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Gerald Lightfoot (1877–1966)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

Gerald Lightfoot (1877-1966), public servant, was born on 3 May 1877 at Walker, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England, son of Thomas Bell Lightfoot, mechanical engineer, and his wife Emilie Ainslie, née Coxon. He was educated at Blackheath Proprietary School, London, and Pembroke College, University of Cambridge (B.A., 1898; M.A., 1912), where he was a foundation scholar and gained first-class honours in the mechanical science tripos. He then served in engineering firms at Colchester and Clydebank with experience in industrial research into refrigeration and asbestos sheeting. After a world voyage which included Australia and New Zealand he returned to London, studied commercial law and was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple in 1902.

In 1906 Lightfoot migrated to Australia and in 1907 joined the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics as a draftsman and computer under (Sir) George Knibbs. There he contributed to the Commonwealth Year Book and organized the labour and industrial branch of the bureau. On 11 January 1908 he married Helen Walshe at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Carlton, Melbourne. In 1914-16 he lectured in economics and industrial law at the University of Melbourne for the extension board and the Workers' Educational Association.

In January 1916 Prime Minister Hughes set up an Advisory Council of Science and Industry and took Lightfoot overseas the same month. His report, published as a Commonwealth parliamentary paper, included detailed studies of American and English scientific research institutions. In August he was appointed secretary to the executive committee of the advisory council. After the death in September 1919 of F. M. Gellatly, director of the proposed Institute of Science and Industry, Lightfoot was responsible for the general administration until legislation was passed in 1920 putting the institute on a regular footing under Knibbs as director from early 1921. Lightfoot played an ameliorative part in tensions between members of the advisory council and the government and became chief executive officer of the new institute.

In 1925 he was a member of the conference which led to establishment in 1926 of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of which he was secretary in 1926-44. He had hoped for appointment as chief executive officer, but worked loyally and effectively with (Sir) David Rivett. Lightfoot's thorough review of the work of the Institute of Science and Industry was perhaps the most basic document in C.S.I.R. planning in its early years, and the system of record-keeping which he instituted was impeccable. He made comprehensive missions to North America, Britain and Europe in 1929 and 1937 for the council. When he retired he was retained as a consultant until 1947.

In order to strengthen C.S.I.R. information services Lightfoot established a scientific bibliographical reference service and began publication of abstracts. In 1919-20 he had fostered publication of Science and Industry and in 1927-30 was foundation editor of the Journal of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. He contributed a diverse range of papers to both publications, frequently relating to areas of research he wished to see promoted. His 1938 report on overseas information centres led to further expansion of C.S.I.R.'s information services which proved to be very useful during World War II.

He was an energetic member of the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board from 1920. In 1921 he presented a paper to the congress of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science surveying liquid fuel resources. A keen interest in engineering standardization led him to press for the establishment of the Standards Association of Australia (1922) on whose council he served. He promoted the formation of the National Association of Testing Authorities and was its first chairman (1947). He was a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society from 1915.

Lightfoot was widely respected within C.S.I.R. for the style and order he brought to its organization. Though he was known not to suffer fools gladly he was in his early days commended as 'a most likeable fellow, with a merry eye', who knew 'how to order a good dinner'. He died on 1 June 1966 in Melbourne, survived by three daughters and a son, and was buried in St Kilda cemetery with Catholic rites. 'His knowledge, administrative competence and dedication' had been of enormous benefit to C.S.I.R.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1929, 2 (17), 1937, 5 (89), 1937-40, 4 (99), 1944-45, 2 (9)
  • Government Gazette (Commonwealth), 22 Feb 1908, p 553, 16 Jan 1909, p 23, 11 Dec 1919, p 2393, 30 Dec 1920, p 2359
  • CSIR, Journal, 17 (Aug 1944), no 3, p 207
  • Science and Industry, 1 (May 1919), no 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13, 15 Jan 1921, 6 Aug, 15 Sept 1937, 5 Jan 1938, 3 June 1966
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1921
  • private information.

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Lightfoot, Gerald (1877–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 May, 1877
Walker, Northumberland, England


1 June, 1966 (aged 89)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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