Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Demonstrating the Melbourne University Respirator

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Demonstrating the Melbourne University Respirator

Article excerpt

At a Melbourne University physics exhibition on 26 October 1920, (1) Captain Arthur Lyle Rossiter gave a lecture on the topic of gas warfare, which included a demonstration of the Melbourne University Respirator, a gas mask developed at Melbourne University in the First World War. (2) Rossiter, a graduate of that university (M.Sc. 1911) and a demonstrator in physics from 1913, embodied the soldier-scientist. He served as a Gas Officer in the Fourth Australian Division in France and was mentioned in despatches in 1919. (3) His lecture and demonstration performed at the 1920 exhibition provide a snapshot of the ways in which some Australian experiences of the First World War were subsequently narrated. The story of the Respirator was mobilised by scientists to motivate the transformation of science and industry, and the relationship of nation to Empire, between the wars. The occasion also indicates the role of public science in motivating scientific research and national development. Indeed, the somewhat theatrical form of interwar public science had much contemporary resonance.

If the First World War began for Australia as a show of imperial loyalty it was soon conceived, in addition, as a theatre for the demonstration of national prowess. Promoted from the first notorious engagement of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at Gallipoli by war correspondent and official historian C.E.W. Bean as a stage for the display of bushcraft, egalitarianism and inventiveness, (4) the war created new opportunities for Australian participation in imperial governance such as the capture of German New Guinea and representation in the Imperial War Cabinet, legitimising increasing confidence in world affairs. However, Australia's participation in the war was subservient to Britain and the Australian experience more ambiguous, as shown ironically in the failed landing at Gallipoli and rejection of conscription in national referenda in 1916 and 1917. (5) While imperial ties remained strong, Australia's stance towards Britain arguably grew more self-interested and, potentially, self-reliant. Political attitudes were reinforced by cultural expressions, ranging from literary accounts (6) to memorials, (7) intended to express and evoke emotional responses. This powerful combination of politics and sentiment made the First World War a turning point in the national historiography. The Anzac legend "converted military defeat into moral victory", (8) failure into success.

On the other hand, the war was significant to scientists as a theatre for the demonstration of the role of science and technology in national development and imperial defence. In Britain, scientific manpower was mobilised, and war research led to the formation of a national research organisation, the latter precedent soon followed throughout the dominions. The idea of an Australian "national laboratory" was spawned in the First World War by Prime Minister Hughes, who was impressed with Germany's technological might. (9) At stake was the very survival of a British Empire that would have to emulate aspects of the scientific culture of the German Empire in order to defeat it. (10)

Australian scientists felt they had answered the call to arms. "The Empire", T.H. Laby, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Melbourne University, reminded daily newsreaders in 1919, "has every reason to be proud of the extraordinary success of its scientists, gathered in Britain from every dominion and colony". (11) Scientists also felt much more should be done to secure the place of white Australia and the Empire in post-war trade and geopolitics. They suggested that national achievements in wartime proved Australians could develop science and industry should they resolve to do so. Laby's correspondent in Adelaide, biochemist and physiologist T. Brailsford Robertson, argued in the journal of the new Institute for Science and Industry (ISI, founded 1920) that "our brains, our versatility, resourcefulness, and adaptability" were "qualities which distinguish Australians above other peoples" and should he directed for the greatest impact into scientific development. …

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