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Sir Ernest William Titterton (1916–1990)

by J. O. Newton and John Jenkin

This article was published:

Sir Ernest William Titterton (1916-1990), professor of nuclear physics, was born on 4 March 1916 at Bolehall, Tamworth, England, elder son of William Alfred Titterton, paperworks’ clerk, and his wife Elizabeth, née Smith. Ernest’s parents shielded him from the worst of the Depression; it may have contributed, however, to his neurotic meanness with money and his belief that the only way to succeed in a difficult project or vigorous debate was to fight with uncompromising drive until the goal or the argument was won. Encouraged by his father, he became a chorister and an accomplished pianist and organist. He won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Tamworth, where he succeeded academically and at sport.

Unable to afford the University of Cambridge fees, Titterton enrolled at the University of Birmingham (B.Sc. Hons, 1937; M.Sc., 1938; Dip.Ed., 1939; Ph.D., 1941) as a trainee teacher, with a scholarship that paid tuition fees and board and lodging at Chancellor’s Hall. Funds earned playing in bands provided spending money. He graduated with first-class honours in physics, leading his class. Of slight build, he was a regular member of the university’s first hockey XI and socially popular.

After completing a difficult master’s project, supervised by (Sir) Mark Oliphant, Titterton went to King Edward’s Grammar School for Boys to honour his practice teaching obligations. The headmaster praised his subject knowledge, instructional skills and vitality. To help support himself, Titterton undertook part-time teaching at the Birmingham Central Technical College, but this career was cut short by the outbreak of World War II.

Oliphant asked Titterton to make a modulator for the resonant magnetron being developed to produce powerful, pulsed radiation for radar. Using rotating and then triggered spark gaps, Titterton and his group co-operated with industry to produce a reliable model for use in aircraft. Oliphant commented that Titterton was ‘working like a Trojan . . . totally dedicated and unselfish’. This research led to his doctorate. He next collaborated with Otto Frisch at Birmingham and Liverpool to develop a British nuclear weapon. Their discovery that neutrons were produced promptly following fission made a bomb feasible. They also discovered spontaneous fission but were prevented from publishing.

On 19 September 1942 at the parish church, Hagley, Worcestershire, Titterton married Peggy Eileen Johnson. In 1943 he joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, United States of America. Here he helped to design the explosive lens system that shaped the initial shock wave to the spherical (‘fat man’) bomb, and the sequential timing system necessary for its detonation. He triggered the first bomb test (‘Trinity’) on 16 July 1945. Subsequently, a cylindrical (‘little boy’) bomb was exploded over Hiroshima and a ‘fat man’ over Nagasaki.

Although strongly encouraged to remain in the American program, in 1947 Titterton returned to Britain. At the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, he was in charge of a nuclear physics research group that conducted pioneering studies of ternary fission—the decay of highly excited light nuclei and multi-particle disintegrations produced by fast neutrons. Later appointed a consultant to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, he witnessed the development of a British nuclear weapon.

In 1950 Titterton accepted Oliphant’s invitation to become foundation professor of nuclear physics, Research School of Physical Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, initially to study atomic nuclei with accelerated particles and later to participate in particle physics, using Oliphant’s planned ‘big machine’. Titterton’s first task was to house and test the first accelerators—a Cockroft-Walton and an electron synchrotron. Arranged through the respective governments, the latter acquisition enabled him to meet Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, with whom he formed a close relationship.

Titterton’s experience recommended him to the British and Australian governments when, from 1952 to 1963, British nuclear weapons were tested in Australia. He was a foundation member and later chairman of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee that oversaw the safety of Australian people, property and countryside. Many people were troubled by his persistent assurances that nuclear energy was safe, that nuclear weapons were desirable and that the fission yield from the 1960 ‘Vixen B’ trials was zero.

