Peter Hobbins reviews Brett Mason’s Wizards of Oz: How Oliphant and Florey Helped Win the War and Shape the Modern World (Sydney: NewSouth, 2022), ISBN 9781742237459 (PB), $34.99.

 

Dyadic biographies are – quite literally – many-headed beasts. Attempting to integrate the personalities and trajectories of two historical protagonists runs the risk of forced comparisons, specious coincidences and narrative convolutions. Happily this is not the case with Brett Mason’s deftly shaped Wizards of Oz, outlining the paralleled careers of Australian scientists, Mark Oliphant and Howard Florey.

Sir Howard Florey (Wikimedia Commons)

Both were Adelaide-born and educated in the early decades of the twentieth century, before winning scholarships that saw them earn doctorates in 1920s Britain. As talented Australians, both faced a typical dilemma: should they attempt to craft a research culture in their home country, or capitalise on well-established scientific pathways in the UK? Biomedical scientist Frank Macfarlane Burnet – a contemporary high-achiever – chose the former path. Florey and Oliphant prospered instead in Britain.

Florey is arguably better-known. His visage adorned Australia’s $50 note for decades and his name is perpetuated by a medical research institute in Melbourne. Florey rose to fame during World War II for championing mould. It sounds unglamorous but the mould was a natural source of penicillin, which his Oxford University team proved had astounding powers to kill bacteria. Until the 1940s, few drugs could effectively treat debilitating or deadly infections. Such was wartime progress that in 1945, Florey shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for driving the clinical testing and mass production of penicillin, an innovation which transformed life expectancy worldwide.

Sir Mark L. Oliphant, taken September 23, 1941 (Wikimedia Commons)

Oliphant was a nuclear physicist who, by 1939, was building a research team at the University of Birmingham. They were soon recruited to help optimise the highly secret British invention of radar – a technology that used radio waves to detect approaching enemy aircraft. While it helped defend the British Isles from German bombers over 1940–41, Oliphant’s scientists adapted radar to ensure it could be carried in aircraft to detect – and neutralise – the bigger threat posed by submarines. The Australian then campaigned this achievement in the USA. While there, he endeavoured to convince American science supremos to commit to the world’s first successful nuclear weapons program.

The careers of these two Adelaide scholars repeatedly overlapped, particularly via the nascent Australian National University (ANU). In the late 1940s, Oliphant accepted the challenge of establishing a Research School of Physics but, as Mason suggests, gradually found his career sliding from centre stage. Florey reneged on his initial agreement to found ANU’s School of Medical Research, remaining in Britain until he ventured to Canberra late in life to serve as Chancellor. ‘While the afterglow of wartime contributions followed them both in life and work, it shone brighter for Florey’, observes Mason. ‘Unleashing the power of the atom was a far more ambiguous gift to humanity than releasing the healing power of penicillin, and hardly redeemed the benefits of an all-seeing radar’ (p.318).

Both scientists have been well served by biographers and, indeed, hagiographers. While Oliphant’s nuclear legacy has proved problematic to acquit, as Mason notes, ‘it most likely saved millions of both Allied and Japanese lives that would have been lost if Japan had been invaded’ (p.314). Yet, he argues, radar was the principal technology that helped the Allies win World War II. While Mason makes a strong gambit, it is of course an unwinnable battle – others have mounted similar arguments for a cornucopia of weapons and inventions, alongside decisive leaders, geopolitical strategies and manufacturing achievements. While Wizards of Oz is too clever to be monocausal, as a trade book it nevertheless presses hard on the radar story as a singularly British victory.

Likewise with penicillin. There is no doubt that it saved untold lives and returned both military personnel and civilians to war work for the Allies. But by the time the ‘wonder drug’ entered general use in 1944, Italy had already capitulated and both Germany and Japan faced terminally shrinking defensive perimeters. This is not to denigrate penicillin’s impact on the post-war transformation of pharmaceuticals. However, terming it as ‘war-winning’ is problematic. Mason also skims the unsavoury elements of the story, especially the post-war patent battles that saw British firms forced to pay royalties for penicillin production technology, owing largely to Florey’s scientific rectitude and commercial naivete.

Indeed, there is little critique of either protagonist throughout Wizards of Oz. While Florey’s wife Ethel earns praise for her scientific contribution to clinical testing of penicillin, Howard’s impatience with her early deafness and his scarcely concealed infidelity barely rate a line. Later in life, Oliphant played a small role in ensuring that Australians learned of the health hazards of British nuclear testing in South Australia, but as President of the Australian Academy of Science he was certainly no whistle-blower. Such imperfect facets – the human flaws, foibles and follies – are largely smoothed over in favour of depicting the two leaders as men of vision, charisma and perseverance.

Stylistically the book is a delight to read and will certainly find a ready audience. It is thoroughly researched, boasting an impressive bibliography that spans a century of secondary sources. The author has also delved into numerous archives, ranging from personal papers to oral histories. Although lightly worn in the narrative, these materials fill out the presence and personality of both scientists. Their lives are presented with immediacy and an obvious admiration for their strength of character. Mason’s perspective is clear: ‘Their achievements helped change the way we think of ourselves, see our prospects and view our future. They helped Australia to find a place in the sun; not a lucky country, but a smart and self-assured one (p.347)’.

I remain only partly convinced, however. A major undercurrent of the book is that these two Australians remained outsiders, making use of their ‘colonial’ brashness when it suited them, but ultimately succeeding only because they capitalised on British scientific citizenship. They offered inspiration in their homeland, but created few local avenues for others to travel. Nevertheless, Wizards of Oz succeeds in intertwining the stories of Oliphant and Florey, two Australians who contributed to the emergence of ‘big science’, replete with post-war possibilities and anxieties.

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Peter Hobbins
Peter Hobbins

Dr Peter Hobbins is Acting Head of Content at the Australian National Maritime Museum, where he leads the exhibitions, curatorial, library and publications teams. Peter’s diverse interests include the history of Australian scientific and medical research, pandemics and quarantine, shipwrecks and aircraft accidents, as well as troopships and coastal fortifications.