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Martin, Sir Leslie Harold (1900–1983)

by R. W. Home

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Leslie Martin, by Norman Wodetzki, 1970

Leslie Martin, by Norman Wodetzki, 1970

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2238

Sir Leslie Harold Martin (1900-1983), physicist, was born on 21 December 1900 at Footscray, Melbourne, only surviving child of Victorian-born parents Henry Richard Martin, railway worker, and his wife Esther (Ettie) Emily, née Tutty. Les’s father died in 1913 and money was always scarce for the family. From Essendon High School he won a junior scholarship to Melbourne High School (1917-18), and then a senior government scholarship to the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1921; M.Sc., 1922). Enrolling first to train as a science teacher, he transferred to regular science after obtaining first-class honours in second-year natural philosophy (physics). His master’s research, which also won first-class honours, was part of a wider program on X-rays being developed under Professor T. H. Laby and involved an investigation of the absorption spectrum of the rare earth element erbium.

On 13 February 1923 at St James’s Church of England, Ivanhoe, Martin married Gladys Maude Elaine Bull, a music student at the university. Instead of completing her degree, she accompanied him to England after he was awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship. Enrolling at the University of Cambridge (Ph.D., 1934), he became a member of Trinity College. Supervised by Sir Ernest (Baron) Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory and initially collaborating with E. C. Stoner in measuring the variation of absorption of X-rays with wavelength and atomic number, he then studied the characteristic X-rays emitted when different metals were excited by beams of various wavelengths. In his final year he was funded by an international research fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Appointed to a senior lectureship in physics at the University of Melbourne, Martin returned once his thesis was accepted in 1927. It took some time to assemble the apparatus he needed, but in due course he resumed research on X-rays. In 1934 he shared the David Syme research prize for his work on the Auger effect, the emission of electrons during the reorganisation of atoms after ionisation by X-rays.

Promoted to associate professor in 1937, Martin moved into nuclear physics. With E. H. S. Burhop he built Australia’s first particle accelerator, adapting a 230-kV high-tension DC power unit to accelerate deuterons onto a target of heavy water to generate a homogeneous beam of fast neutrons. Their success prompted Laby to start assembling funds for a small cyclotron.

The outbreak of World War II thwarted such ambitions, and Martin immediately switched to work for the army and air force. Associated with the Optical Munitions Panel, he led a group developing a height- and rangefinder for anti-aircraft use. In early 1942 he and Burhop were seconded to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s radiophysics laboratory in Sydney, joining Australia’s secret wartime radar project. There he tackled problems associated with the manufacture of magnetrons and other electronic valves. His mastery of the necessary vacuum techniques was displayed in a small book he later wrote with R. D. Hill, A Manual of Vacuum Practice (1947). As deputy-chief of the CSIR’s division of radiophysics (1942-44), he divided his time between Sydney and the laboratory, relocated to the University of Melbourne, that ensured the supply of valves crucial to the successful deployment of radar by Australia’s armed services.

On 1 January 1945, following Laby’s resignation, Martin became Chamber of Manufacturers professor of physics at the University of Melbourne. Committed to building his department into a recognised centre for research in nuclear physics, he proposed several co-operative investigations to the CSIR. While enormous resources were devoted to such research in the United States of America, Australians had no detailed information as to what was being done. As a first step it was agreed to maintain several technical support staff in his department. In the longer term, he and his team were established in the minds of government ministers and officials as the local authorities on nuclear science.

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945 heightened perceptions of the need to foster local expertise in this previously esoteric field. Automatically included in the discussions within CSIR, Martin was an inaugural appointee to the Defence Scientific Advisory Committee in 1946 and chairman of its atomic developments sub-committee. In 1947 the CSIR supported his travel to Britain to seek information about current developments. From 1948 to 1968 he served as defence scientific adviser and as chairman of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee. In 1949-52 he was a member of the Industrial Atomic Energy Policy Committee, formed by the Chifley government in its final months ‘to advise . . . on all aspects of the work to be undertaken in this field in Australia’.

Support for Martin’s own department’s research was not so forthcoming, beyond the establishment of a small group facilitating the use of radioactive tracers in biological research and industry. With colleagues he therefore embarked on a home-grown program of accelerator-building. The pre-war high-tension unit was revived; a table-model betatron was built and converted into an 18-MeV electron synchrotron; two Van der Graaf accelerators of 1-MeV and 700-keV rating were constructed out of cheap local materials; and then, in the 1950s, a locally designed 12-MeV variable-energy cyclotron was built. While the high-tension unit did not last, the other machines provided introductions to nuclear physics for several generations of postgraduate students.

A newcomer to work on the nucleus, Martin provided little sense of an overall strategy to guide such investigations. Still, these were boom years for physics everywhere: under Martin, the Melbourne department grew dramatically. He taught courses in atomic and nuclear physics and electromagnetism, but his involvement in research declined as he took on commitments elsewhere. Within the university, he was a member (1951-59) of the university council and chairman (1955-56) of the professorial board, and he served on many committees. Further afield, he was appointed in 1948 to the interim council of the Australian National University and in 1953 to the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, of which he was a commissioner in 1958-68. A trustee (1953-63, chairman 1962-63) of the Science Museum of Victoria, he was president (1952-53) of the Australian branch of the (British) Institute of Physics and a foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science. Appointed CBE (1954), he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, and knighted in 1957.

