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Ross, Alexander David (1883–1966)

by D. E. Hutchison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Alexander David Ross (1883-1966), physicist, was born on 7 September 1883 in Glasgow, Scotland, son of David Ross, rector of the Church of Scotland Training College, and his wife Marion, née Johnston. Unable to study medicine because of his father's early death, Alexander studied some subjects externally at the University of London but from 1902 was an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow (M.Sc., 1906; D.Sc., 1910) where he was Thompson research fellow (1905) and an assistant (1908-12). He was also Houldsworth research fellow for two summers at the University of Göttingen, Germany, where he ascended in a balloon to investigate atmospheric physics.

Ross studied the spectra of rare earths, magnetic properties of alloys and atmospheric physics; he discovered dysprosium in the solar spectrum. For his research into rare earths, stocks were sent to him by Sir William Crookes and Professor Georges Urbain. By the time of his appointment to the new University of Western Australia in 1912, Ross had published about thirty papers in physics and cognate subjects. He was foundation professor of mathematics and physics, relinquishing mathematics in 1929.

Ross's department had scant resources; the university was housed in tin sheds. Lacking facilities for research, he concentrated on undergraduate teaching and developing community interest in the university and in science; he was a widely travelled and popular public lecturer and broadcaster. His students respected his teaching skill and admired him, though out of earshot they imitated his Scottish accent and pronounced sibilants. Ross's dapper style, vitality and wit gave him presence.

An able administrator, he was a member of the university senate (1922-39), vice-chancellor (1918), and often dean of both arts and science. Ross also had wide-ranging public commitments; the most significant was his secretaryship (1924-43) and presidency (1944-45) of the Australian Institute of Physics in which he played a crucial role. He was three times president of the Royal Society of Western Australia; fellow, State president (1944-45) and national president (1948-50) of the Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia; Western Australian secretary of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science for many years; chairman (1944-55) of the State division of the Australian National Research Council; and a member of the National Testing Authority. Despite these responsibilities, Ross conducted research into ionospheric effects on radio transmissions at the Watheroo Magnetic Observatory, with which he maintained a close relationship. He influenced the choice of a site at Wallal, Western Australia, as the venue for the Crocker expedition of Lick Observatory and joined the expedition which observed the solar eclipse of 20 September 1922, confirming Einstein's prediction of the effect of gravity on light. Ross's department produced radium needles for local radiological treatment and in World War II performed optical munitions work. After the war his department developed research in X-ray diffraction.

As the university grew and staff became more specialized Ross was criticized for the scope of his interests. His successors in the physics department, while acknowledging his contributions, developed a stronger research capacity. It was felt that he should have retired before he did in 1952. He settled at Albany where he founded and promoted the Pan Indian Ocean Scientific Association.

Ross loved music; he had been on the University's music advisory board, was alternate delegate to the Australian Music Examination Board and president of the Perth Symphony Orchestra. He and his wife entertained visiting musicians and assisted the young Eileen Joyce and Lorna Sydney.

He was a fellow of several learned societies overseas and of the Royal Society of Arts, which awarded him a silver medal in 1951 for his London address, 'Physical science's contribution to Australian industrial development'. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1949.

In Glasgow Ross had met Euphemia Welch Murchie (1889-1971), a student of physics and geology. They were married at the University of Western Australia on 7 August 1913. Euphemia shared Ross's love of music. In the early days she lectured for him when he was absent and assisted with his talks in country towns; sometimes the halls were so small that she had to operate a magic lantern from outside, projecting slides through a window. Euphemia was a pioneer of the local kindergarten movement, a foundation member of the women's college fund committee and a member of the Women's College Council (1946-49). Active in the Girl Guides' Association, she became assistant state commissioner. Survived by their daughter, Alexander Ross died on 14 December 1966 and his wife on 12 May 1971; they were both cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Stewart, The Story of the Kindergarten in Western Australia 1911-1962 (Perth, nd)
  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • N. Stewart, St. Catherine's College (Perth, 1978)
  • Royal Society of Arts, Journal, 115 (1967)
  • Australian Physicist, 13, no 2, Feb 1976
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 Mar 1956
  • Ross papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. E. Hutchison, 'Ross, Alexander David (1883–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ross-alexander-david-8270/text14487, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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