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Sir Frederick William (Fred) White (1905–1994)

by Karen Fox

This article was published:

Frederick White, n.d., [detail]

Frederick White, n.d., [detail]


Sir Frederick William George White (1905–1994), physicist, was born on 26 May 1905 at Johnsonville, Wellington, New Zealand, eldest of three children of English-born William Henry White, ship’s chief steward, and his New Zealand-born wife Wilhelmina, née Dunlop. Fred’s schooling began in Dunedin, where his family had settled when he was aged five, but it was interrupted by illness, and only resumed in earnest at the age of nine. After the Whites returned to Wellington, he was educated at Te Aro public school and then at Wellington College (1920–24). He became fascinated by astronomy and amateur radio, assisting in the college observatory and joining the wireless club. Intending to study engineering, he began his working life as an apprentice in the Wellington Corporation Tramways workshop.

In 1925 White entered Victoria University College, University of New Zealand (BSc, 1928; MSc, 1929), where he studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and geology. A Senior scholar in physics, he was awarded first-class honours in the subject in 1929. He also won Jacob Joseph and national research scholarships; these, together with work as a physics demonstrator, made it possible for him to continue his studies at VUC. He was awarded a postgraduate scholarship in science from his alma mater and a Strathcona studentship from St John’s College, Cambridge. On the recommendation of Victoria’s professor of physics, D. C. H. Florance, he commenced studies at St John’s (PhD, 1934) and Sir Ernest (Lord) Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory, where he worked with J. A. Ratcliffe on the propagation of radio waves.

Engaged as a demonstrator (later assistant lecturer) in physics at King’s College, London, in 1931, White worked under Sir Edward Appleton, and became acquainted with Edward ‘Taffy’ Bowen. On 7 September 1932, at the parish church of St John the Evangelist, Fitzroy Square, London, he married Elizabeth Cooper (d. 1992), a pathologist. In 1934 he published a textbook, Electromagnetic Waves, developed from a series of lectures on the subject. During that year he also began lecturing at the Polytechnic, Regent Street, London.

In 1937 White returned to New Zealand to take up an appointment as professor of physics at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand, Christchurch. He researched the ionosphere, and was briefly involved in the radio research committee of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. After World War II broke out, he led a team working to develop a gunnery radar for the Royal New Zealand Navy. In 1941 he travelled to Sydney, following a request from the Australian government that he be granted leave from his university duties to assist in developing radar. Named chief of the radiophysics division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in October 1942, he would become ‘the dominant figure in Australian radar’ (Minnett and Robertson 1996, 248).

White never returned to his Canterbury College post in New Zealand, moving instead to CSIR’s head office in Melbourne in 1945. The following year he joined its executive. In 1949 he was appointed chief executive officer, under (Sir) Ian Clunies Ross, of the reconstituted Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). The two men made a strong team, White providing day-to-day planning and leadership alongside Clunies Ross’s vision and public advocacy. Although White was involved in almost all aspects of CSIRO’s evolution, its particular achievements under his direction were in meteorological physics; in wool textiles, with the creation of research laboratories and the development of new methods for processing fibre; and in radio astronomy, led by Bowen, which would culminate in the building of the Parkes radio telescope. In 1954 he was appointed CBE.

Deputy chairman from 1957, White was appointed chairman of CSIRO in 1959. Significant developments under his leadership included the construction of a phytotron, for studying plant growth in varying conditions; the building of the Culgoora radioheliograph near Narrabri; and the establishment of a computing research section. He was promoted to KBE in 1962, and in 1964 oversaw the relocation of CSIRO’s headquarters to Canberra. Sir Frederick retired in 1970.

White served the scientific community in other positions as well. A council member (1974–77) and vice-president (1976–77) of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), he was also president (1963–64) and chairman (1970–73) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Institution of Radio Engineers (1945), the AAS (1960), and London’s Royal Society (1966). Having chaired (1956–57) the Australian branch of the Institute of Physics, he was made an honorary fellow in 1970. He was a member of the councils of the Australian National University (1961–67) and Monash University (1961–63), and was awarded honorary doctorates of science from both institutions in 1969, as well as from the University of Papua New Guinea in 1970. The ANZAAS conferred its medal on him in 1975.

Keith Boardman, a later CSIRO chairman and chief executive, would write after White’s death that he had exercised ‘a dominating influence on the pattern and development of scientific research in Australia’ from 1945 until he retired (1994, 15). Believing strongly in scientific freedom, he advocated pure research as the surest path to making significant discoveries, rather than pursuing preconceived research goals. His decision not to return to Canterbury College had meant the end of his own program of research, but he reflected that ‘I have never regretted doing so’ (Minnett and Robertson 1996, 239). Although his ‘no-nonsense’ focus could make him seem ‘gruff,’ he was ‘humble and somewhat shy,’ with ‘a sincere concern for people’ (Boardman 1994, 15). ‘[I]mperturbable, good-humoured and direct,’ he had a ‘flair for practical administration,’ ‘a remarkably clear and analytical mind,’ and ‘the capacity to make tough decisions’ (Minnett and Robertson 1996, 242, 245, 253).

Sharing with his wife a love of bushwalking, White also enjoyed trout fishing and carpentry. Through her passion for birdwatching, he became interested in ornithology, and in retirement researched bird songs, sometimes accompanied by blind people whom he took into the bush to enjoy the sounds. He turned his woodworking skills to creating toys for children with disabilities. In 1990 the Whites moved from Canberra back to Melbourne. He died on 17 August 1994 at Glenhuntly and was cremated following a service at St Peter’s Anglican Church, Brighton Beach. His son and daughter survived him. The AAS’s Frederick White prize and Elizabeth and Frederick White conferences were established through the couple’s financial contributions.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Academy of Science. MS111, Papers of Sir F. W. G. White
  • Boardman, Keith. ‘CSIRO Chief Oversaw “Golden Age”.’ Australian, 8 September 1994, 15
  • Collis, Brad. Fields of Discovery: Australia’s CSIRO. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2002
  • McCarthy, G. J. ‘White, Frederick William George (1905–1994).’ Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Accessed 29 July 2017. Copy held on ADB file
  • Minnett, H. C., and Rutherford Robertson. ‘Frederick William George White 1905–1994.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 11, no. 2 (December 1996): 239–58
  • Schedvin, C. B. Shaping Science and Industry: A History of Australia’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 1926–49. North Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1987
  • Young, Dennis. ‘Vale Sir Frederick White.’ ANU Reporter, 12 October 1994, 11

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Karen Fox, 'White, Sir Frederick William (Fred) (1905–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 19 May 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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