Leslie Harold Martin 1900-1983

Written by D.E. Caro and R.L. Martin.

The early years 1900-1918

Leslie Harold Martin was born on 21 December 1900 at Footscray, in Melbourne, the son of Henry Richard and Ettie Emily Martin (née Tutty). His father came from Somerset and was superintendent of transport for the Victorian Railways but died prematurely as the result of an accident. His mother was born midway between the cities of Sydney and Melbourne on a bullock train which her father operated for many years between the two cities (1).

As a child he received his primary education in Melbourne at the Flemington State School from which he gained a scholarship to Essendon High School. He was only 11 years old when his father died and, as money was always scarce, he had to work as a grocer's errand boy to help support himself at home and at school. He studied hard and managed to win a Junior State Scholarship which took him to the premier Melbourne High School for his final three years of secondary schooling. Here his natural gifts and interest in mathematics and science were soon recognised and encouraged by his mathematics teacher, Miss Julia Flynn, and this led to his winning a Victorian Education Department Senior Government Scholarship on the basis of his excellent performance in the school leaving examinations in December 1918. This scholarship enabled him to enter the University of Melbourne at the beginning of 1919. He was admitted to the course 'BSc for Education' to train to become a teacher.

Student days 1918-1923

Physics was to be his over-riding interest. In the first year he obtained second class honours in Natural Philosophy I (now Physics) and passed satisfactorily in Chemistry, Pure Mathematics and Mixed Mathematics. In the second year he moved up to first class honours in Natural Philosophy II, second class in Psychology, Logic and Ethics and a pass in Pure Mathematics II.

At this time he must have decided that he was not destined to be a school teacher but would make his career in science, for his academic record in third year no longer indicates that the course was 'for education'. In 1921, in the final year of the course for the BSc degree, he took Pure Mathematics III and Natural Philosopy III. He passed the Mathematics subject, obtained first class honours in Natural Philosophy and came top of his year for which the University awarded him the Dixson Scholarship in Natural Philosophy.

Leslie Martin must have done a good deal more during his undergraduate years than the bare records show. Later, when applying for a senior lectureship, he wrote:

with regard to my teaching experience I should like to point out that during my university course at Melbourne I attended lectures at the Teachers College on the Theory of Teaching. In connection with these lectures, I obtained certain practical experience, both in primary and secondary schools (2).

In 1922 he was accepted to study for the Master's degree in Science, a research programme which he completed at the end of that year, obtaining first class honours and both the Dixson and Kernot Scholarships at the final examination. Martin worked under the supervision of Professor T.H. Laby at this time and his research topic was 'High frequency K-series absorption spectrum of erbium'.

After qualifying for the MSc degree he was awarded the Fred Knight Research Scholarship which enabled him to continue working with Laby in 1923. As was to be the pattern of his life, the single task was not sufficient at that time. Money was short and he had the necessity to earn while studying. He was a demonstrator in the Department of Natural Philosophy during 1922 and 1923 and he held an appointment as evening lecturer at the Working Men's College. This subsequently became the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology which this year is celebrating its centenary.

Sir Ian Wark (3) wrote of Laby's department:

Laby established what was probably the strongest university research school in the southern hemisphere – and became so highly regarded as a physicist that during his professorship 13 of his nominees were awarded 1851 scholarships.

Laby had a strong influence on Martin who was later to say of his early university days:

I was never terribly interested in Chemistry...I was more interested in Physics. I did Mathematics of course, with Physics, because the two go hand in hand...I had the good fortune to work with Professor Laby. He was a product of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and no doubt inspired me to follow in his footsteps in one way or another (4).

Laby was clearly impressed with the young Martin and, in 1923, nominated him for an Overseas Scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. He was awarded this together with a free passage to England, where he was to study at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, under Rutherford who himself was an 1851 Exhibition Science Research Scholar.

Before leaving Australia Martin married on 13 February 1923, Gladys Maude Elaine Bull who was in the final year of her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Melbourne. They had met when he was only 16 and they were destined to live happily together for the next 60 years.

When Leslie Martin and his young bride left for Cambridge on the P&O passenger steamer S.S. Berrima, he was qualified to take out his MSc degree. He never actually did that nor the BSc degree before it; in fact he had no degree conferred by the University of Melbourne until in December 1959 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

The Cambridge years 1923-1927

Gladys and Leslie Martin arrived in Cambridge in time for the commencement of Michaelmas term, 1923. To become a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory, enrolled for the PhD degree, Martin had first to be accepted by one of the Cambridge colleges. Rutherford was a Fellow of Trinity, which had a long association with science dating back to Isaac Newton, and he arranged for Martin to enter Trinity. As a married man, he was not obliged to live in the college and the young couple spent much of their Cambridge period living in rented accommodation in Grantchester Meadows. The academic prestige of the 1851 Exhibition Scholarship was not quite matched by its level of remuneration (£250 p.a. in 1927) and being married with no other income made it difficult for the couple to make ends meet. Their financial burdens were compounded by the arrival of their first child, Leon Henry Martin, born in Cambridge on 25 April 1924. A year later, they decided that Gladys should return temporarily to Melbourne to be with her parents for the birth of their second son, Raymond Leslie Martin, who was born on 3 February 1926. During the return voyage to Cambridge with two children aboard the P&O passenger steamer S.S. Benalla, their elder son suffered a sudden and acute illness and died at sea in July 1926. It was a shattering blow from which the parents never fully recovered and it cast a dark shadow over their remaining time in Cambridge.

