Walter Boas 1904-1982

Written by L.M. Clarebrough and A.K. Head


The death of Walter Boas on 12 May 1982, after a short illness, came as a shock to a very large number of friends and colleagues in the scientific, university, metallurgical and engineering communities. To all these communities Walter Boas had made outstanding contributions since his arrival in Australia in 1938.

Early years 1904-1938

Walter Boas was born in Berlin on 10 February 1904 and was the only child of Adele (née Reiche) and Arthur Boas. Arthur Boas was a doctor with a general practice centred on his home in western Berlin and he died of a heart attack at the age of 49 when Walter was fifteen. Walter lived with his widowed mother in the family home until he left Berlin in January 1933. Adele Boas remained in Berlin until 1939 when she came to live with Walter and his wife Eva in Melbourne. She lived with them until her death in 1953.

The early days in Berlin were difficult ones for the Boas family and the young Boas often went cold and hungry to bed due to severe shortages of food and coal towards the end of the first world war. Boas' parents were of Jewish origin, but the family did not practise the Jewish religious traditions and the young Boas was baptised in the Lutheran Church. His schooling from 1911-1922 was in the classics at a typical German Gymnasium, where he studied German, Latin, Greek, French, History and Mathematics with very little science and no English. He had fond memories of his father during these early school years, a father who took him on Sunday morning visits to museums and who gave him considerable help with his studies of Latin and Greek, subjects for which his father had a greater love than Walter.

After matriculation, Walter Boas started a course in electrical engineering at the Technische Hochschule Berlin in October 1922. It was compulsory for students at the Technische Hochschule to spend a full year working at the 'shop-floor' level in an approved factory as part of their course and Walter spent from October 1923 to September 1924 working at Siemens and Halske Ltd., learning techniques and taking part in all stages of the manufacture of telephones and electrical measuring equipment. He recalled this time as an important stage in his growth as, coming from an intellectual background, he had no previous knowledge of the hardships in the lives of factory workers at that time. At the completion of this year of practical experience, and following a desire for a more solid grounding in the fundamentals of science, he changed his Diploma of Engineering course from Electrical Engineering to Applied Physics. Before the final examinations for the Diploma of Engineering (Applied Physics) it was necessary for candidates to complete a research project and Walter asked Professor Richard Becker, recently appointed professor of theoretical physics at the Technische Hochschule, if he would accept him as his first research student. Becker agreed and Walter considered this the most important decision involved in his professional career as Becker directed him to the field of plastic deformation of metals, a field which remained at the centre of his scientific interests throughout his life. Having successful]y completed a research project on the influence of load and temperature on the creep rate of metals, which resulted in his first scientific publication, co-authored with Becker, Boas graduated with the Diploma of Engineering (Applied Physics) in February 1928. Of his first experimental research project, Boas recorded that all was not well with his initial results and that the advice from his supervisor Becker was: 'You must apply yourself with all your love and your whole soul to your project, otherwise no experiment will ever succeed'. The young Boas never forgot this early advice from a man he greatly admired, and it was the spirit of this advice that he took on and managed to convey so successfully to a great many of his students and young research colleagues in later years.

Following graduation, Boas wanted to commence work in industry as the depression was already hitting hard in Germany and jobs were very difficult to get. However, Becker persuaded him to stay in research and arranged for him to work with 'a young fellow called Schmid' who had just been appointed to the position of head of a new section for physics in the Kaiser Wilhelm-Institut für Metallkunde at Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin, which was the centre for several institutes of the Kaiser Wilhelm-Gesellschaft. He commenced working with Schmid in March 1928 and a most successful research career concerned with the plasticity of crystals was underway.

Boas' first research project involved the verification of the law of critical resolved shear stress for the onset of plastic deformation using single crystals of cadmium grown from the melt. Due to the extreme softness of these crystals, the tensile tests were very sensitive to external vibrations and he had to do most of his experiments in the early morning hours between 3am and 6am. As an extension of this work, he showed that plots of shear stress vs shear strain were independent of crystal orientation and he also studied the influence of temperature on the critical resolved shear stress and the form of the stress-strain curve. The results were submitted as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Engineering (Dr Ing.) at the Technische Hochschule of Berlin early in 1930. In printed form, the thesis was only 15 pages long and was received with some scepticism in the faculty, as it was the shortest thesis that had ever been submitted for a higher degree. The oral examination of the thesis was conducted by all members of the faculty, but Boas 'survived the gruesome ordeal with flying colours' and was awarded his doctorate in July 1930.

Boas continued to work with Schmid and others in Berlin until Schmid moved to Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1932 to take up the chair of physics that he had been offered there. At this stage, Boas had published 15 papers, 10 of them with Schmid, on the results of his research in Berlin. Already in 1930 Boas and Schmid had started to write a book on the plasticity of crystals, but progress was slow due to the fact that they were both actively engaged in research. Boas joined Schmid in Fribourg in January 1933 and there they completed Kristallplastizität which was published in 1935. It is of interest that an English translation of the book was published in 1950, without the knowledge or approval of the authors, and was reissued without change in 1968. The continuing demand for the book in 1968 marks it as a classic work of continuing interest to scientists and engineers concerned with the plastic behaviour of crystalline materials. In the translators' preface to the English translation, the publishers correctly comment on Kristallplastizität that 'This book, with its lucid exposition and wide range, is cited as the first reference in innumerable metallurgical papers, and became a classic within a year or two of its publication'.

