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Sir William Ian Clunies Ross (1899–1959)

by C. B. Schedvin

This article was published:

William Ian Clunies Ross (1899-1959), by unknown photographer

William Ian Clunies Ross (1899-1959), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12107347-23

Sir William Ian Clunies Ross (1899-1959), veterinary scientist and administrator, was born on 22 February 1899 at Bathurst, New South Wales, fourth and youngest son of William John Clunies Ross, teacher, and his wife Hannah Elizabeth, née Tilley. William's father Robert was a sea captain from Scotland and a brother of John Clunies Ross who settled on the Cocos-Keeling Islands in 1827 and 'founded a tiny Malay kingdom'. Hannah's father, an evangelist, was born of farming stock in England; Hannah's mother came from the distressed Irish Protestant gentry and shared her husband's evangelism. Born in Australia, Hannah was a schoolteacher before her marriage. Her brother was W. H. Tilly.

Resident master at Bathurst branch technical school, William combined enthusiasm for science with an egalitarian disposition. He was 48 when his fourth son was born, and Ian's feelings towards him were more those of respect than affection. Ian was especially close to his mother, who taught him in his early years and imbued him with a sense of social decorum and a keen, progressive drive. Home life was warm and supportive, although Ian seems to have been acutely conscious of the marked differences in style and temperament between his parents.

In 1903 the family moved to Summer Hill, Sydney, and four years later to the outer suburb of Ashfield where Ian developed a keen interest in the plentiful local fauna. With his brother Rob, he devised an elaborate game based on the sale, at fanciful prices, of captured animals to zoos around the world. Educated at Newington College, Ian was an average student, and it was a surprise when he gained second-class honours in English in passing the Leaving certificate. His father's death in 1914 left the family in reduced circumstances. Rob and the elder brothers, Allan and Egerton, joined the Australian Imperial Force. In October 1918 news arrived that Egerton had died from pneumonic influenza and that Rob had been killed in action. It appears that Hannah exercised her legal right to prevent Ian from enlisting.

In 1917 Clunies Ross had enrolled in agricultural science at the University of Sydney, but in 1918 switched to veterinary science (B.V.Sc., 1921). By his own account he was a moderate scholar who was pleased to complete the course with second-class honours.

Despite the difficulty of establishing a practice, the times were opportune for an energetic veterinary graduate: the transformation of biological science and of human medicine before and during World War I was beginning to leave its mark on veterinary science. Clunies Ross spent 1921 as a temporary lecturer in veterinary anatomy at the university; next year he was appointed a Walter and Eliza Hall research fellow. In England he studied parasites at the Molteno Institute, Cambridge, and at the London School of Tropical Medicine. It marked a crucial phase of his life. For the next fifteen years the seemingly prosaic subject of parasitology was to enable him to build a national reputation as an applied scientist and one of Australia's best scientific communicators.

After a short visit to Poland, Clunies Ross returned to Australia in 1923 via the United States of America. In 1925 he tried unsuccessfully to start a veterinary practice in the heart of Sydney. He resumed research on parasites and undertook some part-time teaching at the university's veterinary school. The outlook was far from promising. Then, in 1926, the new Council for Scientific and Industrial Research decided to give its highest priority to research into the health and nutrition of animals, particularly sheep. Clunies Ross was appointed C.S.I.R. parasitologist. He continued to work at the veterinary school until the F. D. McMaster Animal Health Laboratory, built adjacent to the school, was officially opened in November 1931. Clunies Ross became officer-in-charge. After a lengthy courtship, on 6 October 1927 at the Catholic Apostolic Church, Redfern, he had married Janet Leslie Carter, an honours graduate in English.

As a scientist and a public figure, Clunies Ross showed special strength in exploring the interconnections between disparate phenomena. His early work involved an understanding of the relationship between host and parasite. He soon broadened his interest to the links between applied science and the pastoral industry, to the nexus between science and society, and to Australia's place in international affairs. Using his experience of science and industry, he sought to build a richer, more diverse and better educated society, and one that would enjoy a closer involvement with other countries.

Clunies Ross was primarily concerned with the application of science, less with science for its own sake. His early research focussed on two of the most severe health problems of the pastoral industry, the liver fluke, Fasciola hepatica, and the hydatid parasite, Echinococcus granulosus. In co-operation with graziers, he established field-stations to test ways of controlling parasites and to gather information about the incidence of disease. Research was also undertaken to investigate the dog tick, Ixodes holocyclus, prevalent in the bush around Sydney, and a reasonably effective method of immunizing dogs was developed. He was extension worker as much as scientist, and played an important part in building the reputation of C.S.I.R. in the pastoral districts of New South Wales. The university awarded him a D.V.Sc. (1928) for his work on hydatids, and, during his career as a researcher, he published over fifty scientific papers. With H. McL. Gordon, he wrote The Internal Parasites and Parasitic Diseases of Sheep (1936).

One of Clunies Ross's outstanding qualities was that of leadership. Able to identify and nurture the strengths of those around him, he influenced the careers of such prominent wool researchers as H. B. Carter, M. R. Freney, Menzie Lipson, F. G. Lennox, E. H. Mercer and Helen Newton Turner. Clunies Ross was also responsible for expanding the research interests of the McMaster laboratory to encompass genetics, a neglected field in a country relying heavily on animal production.

