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Sir Marcus Laurence Oliphant (1901-2000)
Papers 1927-1983

MSS 92 O4775p

Biographical Note

Born at Kent Town, Adelaide, Mark Oliphant studied physics at the University of Adelaide in 1919. To finance his university studies, Oliphant initially worked in the South Australian Public Library, but later took up a cadetship in the Physics Department. Oliphant graduated with a BSc, First Class Honours in Physics, in 1922. He continued to work in the Physics Department, completing further research in between his duties as a laboratory assistant.

In 1927 Oliphant won an Exhibitioner scholarship which allowed him to study nuclear physics with Sir Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. It was at Cavendish that the atom was first split in 1932. Oliphant's contribution to this work was his discovery of Helium 3 and Tritium. He also discovered that heavy hydrogen nuclei could be made to react with each other – the fusion reaction which is the basis for a hydrogen bomb.

During the 1930s at the University of Birmingham, Oliphant and his team developed short-length radar and the resonant-cavity magnetron, the basis for portable radar in aircraft, one of the key scientific advances in World War II, which was used for the detection of German submarines.

During World War II, Oliphant strongly promoted the use of the atomic bomb to the United States government. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Manhattan Project and worked with that project from 1943, returning to England in 1945, before the atomic bomb was used at Hiroshima. He later remarked that he felt "sort of proud that [the bomb] had worked, and absolutely appalled at what it had done to human beings." Later he became a harsh critic of nuclear weapons and a member of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

In 1950 Mark Oliphant returned to Australia as first Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the new Australian National University.  Here, he initiated the design and construction of the world's largest (500MJ) homopolar generator - employed to power the large scale railgun which was used as a scientific instrument.

The establishment of the Australian Academy of Science was one of Oliphant’s proudest achievements. Returning to Australia in 1950, he realised 'that Australia had no voice, no international voice' in the scientific arena. He brought the most distinguished scientists from around Australia together to form the Academy, and in 1954 their Charter was presented to the Queen on her first visit to Australia, and the Academy was officially established. Oliphant was its first President.

After retiring from the ANU in 1967, Oliphant became the Governor of South Australia in 1971.  This role afforded him the opportunity to promote science in South Australian schools and universities. His five-year term ended in November 1976 with a garden party for 2,000 guests.

Oliphant was knighted in 1959 and awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia in 1977. Late in life, following the death of his wife in 1987, Oliphant became an advocate for voluntary euthanasia.

For further biographical details of Sir Mark Oliphant, see Oliphant, The Life and Times of Sir Mark Oliphant, by Stewart Cockburn and David Ellyard (Axiom Books, 1981).

Collection Description

The collection comprises correspondence, speeches, articles, personal documents and working papers, photographs, newspaper cuttings, awards and degree certificates of Sir Mark Oliphant, and copies of papers by other scientists and academics; also notebooks, reprints and correspondence of Lord Rutherford and articles about him collected by Oliphant for Rutherford Recollections.

The papers cover the period 1927-1999 and include some records relating to Oliphant's period at Cambridge and his war-time work on radar, but principally document his career as Director of the School of Physical Sciences, A.N.U. (1950-1963), as Governor of South Australia (1971-1976) and subsequent to his retirement from public office.

The papers were donated to the Barr Smith Library by Sir Mark in March 1984. Access to some of the material (mainly confidential references and letters sent in confidence to Sir Mark by others) is at the discretion of the Librarian. These files or papers are identified in the following list as RESTRICTED.

Additional papers were donated after Sir Mark's death by his daughter Vivian Wilson.  These comprised correspondence, speeches and addresses, largely dating from 1984 but also including some earlier material retained by Sir Mark after depositing the original collection.  The correspondence kept chronologically has been added to Series 2; that arranged into subject files has been integrated into the original Series 3, while files containing speeches and addresses have been added to Series 4.
In May 2003 Dr Len Hibbard donated some valuable additional material relating to the Homopolar generator and his own research on its construction.
See Series 25
In 2008 Monica Oliphant donated the files compiled by Stewart Cockburn relating to the biography Oliphant, The Life and Times of Sir Mark Oliphant, by Stewart Cockburn and David Ellyard (Axiom Books, 1981.
See Series 26
Additional biographical items and memorabilia were donated by the family of his daughter, Vivian Wilson, in 2011.
In 2019-20 David Ellyard, the co-author of Oliphant’s biography, presented additional papers given to him by Oliphant for research, These include original letters and writings by Sir Mark Oliphant, original photographs and copies of other source materials assembled by Ellyard. These have been listed separately at MSS 0251 David Ellyard. Research Papers re Sir Marcus Oliphant.