Boas often commented that he had great regrets on leaving Berlin in 1933 but that, at the time, he had no idea how lucky he was to be leaving Germany before Hitler came to power. In this connection, he has fondly referred to his colleague Günter Wassermann, of Schmid's group in Berlin, who with his wife arranged for Boas' mother Adele to live with them during the weeks in November 1938 when thousands of Jews in Berlin were arrested.

During his student days, and afterwards as a research worker in Berlin, Boas had the opportunity to meet and to be present at colloquia given by many of the great men of physics including Einstein, Von Laue, Planck and Schrödinger. In the later years of his life he was much sought after to give talks on the scientific scene in Berlin in those early days.

Boas' term in Fribourg finished in December 1935 and he was invited to join Professor P. Scherrer in his Department of Physics at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule in Zürich. This move to Zürich marked the end of eight years of close collaboration with Schmid, a period in which the output resulting from the collaboration of these two scientists was remarkable and set the pattern for research in fields such as plastic deformation of metals and alloys, deformation twinning, preferred orientation and recrystallization for many years to come.

Boas had discovered in Berlin that he could obtain Laue back-reflection diagrams from metal crystals that were too thick for transmission of X-rays and he and Schmid developed the technique of determining crystal orientations from such diagrams. In the course of this work, they became interested in the change in shape of diffraction spots that resulted when the crystals were plastically deformed, and Boas continued this work in Zürich. His experimental and theoretical results convinced him that lattice strain was the cause of the observed effects. An alternative explanation was favoured by W.A. Wood of the National Physical Laboratory of the UK, in terms of the breakdown of the crystal by plastic deformation into small crystallites so that the diffraction effects resulted from small crystal size. Boas and Wood never reached agreement on their differing interpretations and seeking a solution to this problem remained one of Boas' scientific interests for many years. In fact the solution, which proved to be a compromise between the two positions, was not arrived at until the direct observation of the dislocation structure of deformed metals by transmission electron microscopy in the late 1950s.

In 1937 Boas' stay in Switzerland was becoming difficult as the number of German immigrants increased. The legal situation in Switzerland at that time was that the right of permanent residence was obtained automatically by any foreigner who had lived in the country for a continuous period of five years. However, the Swiss government was becoming worried that too many foreign nationals, particularly Germans, would satisfy these conditions. To prevent this, a new law was introduced specifying that all foreigners had to leave the country after a period of residence of four years and nine months, for at least three months, so that any rights of permanent residence under the old rule would lapse.

It was clear that Boas could not remain permanently in Switzerland and in September 1937 Scherrer contacted his friend Dr A. Muller, who was Swiss by birth and Assistant Director of the Royal Institution in London, on Boas' behalf, to enquire whether Boas could be admitted as a worker in the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory of the Royal Institution. Boas was advised that he should write directly to Sir William Bragg and Bragg's response in November 1937 was: 'We shall be very pleased to see you at the Royal Institution and to find opportunities for putting you in touch with the work that is done'. Boas' invitation to work at the Royal Institution was for the Lent Term from 17 January to 9 April 1938. During his time in London Boas took lessons in English three times a week, which he found very hard work but profitable. At the Royal Institution he met E.N. da C. Andrade, Mrs (later Dame Kathleen) Lonsdale, J.M. Robertson, A.R. Ubbelohde, M. Blackman, Bruce Chalmers, G.W. Brindley, W.L. Bragg (later Sir Lawrence) and many others. Several of these people became friends and international contacts in later life. W.L. Bragg was the director of the National Physics Laboratory and it was he who introduced Boas to W.A. Wood who was mentioned earlier.

Before the approach to the Royal Institution had begun, Boas was in contact with Dr Demuth of the 'Association of German Scientists in Foreign Countries' and with Walter Adams, secretary of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (formerly the Academic Assistance Council), both with headquarters in London, with a view to obtaining an academic post outside Germany. It was through these bodies that the possibility of a position at the University of Melbourne was first raised in September 1936. Walter Adams advised Boas on 12 January 1937 that 'although there is no position in Melbourne, the authorities are prepared to make an application to the Carnegie Corporation for a grant if they feel that you are a suitable candidate. They have asked their representative in England, Professor Irvine Masson of the University of Durham, to interview you and he informs me that he could do so on the 29th January'. A further quote from the correspondence between Boas and Adams illustrates the difficulties that scientists and others in Walter Boas' position were having in the unsettled Europe of those days. In a letter of 16 January 1937 Adams asked: 'Can you give me detailed and official information about the police regulations in Switzerland which make it difficult for you to stay there. I should like this information because otherwise a suspicion might arise that you are having to leave Switzerland because you have engaged in political activities'.

Boas, in recalling in 1973 his trip from Zürich to London for the interview with Masson, wrote:

This trip to London was the first time I left the continent and the crossing of the Channel from Dieppe to Newhaven was a nightmare. My lack of knowledge of the English language and English eating habits made life rather difficult (e.g. eating puffed wheat without milk and sugar in spite of the advice offered by the waiter). I had prepared myself for an interview on my scientific work and ideas for future work and was shocked when Professor Masson pointed out that a talk on my work was useless, since he was a chemist, and I should rather tell him about my hobbies, which sports I was playing, which books I was reading, whether I was interested in art, music, theatre etc. With my very poor knowledge of English and no experience in speaking it, I must have made an appallingly bad impression and it would be interesting to read Masson's report on the interview. I certainly was very depressed and did not expect to hear from Melbourne again.

