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Prof Harry Messel AC

Prof Harry Messel AC

Born: 1922, Manitoba, Canada
Harry Messel was educated at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and served during World War II as a paratrooper with the Canadian Forces. He moved to Australia in 1951 and lectured in mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide before being appointed in 1952 as Professor of Physics and Head of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. He retired from this position in 1987.

At the University of Sydney Dr Messel established the Nuclear Research Foundation, later known as the Science Foundation for Physics. Over his career he has raised more than $100 million through the Foundation to fund research, teaching and learning.

As head of the school of physics he increased the number of permanent staff and appointed a team of full-time theoreticians. He also had the first electronic computer (SILLIAC) to be used in an Australian University built locally. The computer began operation in 1956, and was used in the design of major projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Dr Messel appointed Bernard Mills FRS to head Astrophysics and build the Mills Cross radio telescope and Robert Hanbury-Brown FRS to head Astronomy and build the Brown-Twiss stellar interferometer. Charles Watson-Munro, who had wide international experience in atomic energy, was chosen to head Plasma Physics. Brian McCusker, pursued research in Cosmic Radiation. John Bennett became the first professor of computing in Australia and Stuart Butler was chosen to head Theoretical Physics.

Later Messel added a department of Applied Physics with particular emphasis on solar energy. He himself headed an environmental group based in the Northern Territory and centred on crocodiles.

Dr Messel was a pioneer in the reform of Australian science education. The International Science Schools for High School Students, which he established in 1962, are known worldwide. He also assembled a team of scientists and science teachers to produce high school textbooks (the famous ‘Blue Book’ familiar to a generation of Australian students), which established an integrated approach to science teaching.

Harry Messel he remains active in the Science Foundation for Physics. The Messel Endowment, a public fund-raising effort that aims to provide sufficient funds to continue the International Science Schools in perpetuity, was established in his name.

Professor Messel 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.

Career highlights

1979: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
1952 – 1987: Professor of Physics and Head of the School of Physics, University of Sydney
1992 – 1997: Chancellor and CEO, Bond University
2006: Companion of the Order of Australia (AC)

More by and about Harry Messel

ABC Radio National, The Science Show, SILLIAC – Australia’s First Supercomputer, January 2007 (audio),
ABC TV Talking Heads, Harry Messel,


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2 thoughts on “Prof Harry Messel AC

  1. I wish I still had my blue books. I was amongst the first cohort of the Wyndham scheme and was so inspired by the science course I studied Physics at Sydney uni in 1968 & 69. I also attended the Summer Science School there in 1966 – couldn’t get enough of it (atoms to andromeda, I think). Afterwards I was a science/physics teacher for over 30 years, mainly teaching girls and enthusing them with the magic of science. It has been an extremely satisfying career, and I thank you, Harry Messel.

  2. Soon after I started to read for the B.Sc degree in 1952, I heard of the arrival of Prof Harry Messel. We, the students, heard much about his very active initiatives. In 1954, my studies took me to concentrate on physical chemistry, I doing my M.Sc in 1956, when the 1st Australian computer, the Silliac, was built and operational in the physics department. The story was that the University of Illinois had just designed and built their own electronic computer, and given the name Illiac. Prof Messel had friends in Illinois from whom he obtained (free of charge) the blue print and details of the computer so that he could duplicate in Sydney Uni , hence its name, meaning roughly Sydney Illiac. He raised funds from local businesses, and successfully built it, It took the space of the whole ground floor of the Physics Dept building. For probable use for my M.Sc work, I was sent (and some others) to learn to operate Silliac. In 2011, while visiting my son in Hobart, Tas. In a whole sale bulk fish shop, in conversation with its proprietor, Prof Messel’s name was mentioned; he retired to Hobart; he was a frequent client of this fish supplier. I then told the story of Silliac, which not too many people seem to remember.

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