Conditions for Use of the Sir Marcus Oliphant Papers

When depositing his papers with the University of Adelaide in 1984, Sir Mark Oliphant placed a formal restriction only on his correspondence with Sir Walter Crocker, leaving the control of access to all other material to the discretion of the Archivist (D.2495/83).

To enable the widest access to these papers for research purposes while guarding against possible actions for breach of confidence, defamation or infringement of copyright, the following conditions of use have been formulated.

Some files or items from Series 2 and Series 3 have been restricted. In general only confidential references and reports and correspondence between Sir Mark and others of an intensely personal nature or with comments on a third party or parties detrimental to their reputation or potentially actionable at law, has been thus restricted. In general such material will be closed until 12 months after the deaths of the parties concerned.
These files are clearly indicated in the Special List.  A summary description of the items restricted can be made available upon request if appropriate notice is given.

Copying and Publication
The University does not own copyright in the Oliphant Papers. Copying of individual items for researchers (except those closed or restricted) will be undertaken as far as is consistent with the provisions of the Copyright Act Amendment Act 1981, and where the record will not be damaged by such copying. Copying of copyright material by the University for a researcher, and publication or further reproduction of any item by the researcher or another person can be undertaken only in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Copyright Act and/or the authorisation of the appropriate copyright holder.


Contents Listing

Series 1.  Biographical and autobiographical information and personal documents.
[Biographical notes/Curricula vitae and publication lists; birth (1901) and marriage (1925) certificates; passports; copies of Unley High school reports April and December 1915, June 1916, and June and September 1918; instructions for procedures after death; extracts from ASIO file [compiled c1952-1957]; reflections at New Year 1987 and 'Nunc Dimittis' (partial autobiographical memoir); newspaper and magazine articles/profiles 1988 and 1991; trans. of interviews with Ann Meyrl-Hazel de Berg for National Library 1993; obituaries, including transcript of public Commemoration by the Academy of Science 25 August 2000 and video and programme of Memorial service held at Bonython Hall, University of Adelaide, 18 August 2000]

AAS Memoir by Bob Compton (final draft, typescript and published copy) and tribute by the Governor General at the ANU service, 25 August 2000.
Map of South Orkney Islands (including Oliphant Islands) with photograph of Gourlay Peninsula with Oliphant Islands behind
[NOTE: multiple items missing from box in 2018. See Oliphant file]
See also Series 2, including file 1967 incorporating letters 1960-1970 relating to Oliphant's views on God/religion
See also Series 26

Additional items donated by the family of Vivian Wilson
Pocket diaries 1978-79, 1981
Death certificate for Rose Oliphant and account from Blackwell’s Funerals 1987
Miscellaneous tax and financial documents 1986, 1989-2000
Pedigree documents for the Oliphant’s pet fox terrier
Map of South Orkney Islands (including Oliphant Islands) with photograph of Gourlay Peninsula with Oliphant Islands behind
Glass 12” ruler inscribed M.L.O.
Handbook of Chemistry and Physics: a ready-reference pocket book of chemical and physical data. 10th ed. Cleveland, Ohio: Chemical Rubber Publishing Co., 1925.

Series 2.  Personal and general correspondence.  1927-1999.  3 m.
[Arranged chronologically (with some early distinction between personal and miscellaneous correspondence) and kept separate by Oliphant from the Correspondence files of series 3.  Early correspondence includes items from an alphabetical concertina letter file (re Oliphant's 1951 Scholarship, his grant of a Scholarship by the Royal Society 1931-1935, appointment as assistant Director of Research in Physics at Cambridge, 1935, election to the Royal Society, 1937, etc.); also papers re the construction of his house in Canberra, 1949-1950 and correspondence with his parents (1951), his medical adviser, Dr. Bruce Lindsay (1970-1972) and his son Michael (1970-1977).  There are only a relatively small number of items for the period 1952-1971 - but see file Miscellaneous in Series 3 for some general correspondence 1956-1971. From 1975 more undifferentiated personal correspondence is included, as is unsolicited correspondence of a similar nature to that categorised in the Correspondence files (Series 3) as Cranks.  Additional personal correspondence is contained in the Personal, M.L.O. and many other files in Series 3]

