Basil Schonland : Physicist seeks employment after WW II – A personal drama







 Appleton, Sir Edward (1892-1965) worked on radio waves and the ionosphere at the Cavendish Laboratory until 1939 developing radar and the atomic bomb. When Charles Darwin (see below) was seconded to the USA during the War, Appleton became Acting-Director of the National Physical Laboratory. Until 1949 he was Secretary of Britain’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Appleton received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1947.

Bullard, Sir Edward (1907-1980). Teddy Bullard founded marine geophysics, pioneering seismology and geothermal heat in marine science, as well as dynamo theory and discovered new evidence for continental drift. He held a Professorship at the University of Toronto from 1948 to 1950 and was head of the National Physical Laboratory in Britain from 1950 to 1955.

Cockcroft, Sir John (1897-1967) was a mathematician whose research led to ‘splitting the atom’, and he was joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951. During the war in the Scientific Research Section of Britain’s Ministry of Supply, he worked on radar and atomic energy. In 1946 he set up, and became Director of, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Harwell.

Darwin, Sir Charles Galton (1887-1962), the grandson of Charles Darwin, researched atomic theory and X-ray diffraction. In 1938 he became Director of the National Physical Laboratory and after the War promoted improvements in scientific organisational structures and coordination.

Forsyth, Douglas D., was the experienced South African Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Smuts government during the War. After the change of government in 1948 he was retained by Prime Minister D.F. Malan so as to continue a beneficial relationship with Britain in the early years of apartheid and republicanism.

Lockspeiser, Sir Benjamin (1891-1990), was a talented scientific administrator and the first President of CERN, who worked on many secret projects during World War II. In the 1950s he was Secretary at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Malan, Daniel F. (1874-1959), Dutch Reformed Church minister who became South Africa’s Prime Minister in 1948 when his National Party (a ‘purified’ breakaway group of J.B.M. Hertzog’s National Party) narrowly won an election. A staunch Afrikaner Nationalist who had opposed the country’s participation in World War II, he ousted the United Party that was led by Jan Smuts. Unlike Smuts who was interested in, knowledgeable about, and actively promoted, many aspects of science, Malan did little to stimulate such knowledge. Under Malan, party supporters were catapulted into many positions in government replacing English-speakers and the civil service expanded to foster Afrikaner employment.

 Morrison, Herbert S., Baron Morrison of Lambeth (1888-1965), Labour Party politician and Deputy Prime Minister in Clement Atlee’s government from 1945 to 1956. An early Labour Party supporter in London and later in control of almost all local government services in that city, he was Minister of Transport in Ramsay MacDonald’s Cabinet and, during the War, he was Churchill’s Minister of Supply and Home Secretary. Morrison drafted the Labour Party’s post-war manifesto, and after that party’s victory in 1945, he became Leader of the House of Commons. He supervised many aspects of nationalisation, and as Lord President of the Council – an ancient British position – he chaired the Committee on the Socialisation of Industries. As such, national planning was in his hands, and as there was not a minister of science at this time, it seems that Morrison had the final say on the National Physical Laboratories post that Schonland sought.

Norman, Herbert E. (1909-1957), was a Canadian diplomat and historian in the Foreign Service and associated with the University of Toronto. He served as Canadian representative to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers administration. Hounded by the USA for his early Communist sympathies, even though exonerated, he committed suicide.

 Schonland, Sir Basil (1896-1972). The son of Selmar Schonland, a founding member of the Royal Society of South Africa, Curator of the Albany Museum in Grahamstown and later Professor of Botany at Rhodes University College, young Schonland excelled at school and at Cambridge University. After World War I he worked at the Cavendish Laboratory before joining the University of Cape Town, becoming Professor of Physics. In 1937 he was appointed founding Director of the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysics (BPI) at the University of the Witwatersrand researching lightning and electric fields. When World War II began he led South Africa’s radar technology and while Schonland was visiting England Cockcroft encouraged him to join the research group at the Air Defence Research and Development Establishment. He did so between 1941 and 1944, ending the war as a Brigadier. Schonland returned to South Africa in 1945, having been invited by Prime Minister Smuts to establish the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. He left the CSIR in 1950 having extended his initial period of office, resuming his full-time Directorship of the BPI until he was appointed Deputy Director of Harwell in 1954 and Director in 1958 (to 1960). He was Secretary of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1927, became FRS in 1938, was knighted in 1960, and posthumously awarded the Order of Mapungubwe for services to science in South Africa in 2002.