Contrary to the information from Adams that there was no position available in Melbourne, an advertisement appeared for a position of Assistant director of (Physical) Metallurgical Research at the University of Melbourne and Boas applied for this post on 1 February 1937. It is of interest that part of the funding for this position was to be supplied by CSIR, following a decision of the Commonwealth government to subsidise research work in certain subjects in several Australian universities. The occupant of the new position would be required to carry out research, under the general direction of Professor J. Neill Greenwood, on the application of X-ray techniques to the atomic structure of alloys and to instruct research students in these techniques. A limited amount of lecturing on this topic would also be required. It was specified that the applicant should be a graduate in physics and must have had experience in the application of X-ray techniques to alloy problems. It was also mentioned that a Metropolitan Vickers X-ray set was to be installed in the Metallurgy Department at the University. Boas must have been delighted on seeing this advertisement as the specifications for the position seemed to have been written to fit him and his experience. However his application was unsuccessful, the successful applicant being Dr H. Hirst of the Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company Ltd., the suppliers of the X-ray equipment.

All was not lost, however, as correspondence was now occurring between Boas in Zürich, Adams of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning in London and Professor J. Neill Greenwood in Melbourne concerning the possibility of a Carnegie Fellowship for Boas in Melbourne. Greenwood was keen to arrange for Boas to come to Melbourne, but he was reluctant to initiate moves for a grant from the Carnegie Corporation because of delays in building the laboratory to house the new X-ray set which, in July 1937, was still under construction at Metropolitan Vickers. In a letter to Adams in September 1937 Greenwood wrote: 'I am now in a position to say that the laboratories and X-ray equipment for which I have been waiting are in the course of erection and will, I hope, be ready for occupation about the beginning of next year. Without this accommodation it would have been useless to take further steps with regard to Dr Boas as we should have no facilities for him to work with. I have now asked Dr Priestley (Vice Chancellor, University of Melbourne) to take up the matter with the Carnegie Corporation and I shall inform you later of the decision' .

Boas had moved from Zürich to take up his position at the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory when, on 22 January 1938, Adams received the following cable from the Registrar of Melbourne University: 'Please inform Walter Boas appointed lecturer here on Carnegie Grant of twenty two hundred dollars a year for two years ask him cable acceptance and address'. A few days later Boas had a phone call from E.N. da C. Andrade of University College, London, offering him a position there. After many months of uncertainty in Zürich, Boas now had two offers of appointment and he sought the advice of Sir William Bragg to help with the decision. He recalled that Bragg 'told me of his happy twenty three years as Professor of Mathematics and Physics in Adelaide, how much he had enjoyed the unconventional, open air life in Australia and said he was sure I too would be happy there and he would advise strongly that I accept the offer'. Boas accepted this advice and on 31 January 1938 the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning cabled the Registrar of Melbourne University: 'Boas accepts but cannot leave until the end of March. Address c/o this office. Send contract letter and please arrange immigration Canberra authorities'.

Thus, fortunately for Australian science, the die was cast for Walter Boas' future in Australia. Walter proposed to Eva Orgler, a friend of five years who lived in Berlin but who had made several holiday visits to Switzerland during his time there. They were married at the Registry Office in Hampstead on 22 March 1938 and two days later set out from London for Melbourne. Because the Spanish civil war made shipping unsafe in the Bay of Biscay, they travelled by train via Paris to Toulon where they embarked on the ss. Ormonde for Melbourne on l April.

The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, through its General Secretary Walter Adams and its Assistant Secretary Esther Simpson, had played a crucial role as intermediary in all the negotiations associated with Boas' appointment in Melbourne and the story of Boas' arrival in Melbourne is best told by his letter of 6 July 1938 to Walter Adams:

Dear Mr Adams,

Being here now nearly two months I should like to give you a short report.

The journey was very nice. The sea was calm, we saw Pompeii, Aden, made a trip by rickshaw in Colombo and arrived here on the 2nd of May. Professor and Mrs Greenwood met us on the boat and took us to the boarding house where all was prepared for our coming. After staying there for a month we moved into a flat where we are feeling very comfortable and at home.

Professor Greenwood and the other people in the Metallurgical School are very kind and help me always. I am lecturing now on 'Fatigue of Metals' and will have to lecture in the next year on 'Physics of metals'. Naturally I met the other Carnegie Fellows of whom you gave me the addresses. Heymann is now Senior-Lecturer, about Loewe nothing is definitely decided till now nor about Duras. I hope that there will be found some permanent position for me in the next year.

After all we read in the newspapers we are very happy to be here so far from Europe. I should like to thank you again very much for your endeavour to place me here.

With best regards also to Miss Simpson,
Yours very sincerely,
Walter Boas

University of Melbourne 1938-1947

In recruiting Walter Boas to the Metallurgy Department at the University of Melbourne in 1938, J. Neill Greenwood gained a staff member who already, at 34, had a very high international reputation in science, having published some 25 papers on his research and the book Kristallplastizität. Boas was under the impression, from discussions with Adams in London, that his job in Melbourne as Carnegie Lecturer would be concerned mainly with research. However, on his first day in the department, he was informed by Greenwood that he would be required to start a lecture course on the fatigue of metals in six weeks' time. Boas had no experience of lecturing in English and, at that time, no detailed knowledge of the topic, and he said of those weeks 'I do not think I ever worked as hard ever in my life before or after' .