Series 3.  Correspondence files.  1953-1999. 5 m.
[Received initially in two alphabetical sequences, a formal file registration system covering the period 1953-1975 (subdivided c.1965 into 'old' and 'current' files for administrative convenience by Oliphant's secretary), and an informal series of titled and untitled files for 1975-1983. Further files were received after Sir Mark's death from his daughter, some created entirely after 1983 but others of earlier date that had been retained by Sir Mark on the initial transfer of his papers.  These have now been integrated in the interests of research access. The original lists of the registered files created during the ANU years are filed at the beginning of the series - note that only the files underlined in those lists were received by the University of Adelaide in 1983.
See the Series 3 list of file titles received in all transfers to 2000

Series 4.  Speeches and addresses. 1954-1994.  4 m.
[Arranged chronologically. Until 1975 and from 1984-88 the speeches are largely in individual titled files detailing the date and purpose of the address.  Series 2 includes correspondence relating to many other invitations to speak and the Series 3 files include papers relating to other lectures.
See also Sound Recordings (Series 19) and Publications and reprints (Series 21)

Series 5.  Scrapbooks - Newspaper cuttings relating to Oliphant's term as Governor of South Australia. Nov.1971-Nov.1976. 3v.
See also Photographs (Series 7) and Government House and other files in Series 3

Series 6.  Newspaper cuttings.  1960, 1964, 1967, 1975, 1977-1993. 5 cm.
See also Series 17

Series 7.  Photographs c1922-1996 (many undated). 40 cm
1. Individual and group (arranged chronologically)
2. Presentation albums
See the Series 7 list

Photographs of the Birmingham proton synchrotron are available via the Adelaide Research & Scholarship digital repository.

Series 8.  Commissions, medals, certificates, warrants and plaques.  c.1949-1980. 50 cm.
See the Series 8 list

Series 9.
  Typescript of Oliphant's doctoral thesis 'The Cathode Region of the Glow and Arc discharges of electricity through gases'.  Aug. 1930. 1v.

Series 10.  Laboratory notebooks c1930-1970.   v.
Physics Lecture Notes {mainly lectures given at Cambridge} c.1930-1936, 1947 and undated.
Cavendish Laboratory - at front Abstracts (date span October 1932-1937) and at rear Notes of experiments November 1933-[1934?].
Untitled {Birmingham}15 May 1945 -April? 1946 re construction of cyclotron, examination of various requirements and tentative specifications; in back, draft of letter to professor R. Peierls and to Mr. Warren, BTH, re equipment associated with the accelerator; and notes on Atomic Energy and its application to medicine and biology [start of a lecture?]
'HPG [Switchgear?] - Brushes'  - notes and calculations 1962-1963.
'Mercury or NaK'  - notes and calculations 1963.
'Magnet' - notes and calculations - possibly also 1962-1963 but with 'Mark III' additional notes 1970.
[Exercise book] 'Misc. Charge exchanges, etc.' Berkeley? 1965? Includes a ms paper 'An Accelerator for very high Energies using Superconductors' {ie the proton synchrotron}
Untitled calculations, notes on apparatus etc. - no indication of date or place of creation but possibly also on US visit 1965.
ANU Laboratory workbook 'left behind when he retired' - notes and calculations
Laboratory notebook [not Oliphant] December 1939-March 1940.

Miscellaneous Papers relating to War-Time Radar and Uranium Enrichment  Work (Series 11-18)

Series 11.  Address and notebook [U.S. trip]. Aug.-Sept.1941. 1v.  [unbound].
Copy of letter from W.D. Coolidge to F.B. Jewitt, 11 Sept. 1941 referring to Oliphant's visit.

Series 12.  Pages from war-time note book n.d. (c.1942). 1 cm.
[Appear to relate to Oliphant's visit to Australia on radar work in 1942-1943.]

Series 13.  “Instructions” for visit to U.S., n.d. 3 p.

Series 14.  Letters from E.V. Appleton, 15 November 1943 re Oliphant's appointment to Tube Alloys Research in the U.S. - [working on uranium enrichment by electromagnetic methods], and 3 August 1945 re Oliphant's "scheme" for a new type of particle accelerator; also copy of letter to Dr J.W. Jenkin from the ministry of Aircraft Production 18 September 1944 re flash welding mission to America.  1943-1945. 4 items
(See also Gowing file in Series 3)

Series 15.  R.A.F. Ferrying Commands, accommodation order Newfoundland Airport I.D. card and air travel card.  1941. (5 items) and unidentified photographs.

Series 16.  Report on the Possible use of High Flying Dirigible Balloons by Japanese, as observed 19 May 1942 on H.M.T. Dominion Monarch. 1942.