Elected one of the first fellows (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, Titterton was a vice-president (1964-66). On study leave in 1954 he wrote Facing the Atomic Future (1956), a sound account of the contemporary situation regarding nuclear power and weapons, and their social, ethical and political dimensions. His research on photonuclear and neutron-induced reactions using emulsions led to a review article in Progress in Nuclear Physics (1955). With three staff members he was the first to use the inverse reaction to study the giant-dipole resonance in nuclei.

Contact with Menzies and his government enabled Titterton to obtain funds for a tandem accelerator, which began operation in 1961 and made the department known worldwide. During the 1960s Titterton supervised a number of students and this work, together with that at Harwell, was the most productive of his research career. Thereafter he took a larger role in the administration of science at the ANU. In 1969 he obtained $2.2 million to upgrade the department’s facilities; acquisition of a 14MV tandem, the world’s most powerful, was a triumph. It used a new technology and was obtained at modest cost because only the ‘bare bones’ were purchased; the department installed it.

While the department produced a steady stream of capable graduates—a source of pride for Titterton—some staff members resented his overbearing manner. He exerted autocratic control, making all staffing and equipment decisions without consultation; he did not allow staff or students to wear radiation badges to monitor personal exposure. His relationship with physicists in Sydney and Melbourne deteriorated and his excessive meanness with money became legendary.

Appointed dean (1966) and director (1968) of his research school, Titterton established the departments of applied mathematics and solid state physics. In 1969 the Australian and British governments agreed to build and operate an Anglo-Australian telescope in Australia, but conflict arose between some ANU academics, who sought control, and the telescope board that wanted to appoint its own management team. Titterton supported the latter view, which eventually prevailed, but he had made enemies within the university. When the department of geophysics and geochemistry proposed in 1969 that it should become a new Research School of Earth Sciences, Titterton opposed the change. A long and bitter battle followed and Titterton lost in the university council.

Titterton’s directorship deteriorated; his dogmatic style was outdated and, although his policies were perceptive, his achievements were overshadowed by his inability to compromise. Resentment grew; the staff removed him from chairmanship of the faculty by an overwhelming vote and the university refused him a second term. Late in 1973 he returned to his former department, as professor but not head; he again led a proposal to upgrade the equipment, by using the tandem as an injector for a superconducting linear accelerator. Australian funding agencies declined to support the idea; finally a shared-use agreement with the Science Research Council (United Kingdom) transferred the desired equipment to Canberra from closed facilities at Oxford and Daresbury. It was to be installed and commissioned during the 1990s.

Appointed CMG in 1957, Titterton was knighted in 1970. He served on the councils of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (1958-83; president, 1973-74) and Macquarie University (1978-84). In 1979 he co-authored, with Frank Robotham, Uranium, Energy Source of the Future?  After his retirement in 1981 he was a formidable and strident promoter of nuclear power in the media. In 1982 he suffered a stroke from which he recovered. At hearings in 1984-85 of the royal commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, he clashed with its president, Justice James (Jim) McClelland, and neither man gave ground. The commission’s findings were severe but biased; the truth lay somewhere between the two extreme positions.

Divorced in 1986, Sir Ernest became a quadriplegic in 1987 as a result of a car accident; special arrangements allowed him to record his memoirs and send letters to his friends. He became a supporter of euthanasia. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died of a pulmonary embolus on 8 February 1990 in Canberra and was cremated. His ashes were scattered along the cliffs of the English Channel.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Ophel and J. Jenkin, ‘Fire in the Belly’ (1996)
  • T. R. Ophel, A Tower of Strength (1998)
  • R. Cross, Fallout (2001)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 137
  • J. O. Newton, ‘Ernest William Titterton 1916-1990’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 9, no 2, 1992, p 167
  • Canberra Times, 10 Feb 1990, p 6
  • D. Ellyard, interview with E. Titterton (ts, 1980, National Library of Australia)
  • E. Titterton papers (Basser Library)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. O. Newton and John Jenkin, 'Titterton, Sir Ernest William (1916–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 March, 1916
Tamworth, Staffordshire, England


8 February, 1990 (aged 73)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

pulmonary embolism

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