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Wark, Sir Ian William (1899–1985)

by J. B. Willis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ian Wark, Norman Wodetzki, 1977

Ian Wark, Norman Wodetzki, 1977

University of Melbourne, UMA/​I/​2291

Sir Ian William Wark (1899-1985), chemist and scientific administrator, was born on 8 May 1899 at Spottiswoode (Spotswood), Melbourne, and named William Ian, second of four children of Scottish-born William John Wark, engineer, and his Victorian-born wife Florence Emily, née Palmer. Educated first at Deepdene State and Melbourne Junior Technical schools, Ian then spent four years at Scotch College, Melbourne (dux in 1915 and 1916), where his flair for mathematics and science was encouraged. Scholarships took him to the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1920; M.Sc., 1922; D.Sc., 1924). He excelled in mathematics, natural philosophy and chemistry, in which he gained first-class honours. (Sir) David Masson, professor of chemistry, urged him to specialise in this subject. For his master’s research on complex copper salts he also gained first-class honours.

In 1921 Wark travelled on an 1851 Exhibition research scholarship to Britain, where at University College, London (Ph.D., 1923), he undertook further work on copper complexes. He was one of the first chemists to realise that, if it ever became possible to transmute one element into another, the energy liberated ‘should provide a satisfactory solution to the problems raised by the world’s dwindling sources of power’; he also acknowledged that the effects might be devastating. After studying for a year at the University of California, Berkeley, United States of America, he returned to Australia and was a lecturer (1925) in chemistry at the University of Sydney.

Back in Melbourne, Wark became a research chemist (1926-39). He worked in the department of chemistry, University of Melbourne, funded by the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia Ltd and later by a consortium of mining companies, and tackled major technical problems of concern to the minerals industry. His principal contribution was a study of the physics and chemistry of the flotation processes that were used by mining companies to concentrate ores. Wark’s research established a degree of order in a very confused field; his book, Principles of Flotation (1938), rapidly became a classic. On 27 May 1927 at the Presbyterian Church, Mosman, Sydney, he married Elsie Evelyn Booth, one of his former students at the University of Sydney.

With war threatening in the late 1930s, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization from 1949) was authorised to undertake work for secondary industry, and in 1940 Wark became foundation chief of its division of industrial chemistry. World War II caused him to focus on problems ranging from biochemistry to minerals utilisation, but when peace returned he was able to realise his ambition of seeing fundamental research also carried out in the division. In an account of its first twelve years (Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol 4, no 2, 1979, pp 7-41), Wark wrote that he wanted CSIRO ‘to have the S [pure] research match in volume the I [applied] research’. This philosophy led to some outstanding results, including the work — begun by (Sir) Alan Walsh in 1947 — on spectrochemical analysis, which culminated in the invention of the atomic absorption spectrometer, its adoption by analytical chemists throughout the world, and the development of a major Australian scientific instrument industry.

The division grew rapidly to become Australia’s largest chemical laboratory and by 1954 had 105 research workers and a total staff of over 300. In 1958 it was split into several divisions and independent sections, which constituted the Chemical Research Laboratories, with Wark as director. Recognising that ideas and research initiatives tended to flow upwards from the research level, he encouraged his juniors to show initiative. He admired lateral thinking and adventurous projects — he probably regarded a bold failure more highly than a cautious success; he expounded his philosophy of research in his book, Why Research? (1968).

In 1960 Wark was appointed a member of the CSIRO executive. He did not enjoy this position but went about the job with characteristic dedication until his retirement in 1965. Chairman (1965-71) of the newly created Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Advanced Education, he supported the creation and development of more than fifty colleges of advanced education and helped transform Australian tertiary education.

Active in many professional scientific bodies, Wark was federal president (1958) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and one of the first fellows (1954), and treasurer (1959-63), of the Australian Academy of Science. He received many honours and awards, including an honorary membership (1960) of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. Appointed CBE (1963) and CMG (1967), he was knighted in 1969. In 1983 an international symposium on the principles of mineral flotation was held in Adelaide in his honour.

Wark had remarkable powers of concentration and a single-minded determination to succeed. By disposition he was reserved to the point of being shy, but was always very sure of the opinions he had formed. Once he had made up his mind on a person or an issue of consequence it was very difficult to get him to change it. Keen on physical activity, he was an excellent golfer. He was an outstanding exponent of fly-fishing and devised a trout fly that was to be catalogued and sold worldwide. With catholic tastes in music, literature and the arts, in later years he tried his hand at musical composition and at writing, both prose and verse. His carefully kept records provided material for his unpublished autobiography and history of his division. He was also a good gardener.

Survived by his wife and their daughter, Sir Ian died on 20 April 1985 in East Melbourne and was cremated. He is commemorated by CSIRO’s Ian Wark laboratory at Clayton, Victoria, the Wark lecture theatre and the Ian William Wark medal and lecture of the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, and the Ian Wark Research Institute at the University of South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Proceedings of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, vol 33, no 9, 1966, p 214
  • CoResearch, no 28, 1985, p 8
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 4, 1987, p 533
  • J. B. Willis, ‘Sir Ian Wark: An Industrious Chemist’, Chemistry in Australia, vol 62, no 3, 1995, p 33
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Aug 1965, p 4
  • Wark papers (Basser Library)
  • private information and personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. B. Willis, 'Wark, Sir Ian William (1899–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 April 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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