In spite of these vicissitudes Leslie Martin completed his PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1926, working on absorption measurements of homogeneous X-rays in metals under the general direction of Rutherford. The results of this work were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. He continued his research at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1926-27 with the support of an International Research Fellowship of the Rockefeller Foundation.

All of us are influenced by our idols and Rutherford, with his immense enthusiasm for research and the unique ethos which he gave to the Cavendish Laboratory, exerted a profound influence on Martin's future career. When T.E. Allibone visited the Cavendish Laboratory in March 1926, Rutherford took him down to the 'biggest room we have'. 'There he was introduced to John Cockcroft working in one corner and to Leslie Martin, the Australian in another' (5). The annual photograph taken in 1927 of Rutherford's Cavendish research group shows L.H. Martin standing next to J.D. Cockcroft, further evidence of a long and enduring friendship with John and Elizabeth Cockcroft which continued throughout their lives. Martin and Cockcroft became closely associated again during World War II when both were scientific advisers to their respective governments. In August 1952, Cockcroft made an official visit to Australia on behalf of the Defence Research Policy Committee during which it is recorded that 'Another old Cavendish colleague visited by the Cockcrofts was Leslie Martin, now Professor of Physics at the University of Melbourne, who was full of plans for a cyclotron to be used to do fundamental research and to produce radioactive isotopes for medical purposes' (6). In the manuscript of an address, Martin recalled their early friendship in Cambridge in the following words (7):

John Cockcroft and I worked in the same room at the Cavendish Laboratory. We designed a half-million-volt accelerator tube which was used with a powerful Tesla to produce fast electrons. The electric field around the H.T. electrode produced magnificent coloured discharges in vacuum tubes. These fascinated Rutherford. He loved to edge closer to the H.T. electrode holding a vacuum tube at arm's length in an attempt to increase the brilliance of the electrical display. These visitations scared us. Cockcroft ultimately passed a spark to earth through a lump of meat, boring a hole half an inch in diameter. This impressed Rutherford, who liked the direct approach but his visits became less frequent.

It is of passing interest that when 'Leslie Martin left [the Cavendish] in 1927...his corner of the room was taken by Ernest Walton...' (8) who subsequently shared the Nobel Prize with Cockcroft.

Academic life pre-war 1927-1939

In January 1927, Leslie Martin applied for a senior lectureship at the University of Melbourne. He was successful, and returned to Melbourne in August of that year. Rutherford wrote about him at that time saying: 'I consider Mr Martin to be an able experimenter who has ideas of his own and the capacity to carry difficult investigations to a successful conclusion. I have been impressed by his all round capacity and initiative and by his personal qualities.' (9)

By April 1928, Leslie Martin was established in Melbourne. Laby had evidently given this information to Ernest Rutherford who wrote back: 'I am glad to hear Martin is shaping well and I hope he does not forget all his physics except X-rays. I found, in his exam: that he was uncommonly rusty about matters outside his research.' (10)

During the following twelve years Martin was to show that he was a leader in X-ray research but well able also to turn to other things. At first there was little money for research and he embarked on a series of measurements of thermal conductivity, collaborating with colleagues Lang and Kannuluik. Laby commented that Martin's papers on heat 'attracted much attention and have been referred to at length in German engineering and chemical journals and tables, and in the London Physical Society's Reports on the Progress of Physics for 1935 and 1936.' (11)

Martin was also able to return to his earlier interests in X-rays. Working first with Lang and then with Laby, Bower and Eggleston he produced valuable information on the Auger effect and on the ionisation in gases by X-rays. Laby considered that this body of work formed 'an important contribution to the study of the conversion of X-ray energy in the atom...notable for the thoroughness and skill with which Martin, Bower and Eggleston applied the expansion chamber to the study of the ionisation of atoms by X-rays. The results obtained with Xenon are amongst the few that are available in physics to test relativistic quantum theory of Dirac.' Martin's paper with Eggleston in 1937 on the angular distribution of photoelectrons from the K-shell also gave evidence for the quantum theory and was considered by Laby to be 'an admirable investigation experimentally and theoretically'.

Martin's work at that time was clearly held in high esteem and was referred to at length in definitive monographs (12). In 1934, he won the coveted David Syme Research Prize, consisting of a medal and a significant sum of money. The conditions of the prize exclude professors in Australian universities but seek the 'candidate who in the opinion of the examiners shall submit the record of original research making the most valuable contribution to one or other of the following branches of science: biology, chemistry or physics' during the previous two years (13). Three years later, in 1937, the University further recognised Martin's work in both teaching and research by appointing him as an Associate Professor. He thereby became the second in charge of the Department of Natural Philosophy.

By 1939 Martin's interests were turning to nuclear physics resulting in a paper with Townsend on the beta-ray spectrum of RaE.

War years

At the oubreak of war in 1939, Leslie Martin immediately switched to projects initiated by armed service requirements. He first worked for the army on a capacity-type proximity fuse and then for the RAAF on an acoustic communication system to enable the instructor and student pilot to talk to each other.

In 1940, Professor T.H. Laby persuaded representatives from many Australian laboratories and from the armed services to form an Optical Munitions Panel which functioned from July 1940 until the end of the war. The Panel arranged for the development and rnanufacture of optical equipment for the three services. Australia did not then have an optical industry and many instruments were built in universities and other laboratories.