Series 17.  Copy of publication Statements Relating to the Atom Bomb, 1945 and newspaper cuttings re radar and atomic weapons/energy (including Daily Telegraph 7 August 1945 re the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and re the proposed development of uranium at Mt. Painter in South Australia).  c1945-1947.

Series 18.  'Radar Period 1938-44'  Manuscript and typescript record by Oliphant of the history of the war-time radar project, principally re the formative role of (Sir) John Cockcroft.  n.d. 2 cm.
See also Series 2 1987 which includes a typescript memoir of John Randall and microwave radar by Maurice Wilkins.

Series 19.  Sound and visual recordings. 1949, 1958, c.1967, 1977 and undated. [1976]. 5 items.
- Movietone News interview, 1949 (16mm sound film)
- J.N. Kirby lecture on the possibilities of Thermo-nuclear power and its significance for Australia, 1958 (reel-to-reel tape and DVD copy)
- television interview with Leonard Bickel, c.1967 (16mm film)
- speech 'Science, Technology and Society' October 1977 (cassette)
- television programme 'Farewell Sir Mark' n.d. [1976] (colour video cassette and DVD copy).]
See also Series 1, video of Memorial service

Series 20.  Typescripts of articles and reviews by Oliphant for the Sydney Morning Herald 1977-1980; Age 1977, 1979 and Canberra Times 1980, with some related correspondence. 1977-1980.   4 cm.

Series 21.  Publications and reprints (articles and contributions by Oliphant). 1928-82.
See the Series 21 List
See also Series 4

Series 22.  Miscellaneous notes and mementos. 1935, 1946, 1950. 1967 and undated.
[Including copies of poem "Aston's Dilemma" by A.E. Kempton, sung at Cavendish dinner 1935; book of autographs of Physics Dept staff presented to Oliphant on his leaving the University of Birmingham, June 30th 1950; sketch of Peter Kapitza and Sir John Cockcroft, 1967.] 

Series 23.  Copies of miscellaneous articles and addresses, principally by and about other scientists. 1956-1996. 6 cm .
['On the moral obligation of the scientist' by Albert Einstein October 1952 (reprinted in The Bulletin March 1979); ‘Time and the Bomb: an analysis of the atomic situation’ / W.C. Wentworth 1953; Royal Society anniversary address by Lord Adrian, 1956; 'The Evolutionary Vision' by Sir Julian Huxley, 1959; 'Man and Nature' by Sir Harold Hatley, Romanes Lecture 1964; 'A Theologian's View of De Chardin' by D.S. Kemsley 1966; Gandhi Memorial Lectures by P.M.S. Blackett, 1968; articles on Sir Peter Medewar, Nature Sept. 1969 and The Listener August 1972; 'Reflections on the resonances of Physics history' by Robert Oppenheimer 1971; 'Rutherford's Electrical Method' by T.J. Trenn, 1971; 'Newton's Health and Confusion to Mathematics' 1971 and 'Samuel Johnson as Anti Scientist', 1975 by J.R. Philip; 'After the Dreaming' by W.E.H. Stanner, 1972; 'Inflation' and 'Portrait of a Lady' [Joan Robinson] by G.C. Harcourt n.d. (c.1975); 'T.H. Laby' by H.S.W. Massey 1980; 'Rudolf Peierls: the scientist in public affairs' by R.S. Pease 1996; 'Liverpool and Berkeley: The Chadwick-Lawrence Letters’ / Andrew P. Brown 1996; ‘Henry VIII and All that Jazz: science in industry and the decline of the Unversity’ / Barry Ninham 1996; 'The Cavendish high-voltage laboratory 1935-1939' by W.E. Burcham 1999; draft of article on J.C. Jaeger by M.S. Paterson, n.d.; collection of reprints and photographs collected in Russia in April 1965; issues of Adelect 1930-1935 with cartoons and articles by K.M. (Dick) Oliphant; and miscellaneous articles, book reviews, etc.]

