Emeritus Professor Harry Messel, AC CBE
Harry Messel was born in 1922 in a small town in Manitoba, Canada, to Ukrainian parents. A self-confessed wild Canadian prairie boy, he set out to get the best education possible, and later, to pass on his love of learning and science to as many young people as he could.
Harry has always been driven by the need for high-quality education, for excellence. He firmly believes that “a life lived in pursuit of excellence is a life well lived”. Harry’s own pursuits helped to develop the first electronic computers in Australia, changed the way that high school students studied science and raised millions of dollars for research and education.
“Education has been my life, to give leadership in education and in quality and in standards. I'm immensely proud of what's happened at the School of Physics in the University of Sydney.”
~ Harry Messel
Harry had an outstanding academic record at school and was accepted into the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. During the Second World War he served as a paratrooper with the Canadian Forces. After the war he was went on study at Queen's University in Kingston, where he completed two degrees with first class honours in just over two years. He won a scholarship to St Andrew’s University in Scotland, then moved to Dublin where he completed a PhD under theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Professor Erwin Schrodinger.
Harry moved to Australia in 1951. He lectured in mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide for two years before being appointed as Professor of Physics and Head of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. He was thirty years old.
Harry’s achievements at the University of Sydney were revolutionary. In 1954 he established the Nuclear Research Foundation, later known as the Science Foundation for Physics and now the Physics Foundation. The Foundation was formed as a voluntary philanthropic association of individuals and private organisations dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in science education, research, training and communication. The Foundation was the first of its kind within the Commonwealth and the first foundation established within the University of Sydney. Through the Foundation, Harry has helped to raise more than $100 million to fund research, teaching and learning.
As Head of the School of Physics Harry increased the number of permanent staff and appointed a team of full-time theoreticians. But he soon realised that the School needed an electronic computer as a tool for theoretical physics, so he set about building one. In 1956, SILLIAC – the first Australian-built computer built within an Australian University – was switched on for the first time. It was a vacuum tube (electronic valve) machine that used electrostatic storage tubes for memory, and was instrumental in the design of major projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Harry was also passionate about science education in high schools. The first International Science School (ISS) was held in 1958 for high school physics teachers. After four years the ISS shifted its focus to science education for senior high school students, to encourage young people to pursue further studies and careers in science.
Harry did not limit the ISS to Australian students. From the beginning, scholars from New Zealand were invited to attend, and by 1968 the international reach expanded to include the USA, UK and Japan. Today, the ISS welcomes approximately 140 students from 10 countries including China, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, the UK and the USA. Since 2005 at least five scholarships have been offered to Indigenous students as part of the Indigenous Scholars Program, designed to encourage participation in science. For the first time in its history, eight Indigenous scholars participated in the 2011 ISS program.
“The most exciting thing of my scientific career was the establishment of the International Science Schools for high school students.”
~ Harry Messel
The ISS program is renowned within Australia and internationally as the best program of its kind in the world. Many former students have become experts in the areas of science they studied at the ISS. The two-week program is run biennially for talented Year 11 and 12 students, and is hosted by the University’s School of Physics. To date, the ISS has welcomed over 4,000 students, inspiring and changing the lives of many science scholars.
Harry’s drive to improve science knowledge did not stop with the ISS. In the early 1960s the NSW science syllabus changed, so that students had to study four years of integrated science (physics, chemistry, biology and geology) as a single course. This push for greater science experience was in part due to Harry’s influence. The NSW Government asked Harry to write the new textbooks, and with only months to complete the task, he and a team of scientists and science teachers worked tirelessly to finish the pilot edition. The final version, ‘Science for High Schools’ (better known as ‘The Blue Book’) was published in 1964. It revolutionised the way high school science was taught, bringing science to life for hundreds of thousands of students who used it, not only in Australia but around the world.
Harry continued to raise large sums of money for the Physics Foundation and expand the School of Physics. He added a Department of Applied Physics with particular emphasis on solar energy, and secured a $5 million donation from His Royal Highness Prince Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz al Saud to support potentially commercially viable solar energy research.
When Harry retired from the School of Physics in 1987, The Physics Foundation inaugurated the Harry Messel Award for Excellence to recognise and reward excellence in contributions by members of staff and research students.
Harry was appointed Chancellor of Bond University in 1992, and turned the financially stricken University around. By the time he retired in 1997, Bond University had a $42 million surplus and a new reputation for academic excellence.
Harry also has a keen interest in conservation, and was a longstanding chair of the Crocodile Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission (SSC), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership was established by the SSC in his honour.
Harry Messel remains active in the Physics Foundation to this day. The Messel Endowment is a public fund-raising effort that aims to provide sufficient funds to continue the International Science Schools in perpetuity. Harry continues to fight for excellence in everything he does, and has inspired many others to do the same.
“A life lived in pursuit of excellence is a life well lived.”
~ Harry Messel