Martin was not a member of the Panel but he was involved in some of its work. In December 1940, he was in charge of work on a Height and Range Finder No. 3 Mk. IV for anti-aircraft work. The army was seeking 65 of these. D.P. Mellor (14) states that 'A team of physicists under Associate Professor Martin set out to build a prototype instrument...When in August 1941, the first instrument was almost complete, the army cancelled the order.'

It is unlikely that Martin then knew about radio-direction finding (RDF), which was later known as radar, nor could he have been aware that in December 1940 Sir David Rivett (15), the Chief Executive Officer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was already trying to secure his services to work in that field. Rivett wrote of the necessity to obtain a first-class physicist to go immediately to London to study 'radio-physics'. He wrote: 'After careful scrutiny of possible people it is recommended...that the University of Melbourne be asked to send to us [CSIR] Associate Professor L.H. Martin of the Natural Philosophy Department, for the duration. We believe he can do the job thoroughly well and we know of no one of equal promise.' It seems that no further action was taken to secure his services at that time. However, with the advent of radar it is not surprising that the height and range finder was rendered obsolete by August 1941.

In January 1942, the University of Melbourne was asked to second Martin and E.H.S. Burhop to work at the CSIR Radiophysics Laboratory in Sydney on the development of secret valves for RDF. At that time Australia was facing acute problems with the supply of the valves necessary for the production of 176 megahertz radar sets which were being fitted to RAAF aircraft and to naval vessels. There were also supply problems for ground to air radar equipment. The transmitter valves, VT90 'Micropups', required copper to metal seals for the air-cooled anodes. The technology available in Australia was inadequate both for the seals and for the tungsten filaments and overseas supplies were by then unreliable. Martin arrived in Sydney in March 1942 and led a group which overcame both the scientific and the manufacturing problems.

Work also began in 1942 to produce magnetrons, klystrons, and other valves needed for 10cm and later 3cm and 25cm radar sets. A laboratory prototype NTA98 magnetron was made by May 1942, and after limited numbers had been made in the laboratory, the technology for a range of these valves was transferred to the Amalgamated Wireless Valve Company and Standard Telephone and Cables Pty Ltd for manufacture in quantity.

At the end of 1942 the valve laboratory was transferred to the University of Melbourne and Martin was placed in charge. While moving back to his university laboratory, he was also appointed Deputy Chief of the Division of Radiophysics of the CSIR and was expected to spend time both in Sydney and Melbourne.

In December of the same year he was sent overseas to study developments in radar and especially in the valves needed for it. He was sent by air from Brisbane to the United States where he spent more than three months. There was some controversy about the extension of his journey to England, some believing he was needed back home. However, he did go to London where he was able to re-establish contacts with old friends from the Cavendish days. Transport was difficult to obtain in those times and although the Australian High Commissioner in London was trying to secure a passage home for him in April, he did not arrive back in Sydney until the end of June.

A few weeks later he was acting as Chief of the Division of Radiophysics while Frederick White, the Chief of the Division, was overseas. At that time Sir David Rivett wanted Martin to stay in Sydney (16) but his family was established in Melbourne and he wished to work there.

In January 1944, Leslie Martin stepped down as Deputy Chief of the Division of Radiophysics and became again the Officer in Charge of the Valve Laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He remained in that position until he resigned at the end of 1944 prior to taking up a Chair in the University. While no longer being an officer of CSIR, he continued to assume general responsibility for the valve laboratory until the end of the war.

Following the entry of Japan into the war, Australia faced serious supply problems and there is no doubt that Leslie Martin played a very important part in the development of self-sufficiency in the production of radar equipment. That was crucial to all forms of operations in the Pacific and Martin's role in the war effort was vital. His experience at that time and his understanding of the needs of the armed services was to lead to an on-going connection with the services for the remainder of his working life.

Academic life and defence work post-war 1949-1959

When Professor T.H. Laby retired, the University of Melbourne asked Leslie Martin to become the Chamber of Manufactures Professor of Physics. He accepted and took up office on 1 January 1945 at what turned out to be the beginning of an extraordinarily busy part of his life, a period of fourteen years ending with his resignation from the University in 1959.

Within the University, he supervised the growth of the School of Physics from a small to a very large department. He organised new courses and he set in motion a large number of research programmes. He was active in the University sphere, being a member of the University Council from 1951 to 1959, Vice-Chairman of the Professorial Board in 1953 and Chairman in 1955-56. He was a Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1957 to 1959 and a member of many of the University's committees.

At the same time he was deeply involved in national affairs as Defence Scientific Adviser and Chairman of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee. His duties took him away from the University quite frequently, but despite this he seemed always to be available to give good advice to younger people and there was never any doubt as to who was in charge of the Physics School.

It cannot have been easy running a university department at that time. In 1946, he had to cope with a huge wave of ex-service men and women entering all years of the course. The third-year class in Physics numbered nearly 90 in 1946 in a department accustomed to classes of 20 or perhaps 30. Many would-be physicists had left the University in the middle of their courses to serve in the armed forces and were anxious to obtain their degrees as soon as possible.

