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Makinson, Richard Elliss (Dick) (1913–1979)

by Eric Aarons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Richard Elliss Bodenham (Dick) Makinson (1913-1979), physicist and communist, was born on 5 May 1913 at Burwood, Sydney, second son of native-born parents Patrick Raymond Makinson, bank manager, and his wife Kathleen Marion, née Bodenham. Dick attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and obtained first-class honours in English and physics at the 1930 Leaving certificate examinations. Enrolling in engineering at the University of Sydney, he gained eight high distinctions in two years, then switched to science (B.Sc., 1935). Having won the Norbert Quirk prize, and the Barker and the Deas Thomson scholarships, he graduated with first-class honours, the John Coutts scholarship, and university medals for mathematics (1934) and physics (1935). In England he undertook postgraduate research at St John's College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1939), and became a fellow of the Institute of Physics. With fascism threatening democracy, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and, on his return home in 1939, that of Australia.

Makinson took up an appointment as assistant-lecturer in physics at the University of Sydney on 1 February 1939. His field was solid state physics, but his interests and talents were wide, encompassing work and published papers on nuclear physics and quantum theory, radiophysics (especially on radar during World War II), the photo-electric effect and the theory of diffraction. An accomplished teacher, he was attentive to the needs and possibilities of his students. Despite his mathematical knowledge, he always focused on the physical realities reflected in formulae.

At the district registrar's office, North Sydney, on 16 August 1939 Makinson married Kathleen Rachel White, a science student whom he had met in England; she was to work for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Dick and Rachel were active in the Sydney University Labor Club and the Sydney branch of the Australian Association of Scientific Workers. Aware that they had visited the Soviet Union in 1938, Commonwealth security officers kept them under surveillance. Makinson belonged to the Australia-U.S.S.R. Society (and its forerunners) until his death, and to the Federation of Scientific & Technical Workers; he was also an executive-member of the Australian Peace Council. In 1946 he was favoured to succeed O. U. Vonwiller as professor of physics, but the university was subjected to pressure to reject him because of his political beliefs. Similar refusals of appointment were made by the universities of Queensland and Adelaide in 1948, and by the New South Wales University of Technology in 1949.

Shortly before the atomic tests at Monte Bello islands, W. C. Wentworth made an intemperate speech in the House of Representatives on 5 June 1952 in which he accused Makinson of 'conducting what was virtually a campaign of treason on the highest level' while holding a lectureship in physics at the university. Such criticism, and the sense of being spied on by intelligence agents, affected Makinson deeply, preventing him from fully developing his research and teaching skills. A man of integrity, he maintained to the end the beliefs he had formed as a young man, despite the regrets he felt at the sullying of those ideals by Stalinism abroad and its echoes at home. He was essentially a rationalist who believed in the ultimate triumph of the scientific method—in politics and economics, as well as in science itself. In 1968 Makinson was appointed associate-professor in physics at Macquarie University, where he was prominent in opposing the Vietnam War. He developed (1978) an electronic calculator for the blind which enabled the results to be read in braille or heard in synthesized speech.

A tall, slim man, with rather broad and slightly hunched shoulders, sandy hair and blue eyes, Makinson had a lively, if rather simple, sense of humour. He loved folk music, estuary fishing, making things in his workshop, and chats with colleagues. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of cancer on 15 January 1979 in hospital at Wahroonga and was cremated. Macquarie University set up the Dick Makinson physics prize in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1952, p 1619
  • Australian Left Review, no 69, June 1979, p 41
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Jan, 19 Mar 1931, 28 Apr 1934, 7 June 1952, 16 Jan 1979
  • ASIO, AG 119/79, item 1219 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Makinson papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Eric Aarons, 'Makinson, Richard Elliss (Dick) (1913–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 January 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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