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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burgmann, Victor Dudley (1916–1991)

by Bruce MacA. Thomas

This article was published online in 2016

Victor Dudley Burgmann (1916–1991), physicist, engineer, and science administrator, was born in North Sydney on 5 December 1916, the first child of New South Wales-born parents Ernest Henry Burgmann, Anglican clergyman (later bishop of Canberra and Goulburn), and his wife Edna Carey, née Crowhurst. Educated at Maitland Boy’s High School, Victor was awarded a public exhibition to study engineering at the University of Sydney (BSc, 1937; BE, 1939). Influenced by his father, he developed a strong social and religious conscience, becoming active in the Student Christian Movement, and a King’s scout. After graduation, he was appointed a research officer with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). On 25 July 1940, at St Andrew’s Church of England, Strathfield, he married Lorna Constance Bradbury, a typist.

Burgmann’s work focused on the development of radar in World War II. He was appointed a CSIR scientific liaison officer and was posted to London (1940–42) and then Washington, DC, and Boston (1942–43). His duties were to establish communication channels with radar scientists. In England he tested equipment with Royal Air Force pilots such as John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham. On his return to Australia in mid-1943 he joined the newly formed CSIR radiophysics laboratory at the University of Sydney, where he was involved with airborne radar designed to detect ships at sea. As a principal research officer (1945–49), he worked on the civil applications of radar, including development of distance-measuring equipment for aviation and maritime navigation. He was to be awarded the bronze medal of the British Institute of Navigation in 1953.

In 1949 the CSIR initiated research into wool textiles, and established a physics and engineering unit in Sydney. Burgmann became officer-in-charge in 1950, which marked a turning point in his career. The unit analysed the properties of wool fibre and its processing, and developed textile testing equipment. In 1958, when the unit was upgraded to a division, Burgmann was appointed foundation chief of textile physics. Having relinquished this role in 1969, he became an associate member of the executive committee of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and a full member in May 1970. He and his wife moved to Canberra where in 1977 he succeeded Sir Robert Price as chairman of the CSIRO. That year he was appointed CBE, and elected a fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and of the Textile Institute, Britain. Not wanting to work beyond sixty, he retired in 1978.

He was described as ‘notably short of visible prejudices, ready to look always with the eye of reason and to go forward on the basis of all the available information; a man concerned for the sensibilities of people’ (CSIROOA Bulletin 1978, 3). Burgmann became a member of the council of the National Library of Australia (deputy chairman 1982–84). An enthusiastic sportsman, he had played billiards, tennis, and squash, and became a devoted and skilled croquet player, coaching at the Canberra Croquet Club. He took an interest in assisting people with disabilities to participate in sports.

Early in their married life, he and Lorna had been keen square-dancers. Musically gifted, he played the violin in an amateur orchestra until the early 1960s and taught himself to play the piano and guitar. Burgmann was a skilled handyman who built family furniture, a cubby-house, an additional bedroom, a workshop and shed. Diagnosed in 1983 with Parkinson’s disease, he moved to Sydney in 1986 to be closer to his family. Survived by his wife, son, and three daughters, he died at Waldock Nursing Home, Carlingford, on 7 February 1991 and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Burgmann, Verity. Personal communication
  • CoResearch (CSIRO). ‘Former Head of CSIRO Dies.’ No. 338 (February 1991): 1
  • CSIROOA Bulletin. ‘Victor Burgmann Retires.’ No. 170 (September 1978): 3
  • CSIROpedia, ‘Victor Dudley Burgmann [1916–1991].’ http// Copy held on ADB file

Citation details

Bruce MacA. Thomas, 'Burgmann, Victor Dudley (1916–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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