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Charles Norman Watson-Munro (1915–1991)

by Anna-Eugenia Binnie

This article was published:

Charles Norman Machell Watson-Munro (1915-1991), professor of physics, was born on 1 August 1915 at Dunedin, New Zealand, third of four children of English-born Charles Christopher Machell Watson-Munro, engineer and university lecturer, and his New Zealand-born second wife Ethel Marion Emily, née Penny. The family lived in Dunedin, Christchurch, and Wanganui, before moving to Guildford, Britain. Returning to New Zealand in 1921, they eventually settled in Lower Hutt, where Charles attended Hutt Valley High School. The family was not wealthy and while in high school, he sold honey door to door. Matriculating in 1930 near the top of his class, he remained at school for another year to qualify for the Higher Leaving certificate which covered his university fees.

At Victoria College, University of New Zealand (BSc, 1936; MSc, 1938), Watson-Munro worked part time as a laboratory assistant and apprentice instrument maker, and developed a love for outdoor activities, including skiing and mountaineering. First in his class in both physics and chemistry as an undergraduate, he was awarded a scholarship to complete his master’s degree.

While still at university Watson-Munro had joined the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). Continuing there after graduation, he worked in geophysics under the pioneering physicist (Sir) Ernest Marsden until the commencement of World War II. At the end of 1939 he joined the New Zealand team working on radar technology, and in 1941-42 was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States of America. During this time he also acted as the New Zealand scientific liaison officer in Washington. He returned to New Zealand as director of the country’s Radio Development Laboratory. On 9 December 1943 he was appointed honorary major in the New Zealand Military Forces. In 1944 he took part in operations with the United States Marine Corps in Bougainville using the New Zealand radar equipment. He was appointed OBE in 1946 for his radar work during the war.

In 1944, as part of the British contribution to the broader Manhattan Project, Watson-Munro had been sent to Montreal with a small New Zealand contingent. The New Zealanders were involved with the design, construction, and development of the first Canadian reactor, a natural-uranium heavy-water reactor built at Chalk River and given the name Zero Energy Experimental Pile (ZEEP). Watson-Munro worked on engineering aspects of ZEEP, which started up in September 1945 and was the first reactor to go critical outside the USA. He met Canadian-born Yvette Diamond at a ski lodge in the Laurentian Mountains; they married on 16 October 1947 at the register office, Westminster, London.

At the conclusion of the war Watson-Munro had joined a British-New Zealand team at the newly established Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, England. The group worked on planning and building two graphite-moderated natural-uranium reactors, termed British Experimental Pile-0 (BEPO) and Graphite Low Energy Pile (GLEEP). Watson-Munro led those working on GLEEP. It was a basic version of BEPO, constructed to investigate the reactor physics for the BEPO design, as well as to supply radiation facilities at the site. Building commenced in August 1946, and the reactor went critical a year later.

Returning to New Zealand in 1948, Watson-Munro became deputy head of the DSIR. He resigned in 1951 to take up the position of professor of physics at Victoria College, Wellington, where he undertook research on cosmic rays. He was recruited as chief scientist at the newly founded Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) in 1955. After working on a joint British-Australian research program at Harwell, he came back to Australia, and directed the construction of the country’s first research reactor, the High Flux Australian Reactor. It went critical on 26 January 1958.

Invited by Professor Harry Messel to take up the new chair of plasma physics at the University of Sydney, Watson-Munro resigned from the AAEC at the end of 1959 and commenced at the university early in 1960. He started work on the other form of nuclear reaction, fusion, attempting to develop a sustainable and controlled thermonuclear reaction. While this research occupied virtually the rest of his career, and although he and his team produced a number of significant results, a controlled self-sustaining fusion reaction eluded him. He received a doctorate from Victoria University, Wellington (DSc, 1968), following the submission of twenty-three publications, based on his plasma work, for examination. The same year he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

Watson-Munro served on a number of bodies related to energy research. Among them were the United Nations committee for establishing the International Atomic Energy Agency (1955), the International Fusion Research Council (1971/2-80), the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (1973-74), the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council (1974-78), the National Energy Advisory Committee (1977-79), and the National Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Council (1978-81).  A councillor of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (1958-80), he was president from 1967 to 1968.

Interested in other energy sources late in his career, Watson-Munro was influential in research on solar energy that prompted the establishment of an applied physics department at the University of Sydney. Although he retired in 1980, he continued to take part in research, becoming energy consultant to the university’s Science Foundation for Physics (1981-85). He was described as good-natured, loyal, and hospitable, and as a leader and administrator of outstanding ability. Having wished as a school student to become a carpenter, he enjoyed making furniture for his family’s home.

Following the death of his wife in 1989, Watson-Munro’s health deteriorated. Survived by his son, he died on 10 August 1991 at Heidelberg, Melbourne, and was cremated. He will be remembered for his work in the development of atomic energy on three continents.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Binnie, Anna-Eugenia. ‘From Atomic Energy to Nuclear Science: A History of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission.’ PhD diss., Macquarie University, 2003
  • Brennan, M. H. ‘Charles Norman Watson-Munro 1915-1991.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 14, no. 1 (2002): 89-98
  • Lehane, J. A. ‘Charles Norman Watson-Munro 1915-1991.’ Australian and New Zealand Physicist 28, no. 10 (October 1991): 219.

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Citation details

Anna-Eugenia Binnie, 'Watson-Munro, Charles Norman (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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