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Sir John Philip Baxter (1905–1989)

by Philip Gissing

This article was published:

Sir John Philip Baxter (1905-1989), chemical engineer and vice-chancellor, was born on 7 May 1905 in Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire, Wales, younger child of John Baxter, a post-office engineer, and his wife Mary Netta, née Morton. After moving with his family to England, Philip attended Hereford High School for Boys. He passed the Northern Universities’ matriculation exam at age 14 and that of the University of London at age 16. Entering the University of Birmingham (B.Sc., 1925; M.Sc., 1926; Ph.D., 1928), he gained first-class honours in chemistry and was awarded the James Watt research fellowship. His Ph.D. thesis, on the combustion of carbonic oxide, was supervised by Professor F. H. Burstall. Baxter’s degrees gave him professional standing as a chemical engineer, there being at that time no separate university courses in that field.

On Burstall’s recommendation, Baxter joined Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd and began work as a research engineer at Billingham, County Durham. He became a member of the dramatic society in nearby Stockton-on-Tees, where he met Lilian May Thatcher, who was working as a stenographer. They married on 17 August 1931 in Stockton’s register office. Following his appointment that year as research manager of the central laboratory in ICI’s new general chemicals division, the Baxters moved to Widnes. His rapid rise continued when, in 1935, he was promoted to research manager of the whole division, which employed twelve thousand people. He served on the Widnes municipal council (1939-49) and chaired the Conservative Party organisation in the parliamentary constituency.

At Widnes Baxter concentrated on the development of new products involving chlorine and fluorine. This work led most notably to the new insecticide gamma benzene hexachloride (Lindane) and culminated in several patents bearing Baxter’s name as sole inventor. The direction of his research changed when, early in 1940, the refugee physicists (Sir) Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch canvassed the possibility of a `super-bomb’ based on a nuclear chain reaction in uranium. Baxter’s involvement began with a personal request from the physicist (Sir) James Chadwick at Liverpool for some uranium hexafluoride for research purposes, which Baxter duly produced. Chadwick later recalled that Baxter’s help prepared the way for the wider participation of ICI. By the end of 1940, as a member of a panel responsible for chemical research, Baxter was immersed in the nuclear energy field, which was to dominate his subsequent career.

In 1944 Baxter was appointed to the position of research director for general chemicals. That summer he visited Oak Ridge, Tennessee, United States of America, for three months, to give advice on chemical engineering problems associated with the extraction of enriched uranium from the electromagnetic isotope plant. At the request of the Americans, he subsequently went back to Oak Ridge for the duration of the war, taking three colleagues with him.

On his return to England, Baxter took up his appointment as a delegate director of the general chemicals division at ICI. Early in 1947 the British government decided to build its own nuclear weapons, and planned an atomic pile to produce the necessary supplies of plutonium. Baxter and his team at Widnes assisted with the development of the chemical separation plant needed to extract the plutonium.

In 1949 Baxter accepted the post of foundation professor of chemical engineering at the New South Wales University of Technology, Kensington, Sydney. He arrived in Sydney in January 1950 and settled with his family at Enfield, where he remained until his death. The early years of the university were troubled by disputes over autonomy and academic independence. Baxter consistently stood apart from his disgruntled fellow professors and sided with the council, headed by the president, Wallace Wurth, who was also chairman of the New South Wales Public Service Board. Early critics were troubled by the association in the university’s name of the concepts `university’ and `technology’, arguing that the limited educational scope implied by the latter term precluded the use of the former. The fact that the first professorial appointments were to the Department of Technical Education, rather than to an administratively autonomous institution, rankled with those who wanted to belong to a `real’ university.

In June 1951 these grievances were set out in a `Prayer to the Council’, signed by four of the foundation professors, which urged immediate discussions with a view to full autonomy from the Public Service Board by 1952. Baxter did not sign, and in his own later reflections praised the experience and wisdom of the president and council members who `worked for autonomy at the proper time’. The authors of the prayer may have quoted Cardinal Newman to the effect that `a university is not a school or a group of schools, but an atmosphere’, but Baxter urged the advantages of allowing the State government to continue to provide such services as the library, purchasing, maintenance, accounts and building planning.

In February 1952 Baxter was appointed deputy-director of the university. Elected by council in December 1952 he became director, defeating the incumbent Arthur Denning, who was also the director of the Department of Technical Education. Denning had argued that the university should maintain close links with the department from which it had grown. Baxter’s victory was thus a partial success for those advocating greater autonomy for the university, although in many ways he was at odds with his colleagues from a more traditional academic background. He had spent his working life in industry undertaking proprietary research and had little sympathy with traditional views on the functions and organisation of a university.