The final-year students in 1946 were a mixed bunch. Some arrived by the usual route from school and two previous years at the University, but they were outnumbered by people who had never completed second year and by many who had long since forgotten its content. Dealing with all that, starting to modernise courses and trying to develop research programmes must have been a formidable task for the new Professor, but he never seemed perturbed and always found time to talk to students.

Martin was determined to create a major nuclear physics research school at Melbourne. It was a bold decision because money was short, the PhD degree was only just being introduced in Australian universities and many of the best students still went abroad for postgraduate studies. There were few research students in the University of Melbourne and staff were very hard to find even if there was money to hire them.

Leslie Martin's insistence on the need for research in universities, his belief that Australian physics should be of world standard, his ability to beg and borrow apparatus and the bits with which to build it and above all his ability to arouse the interest and respect of staff and graduate students were the things needed for the phenomenal growth that occurred in the decade after the war.

At the end of the second world war a cosmic ray programme was set up in an old temporary hut. Extensive measurements were made of the momentum spectrum of sea-level cosmic rays and the excess of positive over negative mesons. The cosmic ray group also produced equipment for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition of 1947-48 for which P.G. Law, a member of Martin's department, was the chief scientist. Physicists and equipment were landed at Heard and Macquarie Islands in the sub-Antarctic and cosmic ray observations were made throughout 1948. Additional equipment was installed on the expedition ship HMAS Wyatt Earp and a continuous cosmic ray record was obtained during the voyage south from 38 degrees to 67 degrees south latitude. Martin took an active interest in this work spending time each day with the students and staff involved. The Department's interest in cosmic rays continued until the programme was finally closed down in 1959.

At the same time Martin led a small group which designed and built a 200kV neutron generator and a 1MeV Van der Graaf generator. He had been well trained in the Rutherford tradition and was quite prepared to build his own apparatus. These early machines were the first of a series of particle accelerators built entirely in the Physics Department. The team working on it included Bower, Dunbar and Hirst, who used the machine for studies of a number of nuclear reactions notably Li (d,a) and Li (p,a).

A second Van der Graaf accelerator followed the first. It had a larger beam current and better energy stability. Again it was built in the Department and it gave good service in the study of nuclear reactions of astrophysical significance until 1972. Many students were involved with this machine over many years.

In 1945 Lasich and Riddiford started building a 3 MeV betatron. This was converted to an 18 MeV electron synchrotron in 1948 when Muirhead and Wright joined the group. In 1962, shortly after Martin had left, a new 35 MeV Siemens betatron was obtained and was used by Spicer, Muirhead and Thompson for photo-nuclear work until 1986.

The biggest machine made in Melbourne was the 5 to 12 MeV variable-energy cyclotron. Design studies for this commenced in 1953 and it operated from 1957 until it was sold in 1976. The decision to build this machine was a brave one. There was virtually no money, and Martin had to obtain support both in cash and kind. A magnet was cast at a foundry, the Steel Company of Australia, owned by a friend of his, P.L. Martyn, electronic equipment was picked up second-hand and everything conceivably possible was built by the staff and research students in the Department. Rouse and Caro were involved in this project and Martin took an intense interest in it, visiting the laboratory at least daily.

Nuclear physics has remained a major research area in the University of Melbourne to the present day, although other activities have developed as the University grew.

While Martin was essentially an experimentalist, he encouraged the formation of a strong theoretical group under C.B.O. Mohr. His clear aim in the immediate post-war years was to build a leading nuclear physics laboratory so that future generations of young research workers could be properly trained in Australia.

In 1955 Martin and Professor Sir Thomas Cherry persuaded the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to give CSIRAC, the first electronic computer in Australia, to the University of Melbourne. It was installed in a room in the Physics Department and created great interest in computing. Hirst transferred from nuclear physics to take charge of the machine and he went on to establish a separate Department of Computer Science in the University of Melbourne before going to a chair in computing at the University of Adelaide.

Intense as Leslie Martin's interest was in developing research at this time, he was also deeply involved in modernising the teaching programmes in the Department. He taught courses in atomic physics, nuclear physics and electromagnetism. He took great pains to ensure that his courses were up to date and that everyone else followed his example. He published two books for use in laboratory experiments and one on vacuum practice at that time.

The links between his academic activities and his defence activities led him to work for the establishment of the Royal Australian Air Force Academy as an affiliated college of the University of Melbourne. This was a very successful venture for many years. Ironically, in 1967 he was to be the chairman of the government's Tertiary Education (Services' Cadet Colleges) Committee that began planning for the Australian Defence Forces Academy. This now provides tertiary education and training for officers of the Navy, Army and Air Force. As a result of its formation the RAAF Academy was closed in 1985.

Running the Physics Department as the only professor was not enough for Martin's energies. In 1948 he became a member of the Interim Council of the Australian National University. He also continued to serve his country in a national capacity. In 1947, he was the Australian representative at a meeting of the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Defence Science in London and was at that time a member of the Defence Scientific Advisory Committee for the Australian Government.

The Defence Scientific Advisory Committee and the New Weapons and Equipment Development Committee had been established in 1946 as part of the higher defence machinery. In 1948, these committees were amalgamated to form the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee. Martin became Defence Scientific Adviser and Chairman of the new committee, a position he held until 1968. He made several overseas visits in this capacity prior to the commencement of the series of nuclear weapons tests in Australia in 1952.

