Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walter Rosenhain (1875–1934)

by Christopher J. Davey

This article was published:

Walter Rosenhain (1875-1934), metallurgist, was born on 24 August 1875 in Berlin, son of Moritz Rosenhain, merchant, and his wife Friederike, daughter of Rabbi Benjamin Yosman Fink. The Rosenhains migrated to Australia when Walter was 5, so that he would avoid military service, and settled in Melbourne where he was educated at Wesley College and Queen's College, University of Melbourne (B.C.E., 1901; D.Sc., 1909). He was naturalized in 1897 and, having completed his degree in 1896 with the final-honours scholarship in engineering, went to England as 1851 Exhibition scholar.

At St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1899), he worked with (Sir) Alfred Ewing in the microscopic study of metal deformation, work which led to the discovery of slip-bands and spontaneous annealing of lead and other soft metals. In 1900 he became scientific adviser to the glass-makers, Chance Bros, at Smethwick, near Birmingham. He published several papers on optical glass and Glass Manufacture (1908). On 4 December 1901 he married Louise, sister of (Sir) John Monash, in London with Jewish rites.

In 1906 Rosenhain was invited to succeed (Sir) Harold Carpenter as superintendent of the department of metallurgy and metallurgical chemistry, National Physical Laboratory, a post he held for twenty-five years. Under his leadership the department grew from a staff of four to seventy and moved to new premises. Rosenhain contributed significantly to the knowledge of metals. He did remarkable work in connexion with light alloys, the mechanism of crystallization, the mechanical deformation of metals and the improvement of technical practice. His Introduction to the Study of Physical Metallurgy (1914, 3rd edition 1935) was widely influential. He published books on alloys and numerous papers, mainly in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. In 1931 he retired and went into private practice in London.

An inspiring leader of team research, Rosenhain had a strong personality, capacity for clear exposition and skill in controversy. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1913, and was awarded the Carnegie silver medal in 1906 and the Bessemer medal of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1930. He was president of the Optical Society, London, and the Institute of Metals (1928-30) and British delegate from 1927 to the permanent committee of the New International Association for Testing Materials (president, 1931). He also served on many technical committees of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Air Ministry, the Dental Board and the British Standards Institution. Fluent in French and German, he was well-received when he lectured in Europe and North America.

Rosenhain was naturalized in England in 1914 but he visited Australia that year for the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He retained links with Australia through his family and in particular through Monash, with whom he conducted a lengthy and intimate correspondence. Although not a practising Jew he resigned from several German scientific societies in protest against the treatment of Jews during the early years of the Hitler régime. He died of cancer on 17 March 1934 at Kingston, Surrey, and was buried in Putney Vale cemetery. His wife and two of their three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982)
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Dec 1934, p 351
  • Institute of Metals, Journal, 54, 1934
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Mar 1934
  • Times (London), 22 Mar 1934
  • John Monash papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Christopher J. Davey, 'Rosenhain, Walter (1875–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 May 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]


24 August, 1875
Berlin, Germany


17 March, 1934 (aged 58)
Kingston, Surrey, England

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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