Autonomy was achieved on 1 July 1954, and the following year Baxter became vice-chancellor when the titles of senior positions were brought into line with those at other universities. Sir Keith Murray’s committee on Australian universities recommended in 1957 that the State’s second medical school be established at Kensington. This proposal prompted a name change in 1958 to the University of New South Wales, and a widening of the university’s charter to permit the council to establish additional faculties.

Baxter remained vice-chancellor until 1969, at which time his successor, Professor (Sir) Rupert Myers, referred to him as the `essential founder’ of the university. Baxter had worked hard to build up the university in an attempt to achieve economies of scale. Some observers in the mid-1960s may have bewailed the joyless utilitarianism of the Kensington campus (in 1963, UNSW had ten thousand students), but Baxter’s desire for growth also stemmed from a perception of the needs of postwar Australia. He often returned to the theme of the shortage of appropriately trained engineers and technologists, and saw the rapid expansion of technological training as holding out the only hope for the country’s development. Believing that the task of universities was to train highly skilled people for industry, he sometimes expressed regret when good students returned to the academic fold after only a brief period outside. An innovation that reflected his background was the creation of Unisearch Ltd, a subsidiary company of the university that offered its expertise and resources to industry and government.

Baxter also lamented what he saw as excessive failure rates at UNSW, which, from an industrial point of view, amounted to wasted effort. His critics argued that as a result of his drive to build up the university, students were being admitted without satisfying normal matriculation requirements. In their view, these students pushed up the failure rates or required a disproportionate allocation of resources to get them through their courses. Baxter, on the other hand, stressed the deficiencies of academic administrative machinery, teaching and the examination process. By doing so, he fell foul of some of his colleagues.

Tensions also arose over differing views of university governance. Baxter favoured clear lines of executive authority, with the deans directly involved in the formation and implementation of university policy. In 1957 he set up a committee of deans which met weekly, with the bursar and registrar, under his personal chairmanship. By 1960 this body was reconstituted as the vice-chancellor’s advisory committee, giving the vice-chancellor an administrative vehicle free from the constraints of formal faculty or board meetings. Baxter supported the system whereby deans were not elected by faculty, but appointed by council on the recommendation of the vice-chancellor. This form of governance did not sit well with the notion of a dean as the primus inter pares with his academic colleagues.

In 1950 Baxter had been appointed a member of the Industrial Atomic Energy Policy Committee, soon after it was established. In November 1952 the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, under the chairmanship of (Sir) Jack Stevens and with Baxter as his deputy, was created as an administrative agency pending the passing of the necessary legislation in 1953. Baxter and (Sir) Frederick White of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization left on a fact-finding tour of Britain, the United States and Canada in June 1953, returning three months later with a proposal for the establishment of research laboratories. After Baxter’s next visit to England, in 1954, when he was accompanied by Stevens and Professor (Sir) Leslie Martin from Melbourne, the government approved the inclusion of a reactor project in the commission’s proposed research program. The reactor was to be modelled on the E.443 heavy-water reactor at Harwell, England. The government also approved the commission’s stated goal of developing means for the economic production of nuclear power and settled on Lucas Heights in Sydney’s south as the site for the research establishment.

In August-September 1954 the New South Wales University of Technology hosted a symposium on `Atomic Power in Australia’. It led to a confrontation between Baxter and Professor Harry Messel, head of physics at the University of Sydney, whose desire to build a low-power experimental reactor in his department was well known. In response to a question, Baxter told Messel that he favoured building a `real reactor, not a low-power toy’. The symposium set the tone for Baxter’s future involvement in Australia’s push to join the `nuclear club’. By 1954 he was both the director of the New South Wales University of Technology, and at the centre of government involvement with nuclear power. From that time on, he combined the two roles, often explicitly trying to link the work of the university to the broader questions of national development which were the province of the commission. Even before Baxter became part-time chairman of the AAEC in 1956, on Stevens’s resignation, it was clear that he was the driving force behind its research program. He became full-time chairman in 1969 when he retired from UNSW.