His defence work at that time led him, with Caro, to make a series of measurements of the velocity of sound at low pressures. It had been reported that the velocity varied with pressure, a matter of some interest for the design of supersonic aircraft. Their measurements demonstrated conclusively that the velocity was independent of pressure to a high accuracy.

On 3 October 1952, the United Kingdom with the concurrence of the Australian Government detonated its first atomic weapon. The explosion took place in the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. As Defence Scientific Adviser, Martin had held discussions with Sir William Penney in the United Kingdom earlier in the year and he was involved in some of the Australian planning for the test.

There seems to have been some controversy over his invitation to be present at the test and in the event three Australian scientists were there as observers: W.A.S. Butement, E.W. Titterton and L.H. Martin. Butement was the chief scientist of the Australian Department of Supply and had the ultimate responsibility for weapons development in Australia. Titterton was professor of nuclear physics at the ANU. He had been involved in the development of nuclear weapons during the war and was a senior member of the Timing Group at the first test of an atomic device at Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945.

An Atomic Physics Section within the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was created in 1947 and a group under Leslie Martin's direction was formed in the University of Melbourne to undertake 'fundamental research into nuclear energy generally with the object of training sufficient men to develop an atomic or nuclear energy stockpile' (17). With this background and as Defence Scientific Adviser and Chairman of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee of Australia, Leslie Martin was an obvious choice as an observer.

There seem to have been some tensions between the United Kingdom and Australian governments over the roles of scientists at the tests, the United Kingdom government being particularly conscious of security. Finally the letter inviting Martin's participation at the test said 'the UK authority would like to invite Professor Martin to join the health physics team at Monte Bello where he would be given full details of all weapon effects and the layout of the site. He would not be given any access to the weapon itself nor to the results of the measurements of the weapon's functioning' (18).

Rather similar arrangements appear to have applied at the next two tests Operation 'Totem' at Emu Field on 15 and 27 October 1953. On this occasion, Australian service personnel had been used to prepare the site and Titterton and an assistant made measurements of the neutron flux at various distances from the detonation point. However, Martin and Butement were still, at least officially, observers. On this occasion, the UK had provided sufficient data for Martin and Titterton to check safety arrangements, but they do not appear to have had any actual authority.

When the Maralinga Test Range was established in 1953, British and Australian authorities agreed that no test would be carried out without the consent of the Australian government. The government set up the Maralinga Safety Committee which later became the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee. Martin was the chairman and the members of the committee included Butement and Titterton. The committee was given responsibility for the safety of all subsequent tests. Two further devices were detonated at Monte Bello during Operation 'Mosaic' in May and June 1956 and then four during Operation 'Buffalo' at Maralinga in September and October 1956. Radiation measurements made following these tests were published in the Australian Journal of Science. There were to be three further tests at Maralinga during Operation 'Antler' in September and October 1957. For these Leslie Martin relinquished the chairmanship of the Safety Committee in favour of Titterton.

The responsibility that Martin carried during nine of the twelve tests in the series must have been considerable. He had to spend long periods away from the University in preparation for the tests and it is remarkable that he managed to continue his university duties with vigour. He insisted on taking a normal lecture load while asking one of his staff to stand in for him, sometimes at very short notice, when he had to be absent from the University.

During this period Martin formed a view that there should be a specialist committee to examine and report on the effects of ionising radiation on biological systems and particularly humans. He discussed this with Sir Macfarlane Burnet and they persuaded the government to set up the National Radiation Advisory Committee in 1957. Burnet was the chairman and Martin a member of the committee. This committee did very important work for the next twenty years. It examined data of radioactive fallout supplied by the Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee for the British tests in Australia and also for the USA and USSR tests during that period. The committee also produced recommendations for the transport and disposal of radioactive material and for the abolition of X-ray shoe-fitting apparatus that was in frequent use at that time.

Martin remained a member of the Committee until it was disbanded by the Whitlam Government in 1973, but his protests led to the formation of the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Committee, with rather similar duties. He was invited to become a member of the new committee but declined.

Leslie Martin was interested in the peaceful uses of atomic energy. He became a member of the Industrial Atomic Energy Policy Committee in 1949 and a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. He was appointed a member of the Atomic Energy Commission itself in 1958 and was Deputy Chairman when he retired in 1968. In 1958 he was a delegate at the United Nations Conference on Atoms for Peace that was held in Vienna.

From 1953 to 1963 he was a Trustee of the Science Museum of Victoria and its Chairman in 1962 and 1963. He was active in professional societies. He was President of the Australian Branch of the Institute of Physics in 1952-53. He became a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1954 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1957. For his work in education and defence he was made a Companion of the Order of the British Empire in 1954 and a Knight Bachelor in 1957.

Despite his extraordinarily busy public life, Martin continued to serve his university with great distinction. His lectures were a model of clarity and when it was necessary to substitute for him because of a national commitment, it was a daunting task for his more junior staff.

It was an exciting time in physics after the war and Les Martin was the leader who ensured that the University of Melbourne was a good place for physicists to work. His staff and students worked long hours; most felt they should arrive before the professor and he was likely to drop in by 8.30 in the moming. He rarely left before 6 o'clock at night and at any time he would walk into a laboratory and enquire 'How's it going, son?'.

In June 1959 he resigned from the University of Melbourne to become Chairman of the Australian Universities Commission and to start what was to be a further period of service in a different role. The Australian National University conferred on him the honorary degree of DSc in 1959 and he was similarly honoured by his own university in the same year.