In the first term of 1939, Boas commenced his lectures on the physics of metals to students taking metallurgy as one of their subjects for the BSc degree and to students working for their BMetE degree. The course was the first of its type to be given in the British Commonwealth and treated crystallography, plastic deformation of single crystals and polycrystalline metals and alloys, theory of alloys and diffusion and phase transformations in the solid state. In the beginning, spoken English was a problem in Boas' lectures for teacher and students alike. However, he went to great pains to prepare a set of detailed lecture notes for distribution to his students. These notes formed the basis for his second book, An Introduction to the Physics of Metals and Alloys, which was published by the Melbourne University Press in 1947. Boas generously acknowledged that 'the book could not have been written without the great unselfish help given by J.S. Bowles'. Bowles, who has recently retired from the position of Research Professor of Metallurgy at the University of New South Wales, was a demonstrator and then lecturer in the Metallurgy Department at Melbourne during the period the book was in preparation.

Throughout his nine-year association with the University of Melbourne, Boas was an inspiration to his students. It was a unique experience for students in those days to be taught from their first year by a man with such a high international reputation in science and to realise that the definitive papers on the subject being studied were the work of their lecturer. Walter Boas' enthusiasm for his subject was contagious and it was his teaching and inspiration that formed the base for successful careers in science by so many of his students. For all his students, it was a delight to find that aloofness was not a characteristic of this top-line scientist, and Boas' approach to students was such that they came to regard him as a friend as well as a teacher, a friend who was always willing to help with further explanations of difficult topics and to give a word of encouragement when it was needed. He acted as a friendly counsellor for any of his students with personal or study problems, long before student counsellors were part of the university scene, and he and Eva frequently entertained students in their home. Walter Boas believed that close association between staff and students was of mutual benefit to both. He took a great interest in the activities of the student Metallurgical Society and could be relied on to tell the best joke at the annual dinner of this group.

Boas was appointed as a Senior Lecturer in Metallurgy in September 1939, a member of the Faculty of Science in May 1940, elected as a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in May 1943 and admitted to the degree of Master of Science without examination in December 1943.

When war broke out in 1939, Boas was automatically classified as an enemy alien. However, this made no difference to the friendships that were developing on the Melbourne campus and Boas has recorded his thanks to many, among a large number of people, who helped him and Eva to feel settled and welcome in their new land. They were Professor Greenwood, Professor (later Sir Samuel) Wadham, Professor (later Sir Kenneth) Bailey, Harold Hunt, Frank Sublit, Mansergh Shaw, Sydney Rubbo, J.S. Anderson, Haughton Dunkin, Mervyn Willis and Vic Hopper. These men and their wives were very supportive of Walter and Eva and the friendship they offered made assimilation into university life at Melbourne a very happy experience. Walter and Eva were determined to become Australians and Walter was granted 'refugee alien' status in 1943. His application for a certificate of naturalization, supported by the Vice-Chancellor, J.D.G. (later Sir John) Medley, was approved by the Minister of the Interior in March 1944. The Boas' children, John Frank, born on 27 February 1941, and Anne Catherine, born on 20 September 1944, were, of course, Australian citizens by birth, and neither of them learnt any German from their parents. This was the case because of the decision by Walter and Eva to sever connections with their German past by speaking only English at home, a decision that was marked by a ceremonial burning of their German passports shortly after arriving in Australia.

Boas' first few years of lecturing in the Metallurgy Department coincided with the second world war and shortened courses in the Faculty of Engineering. The normal engineering degrees in specialities such as civil, mechanical, electrical and metallurgical engineering, usually awarded after four years' study, were deferred during the war years for all but a few selected students, and the degree of BEngSc was awarded after a compressed course of three years. For students and staff alike, many more lectures and practical classes had to be fitted into the working week which was extended to include Saturdays. Academic postgraduate research ceased during these years and students were moved as quickly as possible into industries associated with the war effort. An annexe was built on to the Metallurgy Department for the production of tungsten wire and the output from this small 'factory' became the sole source of tungsten in Australia, with many graduates from the Metallurgy Department becoming 'factory hands' associated with this production instead of moving on to postgraduate research.

Boas was frustrated by the lack of opportunity for research in the Metallurgy Department and he kept his research interests alive by co-operating with members of the CSIR Section of Lubricants and Bearings, which had been set up by F.P. Bowden in the neighbouring Chemistry Department at Melbourne. A very practical problem in the Section at the time, that was under investigation by R.W.K. Honeycombe (one of Boas' first students and later professor of metallurgy at Cambridge), was the failure of tin-base bearing alloys. Honeycombe consulted Boas about this problem and they were able to show that the failure resulted from plastic deformation in the polycrystalline tin-base alloy resulting from the anisotropy of thermal expansion of tin. The failure mechanism was called 'thermal fatigue' and Boas and Honeycombe published four papers on the topic, two of them in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Boas' co-operation with the CSIR Section of Lubricants and Bearings was put on an official footing in December 1943 in a letter from Lightfoot, Secretary of the CSIR, in which he stated, 'I have been in communication with the Vice-Chancellor and with Acting Professor Dunkin regarding our desire to obtain your services on a part-time temporary basis to assist in work in our Lubricants and Bearings Section on thermal and mechanical fatigue of bearing alloys'. Boas' part-time appointment with CSIR commenced on 3 January 1944 at a salary of £200 per annum.