Baxter was attempting to realise his own vision of a technologically sophisticated and self-sufficient Australia, able to defend itself in what he saw as an increasingly hostile world. In practical terms, this vision took the shape of studies at Lucas Heights of two power reactor concepts: a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor system and a liquid metal fuel reactor system. Investigations into the first continued into the 1960s, despite increasing concerns about its economic viability. From the beginning, Baxter saw the military potential of nuclear power, and wanted Australia to have the capacity to build its own nuclear deterrent. These concerns were sharpened by events in Vietnam, and a mistrust of American willingness to defend Australia in the event of invasion from the north.

At a technical level, Baxter argued for Australia’s first nuclear power station to be fuelled by natural uranium, to avoid any need to rely on enriched fuel from overseas. Further, reliance on overseas technology would also make Australia beholden to any safeguards and inspection regimes, such as those proposed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Joining the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom in 1966, he adopted a more forthright public stance on nuclear and defence policy. His efforts behind the scenes accorded with the views of the prime minister (Sir) John Gorton. The Federal government decided to build a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay, New South Wales, but the project was deferred indefinitely by the McMahon government in 1971. Baxter was the Australian member on the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors at its creation in 1957 and again in 1964-72. He was elected chairman for 1969-70.

On his retirement as chairman of the AAEC in 1972, Baxter was left with just one significant public role, that of chairman (1969-75) of the Sydney Opera House Trust. Throughout his life he had maintained an active interest in the theatre. He acted in and directed plays while at UNSW (including The Devil’s Disciple by his beloved George Bernard Shaw), and succeeded in attracting the National Institute of Dramatic Art to Kensington. His own vision of the possible prospect for Australia in a new world order was set out in a play, `The Day the Sun Rose in the West’, written in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Although never published, it stood as a heartfelt if rather grim view of what its author saw as the consequences of the failure of his political masters to take the difficult decisions that were required for defence and national development.

Baxter was appointed OBE in 1946, CMG in 1959 and KBE in 1965 for services to science and engineering. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (1950), the Institution of Engineers, Australia (1952), the Australian Academy of Science (1954) and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering Ltd (1976), and was an honorary corresponding member of the Royal Society of Arts (1969). He was a member (1973-75) of the council of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences. He also received a number of honorary doctorates from various universities: laws from Montreal (1958); science from Newcastle (1966), Queensland (1967) and New South Wales (1971); and technology from Loughborough (1970). The Institution of Production Engineers gave him the (Sir) James N. Kirby award in 1965 and the University of Melbourne conferred on him the (W. C.) Kernot medal in 1966.

By the early 1970s Baxter was the target of a great deal of animosity. His opponents regarded him as reactionary, autocratic and manipulative, perhaps even callously immoral. In April 1972 Bishop David Garnsey, the president of the Australian Council of Churches, branded as `barbaric’ Baxter’s comments that Australia should consider using chemical and nuclear weapons to keep out refugees in the event of a global disaster. On the other hand, Baxter inspired feelings of loyalty from former students and colleagues, and was a close confidant of senior government figures for over twenty years. The tensions of his public career stemmed largely from his profoundly anti-democratic cast of mind. He argued that, in the event of a global crisis, it would be foolish to consult the wishes of the population at large, and that hard decisions must be left in the hands of those best equipped to make them.

An estimation of his career should not give too much weight to the controversy that dogged his later years in the public arena. His considerable achievements as a researcher, teacher and administrator, associated with some of the most significant events of the twentieth century, must also be added to the balance. That he was not a soulless technocrat is shown by his encouragement of attempts at UNSW and elsewhere to bridge the divide between C. P. (Lord) Snow’s `Two Cultures’.

Survived by three of his four children, Sir Philip Baxter died on 5 September 1989 at Haberfield and was cremated. His wife Lilian, whom he had described as giving him `complete and loyal support on every occasion’, had died six weeks earlier. UNSW holds portraits of him by Judy Cassab and William Pidgeon. Like others of his generation, he had placed his faith in the capacity of science and technology to address human problems, and maintained at best a tolerance of traditional religion.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Gowing, Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945 (1964)
  • M. Gowing, Independence and Deterrence, vol 2 (1974)
  • W. J. Reader, Imperial Chemical Industries, vol 2 (1975)
  • B. Martin, Nuclear Knights (1980)
  • A. H. Willis, The University of New South Wales: The Baxter Years (1983)
  • A. Cawte, Atomic Australia 1944-1990 (1992)
  • Search, vol 6, no 9, 1975, p 365
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 8, no 3, 1990, p 183
  • P. Gissing, Sir Philip Baxter, Engineer (PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 1999)
  • Baxter papers (University of New South Wales Archives).

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Citation details

Philip Gissing, 'Baxter, Sir John Philip (1905–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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