Sir Mark Oliphant than Howard Florey are among the panoply of great, if not well-known, Australian scientists.  Books have been written about each of them although according to Dr Brett Mason, author of Wizards of Oz, no new book has been written about Howard Florey for 50 years.  Florey was the father of penicillin, the commercialised end product of the active antibiotic ingredient earlier discovered by Alexander Fleming (the mould penicillium rubens). Both received the Nobel Prize for their parts in the discovery, scaling and commercialising of penicillin as an antibacterial injection. Sir Mark Oliphant held many positions in Australian science but none bear witness to his defining contributions to winning WWII.  These include developing the theoretical proof for nuclear fusion and the atomic bomb and in building the cavity magnetron a precursor to radar which helped Britain survive the Blitz and the Allies win the aerial war.

Dr Mason’s book makes three enduring points about Australian science that merit regular repetition:

1.       The best Australian scientists are indeed world-beaters. At heart they are also scientific entrepreneurs, even if they need to cajole, collaborate, and ultimately hand off the commercialisation of their inventions to others. In the case of Florey and Oliphant it took American money, applied science and manufacturing capability to bring penicillin to market to save the lives of soldiers and civilians during WWII, to initiate the Manhatten Project to build a nuclear bomb to end the Pacific War, and to shrink and build radar devices for military and commercial application.

2.      It takes years of effort and sometimes dumb luck to bring new inventions to market.  Importantly, Florey and Oliphant in their own ways were introduced to many people before they happened on the right intermediaries and co-believers with the right contacts to influencers, money, and the commercial capabilities to facilitate success.  Nothing worked smoothly except through force of personality, persistence, and inordinate luck (serendipity).  They did what it takes.

3.     Connectedness cannot be underplayed.  The careers of Florey and Oliphant collided frequently both at university in Adelaide and finally at ANU.  They moved in similar circles albeit in different fields.  They sought funding in the United States at the same time.  They shared the same sense of scientific endeavour and they both rolled up the sleeves and got things done – even though both looked askance at the process of raising support and investment.

Busts of Oliphant and Florey look across at each other nestled in a small alcove along a wide shaded path along one side of the South Australian Governor’s extensive grounds in Adelaide.  I imagine they are not often seen by the lunchtime crowd or passers-by unless by chance. To many they represent the unfashionable past.  There is little to highlight their real achievements yet they provide the pathway to understand how science and industry must work together to commercialise great inventions.  In the worlds of Florey and Oliphant invention and innovation were equally prized.

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