Rivett, Albert Cherbury David

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(b. Port Esperance, Tasmania, Australia, 4 December 1885; d. Sydney, Australia, 1 April 1961) chemistry scientific administration.

As chief executive officer and deputy chairman (1927–1945) and later chairman (1945–1949) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Rivett was a principal leader of Australia’s first government organization of science. He shaped the direction of a national policy of scientific research.

Rivett was the son of a Congregational clergyman, Albert Rivett, who immigrated to Australia from Norwich, England, in 1879, and Elizabeth Cherbury. He was educated at Wesley College, Melbourne, and at the University of Melbourne, where he majored in chemistry in 1906. He was elected Rhodes Scholar for Victoria the following year. At Oxford, where he shared a laboratory bench with Henry Tizard, he studied physical chemistry under Sidgwick and obtained the B.A. in 1909 and the B.Sc. in 1910. During 1910 he worked under Arrhenius at the Nobel Institute of Physical Chemistry in Stockholm, where he broadened his research interest in equilibria within heterogeneous systems.

In 1911 Rivett returned to Australia as lecturer in the chemistry department of the University of Melbourne. In the same year he married Stella Deakin, daughter of Alfred Deakin, a former prime minister of Australia. During World War I, Rivett worked on the production of ammonium nitrate at the government munition works in Swindon, England. He later became associate professor of chemistry at Melbourne (1921) and succeeded to the chair of chemistry (1924). He published Phase Rule and the Study of Heterogeneous Equilibria (1923). In 1927 he left the university to take up a full-time post at the newly formed Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Australian colonial legislatures gave scant support to science. But federation at the turn of the century and the influence of the war encouraged the concept of national scientific development, and the Institute of Science and Industry was founded by act of Parliament in 1920. The plan proved ineffectual; and it was not until 1926 that a new, liberally endowed and politically independent organization, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was established by the federal government to direct and encourage scientific research in the agricultural and pastoral industries, to train scientific workers, and to serve as a liaison with governments and scientific institutes abroad.

As chief executive officer and deputy to the chairman, Sir George Julius, a practical engineer, Rivett exercised responsibility for initiating programs of research in animal health and nutrition; parasites and pests; economic botany; soil and pasture improvement; food preservation; forests and fisheries; and, with the decision of the government in 1937 to extend scientific and technical assistance to secondary industry, develop a national standards laboratory and establish divisions of industrial chemistry, aeronautics, and radiophysics. Rivett’s own scientific background influenced his approach. He placed a marked emphasis on original and fundamental research; gave broad responsibility to his division chiefs; and sought to ease the deep-rooted tensions between the modestly funded universities and the growing colossus of government science. His conviction that science could flourish only in an atmosphere of free and open inquiry led to the ultimate separation of the aeronautical division from the council in the late 1940’s. Conceding little, Rivett was thus able to give his organization a remarkable measure of independence from the normal machinery of government.

Rivett received a number of honorary degrees and titles. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1935 and elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1941. He also helped to establish the Australian National University. In 1954 he was a founding fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.


I. Original Works. Rivett’s publications are listed in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 12 (1966), 454–455. See also Application of Science to Industry (Brisbane, 1944), J. M. Macrossan lecture.

II. Secondary Literature. On Rivett and his work, see George Currie and John Graham, The Origins of the C.S.I.R.O. Science and the Commonwealth Government, 1901–1926 (Melbourne, 1966); Hedley Marston, “Albert Cherbury David Rivett,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 12 (1966), 437–455; D.P. Mellor,The Role of Science and Industry, Australia in the War of 1939–1945, ser. 4, civil vol. V (Canberra, 1958); and Rohan Riven,David Rivett: Fighter for Australian Science(North Blackburn, Victoria, 1972).

Ann Mozley

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