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Huxley, Sir Leonard George Holden (1902–1988)

by Robert W. Crompton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Leonard George Holden Huxley (1902-1988), physicist and vice-chancellor, was born on 29 May 1902 at Dulwich, London, eldest son of George Hambrough (or Hamborough) Huxley, and his wife Lilian Sarah, née Smith, both schoolteachers. George’s grandfather was the uncle of Thomas Huxley. Although he carried with him throughout his life many attributes of his English heritage, Leonard considered himself very much an Australian; he spent more than three-quarters of his life in this country, including his formative years. His parents migrated to Australia in 1905. Following a brief sojourn in Western Australia, the family moved to Tasmania, where they were to remain.

From a small country school at Mathinna, Huxley won a State scholarship to The Hutchins School (1915-20), Hobart, where he excelled not only academically but also as a sportsman; in his final year he was dux, and captain of the athletics team. He continued to support his education through a series of bursaries and, finally, a scholarship to the University of Tasmania. There he won the Sir Philip Fysh prize for physics in 1922.

Awarded the Rhodes scholarship for Tasmania in 1923, he left for Oxford with his first degree incomplete. At New College, Oxford (BA, 1925; D.Phil., 1928; MA, 1929), Huxley relished the cultural as well as the academic experiences his new environment afforded him. There he met his distant cousin (Sir) Julian Huxley, then a fellow of the college and a reader in biology, with whom he formed a firm and lasting friendship. There, too, he first met (Sir) John Townsend, who was to have a profound influence on him. In 1925 Huxley commenced work for his doctorate under Townsend, who had pioneered the subject of his research, electrical breakdown in gases. Another of Townsend’s interests, electron transport in gases, was to become one of Huxley’s longer-term interests and the field to which he made many distinguished contributions.

After completing his doctorate, Huxley undertook post-doctoral research at Oxford. He married Ella Mary Child (`Molly’) Copeland on 5 October 1929 at the parish church, Esher, Surrey. Intellectually they were well matched. Molly took a first in history at Somerville College and was to become the first (part-time) lecturer in British history at the new Canberra University College.

From January 1930 to September 1931 Huxley was in Canberra as a member of staff of the Radio Research Board, an adjunct to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, where he worked on ionospheric disturbances. He returned to England to take up academic appointments, first as lecturer in physics at University College, Nottingham, then (from 1932) as head of the physics department at University College, Leicester.

World War II transformed Huxley’s professional career as it did those of many physicists in Britain. Immediately war was declared, he found himself recruited to the distinguished group at the Bawdsey Research Station (later the Telecommunications Research Establishment), which was to develop radar and introduce it to the services with amazing speed. Following an initial posting to Fighter Command, he was given the task of establishing and heading a radar training school for both civilian and service personnel. By the end of the war an estimated seven thousand had attended it. The war years at TRE provided Huxley with the material for his influential book A Survey of the Principles & Practice of Wave Guides (1947).

Though Huxley was first and foremost a physicist, his wartime experience qualified him well for his appointment in 1946 as reader in electromagnetism in the department of electrical engineering at the University of Birmingham. However, his stay was to be short-lived. In 1948 (Sir) Mark Oliphant, himself about to become foundation director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University, Canberra, drew his attention to an advertisement for the (Sir Thomas) Elder chair of physics at the University of Adelaide. Huxley successfully applied for the position, taking up his appointment in February 1949. The university conferred on him a Ph.D., ad eundem gradum, in 1950.

Huxley’s appointment coincided with the introduction of Ph.D. courses throughout Australia, and the more generous allocation of Commonwealth money to the universities in the late 1950s following the report of Sir Keith Murray’s committee on Australian universities. Encouraged by an enthusiastic vice-chancellor, A. P. Rowe [q.v.16], Huxley took full advantage of these innovations. He recruited staff—some home-grown and some from overseas—and established Ph.D. training programs around new research groups. Drawing on his wartime experiences, he started a large and active group to track meteor trails and upper-atmosphere winds using radar. He formed another team to conduct laboratory studies of electron drift and diffusion in gases to complement his interest in electromagnetic wave propagation in the ionosphere. His staff began equally active programs in biophysics, solid-state physics and seismology.

Although Huxley now had a greatly enlarged and flourishing department to his credit, his later days in Adelaide were marked by increasing friction with the vice-chancellor. Huxley did not accept Rowe’s view that a university should be managed like a government department or research institution, or even a business enterprise. In 1960 he was appointed to the executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, but he had scarcely become settled in his new position when he was invited to succeed Sir Leslie Melville as vice-chancellor of the ANU. Accepting the invitation, he entered on the most influential period of his career, both within academia and outside it.

On 30 September 1960 Huxley assumed office. Next day an amendment to the Australian National University Act (1946) came into effect, amalgamating the ANU and Canberra University College. The college was incorporated in the enlarged ANU as the School of General Studies, while the old university became the Institute of Advanced Studies. Huxley’s initial task was to bring about a harmonious university community from these two components, neither of which fully welcomed the association. It was a challenge he was well equipped to meet. On the one hand, he had a deep and continuing commitment to research; on the other hand, he maintained a keen interest in teaching, to which he had devoted a considerable portion of his professional life.

