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Lehany, Frederick John (Fred) (1915–1994)

by R. W. Home

This article was published online in 2018

Frederick John Lehany (1915–1994), physicist, was born at Wyndham, New Zealand, on 10 April 1915, son of Frederick James Lehany, farmer, and his wife Olive May, née Oates. After secondary schooling at Southland Boys’ High School, Invercargill, where he was dux (1932) and an excellent boxer, Fred enrolled at the University of Otago (BSc, 1935; MSc 1936) completing his tertiary education with a diploma of honours (effectively a second master’s degree) in physics in 1937, and obtaining first-class honours in both master’s-level courses. His thesis was on a topic related to radio. 

Employed as a teacher at Nelson College in 1938, Lehany resigned mid-year when appointed tutor in physics at Canterbury University College, Christchurch. The head of department, Professor F. W. G. White, was an authority on the physics of radio and it was no doubt with his support that in 1939 Lehany joined the research laboratories of Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd (AWA), Sydney. He became an expert on radio frequency and microwave technology. On 22 August 1942 at Burwood Methodist Church, Sydney, he married Kathleen Corderoy, a school teacher.

Throughout World War II Lehany remained with AWA, working on the development and manufacture of various electronic and optical products for military use. In 1944 he became supervising engineer in charge of the section that supplied a general electrical measurement service within the company, while also pursuing related development projects. Appointed a senior research officer in the radiophysics division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR; from 1949 Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization) in September 1945, he later took charge of a section jointly staffed by the divisions of radiophysics and electrotechnology—which shared laboratory space at the University of Sydney—to develop microwave standards of measurement.

In 1948 Lehany transferred to the CSIR division of electrotechnology, acting as chief when the incumbent, D. M. Myers, went overseas for several months. With Myers’s resignation the following year, Lehany replaced him. When the divisions of electrotechnology and metrology merged in 1962 to form the division of applied physics, he was appointed chief. In 1974 the National Measurement Laboratory was created by uniting the divisions of physics and applied physics, and he became director. Awarded an honorary doctorate of science in 1976 by the University of Sydney, he was appointed AO two years later.

Lehany published a number of papers during his early years in Australia, most of them in the well-regarded journal, the AWA Technical Review. His major contributions to science and to the nation, however, came from his work as a scientific administrator. Within the division of electrotechnology and its successors, he established an environment that fostered innovative research and led to several new fundamental, internationally recognised electrical standards. Beyond the division, he played an important role in the development and implementation in Australia of a national system of standards of measurement. He was a founding member (1950) of the National Standards Commission, set up under the National Weights and Measures Act (1948), through which the Commonwealth government for the first time exercised its constitutional power in this area. He served on the commission until his retirement from the CSIRO in 1979.

Following the creation of the National Association of Testing Authorities in 1947, Lehany became heavily involved in its advisory committee for electricity. He was president of the Australian Institute of Physics (1965–67), and chairman of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1975). Active internationally, his negotiating skills and deep scientific knowledge were highly valued, and he helped to achieve international consensus on various fundamental issues in electrical measurement. In 1963 he had become the second person from Australia to be elected to the eighteen-member International Committee on Weights and Measures, serving as president (1968–80) of its consultative committee on electricity.

Lehany was short of stature, firm of eye, square-jawed, and solidly built. He would have been a formidable opponent in the boxing ring but in his later years was a recreational bowls player. A modest man, straightforward in his dealings with others but firm when he deemed it necessary, he was both trusted and respected by those with whom he dealt. In his later years he suffered increasingly from heart problems. On 6 August 1994 he died of cancer at his home in Hunters Hill, Sydney, and was cremated. His wife, and their three sons and one daughter survived him.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Blevin, Bill. ‘Obituary: Frederick John Lehany, 1915–1994.’ Australian & New Zealand Physicist 32 no 4 (April 1995): 63–64
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Historical Directory of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, 1926 to 1976. Canberra: CSIRO, 1978
  • Personal communication with ADB subject
  • Todd, Jan. For Good Measure: The Making of Australia’s Measurement System. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2004

Additional Resources

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Lehany, Frederick John (Fred) (1915–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 18 January 2019.

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