The citation for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa in the University of Melbourne said:

...since 1945 the School of Physics has been under his direction and he has equipped it with research tools of the most modern kind in the field of nuclear physics. When we consider the difficulties under which he laboured during that 15 years, we must admire his pertinacity as well as his abilities. He was working in a field new to Australia, which involved the most advanced technology in the construction of equipment. He had to train first technicians with the skills to execute his designs, and then young scientists to use the equipment constructed within the school itself. These difficulties were overcome within the compass of a financial allocation which had all the attributes of a straightjacket – but he always broke free.

...We are proud of our small body of honorary graduates for each new member contributes to the lustre of the whole by his eminence in scholarship and learning or by his distinguished service to the community in which we live.

Sir Leslie is therefore doubly welcome to our honorary graduate roll for which he is at once an eminent scientist and a citizen who has given distinguished service in the defence structure of the Commonwealth...

The Australian Universities Commission 1959-1966 (19)

In the decade that followed the second world war, the condition of the Australian universities steadily worsened. Between 1939 and 1946, university enrolments doubled. With the cessation of hostilities, the universities were faced with the added problems posed by the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Because of the 'hand-to-mouth' basis on which government grants were provided at the time, there was some lack of forward planning by universities and they received little encouragement to think beyond their immediate needs.

By the late 1950s, the Prime Minister of the time, R.G. Menzies, concerned at the declining condition of the universities, invited Sir Keith Murray, chairman of the University Grants Committee in Great Britain, to head a committee of enquiry to study the problems confronting the Australian universities. The key terms of reference were to investigate matters such as the role of the university in the Australian community, the extension and co-ordination of university facilities, technological education at the university level, and the financial needs of universities and appropriate means for providing these needs.

The report of this committee recommended the establishment of a permanent agency to co-ordinate university development in Australia and it was the Prime Minister's personal commitment to improvingthe welfare of universities in Australia which enabled him to convince his cabinet colleagues to put into effect the broad recommendations of the Murray Committee. The Prime Minister and his advisers were determined that an Australian should be the chairman of the new agency and invited Sir Leslie Martin in the middle of 1958 to accept this new and challenging post.

The Australian Universities Commission held its first meeting on 6 August 1959, and for the next three years the Commission consisted of Martin as a full-time chairman and four part-time members chosen either for their expertise in university and academic affairs or for their management experience in industry and commerce. Under Martin's chairmanship the AUC wrote three major reports incorporating its academic and financial recommendations for universities covering the periods 1958-1963, 1964-66 and 1967-69. The Commission provided advice to the Commonwealth Government on ways to achieve a balanced and co-ordinated development of Australian universities and especially on matters of new faculties, university size, building standards, staff and salary structure, and the amount of research and postgraduate training. Martin's long experience of universities and his skilful chairmanship enabled the Commission to maintain a balance between the autonomy of the universities and public accountability and yet at the same time uphold a harmonious working relationship both with the Minister to whom it was responsible and with the central agencies of the Commonwealth Public Service.

The achievements of the Commission from 1959-66 were remarkable and through its advice to the Commonwealth Government, it fostered the most impressive and sustained period of growth in the history of universities in Australia. Five new universities were commenced, the student population trebled from around 35,000 in 1957 to over 95,000 in 1966 and there was a doubling in the proportion of the Gross National Product allocated to universities by Government in the form of grants. Extensive building programmes were evident on every campus in Australia and most residential colleges were being extended or new ones founded. When Sir Keith Murray returned to Australia in November 1963, he was tremendously encouraged by the progress that had been made and remarked: 'The Commission has, in fact, gained for itself within the short space of four years the confidence of all concerned, the Federal Government, the State Governments and the Universities'.

The working relationship between R.G. Menzies and L.H. Martin was extremely close and the chairman appeared to have the Prime Minister's complete trust. The Commission provided advice to the Minister in charge of Commonwealth activities in education and research, and from 1959 until late 1966 that Minister was the Prime Minister, Mr Menzies. The first two triennia were indeed the golden age of the newly founded Australian Universities Commission.

The AUC was well aware of the urgent research needs of the Australian universities and introduced a special research fund as the most efficient way to promote better research and to monitor the effective use of the grants provided. Martin was convinced that research and intellectual independence were the concomitants of higher education. He insisted that the research grants be earmarked and protected in order to maintain freedom of research in universities. His persistence and the existence of the AUC as a national co-ordinating agency were instrumental in preventing the fragmentation of a national research policy and in resisting the attempts of some members of Cabinet to persuade the State governments to be responsible for basic research funding.

From time to time advisory committees were appointed by the Prime Minister to advise the Commission when it sought assistance with any special problem. The purpose of these committees was to stimulate thought and discussion within universities on the educational problems confronting the community, and to foster confidence and trust in the national charter of the Commission. For example, Martin chaired an advisory committee on 'Teaching Costs of Medical Hospitals' and another that considered 'University Salaries and Related Matters'. In the early 1960s there was a growing need to integrate university and other educational developments in which the Commonwealth had an interest, particularly since there were large increases in the funds for universities recommended by the AUC and inescapable evidence of a need for further funds to support expansion in the new colleges of advanced education. At the Government's request the AUC expressed willingness to conduct an enquiry into this matter and the Committee on the Future Development of Tertiary Education in Australia was established in January 1961 with Sir Leslie Martin as its chairman. Martin was fully conversant with the establishment and terms of reference of the Robbins Committee in Great Britain, established in February 1961, and drafted the terms of reference of the Australian enquiry so that they followed closely those of Lord Robbins.