As part of C.S.I.R.'s policy of enabling its young scientists to gain experience abroad, Clunies Ross had spent almost a year from June 1929 studying parasites at the Government Institute for Infectious Diseases at Tokyo Imperial University, an experience that deepened his interest in Japan and Asia generally. He was an active member of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, and, under its auspices, edited Australia and the Far East (1935). With the support of several pastoralists' organizations, for five months in 1935-36 he studied sheep and wool production in China, Japan, Korea and Manchuria. He concluded that Asian wool-growers did not present an early threat to their Australian counterparts.

In 1937 Australia, New Zealand and South Africa established the International Wool Publicity and Research Secretariat, based in London. Clunies Ross, by then well known as a publicist for the wool industry, was selected as Australia's representative, and made chairman. The secretariat had some success in the U.S.A., and the foundations were laid for its achievements in research and promotion in the postwar period. In November 1939 the University of Sydney appointed Clunies Ross professor of veterinary science, but he remained in London until July 1940 to complete his term at the secretariat.

World War II saw widening horizons and ambitious planning for the future. University teaching did not occupy Clunies Ross fully: the Australian Broadcasting Commission used him as a news commentator; in 1941 he was elected president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs; and, at the request of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, he prepared a booklet, Should We Plan for Peace? (1941). Next year he became adviser on scientific and technical personnel in the Commonwealth Manpower Directorate, a task that enabled him to widen his understanding of Australia's scientific resources.

In the final months of the war he devised a scheme for research and development in support of the wool industry. Because of the large stockpile and the growing threat from synthetics, the industry's prospects appeared gloomy. Clunies Ross put forward a scheme for a national wool industry council which would combine science, technology, publicity, economic research and education. He advocated research into all aspects of sheep and wool production, among them wool biology, nutrition, physiology (particularly reproduction), genetics, agrostology, economics and statistics, supported by a strong extension service. The grand plan did not survive the scrutiny of special interest groups and the concern about duplication, but many of the ingredients were adopted by the government, by C.S.I.R. and by its successor, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

On 1 January 1946 Clunies Ross was appointed a full-time member of C.S.I.R.'s executive committee, with general responsibility for the agricultural and biological divisions. He moved to Melbourne that year. In 1947-48 the institution came under intense political scrutiny because of allegations that it was lax in regard to security. C.S.I.R. underwent a minor reorganization, including the change in name to C.S.I.R.O. in 1949. The chairman Sir David Rivett retired and Clunies Ross replaced him on 19 May. He was selected for his breadth of vision, public prominence and his capacity to project the Enlightenment ideal of the unity of science and society.

Clunies Ross was at the height of his powers in his early years as head of C.S.I.R.O. Tall, with a full head of black hair, parted in the centre, and a handsome and mobile face, he was a figure of elegance and distinction. Reflecting C.S.I.R.O.'s dominance of Australian science and the sound foundations laid by Rivett, he was able to reap the benefits of a series of glittering successes. Radio astronomy, the discovery of the role of minor elements in animal and plant physiology, the dissemination of myxomatosis virus for the control of rabbits, and improvements in wool processing combined to propel the organization to national prominence. Clunies Ross played a personal role in the success of myxomatosis by selecting Francis Ratcliffe as officer-in-charge of the wildlife survey section; he supported him in the face of Dame Jean Macnamara's aspersions against C.S.I.R.O.'s professionalism and injected himself with the virus to demonstrate that it was harmless to humans.

As a visionary, Clunies Ross was mostly concerned with C.S.I.R.O.'s broad strategy. The organization received strong support from the minister-in-charge R. G. (Baron) Casey. Clunies Ross maintained a relentless round of public-speaking engagements and rarely refused an invitation. His oration on the occasion of the centenary of the University of Sydney drew attention to the serious under-financing of higher education. He was genuinely concerned about the future of the university system, but also wished to deflect criticism of C.S.I.R.O.'s superior funding. In 1957 he served as a member of Sir Keith Murray's committee on Australian universities and was largely responsible for the first draft of its report.

Towards the end of his career Clunies Ross was showered with honours. He was appointed C.M.G., elected a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and knighted—all in 1954. At the University of Melbourne, he was first chairman of International House and deputy-chancellor (1958). Clunies Ross was troubled by angina in the late 1940s and in 1957. He suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and coronary attacks in September 1958, but continued as C.S.I.R.O. chairman. In April 1959 he began a diary, later published in his Memoirs and Papers (Melbourne, 1961). Survived by his wife, three sons and adopted daughter, Sir Ian died of atherosclerotic heart disease on 20 June 1959 in Melbourne and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

After his death the Sheep Biology Laboratory at Prospect, New South Wales, was named the Ian Clunies Ross Animal Research Laboratory. When issued in 1973, the $50 note celebrated the achievement of two Australian scientists, Sir Ian Clunies Ross and Baron Florey. The Ian Clunies Ross Memorial Foundation was established in 1959. The National Science Centre at Parkville, Melbourne, was designated Clunies Ross House in 1968: the building featured a majestic mural by Robert Ingpen (commissioned by the Australian Veterinary Association) which depicted the three main phases of Clunies Ross's life—as scientist, administrator and public figure. All these tributes were indications that he, more than any other Australian scientist, symbolized the hopes and aspirations of a generation.

Select Bibliography

  • C. B. Schedvin, Shaping Science and Industry (Syd, 1987)
  • Australian Veterinary Journal, Oct 1968, p 467
  • Records of Australian Academy of Science, 3, no 3-4, 1977.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. B. Schedvin, 'Clunies Ross, Sir William Ian (1899–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 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

William Ian Clunies Ross (1899-1959), by unknown photographer

William Ian Clunies Ross (1899-1959), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12107347-23

Life Summary [details]


22 February, 1899
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia


20 June, 1959 (aged 60)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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