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Macdonell Watkyn Head (Don) Woods (1911–1981)

by Andrew Downing

This article was published:

Macdonell Watkyn Head Woods (1911-1981), mechanical engineer, was born on 19 November 1911 in Hobart, elder child of Victorian-born Walter Alan Woods, journalist, and his second wife Jemima Gourlay, née Watkins, born in Tasmania. Don was educated at Hobart High School and the University of Tasmania (B.Sc., BE, 1934), where he gained eight prizes and the university’s research scholarship. After winning the Rhodes scholarship for Tasmania in 1934, he studied engineering at Magdalen College, Oxford (D.Phil., 1937). (Sir) Richard Southwell directed his research: Wood’s thesis, ‘The Flow of Steam in Pipes and Nozzles’, contributed to the early development of the relaxation method of stress analysis.

As a Commonwealth research fellow in the faculty of engineering at the University of Melbourne in 1937-39, Woods investigated producer gas as a fuel for motor vehicles. He then joined the division of aeronautics of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research as officer-in-charge of the engines section; in 1949 that section was transferred to the Department of Supply. He was still slim, albeit balding and of less than average height. On 19 September 1945 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he had married Dorothy (Doris) Elizabeth Tibballs.

In 1951 Woods moved to Adelaide as the superintendent of the high speed aerodynamics laboratory, which, in 1955, amalgamated with other laboratories to become the Weapons Research Establishment. He served as deputy-controller of the weapons research and development wing in 1955-65. From 1965 until his retirement in 1976 Woods was the director of WRE, based at Salisbury and Woomera. As director, he was responsible for developing theoretical and experimental research programs in high-speed aerodynamics, rocket propulsion, and weapon-systems development and evaluation. Successes for Woods included the Ikara anti-submarine weapon system, and Australia’s becoming the fourth nation to put a satellite into earth orbit with the successful launch from Woomera on 29 November 1967 of the Weapons Research Establishment satellite. Both achievements had relied on high levels of collaboration across many groups and disciplines at WRE.

Despite ultimately leading a 4500-strong research organisation, Woods was averse to management interference. Summarising his thoughts on the planning and management of research and development at a Department of Supply seminar in 1960, Woods said ‘the danger of stifling the research spirit by too much management cannot be over-emphasised. As I see it, the art of research management lies in reducing management to a minimum’.

A generous contributor professionally and in the community, Woods was a member of the council of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, for eighteen years (national president 1972). With a keen interest in technical education, he chaired the Salisbury High School council in 1959-64 and was president of the council of the South Australian Institute of Technology from 1979 until his death. He served on the South Australian government’s Water Resources Appeal Tribunal. Appointed OBE in 1971, Woods became a foundation fellow (1976) of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. The Institution of Engineers awarded him the inaugural A. G. M. Michell medal in 1978 and the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal in 1979.

Woods was an excellent organiser, able to recognise a need and to take decisive action to see that it was satisfied. He was a frequent driver in the establishment of organisations and societies, and was often their founding leader. A cheerful man, he made friends easily. A love of food, wine and skiing resulted in his serving as president of the CSIR Officers’ Association, the CSIR Ski Club, the Federation of Victorian Ski Clubs, the South Australian Ski Club, and the Bacchus Club of Adelaide. His favourite Australian ski slopes were on Mount Buller, despite the uphill hikes prior to the introduction of ski lifts. He had a strong interest in sport, including two codes of football and squash. He had won a half-Blue in rifle shooting at the universities of Tasmania and Oxford and he also enjoyed photography as a hobby.

Survived by his wife and their son, Woods died of myocardial infarction on 16 March 1981 in Adelaide. He had played a major role in building Australia’s science and engineering capability, particularly in defence. The University of South Australia holds his portrait by Robert Hannaford.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Morton, Fire Across the Desert (1989)
  • J. Wisdom, A History of Defence Science in Australia (1995)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 Nov 1976, p 15
  • Scodos, Mar 1979, p 17
  • Engineers Australia, 2 Nov 1979, p 8, 3-16 Apr 1981, p 6
  • private information.

Citation details

Andrew Downing, 'Woods, Macdonell Watkyn Head (Don) (1911–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 June 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

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