Martin had been an official Australian observer at the British atomic weapons tests at the Monte Bello islands, Western Australia, in 1952, and at Emu Field, South Australia, in 1953. When the Maralinga test range was established in 1955, he became chairman of the atomic weapons test safety committee. The committee’s responsibility to determine whether conditions were safe for a test to proceed brought Martin into conflict with the biochemist Hedley Marston, who argued that levels of radioactive contamination had been significantly understated. Under pressure from the government Martin was persuaded too easily to announce that there was ‘absolutely no danger’ to Australians from the 1956 tests. After standing down from the AWTSC in early 1957, he joined Sir Macfarlane Burnet on the national radiation advisory committee, established on their initiative to report on ‘the wider aspects of radio-activity’, including the biological hazards on radiation. He served on this committee until it was disbanded in 1973.

Rapid postwar growth had placed Australia’s State-funded universities under great stress. Following a 1957 report, the Federal government determined to commit substantial sums to their renewal, as matching funding to increased grants from the States. In 1959 Martin resigned his professorship to become the first chairman of the Australian Universities Commission, established to co-ordinate this development. He maintained an excellent working relationship with Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies and close relations with the States. The AUC’s first two reports (1960 and 1963) were accepted in full. Dramatic increases in resources and staff at existing institutions, the establishment of several new universities, and new buildings on campuses throughout the country led to a halcyon era for the universities.

Among the pressures facing universities was the increasing demand for student places. Following a recommendation from the AUC, in 1961 Menzies established a committee to inquire into the future of higher education in Australia. Martin was appointed chairman. The committee’s 1965 report—reflecting Menzies’ thinking and Martin’s Cambridge-inspired view of what a university should be—assumed that Australia could not afford to provide such an education for all those seeking to undertake tertiary studies. Acknowledging the country’s need for more technically trained people, the committee proposed the creation of colleges that would provide a high level of applied training, focusing on teaching rather than research. With the acceptance of the report, which shaped the nation’s higher-education sector until the late 1980s, the college sector also entered upon a period of rapid growth.

Seeing an active engagement in research as essential in a university, Martin was determined that some of the new money being distributed should be used to redress the lack of support for such activity in Australia. The AUC’s recommendations included grants earmarked for research, with the funds being allocated by the universities themselves. The creation of the Australian Research Grants Committee in 1965 meant that grants were henceforth made directly to competitively selected research projects. To Martin’s regret, the scheme came at the expense of the sum recommended by the AUC to provide general grants to the universities for research and postgraduate education.

Martin made a number of trips overseas during these years, seeking information about developments in higher education and in connection with his responsibilities as defence scientific adviser. Through the contacts he developed, he played a significant role in maintaining, at a technical level, Australia’s links with its allies. In May 1961 he visited Britain and was briefed on changing attitudes among defence planners towards the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In London and Washington in 1965, he discussed the possibility of Australia’s joining the Tripartite Technical Co-operation Programme under which information was shared between defence authorities in Britain, the USA and Canada. He subsequently became the Australian representative on the TTCP’s governing board. During this trip he also discussed with British authorities the prospects for a wider proliferation of nuclear weapons and Australia’s capacity to acquire an independent nuclear capability. His report on this matter sparked a reconsideration of the issues among senior defence planners in Australia.

In 1966 the AUC’s third report was rejected by both State and Commonwealth governments, wrestling with each other over financial responsibilities. With the commission then working in a more constrained environment, Martin retired later that year. In 1967-70 he served as dean and professor of physics in the faculty of military studies, Royal Military College, Duntroon, where his reputation went far towards winning academic acceptance for the college and smoothing relations with its military authorities. He took to lecturing again, overseeing the appointment of staff and encouraging them to develop research programs. He also chaired (1967-70) the Tertiary Education (Services’ Cadet Colleges) Committee, whose report led to the establishment of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Sir Leslie Martin was an urbane and friendly man of stocky build, who rose from humble beginnings to a position of power and influence from which he made major contributions to his country. His success depended largely on his character and the trust he engendered in others. The minute of appreciation prepared at the time of his resignation from the University of Melbourne noted that he was ‘a man of the utmost integrity and the most friendly of colleagues’. Others agreed. When Marston railed against Martin over his statement about radioactive fallout, (Sir) Mark Oliphant insisted that he was man of honour who would not knowingly have lied to the public. As chairman of the AUC, Martin had the full confidence of the prime minister. He also had that of the Australian defence hierarchy and of his opposite numbers in the defence establishments in London and Washington, who entrusted extremely sensitive information to him.

Martin’s contribution to Australian life was recognised by the award of several honorary degrees, including a D.Sc. (1959) and a LL.D (1970) from his alma mater. He retired again, and for the final time, in March 1971, and lived quietly in Canberra and then Melbourne. He suffered a stroke in 1979 that cost him much of his memory, but from which he otherwise made a good recovery. Survived by his wife and one of their two sons, he died on 1 February 1983 at Camberwell after declining slowly during the previous few months; he was cremated. In 2007 the University of Melbourne named its Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Management after him. His son Raymond (b.1926) was vice-chancellor (1977-87) of Monash University.

Select Bibliography

  • A. P. Gallagher, Coordinating Australian University Development (1982)
  • S. Davies, The Martin Committee and the Binary Policy of Higher Education in Australia (1989)
  • E. Muirhead, Leslie Martin at Melbourne (1998)
  • R. Cross, Fallout: Hedley Marston and the British Bomb Tests in Australia (2001)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 137, vol 7, no 1, 1987, p 97
  • R. W. Home, ‘The Rush to Accelerate’, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, vol 36, no 2, 2006, p 213
  • A1945, items 292/2/134 and 292/2/349, A6119, item 265 (National Archives of Australia).

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Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Martin, Sir Leslie Harold (1900–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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