 Schonland, Isabella (Ismay), née Craib, wife of Sir Basil, was born in Somerset East where her father James Craib had emigrated from Scotland to become Professor of Mathematics and Science at Gill University College.

 Solandt, Omond (1909-1993) was a Canadian physiologist who worked on tank design and physiological problems of tank personnel during the War. In 1947 he became the founding Chairman of the Canadian Defence Research Board, and later Chancellor of the University of Toronto.

 Tizard, Sir Henry (1885-1959), was an English chemist, inventor and test pilot. He undertook the Tizard Mission to introduce the USA to radar as well as to other British war-time scientific advances, including the atomic bomb. After the War he became the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Ministry of Defence, chaired the Defence Research Policy Committee, and became Permanent Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.



 The Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE), set up at Harwell (an air force base near Oxford) by Sir John Cockcroft in 1945, to research the use of atomic energy for military and energy purposes.

The Bernard Price Institute for Geophysical Research (BPI) was founded in 1937 at the University of the Witwatersrand with funds provided by Bernard Price (1877-1948), a gifted electrical engineer and industrialist who had headed the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company, and by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was established in 1945 by the government of then Prime Minister Jan Smuts to enhance and encourage scientific research in South Africa.

The National Physical Laboratory at Bushy House, Teddington, London, came into being in 1900 when the Royal Society appointed the first Director. A landmark in the closer and reciprocal relationships between the state, industry and science, the NPL saw many practical and theoretical developments including advancements in transport (airplanes and motor vehicles), ventilation, radar, acoustics and computers.




1948, 26 May. A pivotal South African general election brought the ‘Reunited National Party’ to power, under Prime Minister, Daniel F. Malan, narrowly defeating the United Party under premier Jan Smuts (who lost his parliamentary seat) who had held office since 1939 and had been in government since 1933. Many English-speaking senior civil servants began to fear for their future employment prospects under the philosophies and policies of this new regime.

1949, 8 January. Appleton (Acting Director of the NPL) to Schonland. Knows he (Schonland) is interested in a post at the National Physical Laboratory. Has spoken to Sir Charles Darwin.

1949, 10 January. Appleton to Schonland. Would he be interested if the post at the National Physical Laboratory was offered? Darwin is retiring.

1949, 6 February. Darwin to Schonland. Hopes to persuade him to come to England to head the National Physical Laboratory. Much time will be available for research and very little administration, substantial funds would be available and a ‘very nice’ Director’s house. There is lovely furniture, some of which belongs to the Royal Society and he (Darwin) will leave items behind as he wants to ‘get away to Cambridge’.

1949, 8 March. Tizard to Schonland. ‘You will have to make a difficult choice. Fly over. There are pros and cons. You would enjoy the National Physical Laboratory more, but Minister of Supply job is important.’

1949, 4 April. Schonland to Malan. Intends leaving the CSIR and the P.M. might have heard about things developing in England. Has refused the position of Chief Scientist to the Ministry of Supply in England, but, if offered, will take the Directorship of the National Physical Laboratory. Was  planning to return to the Bernard Price Institute, but the National Physical Laboratory in Britain would be very good for science and involve little administration.

1949, 7 June. Lockspeiser to Schonland. Teddy Bullard got the job as Director of the National Physical Laboratory. Very difficult. Lockspeiser is distressed at the personal aspects.

Note by Schonland. Undated, Friday morning: Bullard was put up by the Royal Society. It was tactless to have two ‘candidates’ after Appleton’s letter. Regarded himself as an ‘invitee’ not merely candidate.

