Sir Rutherford Robertson

Rutherford Robertson

(29/9/1913–6/3/2001)

Professor Sir Rutherford Ness ("Bob") Robertson's interest in plant physiology began in his honours year at the University of Sydney (1933) and continued throughout a distinguished career which saw him receive scholarships, degrees (PhD, DSc), medals, appointments (Australian and overseas), and awards (including AC, CMG, and 4 doctorates honoris causa).

On completion of his PhD at Cambridge (1939), Bob returned to the University of Sydney as Assistant Lecturer in Botany. When war broke out with Australia unable to export it's wheat and fruit crops, research turned to food storage. Bob worked on the physiology of stacks of wheat and, with scientists at CSIR (now CSIRO), on the physiology of apple fruits.

After the war Bob joined the CSIR in charge of the Plant Physiology and Storage Section and subsequently combined this section with the plant physiologists in the Botany Department to form the Plant Physiology Unit at this University. Being among the first to establish the connections between respiration, the flow of protons, the absorption of ions and the phosphorylations which distribute energy, he achieved international recognition and published a definitive book. He was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1954), of the Royal Society of London (1961) and a Foreign Associate of the US Academy of Science (1962).

Although his major loves were in research and teaching, he agreed to become an administrative member of the CSIRO Executive for a limited term. He returned to his main interests by accepting the Chair of Botany at the University of Adelaide. After 7 years he was appointed Master of University House, ANU, with time for research, but finished his formal working life as Director of the ANU Research School of Biological Sciences in 1978.

Bob served on many committees. When the Australian Government decided to allocate money for research in universities, he was asked to establish what became the ARGC (now ARC). He chaired the committee for 4 years and instituted a process for the competitive distribution of the funds.

He served as President of the Australian Academy of Science (1970-4). At that time, science and technology had not achieved the recognition they now receive, and the Academy spent much time in bringing their vital significance to the notice of decision-makers in government, bureaucracies, industry and, not least, the ABC.

After retirement, Bob continued both research and committee work, including terms as Pro-Chancellor of ANU and as first Deputy Chairman of ASTEC.

His lasting contributions to science are his own research, his influence over several generations of students and research workers, and his public roles as an advocate for and a communicator of science.