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Eric Henry Stoneley Burhop (1911–1980)

by R. W. Home

This article was published:

Eric Henry Stoneley Burhop (1911-1980), by E. L. Cranstone, 1941

Eric Henry Stoneley Burhop (1911-1980), by E. L. Cranstone, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 006204 [detail]

Eric Henry Stoneley Burhop (1911-1980), physicist, was born on 31 January 1911 in Hobart, third child of Henry Augustus Burhop and his wife Bertha, née Head, both Salvation Army officers. His parents' evangelistic duties resulted in the family moving frequently during Eric's early years. He attended Ballarat and Melbourne high schools, and won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1931; B.A., 1932; M.Sc., 1933). After completing his undergraduate degrees with first-class honours, he undertook a master's degree in natural philosophy. His thesis involved a critical survey of the new, quantum mechanical theory of the production of band spectra from diatomic molecules, together with a difficult but successful experimental study of the probability of ionizing atoms and generating X-rays by electron impact. Burhop was awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship and went to the University of Cambridge to work in the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rutherford.

At Cambridge the investigation of the atomic nucleus was entering a new era. In 1932 one of two new, fundamental particles discovered in that year, the neutron, had been found by researchers at the Cavendish and the first artificial nuclear disintegration had also been carried out there. Burhop was assigned an experimental project on deuteron-deuteron disintegrations that linked closely with research that Rutherford himself had been doing in collaboration with the Australian (Sir) Mark Oliphant who became Burhop's supervisor. At the same time and place, Burhop also collaborated with another Melbourne graduate (Sir) Harrie Massey in extending the approach to quantum theory developed by the Cambridge theorist P. A. M. Dirac to analyse the inner-shell ionization of atoms. This research linked in with Burhop's previous work on X-rays and also led him to consider the related phenomenon of radiationless emission of electrons, the so-called Auger effect, on which he subsequently became a leading authority.

Actively involved in the intense, left-wing political discussions that were then a feature of Cambridge life, Burhop thereafter devoted considerable time to promoting socialist ideals, being particularly concerned with the role and responsibility of the scientist in society. The Australian security service was to open a file on him; in 1948 his application for the chair of physics at the University of Adelaide was rejected, allegedly on account of his political views; and in 1951 British authorities briefly impounded his passport before backing down in the face of the ensuing publicity.

In 1936 Burhop had returned to Melbourne. On 23 December that year at Thornbury he married Winifred Ida Stevens with Salvation Army forms. He took up a lectureship at the University of Melbourne where Professor T. H. Laby was anxious to see work in nuclear physics introduced into his department. Using apparatus he had brought with him from England, Burhop established Australia's first research programme in this area. The early fruits of his work were incorporated into his Cambridge Ph.D. (1938), completed in Melbourne under Laby's supervision. In mid-1939 Burhop successfully commissioned a 300-kev accelerator producing a homogeneous neutron beam that was intended to underpin future work by his group. He also continued, by correspondence, his collaboration with Massey on the theory of ionization of atoms. In addition to contributing lectures on modern physics to the department's undergraduate teaching programme, he offered special courses on quantum mechanics for postgraduates.

With the outbreak of World War II Burhop worked on the production of optical munitions for the Australian armed services. In 1942 he transferred to the Radiophysics Laboratory in Sydney where he joined a group investigating the production of resonant cavity magnetrons. He later returned with (Sir) Leslie Martin to the University of Melbourne and helped Oliphant, who was visiting Australia, to set up a pilot plant to produce magnetrons and klystrons for use in Australian-made radar equipment. In May 1944 Burhop went to the United States of America to join the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. He joined the British group led by Massey, and worked at Berkeley, California, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on the separation of uranium isotopes by electromagnetic means. With David Bohm and others, he carried out theoretical analyses of the atomic collision processes involved.

After the war, Burhop became lecturer in mathematics in Massey's department at University College, London. He was promoted to reader in 1949. When Massey transferred to the department of physics, Burhop went with him. He was professor of physics by conferment of title in 1960-78.

In his postwar research Burhop further extended his work on atomic collisions, co-authoring with Massey the well-known treatise, Electronic and Ionic Impact Phenomena (1952). He devoted most of his energy, however, to investigating the nucleus and the sub-nuclear realm. In 1957, with C. F. Powell and G. P. S. Occhialini, he established the long-running European K-meson collaboration, which used large nuclear-emulsion stacks to study the interactions with nuclei of K-mesons produced by high-energy accelerators. He was involved in several other large-scale, international collaborations. At the European Centre for Nuclear Research (C.E.R.N.), near Geneva, Switzerland, he served as secretary (1962-63) of a committee to advise on future European accelerator developments and drafted its highly influential Amaldi Report. In a collaboration at C.E.R.N. in 1973, his University College bubble-chamber group discovered the so-called neutral currents in weak interactions, an important step towards the subsequent unified theory of weak and electromagnetic forces. In 1975-76 Burhop led two major experiments, one at Fermilab in the U.S.A., the other at C.E.R.N., using a combination of emulsion with spark chamber or bubble chamber to detect short-lived, charmed particles produced in neutrino interactions in the emulsion. The results were important theoretically and the technique was widely imitated.

A foundation member (1939) of the Australian Association of Scientific Workers, Burhop was concerned to see that the vast, new power that had been unleashed in 1945 was not misused. He helped to establish the British Atomic Scientists Association and was in demand as a public speaker on the subject of atomic energy. In the mid-1950s he played an important role in the negotiations between Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Bertrand Russell, which led to the founding of the Pugwash conferences, held in Nova Scotia, Canada. He was elected a fellow (1963) of the Royal Society, London, and was its Rutherford memorial lecturer in 1979. A founder (1969) of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science and president (1971-80) of the World Federation of Scientific Workers, he was awarded the Joliot-Curie medal of the World Peace Council in 1966, the Lenin International Prize for Peace in 1972, and Bulgaria's Order of Cyril and Methodius in 1973.

Tall and well made, with a strong sense of compassion, Burhop was good at dealing with people, and at organization and administration. He was a prodigiously hard worker, but also a devoted family man. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of empyema complicating stomach cancer on 22 January 1980 at Camden, London.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Left Review, Mar 1980, p 47
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 27, 1981, p 131
  • Times (London), 24 Jan 1980
  • H. de Berg, interview with Eric Burhop (transcript, 1970, National Library of Australia)
  • Burhop ASIO file, A6119, item XR1/50 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Burhop appointments file (University College, London).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Burhop, Eric Henry Stoneley (1911–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Eric Henry Stoneley Burhop (1911-1980), by E. L. Cranstone, 1941

Eric Henry Stoneley Burhop (1911-1980), by E. L. Cranstone, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 006204 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


31 January, 1911
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


22 January, 1980 (aged 68)
London, Middlesex, England

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.