Note by Schonland. Undated, Friday evening: told Minister of Supplies that he was not accepting their position.

1949, 14 June. Norman to Schonland. Bullard obtained the job of Director of the National Physical Laboratory. As BS had come all the way over from South Africa for the interview, HN thought he should write tell him personally.

1949, 15 June. Darwin to Schonland. Has heard about Bullard, he is younger. Darwin is disappointed. The Lord President [Herbert Morrison] was busy at the Labour Party conference and the matter was handled with ‘great clumsiness’, alienating Canada and South Africa. They have taken nine months to decide. Bullard will do well and might be there for 20 years. [He left for Cambridge University in 1955.] (A request from Darwin that Schonland destroy this letter.)

1949, 2 August. Tizard to Schonland. ‘Is your refusal of the Ministry of Supply post absolutely final? Please reconsider. Let me know how I can make it right.’

1950, 10 January. Solandt, Ottawa, to Schonland. Conveys invitation to Schonland to Head the Physical Department at the University of Toronto.

1950, 20 January. Schonland to Sidney Smith, President: University of Toronto. Thanks for the compliment, but turns down the offer.

1950, 26 January. Schonland to Forsyth. Saw Malan in December and asked for Van Biljon of the Department of Agriculture as Vice-President of the CSIR, the only suitable person. Had not heard about the outcome but had discussed the matter informally with Neethling ‘and have learned that for reasons that are perhaps in the best interests of the country, he will oppose it strongly.’ But Schonland wants to leave CSIR anyway to carry out scientific work.

1950, 31 January. Schonland to Cockcroft, Director of the AERE. Advises that he is definitely leaving the CSIR and returning to the Bernard Price Institute in about six months. ‘One cannot run such a complex organisation and keep up with one’s own research and writing without getting tired and worried.’ Had refused the Toronto Chair, because it was too late for him and Ismay to become Canadians, but being in Britain is different. Does not want to repeat the experience with the National Physical Laboratory post, ‘we were upset at the way that was handled’, but a job at Harwell would be fine. ‘Don’t ever write a popular book. It is easy to dash it off and horrifying to see it in print with all one’s standards lowered.’

1950, 17 February. Schonland to Malan. Letter of resignation from the CSIR.

1958, 13 March. New Scientist, p.22. ‘To the wide public, the news that Dr Basil Schonland was to take over the Directorship of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment from Sir John Cockcroft was largely drowned by the trumpets sounding for Zeta [Zero-Energy Toroidal Assembly, a major British fusion reactor experiment]. Right from his appointment as Deputy Director in 1954 Schonland has slipped into the Harwell hierarchy with remarkably little fuss. Those who have had to work with him have found that almost from the first meeting there was an easy, well-defined relationship; those with whose work he has not been concerned have hardly noticed him. This unobtrusiveness has led some interested outsiders to underestimate him; they wonder what will come of the promotion of a man they regard as a good lieutenant, or a mere administrator. This is an understandable misconception, but a grave one. Schonland has in fact established a wide authority and influence at Harwell, but he has done it with the quiet ease of a man bred to responsibility …..’

By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf.

References and acknowledgements:
Austin, Brian, Schonland: Scientist and Soldier: From Lightning on the Veld to Nuclear Power at Harwell: The Life of Field Marshal Montgomery’s Scientific Adviser.
Austin, Brian, ‘The South African Corps of Scientists’, Military History Journal 14(1), 2007.
Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Sir Basil Schonland: Scientific papers, MS Add.8702.
Wikipedia biographies for Appleton, Sir Edward; Bullard, Sir Edward; Cockcroft, Sir John;  Darwin, Sir Charles;  Lockspeiser, Sir Benjamin; Schonland, Isabella (Ismay); Solandt, Omond; Tizard, Sir Henry and Wikpedia entries for institutions and for Zeta.

I would like to thank Michael Feast for his information regarding the role of the Lord President, Herbert Morrison.