With the end of the war, Boas' hopes for initiating research activity in the Metallurgy Department continued to be frustrated. Professor Greenwood had received a grant from the Baillieu family to set up a Research Chair in Metallurgy. He vacated the teaching chair and became Research Professor of Metallurgy late in 1945. Boas applied for the vacant teaching chair in March 1946 but was unsuccessful, the appointment going to H.K. Worner. Life in the Metallurgy Department was becoming more difficult for Boas as new research laboratories were being set up in the former tungsten annexe and equipment from the teaching department was being transferred to the research department so that opportunity for research by the teaching staff was further reduced. It was at this time that Boas was thinking of leaving Australia to work in England and he made tentative enquiries of Sir Lawrence Bragg and C.H. Desh concerning research posts in the UK in June 1946. However, in writing to Bragg and Desh, Boas was also thinking of a possible research career in CSIR as he wrote to them 'The only research which I have been able to carry out was in collaboration with Dr Bowden's Section of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. There is probably no need to say that I enjoy that collaboration very much indeed, and it seems in fact that I could if I so desire, obtain a research position with CSIR...'.

While changes were occuring in the Metallurgy Department, great changes were also occurring in the CSIR Lubricants and Bearings Section next door. S.H. Bastow replaced Bowden as leader of the Section in 1946 and established its new name, Tribophysics. Bastow's aim was to broaden the research activities of the Section from practical problems associated with friction, lubrication, bearings and explosives into more fundamental studies on the plastic behaviour of metals and alloys and the chemical reactivity of surfaces. In looking for a leader for this new research activity, the obvious choice was Walter Boas who had an outstanding international reputation in the field, was keen to get back to full-time research, and had been collaborating so successfully with staff of the Lubricants and Bearings Section since 1943. A position of Principal Research Scientist (Physicist) for the CSIR Section of Tribophysics was advertised in November 1946 and it was specified that the applicant should have the 'highest qualifications as a physicist combined with considerable experience in the initiation and direction of physical research'. The duties required were 'to undertake, and assist in direction of research on the physics of solids'. Boas was offered the appointment on 31 December 1946 and accepted on 15 January 1947; his resignation from the position of Senior Lecturer in Physical Metallurgy was accepted by the Council of the University of Melbourne on 22 January 1947. Thus ended Boas' nine years with the University of Melbourne, first as Carnegie Lecturer and then as Senior Lecturer.

CSIR/CSIRO 1947-1969

On his appointment as a Principal Research Scientist in the CSIR Section of Tribophysics, Boas received a welcoming letter from the Chairman, Sir David Rivett, in which he wrote: 'I only hope that we shall succeed in providing not only the facilities, but also the freedom and happy atmosphere which are essential...Dr Bastow and his colleagues are, I know, delighted to have you in the family circle'. Boas found freedom, facilities and a happy atmosphere under the leadership of Bastow and he wasted no time in building up a research group on the physics of metals, adding to existing staff by recruiting new staff mainly from among his former students. Research projects were quickly under way on, for example, plastic deformation of alloys consisting of two phases, the destruction of order by plastic deformation and its recovery on annealing and the inhomogeneity of deformation of crystals in polycrystalline aggregates. Before a year had elapsed, the Section of Tribophysics was redesignated as a Division in CSIR with Bastow as Chief.

In 1948, Boas went overseas for six months. Most of this time he spent in England and Europe and returned via America. This was the first time he had left Australia since 1938 and was the opportunity, which he had looked forward to for some time, to renew contacts with his many overseas colleagues of pre-war days. He attended conferences on metal physics in Amsterdam, applied mechanics in London, surface properties of metals in Paris and X-ray diffraction in Pittsburgh; the annual conference of the Institute of Metals (London) in Cambridge, and the summer school on metal physics in Cambridge. Although this trip was the first of ten that he made during his time in CSIRO, it was probably the one that he had looked forward to most.

During this trip he spent a few days in Germany. He was one of the first civilians allowed to visit post-war Germany without wearing a military uniform but he was under military control, staying at officers' hotels, reporting regularly to commanding officers of the occupation forces, and travelling in an army car. He was shocked by the destruction of German cities and in particular the railway system. Of special significance on this trip were visits to his former research supervisor, Professor Becker, in Göttingen, and his colleague Günter Wassermann, formerly of Schmid's group, in Clausthal.

A commentary on his probable feelings during this return to Germany can be seen in correspondence of the previous year, first from the Chairman of CSIR to the Australian Scientific Research Liaison Officer in London:

Yesterday I had a visit from Dr W. Boas...He has just received a letter asking that, as an old pupil of Richard Becker, he should contribute a paper to the special volume of the Zeitschrift to celebrate Becker's 60th birthday.

Naturally Boas was a little bit dubious as to the wisdom of sending a paper to Germany, seeing that he was practically driven out of the country not so very long ago. He is, however, greatly attached to Becker who, he assures me, was strongly anti-Nazi during the war. I told Boas that if I were in his position, I would not hesitate about sending a paper as a tribute to his teacher; but after talking it over I promised to ask you whether you could find out the attitude of people somewhat similarly placed to Boas...

