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Allan Douglas McKnight (1918–1987)

by J. R. Nethercote

This article was published:

Allan Douglas McKnight (1918-1987), public servant and academic, was born on 14 January 1918 at Drummoyne, Sydney, youngest of three children of Sydney-born parents George McKnight, customs clerk, and his wife Alice Emma, née Stephen. Allan was educated at Fort Street Boys’ High School—excelling as a scholar, debater and sportsman—and the University of Sydney (LL.B, 1938). In May 1939 he joined the Commonwealth Public Service, working first in the Department of the Treasury and then in the Attorney-General’s Department; from February 1940 he was private secretary to W. M. Hughes. On 10 August 1940 at St Paul’s Church of England, Burwood, Sydney, he married Marion Etta Quigg, a clerk. He was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 16 December.

Having been commissioned in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve on 15 August 1940, McKnight instructed at the Anti-Submarine Warfare School, HMAS Rushcutter, Sydney, and served at sea in HMA ships Bendigo (1941-42) and Burdekin (1944). He was demobilised as a lieutenant (1943) on 22 August 1945. Returning to Canberra, he worked in the Crown Solicitor’s Office and was a part-time lecturer in law (1946-51) at Canberra University College.

In 1951 McKnight joined the Prime Minister’s Department and was effectively second-in-charge under (Sir) Allen Brown. McKnight oversaw the department’s mainstream operations, which from 1953 included the servicing of the cabinet; he worked closely with (Sir) Eric Harrison and Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. In 1955 McKnight was appointed secretary to the Department of the Army. Ambivalent about the continuing rationale of separate departments for each of the services, he strongly supported the proposals of the committee headed by Sir Leslie Morshead for a more integrated defence organisation. These recommendations were not adopted and McKnight found himself at odds with both the Military Board and with (Sir) Edwin Hicks, appointed head of the Department of Defence in 1956.

McKnight became the executive member of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in 1958, and that year was appointed CBE. Uncomfortable about the nuclear ambitions of the chairman, (Sir) Philip Baxter, McKnight was likewise unable to forge a working relationship with the minister for national development, Senator (Sir) William Spooner. To reach a modus vivendi McKnight transferred to Australia House, London, as the commission’s representative in Europe. Although he acquitted himself with distinction as chairman of the meetings leading to the convention on civil liability for nuclear damage, his prospects in Australia were circumscribed by an unfavourable review of his handling of AAEC business as the executive member.

In 1964-68 McKnight was inspector-general at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He established a nuclear safeguards administration under the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. This entailed devising a detailed record about the movement and use of nuclear materials, particularly to ensure that they were not diverted to military purposes except with express approval. His understanding of the politics surrounding safeguards inspections helped him to succeed in this initiative. Although recognised as a ‘tough and effective administrator’, he had ‘cool relations’ with the agency’s director-general, Dr Sigvard Eklund, who would have preferred that scientists undertook the work. McKnight left the agency, affronted by the introduction of one-year contracts for safeguards staff that he believed would restrict their effectiveness in dealings with signatories to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Returning to Britain McKnight was a visiting fellow at the science policy research unit, University of Sussex: he published Nuclear Non-Proliferation (1970), Atomic Safeguards and Scientists Abroad (1971), co-edited and contributed to Environmental Pollution Control (1974) and wrote World Disarmament Draft Treaty (1978), revised as The Forgotten Treaties (1983). He was short-listed for the foundation vice-chancellorship of Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia, but withdrew before the final decision. From the mid-1970s he lectured at the Civil Service College, London.

McKnight’s ability took him to the highest ranks of government in Australia and to significant positions internationally. He might have gone higher: one contemporary attributed the vicissitudes of McKnight’s later career to the fact that he was not an ‘intriguer’. Conspicuously erudite and colourful, at a time when senior officials were vocationally anonymous, he liked the lectern and the microphone. He was often outspoken. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their son and two daughters, he died of a thrombotic cerebrovascular accident on 28 January 1987 at Brighton, England, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Nucleonics Week, 9 May 1968, p 7, 20 June 1968, p 7
  • Australian Financial Review, 3 May 1967, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Jan 1968, p 11, 25 Apr 1968, p 3, 11 Feb 1987, p 4
  • A6769, item McKNIGHT A D, A1361, item 34/1/12 PART 1201 (National Archives of Australia)
  • A. McKnight papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'McKnight, Allan Douglas (1918–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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