The report of the Martin Committee exercised a powerful influence on the future pattern of tertiary education in Australia, providing the Commonwealth Government with a blueprint for the development of a diversity of institutions each with its own function in a tertiary education system. The Martin Committee argued successfully that tertiary education was an important factor in economic growth so that its support by governments could be justified and in some measure determined by regarding it as an investment of a proportion of national resources in the expectation of future economic benefits. The Martin Report provided a broad plan for tertiary education to the year 1975 that covered growth in the numbers of students, the distribution of students amongst universities, institutes of technology and teachers' colleges, the creation and location of new institutions and the increase in expenditure for tertiary education relative to the GNP. The broader range of tertiary institutions would enable Commonwealth money to be channelled to the States for the development of education and accordingly the Martin Committee considered that a co-ordinating mechanism should exist at the Commonwealth level that would encompass all the tertiary institutions. It recommended that the Australian Universities Commission should be widened in its scope to become an Australian Tertiary Education Commission that would ensure the necessary collaboration and co-operation between universities, institutes of technology and the teachers' colleges together with the growing needs of an expanding technical sector.

The major achievements of the Australian Universities Commission under Sir Leslie's chairmanship have been summarized by A.P. Gallagher in his book (20) in the following words:

First, through the AUC, the Commonwealth Government exercised a financial control which allowed it to become the dominant influence in the growth of universities.

Second, particularly through the implementation of many of the recommendations of the Martin report, the AUC has played an important part in channelling the direction of tertiary education.

Third, in the evolution of a tertiary system of education, the AUC has acted as a catalyst increasing centralised control.

Fourth, throughout the 1960s the AUC has successfully co-ordinated the national level planning of universities.

And fifth, through its effectiveness both as a buffer and as a vehicle for implementing national level policies for universities, the AUC has served as a model for the other federal education commissions which followed in its wake.

Sir Leslie Martin retired as Chairman of the AUC at the end of 1966.

The Royal Military College Duntroon 1967-1970 (21)

Most people are content to retire from full-time employment at the age of 66 but Leslie Martin still had more to give. In 1967, he accepted appointment as first Dean and Professor of Physics in the Faculty of Military Studies at the Royal Military College Duntroon in Canberra. Shortly before this, the faculty had been established as part of the Sydney-based University of New South Wales. The arrangement was for the University to take responsibility for the academic teaching at the Royal Military College. This was a bold move and not without its risks. The trust of the army in the civilian academic staff of an independent university had to be established and the new faculty had to build a reputation for academic quality among a somewhat suspicious Australian academic community. The appointment of Sir Leslie Martin, a distinguished academic and tertiary education administrator, and the strong emphasis on independent research and postgraduate studies, were of immense importance in enabling the new faculty to function well and to be quickly accepted as part of the Australian university community.

From the beginning, degrees were offered in arts, science and engineering and a computer centre was established. Martin was careful to meet the course requirements of the army while, above all, keeping the academic standards beyond question. As the inaugural Dean, Martin supervised the accreditation of civilian staff who were present before the establishment of the university faculty, the appointment of new members of the academic staff and the establishment of a suitable faculty structure. He had also to deal with financial arrangements that sought to ensure the autonomy of the university component while satisfying the needs of the defence accountants.

Martin had always considered first-year teaching to be a critical part of any physics department. As Professor of Physics and Head of the Department, he developed the first-year physics course and gave many of the first-year lectures himself. This was in addition to his strong encouragement for research and his onerous duties as Dean.

From 1967 to 1970, Sir Leslie chaired the Commonwealth Government's Tertiary Education (Services' Cadet Colleges) Committee to investigate future options for the university education of officer cadets for each of the three services. Although the proposal produced much controversy in military, academic and political circles at the time, the Academy was finally established in 1986 and now incorporates the University College, a College of the University of New South Wales. This structure was chosen to guarantee the academic integrity of the institution in the manner that had been so well demonstrated at Duntroon under Sir Leslie's leadership.

The final years 1971-1983

Finally, in March 1971, at the age of 70, Leslie Martin conceded that the time had come for him to step down from public office. At the same time he retired as a director of IBM Australia Limited and as the chairman of the Editorial Council of Pergamon Press in Australia. At first he and Lady Martin lived quietly in Canberra but then moved back to Melbourne where they could be near their four much-loved grandchildren.

Les Martin suffered a stroke in 1979. Lady Martin (22) wrote:

He made a remarkable recovery from his first stroke – the main casualty was his memory. I could be his memory, and strangely he remembered a great deal about his work, and earlier life and colleagues. He had almost four years of almost normal life, even driving the car very well. We lived a quieter life as I felt he tired easily. It was only last October [1982] that it was obvious that the condition was slowly deteriorating – we both came into hospital as I had developed pneumonia. He was Les until the last, but became weaker and had to have hospital care. He died suddenly and unexpectedly having experienced no physical disability and no pain. After 66 years of the closest and most loving relationship – I met him at 16 – I feel sadly bereft.