It seems to me that the sooner we renew fraternal scientific contact with the right type of German scientist, particularly with those who kept to their principles during the war, the better for all of us; but one can understand Boas' diffidence.

The reply was as follows:

...on account of his personal connection with Becker, Orowan will contribute while Mott, having no similar personal connection, will not. It appears that the people at Göttingen desire to reestablish fraternal scientific contact, but there is some small tendency towards propaganda behind it. However Becker was always anti-Nazi and is undoubtedly a distinguished scientist. Dr Orowan is very grateful indeed for the indication of your opinion, which I passed on to him.

I hope that this information will be adequate assistance to Boas to make his decision.

Boas did not, in the end, produce a manuscript for the Becker Zeitschrift volume, probably because of the short time available before his departure for Europe in 1948.

On his return to Australia, changes were underway in CSIR. In May 1949, CSIR was reorganised as CSIRO and Bastow became a member of the Executive. Boas recalled that, when he arrived in the laboratory on the morning of 19 May, Bastow was packing his personal papers and told him that he would have to 'hold the fort' until a new Chief was appointed, 'So I was left suddenly with the administration of the Division, a field in which I had no experience. That I managed this was due to Bastow's secretary (Miss E. Angus) and the co-operation and team spirit of my colleagues' .

Before the position for the new Chief of Division was advertised, Boas received a hand-written letter from Sir David Rivett, former Chairman of CSIR, who was on his way to London. This letter, the text of which is given below, was posted in Aden on 8 June 1949.

My dear Boas,

Being now able to enjoy a sense of complete irresponsibility, I can wnte and say how much I am hoping to hear that my former colleagues have asked you to take Bastow's post. I feel certain they will – and am anxious that you should not hesitate one moment in accepting the job.

The loss of B. in the Division will be severe, but I am personally convinced that he is essential to the Executive if the new 'Organization' (I still dislike the implications of the word) is to keep itself on the right track. If you take his place he will feel less sad at leaving research work, for he will know that his ideals will be perfectly safe in your hands and that there will be no surrender to the influences that may seek to drag you away from the frontiers. There are four Divisions in CSIR of which I have no fear for the future. Tribophysics will remain one of them if you take over the reins from Bastow: but you may have to do some fighting!

Every good wish,
Yours ever,
David Rivett.

Despite this encouragement from Rivett, Boas was reluctant to apply for the position of Chief as his wish was to do research rather than direct it. Applications for the new post were to close on 12 September and at the beginning of September Bastow rang Boas to enquire why he had not applied. On hearing Boas' response, that he would rather continue doing research than take on permanent administrative duties, Bastow advised him that 'one could not be sure of the attitude of a new Chief' and that he should discuss the matter with Ian Wark, then Chief of the Division of Industrial Chemistry. Wark's attitude was a definite one, that senior scientists had an obligation towards their younger colleagues to make a sacrifice and undertake administrative duties. He strengthened this argument, Boas recalled, with the points that 'if you don't apply and get a nasty boss it is your own fault...and anyhow it is better that science is administered by scientists rather than by...clerks'. Boas was persuaded and submitted his application four days before the closing date. He was appointed Chief of the Division of Tribophysics on 27 October 1949, a position he held until his retirement from CSIRO on his 65th birthday in February 1969.

As the new Chief of the Division of Tribophysics, Boas continued and advanced the policy initiated by Bastow of redirecting the research programmes of the Division towards more basic science. In a relatively short time Boas and his young research colleagues were publishing results on basic investigations of the influence of crystal lattice defects on the properties of metals and alloys and on the physics and chemistry of surfaces. In redirecting the research effort in this way, Boas put into effect his philosophy concerning science and industry, namely that Australian manufacturing industry needed the back-up provided by first-class research on the structure and properties of materials. Although the main output of the Division was a steady flow of scientific papers, the annual reports of the Division recorded advice given to industry on a range of physical and chemical problems and approximately 100 outside enquiries were handled each year. The evolution of the scientific work of the Division in Boas' time resulted in a clear distinction between the early work of the Lubricants and Bearings Section and the more basic studies that were initiated by Bastow and Boas in 1947-1949 and developed vigorously by Boas from 1949.

As Chief of Division, Boas was responsible for a research team of young scientists (physicists, metallurgists, chemists, electrical and mechanical engineers) all in their twenties and on the threshold of their research careers. He encouraged them to work together on projects where their differing backgrounds and skills complemented one another. This multi-disciplinary approach to problems, where teams came together for particular problems and then reformed in different ways when these were finished, was very successful. Boas believed strongly in the effectiveness of a small Division in which the Chief could keep himself familiar with the essential detail of all research projects. He achieved this aim of a small Division throughout his time as Chief, starting and finishing his term with a total staff of 53 including 23 research scientists. He did not believe in breaking down his research team into formal groups or sections and research staff naturally formed informal groups, as demanded by current research problems, and within these groups every scientist had equal access to the Chief's time. As a Chief, he did not insist on his research staff following detailed research programmes but instilled confidence in his young research scientists by encouraging them to pursue their own ideas within the general framework of the overall research programme of the Division.

