Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stefan Friedrich Smerd (1916–1978)

by Peter Robertson

This article was published:

Stefan Friedrich Smerd (1916-1978), physicist, was born on 28 July 1916 in Vienna, second son of Rudolf Smerd, mathematician, and his wife Marie, née Pollack. Stefan showed an early love of science and went on to study physics at the Technische Hochschule in 1935-37. Due to the deteriorating political situation in Europe, he and his elder brother Hans migrated to Britain in 1938. There he won a scholarship to the University of Liverpool (B.Sc., 1942; D.Sc., 1965). Although he was interned in Canada for almost a year owing to his nationality, he successfully completed his degree with first-class honours in physics.

For the remainder of World War II Smerd worked at the University of Birmingham and at the Admiralty Signals Establishment at Witley, Surrey, on secret projects connected with the development of radar. His experience enabled him to obtain a position in the division of radiophysics with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization from 1949). He arrived in Sydney on 29 May 1946, nine days after his widowed father reached Melbourne from Egypt. At St Jude's Church of England, Randwick, on 6 December 1947 Steve married Elizabeth Mary Fraser, a C.S.I.R. laboratory-assistant.

By 1948 Smerd was working with Joe Pawsey on theoretical aspects of the new field of radio astronomy. Acquiring a strong interest in radio emission from the sun, he rapidly gained an international reputation for his work on thermal processes in the 'quiet' sun, and for that on the extremely energetic non-thermal phenomena associated with solar disturbances. Although his work was largely theoretical, he was particularly fascinated by the observational side of solar radio astronomy. He applied his theories to many practical problems and developed a deep insight into the sun's physical processes.

As one of the world's leading solar physicists, Smerd received numerous invitations to attend conferences and join scientific committees. He established a world data centre for solar radio emission during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), became an active member of the International Astronomical Union, travelled extensively, and formed close professional and personal contacts with scientists throughout the world.

In 1971 Smerd succeeded his long-term colleague J. P. Wild as head of the solar radio astronomy group and director of the C.S.I.R.O. solar observatory at Culgoora, near Narrabri, New South Wales. Although the administrative responsibilities increased his workload, he accepted this new challenge with enthusiasm and used his knowledge as a catalyst to stimulate and motivate those around him.

Beyond his scientific pursuits, Smerd maintained his interest in politics, sport and community activities. Stemming from a humane and slightly old-fashioned form of socialism, his social philosophy championed the cause of the underprivileged. His keen sense of humour, rich, deep voice and charming nature endeared him to his friends and colleagues. He died on 20 December 1978 while undergoing heart surgery at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, and was cremated; his wife, and their daughter and three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Bittman (ed), Strauss to Matilda (Syd, 1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 1946
  • Smerd personal file (CSIRO, Sydney)
  • naturalisation file, A435, item 1947/4/3526, C3830, item F1/4/SME, SP11/2, item Austrian-Smerd, S. F. (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Peter Robertson, 'Smerd, Stefan Friedrich (1916–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 July, 1916
Vienna, Austria


20 December, 1978 (aged 62)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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