When Huxley joined the ANU, the old Canberra University College had no permanent buildings, apart from one housing the arts departments, while only two of the research schools of the old ANU were permanently housed, or partly so. The four existing research schools—the John Curtin School of Medical Research, and the research schools of Physical Sciences, Social Sciences and Pacific Studies—together had about one hundred postgraduate students. The college had about eight hundred undergraduates. In 1961 the university’s budget was approximately £2.25 million. When Huxley retired in 1967, there were some five hundred postgraduate students and over three thousand undergraduates, and the budget was over $17.5 million.

Huxley had presided over a period of great change and growth. The research schools of Chemistry and Biological Sciences were established, the Australian Forestry School was subsumed and its role expanded as it became the department of forestry, and a second observational site was established at Siding Spring, New South Wales, for the department of astronomy. Meanwhile, many permanent buildings were erected for departments within the School of General Studies and for research schools in the institute. Huxley was appointed KBE in 1964.

Although Huxley had been actively involved in physics since his postgraduate years at Oxford, his heavy teaching loads at both Leicester and Birmingham, and his full-time service at TRE during the war, had left him relatively little time to devote to his research interests until he took up his professorial appointment in Adelaide. At Birmingham he had laid the foundations for the two research fields he was to pursue for many years. With J. A. Ratcliffe he explored the `Luxembourg effect’, a phenomenon whereby the transmission from one radio broadcasting station is superimposed on the other. This investigation brought home to Huxley the importance of laboratory studies of electron motion in gases, in this instance the constituents of air. He therefore initiated such studies at Birmingham, and a continuation of that work formed the basis of research at the University of Adelaide and later still at the ANU. To this program he brought a continuing flow of ideas and much of the theoretical backing.

The years in Adelaide were Huxley’s most scientifically productive and influential. In addition to his work on electron motion in gases and the Luxembourg effect, he produced papers reporting the first results from his highly successful project to detect the trails of ionised gases left by meteors, and hence to determine wind patterns in the upper atmosphere. Being mainly interested in theoretical work, he was content to leave the development of the laboratory and field-work to his group of graduate students, some of whom continued as members of staff. As at Leicester he found himself responsible for training the first batch of Ph.D. students to graduate from the university.

With his appointment to the ANU, Huxley’s interests in the areas he had promoted in Adelaide had necessarily narrowed. Encouraged by Oliphant, he established the Electron and Ion Diffusion Unit to pursue the laboratory studies that had gathered considerable momentum in Adelaide. Though his time was limited, he retained a keen interest in the unit’s progress throughout his term as vice-chancellor and wrote several papers, stimulated by particular developments either within the unit or brought to his attention through its work.

On his retirement, Huxley returned to physics. Many advances had been made and a major revision of his theoretical work on electron motion in gases was required. The publication in 1974 of a major monograph, The Diffusion and Drift of Electrons in Gases, written with R. W. Crompton, and the three papers that resulted from its preparation, brought to a close his many contributions to the field that he had pioneered.

Huxley was a member of the council of the University of Adelaide (1953-60), the ANU (1956-59) and the newly established Canberra College of Advanced Education (1968-74). The University of Tasmania (1962) and the ANU (1980) both awarded him honorary doctorates of science. A foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, he served on its council in 1956-62 and as vice-president in 1957-58. He chaired the National Standards Commission (1953-65) and the Radio Research Board (1958-64). In 1962-65 he was the foundation president of the Australian Institute of Physics. Invited to the board of the United States Educational Foundation in Australia in 1960, he became the first chairman (1965-69) of the Australian American Educational Foundation which succeeded it. He also chaired (1964-73) the general council of the Britannica Australia Awards and served (1961-72) on the council of the National Library of Australia. His own large library revealed his catholic tastes in history, natural history, literature, music and the arts.

Sir Leonard Huxley was a man of integrity who belonged to the generation of scholars whose depth of learning was matched by its width, and who had a clear vision of the age-old function of universities. He had a warm personality, although that was sometimes masked by his somewhat formal manner. Blessed with an incredible memory right up to his death, he had an enviable capacity for recalling what he had read and where he had read it. He combined his gift for words and the breadth of his interests in the preparation of scholarly speeches, which often also revealed his puckish sense of humour.

Huxley’s physical resilience was as remarkable as his mental vigour. At 86 his bearing was still that of a man twenty years younger, and he looked little different from the excellent portrait of him painted by June Mendoza in 1972 and held by the ANU. It shows a man of medium height with an undiminished head of hair, now grey but still with a tinge of its earlier pale ginger hue. His wife died in 1981. Survived by their son and daughter, he died on 4 September 1988 at Camden, London, during a short visit overseas, and was cremated. A building at the ANU was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. G. Foster and M. M. Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University 1946-1996 (1996)
  • Oxford Dictionary of Biography, vol 29 (2004), p 97
  • R. W. Crompton, `Leonard George Holden Huxley 1902-1988’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 8, no 4, 1991, p 249
  • ANU Reporter, 23 Sept 1988, p 5
  • CoResearch, Sept 1988, p 8
  • M. Pratt, interview with L. G. H. Huxley (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • Huxley papers (Australian Academy of Science Library, Canberra)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert W. Crompton, 'Huxley, Sir Leonard George Holden (1902–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 27 February 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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