers of his young scientists through joint research and publication, and promoting basic research into the structure and properties of materials. His international reputation grew. In 1956 he spent three months in the United States of America as visiting lecturer in metallurgy at Harvard University. He encouraged interaction between the University of Melbourne and CSIRO, lecturing to students of physics and engineering, serving on the faculty of science and accepting appointment as honorary senior associate in solid state physics. Late in the 1950s Boas established a Pugwash group in Melbourne. He represented Australia at the Oslo conference (1961) against the spread of nuclear weapons and helped to organise the Pugwash regional meeting in Melbourne in 1967. These conferences brought together scholars and public figures who sought co-operative solutions to global problems.

A fellow of the Institute of Physics (1943), the Australian Academy of Science (1954) and the Australian Institute of Physics (1962), Boas was elected as a foreign scientific fellow (1965) of the Max-Planck-Institut für Metallkunde and a corresponding member (1972) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In 1966-72 he was a vice-president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. After his retirement from the CSIRO in 1969, he was a hardworking honorary senior associate in metal physics at the university. He published his third book, Properties and Structure of Solids (1971), and was awarded an honorary doctorate of applied science by the university in 1974. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, Boas died on 12 May 1982 at Prahran and was cremated. The Australian Institute of Physics established the Walter Boas medal to be awarded annually for excellence in research in physics in Australia. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which he had served as an adviser, created an annual Walter Boas prize for the best final-year student in applied physics, and the University of Melbourne named in his honour the building in which he had worked.

Select Bibliography

  • D. W. Borland et al (eds), Physics of Materials (1979)
  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (1990)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 4, 1987, p 507
  • series A12508, item 21/465 and series A659, item 1943/1/7109 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Boas papers (Australian Academy of Science Library, Canberra)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian D. Rae, 'Boas, Walter Moritz (1904–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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