Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Albert Rivett (1855–1934)

by C. B. Schedvin

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Albert Cherbury David Rivett

Albert Rivett (1855-1934), clergyman and pacifist, and Sir Albert Cherbury David Rivett (1885-1961), scientist and administrator, were father and son. Albert senior was born on 17 May 1855 at Norwich, England, son of William Rivett, bricklayer, of Huguenot ancestry, and his wife Amy, née Riches, of Danish descent. His father died when he was young and he spent his formative years with a Quaker. After completing a theology course at Harley College, East London, he was sent to Australia in 1879 by the Colonial Missionary Society. He was temporarily at the Independent Church, Brunswick, Melbourne, and married Elizabeth Mary Ann Cherbury on 20 October 1881 at Fitzroy. After several years at Port Esperance, Tasmania, they returned to Brunswick in 1887. Albert was subsequently posted to Yarrawonga and Beechworth and Albury, New South Wales. In 1915 he resigned from Whitefield Congregational Church, Sydney, because of growing differences with church officials over his attitude to World War I.

Albert was a warm-hearted humanist, champion of the underprivileged and critic of authority in all its forms, especially of those institutions which produced social division and conflict. He was one of the few to speak out strongly against the South African War and was a trenchant critic of conscription in 1916-17, sparring verbally with Billy Hughes. In 1891 at Beechworth he began publishing a monthly magazine known initially as the Murray Independent and then as the Federal Independent; both were sub-titled a Journal of Applied Christianity. Published with family assistance, the magazines reiterated his central moral concerns: the bestiality of war and the damage caused by the existence of national boundaries, the futility of maintaining separate religious denominations, support for the weak and oppressed, and sympathy for socialist views and the policies of Henry George. One of his interests was the eradication of venereal disease. He was a vigorous, effective and increasingly well-known public speaker who died dramatically on 18 November 1934 immediately after addressing an audience of about 5000 in the Sydney Domain, where he spoke regularly, in support of the entry to Australia of Egon Kisch. In the words of one of his supporters, 'Rev. Rivett had followed the Galilean to the end of the last mile'. His wife and seven children, all of whom absorbed a strong sense of social responsibility, survived him.

His second child Albert, known as Bert and then David, was born on 4 December 1885 at Port Esperance, Tasmania. He spent most of his childhood at Yarrawonga and Beechworth in frugal circumstances, but was a brilliant student. At Beechworth State School he obtained a coveted scholarship to Wesley College, Melbourne, where he won every prize or scholarship open to him, mainly through innate ability but also through intense dedication. In 1902 he was awarded a senior government scholarship to the University of Melbourne and a scholarship to Queen's College.

David was distancing himself from some of his father's beliefs, and turned for guidance to a succession of senior university men who offered more worldly and less radical models. One was Rev. Edward Sugden, master of Queen's; but the most powerful influence was (Sir) David Orme Masson, professor of chemistry. He urged David to switch from medicine to science in second year, and for the next thirty years was teacher, mentor, colleague, confidant and friend. David was a popular and enthusiastic undergraduate who found time for most sports. He was awarded first-class honours in chemistry (B.Sc., 1906) and the Victorian Rhodes scholarship for 1907.

He entered Lincoln College, Oxford, and came under the influence of N. V. Sidgwick, the influential systematizer of inorganic chemistry. For Rivett Oxford was a time of comparative freedom, almost the first period when his whole future did not depend on the next exam result. He graduated B.A. in 1909 and B.Sc. (a research degree) in 1910, both with first-class honours. His experimental studies were mainly concerned with reactions in the hydration of acid anhydrides. During an exhilarating six months at the Nobel Institute, Stockholm, in 1910 under Svante Arrhenius, one of the great figures in physical chemistry, his chemical interests moved towards an understanding of equilibria within heterogeneous systems.

Rivett returned to Melbourne in 1911 to a lectureship in chemistry at the university. On 11 November, at the Australian Church, he married Stella, daughter of Alfred Deakin, then a research student and chemist. The couple had been emotionally linked since David's departure for Oxford, and they were formally engaged in 1909 when Stella visited England and Germany. An outstanding lecturer and teacher Rivett was well-organized, illuminating and precise in his presentation. He also showed his capacity as organizing secretary of the Australian meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1914.

