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George Clifford James Dalton (1916–1961)

by Cameron Hazlehurst

This article was published:

George Clifford James Dalton (1916-1961), engineer, was born on 20 May 1916 at Te Awamutu, Waikato district, New Zealand, second of three sons of New Zealand-born parents George Dalton, carpenter, and his wife Jessie, née Robson, a schoolteacher. George became a successful builder; Jessie died while their boys were still at school. Having completed his schooling at Auckland Grammar School, Clifford read engineering at Auckland and Canterbury colleges, University of New Zealand (B.Sc., 1937; B.E., 1939). He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship for 1937. Stricken by poliomyelitis which ended his career as a Rugby Union footballer, he eventually entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1939.

On 17 October 1941 Dalton was commissioned in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Allocated to the Technical Branch, he was to carry out radar research until the end of the war. Late in 1941 he met a radar-operator in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, Catherine Robina, daughter of the writer Robert Graves, then known by her mother's maiden name of Nicholson. To the chagrin of a Danish girl who had thought Dalton's Rhodes scholarship an insuperable impediment to matrimony, Clifford and Catherine were married on 31 January 1942 at the register office, Aldershot.

Dalton was demobilized with the rank of squadron leader. He returned to Oxford and obtained his doctorate of philosophy in engineering in 1947. Allowed a 'semi-bachelor life' by his wife, he found time to coach Rugby, swim, and row despite a lame right leg. He eschewed industrial employment and joined the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. A paper he produced examining options for the development of the elusive fast-fission reactor impressed his new friend Klaus Fuchs and led to Dalton's appointment by Sir John Cockcroft as head of a fast-reactor group in the engineering division. The major design problems were quickly solved, but Britain faced a long delay before it would have enough plutonium to justify constructing the reactor.

In 1949 Dalton moved with his family to New Zealand where a chair in mechanical engineering at Auckland University College offered more challenge, 'more sunshine and better food'. Shortly after his appointment he took over as dean of engineering. He inherited an unhappy faculty situated at a desolate airfield site. His financial acumen, crisp administrative style, commitment to staff interests, rapport with students and considerable research reputation did much to restore morale. Continuing international consultancies, membership of the New Zealand Defence Scientific Advisory Council, and friendship with the vice-chancellor, brought growing influence. Impressed by his commanding personality and warmed by his 'equable temperament and a sense of humour that rarely deserted him', Dalton's colleagues were evidently oblivious to the regime of parsimony and neglect to which his wife alleged that she and their five children were subjected.

In 1955 Dalton was appointed chief engineer and deputy chief scientist of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. He brought his family to Sydney. Soon after he took them to England where he joined the chief scientist, fellow New Zealander Charles Watson-Munro, and sixty other A.A.E.C. staff who were seconded to Harwell for training. Always open minded about reactor systems, Dalton was now converted from fast reactors to high-temperature, gas-cooled systems. He advised Dutch authorities and industry on their research-reactor programme before returning with his family to Sydney. At the newly-built Research Establishment at Lucas Heights he worked closely with Watson-Munro from September 1957 on developing the high-flux, heavy-water-moderated reactor (HIFAR).

By late 1957 symptoms of the cancer from which Dalton was to die were apparent. As early as 1955 his wife had also been distressed by what she later claimed to have diagnosed as his schizophrenic behaviour. According to her, Dalton's 'indomitable nature', forthright utterance and 'obvious integrity' to which his colleagues attested were accompanied by caprice and violence in his private life. Although convinced of Clifford's infidelity and concerned for her children's safety, Catherine would not divorce or abandon a husband whose sickness she attributed to poisoning by malevolent elements of the intelligence community.

When he succeeded Watson-Munro as director of the Research Establishment in March 1960, Dalton brought to the task what the A.A.E.C. deputy executive commissioner M. C. Timbs was to call 'the full powers of a singularly lucid, penetrating and scientifically sophisticated mind'. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, Dalton died on 17 July 1961 at Sutherland District Hospital, Caringbah, and was cremated. Sir Mark Oliphant noted that few men trained in traditional applied science had 'so readily adapted themselves to the new engineering of electronics and nuclear power'.

Dalton's contribution to radar and atomic-power research cannot be assessed until official archives are open. His widow's conviction that he was murdered for refusing to stop helping the Dutch to break the American monopoly on nuclear-enriched fuel is rejected by informed contemporaries. But it would not be surprising if the Western nuclear establishment and its associated intelligence community had been apprehensive about so powerful a mind allied to the 'abnormal political innocence' to which Catherine Dalton testified.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bassett, The School of Engineering, University of Auckland, 1906-1969 (Auckland, 1969)
  • C. R. Dalton, Without Hardware (Canb, 1970)
  • G. Hartcup and T. E. Allibone, Cockcroft and the Atom (Bristol, 1984)
  • Atomic Energy, 4, no 3, July 1961, p 2
  • Atom, no 59, Sept 1961, p 14
  • Australian Journal of Science, 24, no 5, Nov 1961, p 232
  • Auckland University Engineers' Association Annual Bulletin, vol 18, 1981, pp 27, 46, vol 19, 1982, p 24
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 8, no 3, 1991, p 183
  • Times (London), 18 July 1961
  • correspondence from Mr M. C. Timbs, Prof C. M. Segedin, Dr J. A. Goedkoop, Prof A. G. Bogle, Dr J. Bretherton and Ms L. Arnold, and taped reminiscences of Prof A. Titchener, Aug 1992, and Mr F. N. Kirton, Sept 1992 (held by author).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cameron Hazlehurst, 'Dalton, George Clifford James (1916–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 April 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

Life Summary [details]


20 May, 1916
Te Awamuti, New Zealand


17 July, 1961 (aged 45)
Caringbah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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