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Sir Kerr Grant (1878–1967)

by S. G. Tomlin

This article was published:

Kerr Grant (1878-1967), by unknown photographer, c1925

Kerr Grant (1878-1967), by unknown photographer, c1925

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6075

Sir Kerr Grant (1878-1967), physicist and professor, was born on 26 June 1878 at Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, elder of two sons of William Grant, a Scottish flour-miller and grazier and his wife Janet Langlands, née Kerr. Kerr Grant won a scholarship to John O'Hara's South Melbourne College and in 1897 entered the University of Melbourne with a residential scholarship to Ormond College. He enrolled in engineering, but specialized in mathematics and won first-class honours (B.Sc., 1901; M.Sc., 1903). After lecturing at the Ballarat School of Mines for two years he returned to Melbourne as a tutor at Ormond. In 1904 he studied at the University of Göttingen where he mastered German, attended Felix Klein's lectures and was paired with Irving Langmuir in H. W. Nernst's practical classes. On vacation, he cycled from Paris to Rome.

Returning to Melbourne, Kerr Grant joined the university's natural philosophy department where he collaborated with Bertram Steele in the construction of a micro-balance sensitive to one-millionth of a milligramme. An account of this fine work was communicated to the Royal Society of London by Sir William Ramsay who built a Steele-Grant balance and used it to determine the atomic weight of radon. In 1909 Kerr Grant became acting professor of physics at the University of Adelaide following the resignation of (Sir) William Bragg and in 1911 he became Elder professor. A year earlier he had married Kate Macaulay Moffatt and they settled permanently in a large house in the suburb of St Peters.

During his long tenure of the chair, Kerr Grant established himself primarily as a teacher and a public figure. Among his students were (Sir) Hugh Cairns, (Lord) Howard Florey and (Sir) Mark Oliphant. He wrote in his Life and Work of Sir William Bragg (Brisbane, 1952) that research was 'regarded as a natural and unforced product of academic employment and intellectual interest; subordinate nevertheless, to the performance of the professor's contractual obligation to train his students in the discipline of his special science, and to serve the general public as an authority and consultant on whom reliance could be placed for trustworthy information or wise counsel in all matters relating to his particular province of expert knowledge'. This aptly summarizes his own credo. But he also engaged in several minor researches of which the most interesting was the organization, with G. F. Dodwell, the government astronomer, of an expedition to Cordillo Downs in north-east South Australia to observe the 1922 total solar eclipse, for the further verification of Einstein's theory of the deflection of light in a gravitational field. Although not entirely successful, the astronomer royal wrote of it that 'under the difficult conditions, you have every reason to be satisfied, and I offer heartiest congratulations'.

The most significant original work done in Kerr Grant's department stemmed from the year he spent in 1919, at Langmuir's invitation, in the laboratories at the General Electric Co. at Schenectady, United States of America. Kerr Grant was intrigued by Langmuir's work on molecular films and, on his return to Adelaide, successfully urged R. S. Burdon to study such films on mercury. In 1927 he visited Europe and Britain to inspect laboratories and universities, and purchased modern equipment for Adelaide. He was particularly impressed by the Radium Institute of the Vienna University. He went abroad again in 1931 and investigated developments in radium therapy for the treatment of cancer. On his return he reported his findings to the cancer research committee at the university.

In World War II some of his department's resources were directed to war work and Kerr Grant became chairman of the Scientific (physics) Manpower Advisory Committee, controller of the Adelaide branch of the Army Inventions Directorate, a member and later chairman of the Optical Munitions Panel (of the Ordnance Production Directorate), and a member of the physical and meteorological sub-committee of the Chemical Defence Board. In 1947 he was knighted. Later that year he took part in a symposium on atomic energy at the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science congress in Perth, and he also went with Sir John Madsen and others on an Australian scientific mission to India. Next year he retired and was created emeritus professor. In 1951 he presided over the A.N.Z.A.A.S. meeting in Brisbane and he continued his service on the council of the South Australian Institute of Technology (formerly School of Mines and Industries) until 1960, having been president in 1942-58. The institute holds his portrait bust by John Dowie.

Although Kerr Grant was not and would never have claimed to be an outstanding physicist, he had an alert and penetrating mind as is illustrated by two remarkably prescient addresses: 'Things unattempted yet' (university commemoration address, Adelaide, 1924) and 'Atomic transmutation' (A.N.Z.A.A.S. Reports, 1926) in which he anticipated developments in nuclear physics and space flight. But it was not his way to constrain his wide-ranging intellect into the narrower paths of definite research projects. Rather he enjoyed the role of departmental autocrat, who nevertheless won his students' affection and was respected by the public. He contributed a regular column in the local press which answered citizens' questions on scientific affairs, and his door was always open to back-yard inventors. He looked the part: he had a heavy walrus moustache, thick shaggy eyebrows and an unruly mop of iron-grey curly hair. He was everyman's idea of the absent-minded professor, partly through nature's art and, one suspects, not a little through his own: many amusing stories grew up around him. He read widely and could quote freely from literature: Byron was a favourite poet and his final lecture each year traditionally concluded with a spirited rendering of Kipling's 'If'. Brought up a Presbyterian, he became a tolerant agnostic with a strong sense of humour. He was a member of the Savage Club.

He was admitted to hospital with a fractured hip and died of pneumonia on 13 October 1967, survived by his wife and three sons who pursued medical and scientific careers.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. K. Duncan and R. A. Leonard, The University of Adelaide, 1874-1974 (Adel, 1973)
  • South Australian Homes and Gardens, 1 Mar 1949
  • University of Adelaide Graduates' Union, Monthly Newsletter and Gazette, Mar 1968
  • Australian Physicist, 4 (1977)
  • Mail (Adelaide), 6 June 1914
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 Dec 1924, 28 Jan 1928
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 25 Feb 1932
  • Personalities Remembered, ABC radio script, 8 Nov 1970, D5390 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

S. G. Tomlin, 'Grant, Sir Kerr (1878–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Kerr Grant (1878-1967), by unknown photographer, c1925

Kerr Grant (1878-1967), by unknown photographer, c1925

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6075

Life Summary [details]


26 June, 1878
Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia


13 October, 1967 (aged 89)

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.