Outbreak of war in 1914 presented a dilemma. He had moved away from his father's pacifism, and accepted a commission in the Australian Army Medical Corps Reserve in August 1915. In 1917 he was invited to help in producing pure ammonium nitrate, an essential component of the high explosive, amatol. At the British munitions works at Swindon, Wiltshire, he identified the factors limiting production and helped to devise a solution. His work in identifying the phase variables in the crystallization of ammonium nitrate led to publication of The Phase Rule and the Study of Heterogeneous Equilibria (1923). Swindon influenced his views about the relationship between science and industrial application. Because production difficulties had been solved by an understanding of underlying mechanisms, he came to hold firmly that applied work must be supported by wider-ranging enquiry.

After returning to university duties in 1919, Rivett was appointed associate professor in 1920. In 1924 he succeeded Masson in the chair of chemistry. In June 1926, however, he was appointed to the executive committee of the newly formed Council for Scientific and Industrial Research together with (Sir) George Julius and William Newbigin. Rivett was the 'scientific member' and regarded as the key appointment. Initially the committee was part-time, and Rivett was careful not to resign his chair until 1927 when he was appointed a full-time member and chief executive officer. He left university life with misgivings, knowing it was unlikely that he would ever return, and doubting his own suitability. But his strong sense of public responsibility and Masson's gentle urging tilted the balance in favour of acceptance.

C.S.I.R.'s mission was to strengthen both science and industry in Australia by the advancement of knowledge and its application to industrial problems. These goals were to be achieved under severe constraints. Granted only £250,000 which was expected to last three or four years, C.S.I.R. had no annual appropriation. As far as possible existing laboratories were to be used, thus avoiding duplication. This implied that C.S.I.R. would become a grant-giving body. The organization was on trial. It would survive only if it produced early results.

Rivett steered C.S.I.R. through the difficult early years and largely set its style and ethos. It adopted the British model of building small research teams around a distinguished scientist, and allowing the group considerable freedom. Excellence was the goal, and leaders of world ranking were sought assiduously. At first few with the necessary qualifications were attracted, but C.S.I.R. was able to appoint many younger Australian graduates of promise. Rivett accepted that applied science should be given priority in the early years, but insisted on commitment to basic science. Thus, a division of animal nutrition was established to investigate nutritional problems of sheep in marginal grazing zones. Somewhat unrealistically Rivett believed that ultimately C.S.I.R. should devote half its resources to basic research, thus leading the organization towards conflict with the universities. He shunned publicity, and preferred that science speak for itself. No patents were applied for on the grounds that no restriction should be imposed on the dissemination of knowledge.

During the 1930s C.S.I.R. made contributions to the control of animal disease, to discovery of the role of certain trace elements in animal and plant growth, to meat-chilling and timber-processing. Rivett was accepted as a highly principled and effective science administrator. He imposed on himself, and expected of others, the highest standards of personal conduct. Honesty, integrity and courtesy were qualities he valued above all others. Expertise and genuine achievement were highly regarded; those who had achieved status on merit were respected, but he was intolerant of pretentiousness, humbug and false claims to authority. Like most scientists he was impatient of the political process, and preferred to distance himself from it rather than use it for his own purposes.

Through most of Rivett's term of office, C.S.I.R. was managed more as a society of co-workers than as a statutory corporation. He prided himself on his individual knowledge of each scientist in the organization and was distressed when, with its growth during World War II, personal contact was no longer possible. His managerial style was frugal in the extreme; he usually took a tram to the city from head office in East Melbourne. All his life he maintained a trim figure. While he was not physically imposing, his prominent forehead, well-developed nose and deep-set eyes suggested sensitivity and intensity. Over the years he became more serious, even grave, but late in life was still capable of the spontaneity and enthusiasm that had been a feature of his youth.