Boas shielded his research staff from administrative duties and through his own efforts he was able to keep the administrative staff to a minimum in his small Division. In 1949 the administrative staff in Tribophysics consisted of one clerk, one telephonist/typist, one librarian and one secretary; in 1969 the number in the administrative team was identical although the clerk, Mr A. Daunt (Ack), was then called the DAO [Divisional Administrative Officer] and his work load had grown considerably as general administrative procedures in CSIRO had become more demanding. Boas always tried to keep his 'in-house' administrative procedures as informal and as democratic as possible. A good example of this was his way of settling the annual estimates for equipment. He invited all research staff to a meeting in his office at which they stated their needs. Everybody's bid was written down and, if the total sum involved was too far in excess of the funds available, he encouraged free discussion which soon led to agreements to defer or to share until the sum was reduced to a manageable amount. He then undertook to do his best for everybody in his approach to Head Office and was generally successful. His research colleagues always knew when Boas was going to attend Head Office in Albert Street concerning particularly difficult problems of capital grants or staff promotions, for on those days he would change his normal grey soft felt hat for a black hard hat which gave this gentle man the appearance of a very formidable adversary.

An unenviable task that Boas always took on was the production of the annual report of the Division. All research scientists were asked for their contributions which Boas collected, collated and often rewrote to produce a final report. He took it as a point of honour that a copy of the annual report for the year ending on 30 June would be presented to all members of staff by 1 July. He was very disappointed that this record could not be maintained after reproduction of the report was taken outside the Division in 1961.

Boas always went carefully through every draft manuscript written by members of his staff. Discussions with the authors were often long and detailed with his insistence on precision and clarity of presentation. He would often surprise his colleagues with his detailed knowledge of the niceties of English grammar, which may well have had its origins in his many years of study of Latin as a young man. Of course, word processors were not available in those days and a draft manuscript, when Boas had finished with it, would often resemble a game of snakes and ladders with words and sentences boldly encircled with attached arrows indicating new locations up and down a page. Boas could easily have added his name as an author to many of the scientific papers submitted for publication in the early 1950s, but he rarely did so as he believed that credit should always go to the person responsible for the work. Boas' own publication pattern changed after he became Chief of Division as he concentrated on reviews and general papers concerning the work of the Division. He published some 20 of these.

Boas' interest in maintaining quality in scientific publications is demonstrated by his service as Associate Editor for Australia of Acta Metallurgica from 1953 to 1969 and as a member of the Board of Governors of this prestigious metallurgical journal from 1954 to 1965. He was also Associate Editor for Australia and New Zealand of the journal Wear from 1956 to 1963.

As the leader of a research team in Australia, Boas always emphasised the importance of overseas experience in the formation of a good research scientist and he worked hard to ensure that all the members of his research staff went overseas, to meet and work for a time with internationally renowned scientists in the fields of metal physics and solid state physics and chemistry. For his young colleagues, their first trip overseas was eased by Boas' consideration, as he always wrote to his overseas colleagues announcing the visit and the resultant welcome and hospitality were astounding. This is but one example of Boas' many efforts to further the scientific careers of his staff and it was always clear that he got great pleasure from any success of the young scientists in his team. Many successful scientific careers originated with Boas' leadership in the Division of Tribophysics, and by the late l950s the Division was internationally known and recognised as a centre of excellence for research in the science of materials. As a university lecturer, Boas had inspired his students by his enthusiastic teaching, his encouragement and his friendship. Similarly, as a leader of a research team, he inspired his younger colleagues by his boundless enthusiasm for science and his constant efforts on their behalf, whether it be discussion and advice on their research problems, working hard to obtain funds for a new piece of equipment or, as was often the case, filling the role of friend and adviser for colleagues with problems outside science.

Boas' love of educating students remained with him after joining CSIRO and in 1956 he readily accepted an invitation from Professor Bruce Chalmers to be the Gordon McKay visiting lecturer on Metallurgy at Harvard University during the spring term, even though this involved three months' leave without pay from CSIRO. Further, throughout his term as Chief of Division, he made time to give lectures to students of physics and engineering at the University of Melbourne. He regarded this as an important way of encouraging closer co-operation between CSIRO and the university. He gave courses of lectures on solid state physics to third year Physics students and on physics of metals to Engineering students. For several years he served on the Faculty of Science at Melbourne and he was made an Honorary Senior Associate in solid state physics of the Physics Department at Melbourne in 1963.

Boas always felt that part of the responsibility of a Chief of Division in CSIRO was to foster public relations. To this end he often delivered lectures to learned societies in Australia and always on his trips overseas he lectured on the work of his Division. These efforts by Boas played a big part in the work of the Division becoming known locally and internationally, and this was an important contribution to the Division and its staff during the early years of Tribophysics.

Although in Boas' laboratory most of the work was of a basic nature, he kept in touch with more practical problems through his membership, for many years, of the Engineering Group Committee set up by CSIRO and the Department of Supply. In later years he gained great satisfaction from his membership of the Science and Industry Forum of the Australian Academy of Science. Despite many demands on his time, he attended regularly local meetings of the Australian Institute of Metals and the Australian Institute of Physics and continued to do so all his life, i.e. long after attendances at such meetings had declined dramatically.

