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Launch and Commemoration of the birth of Sir Ian William Wark (1899-1965)
The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne, Thursday 9 December 1999

Launch of the Archive of Sir Ian William Wark
Emeritus Professor John Swan
FAA, FTSE, PhD(Lon), DSc, DSc (Honoris causa)

Today I have a task to perform in relation to the archive of Sir lan Wark. I feel rather like the Irishman who had to give a lecture and who went to the podium and said 'Before I talk I would like to say a few words'.

My few words will start with that definition of the human species as 'big brain, clever hands', and 'big brain' implies lots of special messages within the dominant eating, breathing and sleeping genetic messages. We hear much these days about genetics, and the central importance of the unique information that each one of us carries in the DNA molecules in our chromosomes. Ian Wark certainly had a remarkable endowment in his genetic makeup. We are all of us unique in that each person's DNA is different, in subtle ways, from that of all others. But lan's abilities were both unique and remarkable. He was a gifted scientist, an outstanding administrator, and a man much loved, admired and respected.

lan Wark had a special fondness for those he called 'his boys' - the young scientists he gathered around himself from 1941 onward in the CSIRO Division of Industrial Chemistry. People like Dirk Zeidler, Lloyd Rees, Alan Walsh, Keith Sutherland, Don Weiss, Jerry Price, Gordon Lennox, Dick Urie, Victor Maslen, JohnWillis, Andrew Hurley, Claude Culvenor - I could go on and on.

I got to know Dr. Wark in late 1949 when I joined the Biochemistry Unit of his Division. It was a short formal relationship in that our laboratory was soon afterwards excised from Industrial Chemistry and became part of the Wool Research Laboratories. But I continued to know and respect lan Wark, especially in the context of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and later, the Academy of Science.

There was another special linkage. In 1952 I married Ailsa Lowen, who had been a personal research assistant to Dr. Wark around 1948-51. Wark was famous for his studies on the mechanism of mineral flotation, the separation of valuable minerals from crushed rock by passing air into the mixture in the presence of foaming agents and other chemicals. The minerals were floated away from the gangue by being adsorbed onto the surface of the upwardly-moving bubbles of air.

Ailsa had worked on the stability of foams - some are very stable, others collapse quickly. If you want to improve the stability of the large bubbles you blow to entertain grandchildren, add a little glycerol to the soap solution. Ailsa never lost her interest in bubble formation and lan Wark never failed, when we met to ask after her. He cherished his scientific colleagues.

In my few words before commencing my talk, I mentioned the subject of genetic inheritance. My friend and former Monash colleague, Dr. Roger Short, together with Jeremy Potts, has written a marvelous book - Ever Since Adam and Eve - The evolution of human sexuality In it, the authors point out that DNA is the immortal umbilical cord of genetic information that ties the generations together. But humanity's triumph over death is not continuation of the genetic message but rather the persistence of cultural information accumulated over time.

Gone are the days when humans lived in small separate clusters of about 150 people each, representing perhaps six to eight different families. The body of knowledge then to be passed to each new generation - hunting game, gathering food, lighting the communal fire, weaving cloth, building a shelter, could easily be transmitted by word of mouth and direct example.

The thread of knowledge that we now have to transmit from the past into the future is immense. And no one can predict which parts of that knowledge will be essential, which redundant. The thread has been woven by all members of our species: each individual contribution is tiny, yet essential. According to Roger Short and Jeremy Potts it was language, settled living, population growth and the division of labour that made civilization possible.

But for civilizations to survive, to flourish, requires that the cultural information that underpins each civilization must persist, must be at all times available, and must be transmitted to the next generation.

This necessary 'persistence of cultural information' then requires a huge dedication to education from parents leading their children into language, from teachers instructing students in reading, writing and social discourse, and especially from university staff whose duty to education is concerned with the retention of our cultural heritage, with its transmission to those who need or request it and with the discovery of new knowledge through research.

I stress the role of universities because I believe the Commonwealth Government has not yet realised what terrible harm is being inflicted on our cultural heritage and our future wellbeing by the savage budget cuts being imposed on academia. Unless politicians rediscover the importance of education and start to take pride in our academic achievements, our civil society will increasingly be under threat.

If our politicians refuse to listen to the messages of scientists, historians and other academic scholars, perhaps they will take note of the words of Napolean Bonaparte: 'The real conquests, the only unregretted ones, are those against ignorance. The worthiest and most significant occupation for nations is to enlarge the frontiers of human knowledge'.

Transmitting knowledge from the past to the future is, in my belief, especially important and is ultimately what the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre is all about. The Centre deals with the archives of science and technology - the written records of individuals, the history and achievements of institutions, the threads of knowledge by which we can understand the past, face the present and predict the future. And the thread of knowledge can never be whole or continuous. If it were, we would be swamped, engulfed, overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information. The thread must be broken, examined, re-assorted and the essential elements preserved by each generation. That requires scholarship, learning, and these days, a healthy command of computer technology. The Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre is very good at all of these.

lan William Wark, Kt CMG, CBE, DSc, FAA, FTS, was born on 8 May, 1899. There have been many centenary celebrations this year in honour of three other famous Australian scientists also born in 1899 - Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Sir Ian Clunies Ross and Dame Jean Macnamara. Ian Wark can also most certainly be honoured in their company.

It is my task this evening to re-launch lan Wark's archive - the official record of his papers, correspondence, memorabilia and personal records which has been compiled and published by the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre. The papers themselves have been deposited in the Basser library of the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra.

The reason for the re-launch is that some parts of the archive were restricted at lan's request until now, some 15 years after his death in 1985. We can only hope that those for whose eyes this restricted material was not intended have now also departed for the great laboratory in the sky.

I have much pleasure, therefore, in officially re-launching the Ian William Wark archive. I do so in the knowledge that many members of Ian Wark's family, and many of his friends, admirers and former colleagues, are present in the audience.

Sir lan Wark was a great man and a great Australian. It has been an honour for me to take part in this very special occasion.

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Created: 15 December 1999
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