Rivett was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1935, and elected to the Royal Society, London, in 1941 for his contribution to Australian science. He had declined appointment as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne in 1934, in favour of continuing his national role. He was president of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1937-39), general president of the Australian Chemical Institute (1940, 1949), president of the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria (1930, 1931), and of the Society of Chemical Industry, London (1949).

Despite its achievements, Rivett was increasingly troubled by certain aspects of C.S.I.R.'s development. The research divisions of plant industry and economic entomology had not been able to contribute much to industry. Little progress had been made in increasing the commitment to basic science. He was opposed to diversification into secondary industries in the late 1930s, holding that research would be spread too thinly. Although accepting the national need, he was even more distressed by the concentration on technological problems during the war, believing that C.S.I.R. had been turned into 'a mob of housekeepers and testers for industry'. Behind his concern was the ever-present fear that science would be unable to escape the grip of political society, and that the creativity and adventure of truly independent research would not be established in Australia. Also affecting his mood at this time was the capture of his elder son Rohan by the Japanese and the decline of his marriage, something with which he was unable to come to terms; home life had become a trial.

On the retirement of Julius, Rivett became chairman of C.S.I.R. in 1946. After the war he returned with renewed strength to the twin themes of independence for science and encouragement of basic research, and plans were made for the formation of new disciplinary groups such as animal genetics, animal physiology, atomic physics and meteorological physics. Secrecy in science had been for him one of the most distasteful aspects of the war and post-war years. In 1948 he was publicly critical of the effect of secrecy in science and urged a return to internationalist principles. At the same time authorities in Britain and the United States of America were beginning to question the effectiveness of security in some C.S.I.R. laboratories, and the Opposition and some sections of the press attacked C.S.I.R. and Rivett. Several junior members of the organization were alleged to be communist sympathizers, and at a time of 'cold war' tension his internationalism was misrepresented.

Political exposure hastened the reorganization of C.S.I.R. For some years Labor ministers had been concerned about its governing arrangements, and were anxious to make the organization more responsive to economic and social needs. Accordingly, full responsibility was transferred to a five-member executive, the minister-in-charge was no longer directly involved in all scientific appointments, the Public Service Board was given a general responsibility for staffing, and the name was changed to Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

Rivett was unable to accept these changes, believing that they would destroy the organization's autonomy. He retired in April 1949 and accepted appointment as chairman of the new advisory council, but resigned after a year to allow the chairmanship of council and executive to be combined. In his later years he was an éminence grise of Australian science, playing a part in the formation of the Australian National University and the Australian Academy of Science. He was a director of Imperial Chemical Industries, Australia & New Zealand Bank Ltd and several insurance companies. He died on 1 April 1961 in Sydney and was cremated. Lady Rivett (d.1976) and two sons survived him. A portrait by Max Meldrum is held at C.S.I.R.O. headquarters, Canberra.

Rivett made a major contribution to Australian science. By insisting on the highest standards for C.S.I.R., and by his dedication to the building of a new scientific institution, he was able to create an organization of world standing which played an important part in Australian economic development. As a consequence he has been idealized by his younger contemporaries as representing the true spirit of C.S.I.R.O.: dedicated to the advancement as well as to the application of knowledge, principled and parsimonious in administrative arrangements, and willing to allow considerable freedom for individual scientific endeavour. A rounded version would add that he oversimplified the relationship between basic and applied science, that he was prone to respond severely to any transgression of his principles, and that he was inclined to be condescending. His later tendency to undervalue the research aspirations of the State universities became a reason for tension between them and C.S.I.R.O. in the 1950s and 1960s.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Rivett, David Rivett (Melb, 1972)
  • C. B. Schedvin, Shaping Science and Industry (Syd, 1987)
  • Federal Independent, 1 Jan 1930
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 12, p 437
  • Nature (London), 10 June 1961
  • Chemistry and Industry, 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Nov 1944
  • CSIRO Archives, Canberra
  • Rivett papers (Australian Academy of Science, Canberra)
  • private information.

Citation details

C. B. Schedvin, 'Rivett, Albert (1855–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 May, 1855
Norwich, Norfolk, England


18 November, 1934 (aged 79)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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