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Michael George Pitman (1933–2000)

by T. H. Spurling

This article was published online in 2024

Michael Pitman

Michael Pitman

Australian Academy of Science

Michael George Pitman (1933–2000), botanist and Australia’s chief scientist, was born on 7 February 1933 at Bristol, England, oldest of three sons of English-born parents Percy George Pitman, pork butcher, and his wife Norma Ethel, née Payne. Percy had inherited his father’s butchery which went bankrupt when his children were young; he then worked at the Bristol Aeroplane Co. which manufactured military aircraft. Norma, a milliner, was the daughter of a skilled woodworker who taught his grandson carpentry and handyman skills. Michael undertook his schooling at Southville Elementary and Junior School (1938–44), Bristol, but when bombing commenced during World War II, he moved with his mother to East Harptree, Somerset, where he briefly attended the village school. Having won both school and county scholarships, he boarded (1944–52) at Colston’s (later Collegiate) School, Bristol.

Botany was not on offer at the school until Pitman’s final year. He thought highly of his botany teacher, and made the subject the focus of his work at the University of Cambridge (MA, 1955; PhD, 1959). Scholarships to Sidney Sussex College allowed him to continue his studies after his father died in 1953. He attained first-class honours in both parts of the natural science tripos; in 1955 he gained an Agricultural Research Council studentship to undertake a PhD with the plant physiologist George Edward Briggs. His doctoral thesis, ‘The Salt Relation of Beetroot Tissue,’ used the emerging application of radioisotopes to detect the movement of ions into and out of tissues. Elected a junior fellow at St John’s College (1958–62), he undertook postdoctoral research and teaching in the botany department. On 31 December 1955, at St Andrew’s Church, Chew Stoke, Somerset, he married Maureen Anne Room, a nurse; they had known each other since their schooldays. The couple’s daughter Brigit (b. 1959) and son Adrian (b. 1961) were born in Cambridge.

In 1962 the Pitman family moved to South Australia for Michael to take up a position as lecturer in botany at the University of Adelaide, where Rutherford (Bob) Robertson, another Briggs student, had been appointed to a chair. Continuing his research on salinity in plant physiology and agriculture, Pitman had a productive four years in Adelaide, publishing sixteen papers, including six that are in his twenty most cited. Maureen later wrote that ‘It was to be our great Australian Adventure, then back to UK and family after 4 years’ (Maureen Pitman, pers. comm.), but their plans were interrupted by Michael’s appointment as professor of biology (plant physiology) at the University of Sydney in 1966. While there he was co-editor of two volumes (1975 and 1976) of the Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology, New Series, and a key contributor to Biological Science: The Web of Life (1967), published by the Australian Academy of Science, which became a standard text for high school biology students. He was appointed OBE in 1978, and was awarded a DSc by collection of papers by the University of Cambridge in 1980; he was elected a fellow of the AAS in 1981.

Pitman became director of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s (CSIRO) Institute of Biological Resources in 1983, and the family moved to Canberra. His contributions to plant and environmental research and development, human resources, and his ability to form constructive relationships with government and private entities led to his promotion to associate member of the executive in 1985, and then deputy to the chief executive, Keith Boardman, in 1986. An ability to present a coherent argument in a courteous manner caught the attention of the Commonwealth minister for science, Barry Jones, who in 1988 appointed Pitman on secondment as chief science adviser to the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce. A strong advocate for research and development and science awareness in public policy, Pitman played a central role in the formation of the Commonwealth Science and Technology Council and of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Program which encouraged collaboration between industry, universities, and public research organisations.

Appointed Australia’s Chief Scientist in 1992, Pitman oversaw the expansion of the CRCs, increasing the participation of industry and other potential beneficiaries, and became an advocate of international collaboration in scientific research. He also chaired ex officio the Co-ordination Committee on Science and Technology, and the CRC advisory committee. His appointment attracted some criticism from the science community, mainly due to a perception that he had failed to be an effective advocate for scientific interests in government policy development. In 1993 the minister for science and technology, Chris Schacht, proposed incorporating three CSIRO divisions within the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and to merge the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation with CSIRO. While some blamed Pitman for not conveying the views of scientists to the government, he had never been consulted about the proposal and worked behind the scenes to see its demise.

A man of convivial and generous spirit, Pitman felt strongly about bringing different disciplines together to solve scientific and national problems. He was a keen bridge player and swimmer, a lover of fine wine, and had become interested in cooking when he was young; the cook at St John’s College, Cambridge, had given him tips on haute cuisine, and he used these skills to entertain friends and colleagues all his life. After his retirement as chief scientist in 1996 Pitman was elected foreign secretary of the Australian Academy of Science, a role that allowed him to develop Australia’s scientific and technology relationships overseas, particularly with south-east Asian countries, and France. He resigned the position in 1999 due to a degenerative condition, amyloidosis, and died in Canberra on 30 March 2000, survived by his wife, and their daughter and son.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Boardman, Keith, Barry Osmond, and Ulrich Lüttge. ‘Michael George Pitman 1933–2000. Historical Records of Australian Science 14, no. 2 (2002): 193–208
  • Canberra Times. ‘Department Gets a Science Adviser.’ 25 April 1988, 13
  • Grose, Simon. ‘CSIRO’s Toil and Trouble Nothing New.’ Canberra Times, 30 May 1995, 10
  • Mussared, David. ‘Scientists’ Ire Is Now Focused on Pitman.’ Canberra Times, 21 July 1993, 3
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Pitman, Maureen. Personal communication

Citation details

T. H. Spurling, 'Pitman, Michael George (1933–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pitman-michael-george-32497/text40323, published online 2024, accessed online 17 July 2024.

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