Series 24.  Collection of 'Rutherfordiana', comprising reprints of Rutherford's papers, correspondence, photographs, obituary notices, notebooks and articles about Rutherford. 1896-1974, 1987. 30 cm.
1. Laboratory notebook, Oct.1896 1v.
2. Notes on experiments re Emanation from Radium and Diffusion of Emanations. April-July [no year]. 1v.
3. Reprints of published papers and of lectures. 1901-1936. 15 cm.
4. Letter of application and testimonials for McDonald Chair of Physics at McGill University, Montreal. 1898. 1v.
5. Correspondence (originals and copies) c.1906-1937, mainly with Professor Schuster (1906, 1919) and re purchase of Lenard Ray Tubes, 1937; also copy of letter to Professor Nagaoka re work in the Cavendish laboratory, 1911, correspondence conducted by Oliphant re the Rutherford carving by E. Gill, 1933-34, and report on the thesis of W.B. Lewis, n.d.  2 cm.
6. Obituary notices and newspaper cuttings re Rutherford's funeral 1937-1938. 2cm.
7. Articles about Rutherford, including Oliphant's Rutherford article in Endeavour 1987. 1939-1974, 1987.  4 cm.
8. Photographs. c.1905-1937 (mostly undated) 4 cm.
9. Rutherford Memorial Lecture 1956 by Charles Darwin.
10. A lecture given by Lord Rutherford at Goettingen on Monday 14th December 1931. Reel-to-reel tape, Sonocolor, 7".
11. Original typescript of Oliphant’s book ‘Rutherford: Recollections of the Cambridge Days’ published by Elsevier in 1972
12. Proceedings of the de Laeter Symposium on Isotope Science (Curtin University 1995) with a forward by Oliphant about his time with Rutherford, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia v. 79 pt 1 (March 1996)
13. Correspondence re Oliphant’s attendance at The Rutherford Birthsite Project launch October 1991

See also Rutherford and Campbell, J.A. in Series 3

Series 25.  Papers of Len Hibbard relating to his article, 'Oliphant – Engineer' and the construction of the ANU Homopolar generator.  1946-1997.  15 cm.
These papers were donated by Dr Hibbard in May 2003.
1.'Oliphant – Engineer'.  73 p. typescript and CD-ROM copy.
2. Documents collected by Hibbard relating to research for his paper on Oliphant and the Homopolar generator, including correspondence with Oliphant and others, articles, photographs and newspaper cuttings. 1946-64.  File also includes a letter from Hibbard to Oliphant 1971 on the death of Michael Oliphant, and menu of the official dinner given to Sir Mark and Lady Oliphant 8 october 1981.  6 cm.
3. Additional documents re the construction of the Homopolar generator, including minutes of the Accelerator Committee November 1956 and of Homopolar Generator Design and Construction meetings 1959-1961.
4. Correspondence of Hibbard with John Lawson, Rutherford Appleton Laboratories, and Bill Burcham 1995 re Lawson's research on early synchroton work in England, with copies of Lawson's notes and published paper 1993 and 1997 and Proceedings of the Birmingham Synchroton 40th anniversary reunion symposium September 1993.
Note: Appendix D: 'The Oliphant Memorandum' is available via the University of Adelaide Digital Library.
5. Correspondence with Ken Inall re his research on Oliphant, with a copy of Inall's paper 'Some of what Mark Oliphant did and others who worked with him', May 2001.
See also
Series 3, Homopolar Generator files.


Series 26. Papers collected by Stewart Cockburn relating to Oliphant, The Life and Times of Sir Mark Oliphant, by Stewart Cockburn and David Ellyard (Axiom Books, 1981). 1925-1981.  80 cm
Copies of this book are available in the Barr Smith Library Main Collection and also in Rare Books & Special Collections 'University Collection' at 920 O4775.C.

See the Series 26 list

These papers comprise correspondence to and from Oliphant, Oliphant’s speeches/addresses and other material provided to Stewart Cockburn by Oliphant for the writing of the biography, some housed in folders arranged by Oliphant. Also Cockburn correspondence with Oliphant and other informants, transcripts of interviews and Cockburn’s background research material and newspaper clippings, filed in an alphabetical subject sequence mainly as arranged by Cockburn. (see Special list)
See also Series 3: Correspondence files 1953-1995
See also Cockburn papers MSS 0091

Series 27: Retirement as Governor of SA
‘Citizens Book’ of tributes presented to Oliphant on his retirement as Governor November 1976 (bound book of some 10,000 signatures compiled through Savings Bank of SA branches)
Custom made wooden breakfast tray with glass plate incorporating photographs of Government House employees, presented to Oliphant when leaving his role as Governor, 1976. IN MAP CABINET
Correspondence re Oliphant’s retirement as Governor of South Australia 1976. Retrieve from Series 3 Governor
Newspaper clippings re Oliphant’s retirement and his term as Governor
Plan of Government House, rev 1952, annotated in red

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