Sir Leslie Martin died on 1 February 1983. His was a remarkable life. Born of humble parents, he had to struggle throughout his early life, first to stay in school long enough to qualify for entry to the University, then to pay his way at the University. He rose to be a brilliant academic, a leader in the physics community in Australia and a reformer in the widest sphere of higher education. He received many honours but to the end he was an unassuming, gentle man of great personal stamina and strength.

Throughout the long period of his service he was always ready to help the young and to spend time sympathising with them over their problems. He was always a family man. His pride in the success of his surviving son was intense which was perhaps not surprising in view of the tragic loss of his first-born son, Leon. Raymond Leslie Martin, like his father, gained the PhD degree in Cambridge as an Overseas Scholar and later became a Senior Student of the Exhibition of 1851. He held the foundation chairs of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Melbourne (1962-1972) and the Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University (1972-1977), before becoming Vice-Chancellor of Monash University in Melbourne (1977-1987).

The minute of appreciation recorded by the Council of the University of Melbourne when Leslie Martin left there in 1959 catches the quality of the man and the esteem and affection which his colleagues had for him:

Impressive as the mere recital of his achievements may be, Leslie Martin the man is greater than the records show...His successes did not come to him easily nor have they spoilt him. He has been a great teacher, in love with his subject and also his students; he has excelled as a researcher and as a scientific administrator and adviser. But, beyond all this, he has been a man of the utmost integrity and the most friendly of colleagues.

With the addition of his distinguished contribution to the organisation and funding of higher education in Australia, those words were as true at the end as they were twenty-four years before.


  • 1934: David Syme Research Prize, University of Melbourne
  • 1945: John Smyth Memorial Medal, University of Melbourne
  • 1946: Fellow, Institute of Physics;
  • 1946: R.M. Johnston Memorial Medal, Royal Society of Tasmania
  • 1954: Commander of the Order of the British Empire;
  • 1954: Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science
  • 1957: Knight Bachelor;
  • 1957: Fellow of the Royal Society of London
  • 1959: Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Australian National University;
  • 1959: Doctor of Science, honoris causa, University of Melbourne
  • 1960: Doctor of Science, honoris causa, University of Queensland
  • 1963: Doctor of Science, honoris causa, University of New South Wales;
  • 1963: Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, University of Western Australia
  • 1966: Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, University of Sydney;
  • 1966: Honorary Fellow, Australian College of Education
  • 1967: Doctor of Science, ed eundum gradem, University of Adelaide
  • 1970: Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, University of Melbourne

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science vol.7, no.1 1987. It was written by:

  • D.E. Caro, University of Melbourne
  • R.L. Martin, Monash University


  • (1) National Library of Australia, interview with L.H. Martin recorded by Mrs. Hazel de Berg. Tape 621, 10 August 1972.
  • (2) L.H. Martin, letter to the Registrar, University of Melbourne, applying for a senior lectureship, 5 January 1927; University of Melbourne, Central Registry, 1927/437.
  • (3) I.W. Wark, '1851 Science Research Scholarship Awards to Australians', Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 3(3/4) (1977), 47-52; p.49.
  • (4) National Library of Australia, interview with L.H. Martin recorded by Mrs. Hazel de Berg. Tape 621, 10 August 1972.
  • (5) Guy Hartcup and T.E. Allibone, Cockcroft and The Atom (Briston: Adam Hilger Ltd., 1984), p.37.
  • (6) Guy Hartcup and T.E. Allibone, Cockcroft and The Atom (Briston: Adam Hilger Ltd., 1984), p.171.
  • (7) Sir Leslie Martin, address given at the offical opening of the new physics building, University of Melbourne, 28 February 1974.
  • (8) Hartcup and Allibone, op. cit. (n.4), p.39.
  • (9) E. Rutherford, reference for L.H. Martin, 23 December 1928; University of Melbourne, Central Registry, 1927/ 437.
  • (10) E. Rutherford, letter to T.H. Laby, 26 April 1928; Laby papers, University of Melbourne Archives.
  • (11) T.H. Laby, 'Research record of Dr L.H. Martin'; University of Melbourne, Central Registry, 1937/282.
  • (12) A.H. Compton and S.L. Allison, X-rays in Theory and Experiment, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1935); E.H.S. Burhop, The Auger Effect and Other Radiationless Transitions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952).
  • (13) University of Melbourne Calendar, Regulation 6.17.
  • (14) D.P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1958) (Australia in the War of 1939-45: Series 4, Civil; Vol.5), p.269.
  • (15) A.C.D. Rivett, letter to Harold Holt, Minister in charge, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 20 December 1940; CSIRO Archives, Series 47, MA2129.
  • (16) A.C.D. Rivett, letter to L.H. Martin, 11 December 1943; CSIRO Archives, Series 3, PH/MAR/2.
  • (17) Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 198 (6 October 1948), p.1318.
  • (18) Letter from George Davey, United Kingdom High Commissioner, to A.D. McKnight, Assistant Secretary Prime Minister's Department, 27 August 1952; Australian Archives, A816 3/301/538.
  • (19) The authors have relied in this section on the study of the Australian Universities Commision undertaken by A.P. Gallagher, Coordinating Australian University Development (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1982)
  • (20) Ibid. loc.sit.
  • (21) The authors are indebted to Professor G.V.H. Wison, Rector, University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, for the information in this section.
  • (22) Lady Martin, letter to M.L. Oliphant, 24 February 1983.

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