Boas had a strong sense of the social responsibility of a scientist and because of this he became interested in the Pugwash movement during the late fifties and helped to establish a Pugwash Group in Melbourne. In May 1961 Professor and Mrs Linus Pauling had organized a Pugwash Conference in Oslo, at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, on the spread of nuclear weapons. All the participants were personally invited by the Paulings and Boas replaced Oliphant, who was unable to attend at that time, as the Australian representative. Frank discussions were held over five days between 60 scientists and other scholars from 15 countries. Boas recalled that he was very impressed by the spirit of goodwill between all the participants including those from the USA and the USSR. Following this experience, Boas was active in organising the first South-East Asian Regional Pugwash Conference on 'Scientific, Technical and Industrial Development in South-East Asia' which was held in Melbourne in January 1967. This was the last major meeting organised by the Melbourne Pugwash Group and Boas has attributed its decline to the great difficulty of keeping to the Pugwash ideal that all meetings and discussions should be strictly non-political.

Throughout his career Boas worked actively for the learned societies in both metallurgy and physics and he received many high awards for his contributions to science. He was a Foundation member of the Australian Institute of Metals (1941), was awarded its Silver Medal in 1960 and was elected as Federal President in 1962. He became a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1943, a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics in 1962 and presented the Einstein Memorial Lecture in Adelaide in 1964. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1954 and served on its Council from 1964 to 1966. He was an active and enthusiastic member of the Academy and served on a number of national and sectional committees. He was honoured by election as a Foreign Scientific Fellow of the Max-Planck-Institut für Metallkunde in 1965 and as a corresponding member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at Vienna in 1972. He was elected to the Solid State Commission of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics in 1963 and held the positions of Secretary to the Commission from 1966 to 1969 and Chairman from 1969 to 1972. These positions of Secretary and Chairman coincided with his six-year term as a vice-president of the Union itself.

Despite his many honours, there was no trace of pomposity in Walter Boas: he was a most friendly and hospitable man and lasting friendships developed between him and his colleagues in the Division of Tribophysics. He and his wife Eva were most generous hosts at their home in Kew which was the centre for a great many happy social occasions for the staff of his Division. There, over the years, he encouraged the development of lasting friendships between his staff's families and there was the venue where young scientists could meet socially with visiting scientists from overseas at delightful dinner parties arranged by Eva. For many years, all members of staff, with their wives or girl friends, who were attending the annual CSIRO ball, would meet first for savouries and drinks at the Boas' home. Eva's savouries were always delicious and Walter's drink, a mix of white wine and pineapple juice in a secret proportion which he never revealed, 'set up' the Tribophysics ball party in such a grand manner that its late arrival at the ball was always cheerful and often noteworthy.

Walter Boas retired from his Division of Tribophysics on his 65th birthday on 10 February 1969. During his time as Chief of the Division he had fulfilled for his staff the conditions that Sir David Rivett had promised him when he first joined CSIRO in 1947. His leadership had provided a free and happy atmosphere in which good research was done and he with Eva's help built up a happy Tribophysics family circle.

Post-retirement years 1969-1982

Boas, an enthusiastic man of science, was not really ready for retirement in 1969 and he became an Honorary Senior Associate in metal physics in his old Department of Metallurgy at the University of Melbourne. Once again he became an active member of the department and initiated there a research programme on the mechanical properties of organic crystals, a programme for which he was given a grant for research assistance by the Australian Research Grants Committee. From his old department he published his third book, entitled Properties and Structure of Solids, in 1971. Walter Boas was working next door to the Tribophysics laboratory and he regularly visited his colleagues there with the greeting that he was 'working harder than ever'.

The University of Melbourne recognised his contributions to science and to the university with the award of the degree of Doctor of Applied Science, honoris causa, in 1974. Part of the citation read at the conferring stated 'Dr Boas' unique and continuing contribution to the deeper scientific understanding of materials was a most important factor in the development of the Department of Metallurgy and the whole School of Engineering'.

Thus in his final years of so-called retirement Walter Boas was back amongst the young students he loved and full of ideas and enthusiasm for revitalising an aging department. During this period he developed an active association with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and was the first chairman of the Applied Physics Course Advisory Committee. From 1969 he was Chairman of the editorial board of Search for ANZAAS .

It is clear from Walter Boas' life as a teacher and a scientific leader that he always had a great personal interest in the encouragement of high scientific achievement by young people, and for this quality, among many others, he will be remembered as an outstanding leader in Australian science.

The high regard in which Walter Boas was held by the Australian scientific community is illustrated by the fact that in 1984 the Australian Institute of Physics established the 'Walter Boas Medal' to promote excellence in research in physics in Australia. This medal is awarded annually for original research work described in papers published in the preceding four years. In addition, in acknowledgement of Boas' interests in the education of science students, the Department of Applied Physics of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology established the 'Walter Boas Memorial Prize' in 1983 which is awarded annually to the best student in the final year of the Bachelor of Applied Science degree course.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.6, no.4, 1987. It was written by L.M. Clarebrough, CSIRO Division of Materials Science and Technology and A.K. Head, CSIRO Division of Materials Science and Technology.


The authors acknowledge the use of the following material:

  1. Correspondence and Personal Record of Dr W. Boas – Australian Academy of Science.
  2. 'Walter Boas', by J.F. Nicholas, an introduction to Physics of Materials, a Festscrift for Walter Boas on his 75th birthday, eds. D.W. Borland, L.M. Clarebrough and A.J.W. Moore (CSIRO and Department of Mining and Metallurgy, University of Melbourne, 1979).
  3. 'Walter Boas', by L.M. Clarebrough, in booklet for the Walter Boas Memorial Prize of the Department of Applied Physics, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
  4. CSIRO Archives, PH/BOA/2.

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