The History of Australia

A List of Famous Australian Scientists and Their Contributions

Did You Know?

It is widely believed that the term 'selfie' originated in Australia, making it an Australian invention.

Australia, popularly called 'The Land Down Under,' is famous for several reasons―kangaroos, koala bears, the Great Barrier Reef, stunning beaches, excellent infrastructure, Steve Irwin, cricket, and delectable cuisine, to name a few. Leaving these reasons aside, there is another critical factor that adds to Australia's popularity―its list of scientists and their incredible contributions.

A List of Famous Australian Scientists and Their Contributions

Given below is a list of some of the famous Australian scientists, both men and women, and their contributions.


Name: Richard Daintree
Lived: December 13, 1832 - June 20, 1878
What he did
Richard Daintree was a geologist and explorer who used photography as his medium to record field research, and he was probably one of the first people to do so. He also discovered several coal-fields, gold-fields, and copper deposits during his explorations. His photographs of these discoveries are an excellent source of information for researchers today. The Daintree rainforest, Daintree river, and Daintree National Park have all been named in his honor.

Name: John Tebbutt
Lived: May 25, 1834 - November 29, 1916
What he did
John Tebbutt is widely acclaimed for having discovered the 'Great Comet of 1861'. His passion for astronomy was reflected through all his work―he calculated the effects of a total eclipse of the Sun when the weather was cloudy. He measured the positions of the Comet Donati and observed the transit of Venus, to name a few of his achievements.

Name: William James Farrer
Lived: April 3, 1845 - April 16, 1906
What he did
William James Farrer is best known for his work that uplifted the wheat industry in Australia and turned the country into one of the major grain exporters in the world. His most notable achievement is the experimentation and development of wheat that was equipped to withstand rust, disease, and the harsh weather conditions in Australia. This event also included the origination of 'Federation' wheat, which was drought and rust resistant and matured early. Federation wheat quickly became the favorite of farmers all over Australia.

Name: Tannatt William Edgeworth David
Lived: January 28, 1858 - August 28, 1934
What he did
Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David was a geologist and Antarctic explorer who has been credited with the discovery of the Hunter Valley coalfield in Australia, as well as for leading the first expedition to reach the South Magnetic Pole. He was also the leader of the first party that climbed Mount Erebus, the only active volcano in Antarctica. Apart from these activities, he was also honored for his services during World War I.

Name: Headlie Taylor
Lived: July 7, 1883 - March 22, 1957
What he did
Headlie Taylor was a farmer in New South Wales, Australia, who came up with the Sunshine Header Harvester that has benefited many farmers over the decades. Though he was barely educated, Taylor had a brilliant mind that led him to try improving the existing farm machinery. With hard work and innovation, he taught himself engineering and built a machine that could not only collect grains from standing crops, but also from broken or fallen ones, thus saving food that would otherwise be lost. This machine, or the 'Header Harvester,' also cut the crop heads instead of pulling them out. His idea was well-appreciated by several farmers, and Hugh McKay of Sunshine Harvester Works, who had earlier invented the 'Stripper Harvester,' urged him to produce the same for his company. Taylor was soon engaged in large-scale production of the Header Harvesters, and it rapidly made the earlier harvesters obsolete.

Name: Ernst Johannes Hartung
Lived: April 23, 1893 - January 30, 1979
What he did
Ernst Johannes Hartung was an astronomer and professor of chemistry at the University of Melbourne. During World War II, he produced the first optical glass in Australia with raw materials that were available locally, which after that led to large-scale production of the same.

Name: Howard Walter Florey
Lived: September 24, 1898 - February 21, 1968
What he did
Howard Walter Florey played a very significant role in the discovery of penicillin along with Alexander Fleming and Ernst Chain, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945, that was shared by all of them. His other notable achievement was the study of the properties of naturally-occurring antibacterial properties with Ernst Chain. This investigation eventually led to their interest in life-saving drugs, which further led to the discovery of penicillin.

Name: Frank Macfarlane Burnet
Lived: September 3, 1899 - August 31, 1985
What he did
Frank Macfarlane Burnet was a virologist who is best known for the discovery of acquired immune tolerance and his clonal selection theory. His work in the field of immunology earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1960. He was also the first Australian to win the 'Australian of the Year' award, which he won in 1960 as well.

Name: Marcus Oliphant
Lived: October 8, 1901 - July 14, 2000
What he did
Marcus Oliphant was a physicist, the first President of the Australian Academy of Science, and a founding member of the Australian National University. He was a member of the team that split the atom. His work took him to America during World War II, where he was involved in the creation and development of the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the bomb had killed civilians in the two cities, he decided never to get involved in the development of nuclear weapons that could be used for military purposes. His work then focused around finding other, non-violent uses for atomic energy.

Name: Dorothy Hill
Lived: September 10, 1907 - April 23, 1998
What she did
Apart from being a geologist, Dorothy Hill was also the first female university professor in Australia. She extensively researched the coral fauna in Australia, and even today, her work is used as the reference by scientists all over the world.

Name: Helen Alma Newton Turner
Lived: May 15, 1908 - November 26, 1995
What she did
Dr. Helen Turner was an Australian female geneticist whose work revolved around the genetic improvement of sheep to help wool production. Her research had a dramatic impact on animal breeding worldwide and also benefited the Australian economy. Her work resulted in sheep-rearing turning into a major industry in Australia.

Name: Nancy Tyson Burbidge
Lived: August 5, 1912 - March 4, 1977
What she did
Nancy Tyson Burbidge was a famous botanist and conservationist. Her work on the different kinds of flora in Australia enabled her to publish several articles on the subject for other botanists as well as non-botanists. She was an acclaimed conservationist and a founding member of the National Parks Association of the Australian Capital Territory. Today, the Nancy Burbidge Medal is awarded annually for excellent botanical work.

Name: Elizabeth Pope
Lived: November 4, 1912 - September 18, 1993
What she did
Elizabeth Pope was a zoologist and worked all her life at the Australian Museum. Elizabeth Pope was involved in the early phase of ecological research in Australia and went on to become the Deputy-director of the museum. She also headed the Worms and Echinoderms department during her time there.

Name: Frank Fenner
Lived: December 21, 1914 - November 22, 2010
What he did
Frank Fenner played a critical role in the eradication of smallpox worldwide. He was also responsible for the control of the rabbit population in Australia, through his ideas of using the myxoma virus as a measure of wiping out the excess rabbit population.

Name: Arthur John Birch
Lived: August 3, 1915 - December 8, 1995
What he did
Arthur John Birch is widely considered among the greatest organic chemists of his time. He is famous for the invention of a reaction that bears his name―the Birch Reduction of aromatic compounds. His extensive research and the application of this reaction led to the development of the first oral contraceptive by others, and he became popularly known as the 'Father of the Pill.' His work about biochemical theories has led to the evolution of several antibiotic medicines that are used today.

Name: Douglas Waterhouse
Lived: June 3, 1916 - December 1, 2000
What he did
Douglas Waterhouse was an etymologist, best known for the invention of the active ingredient in mosquito and fly repellents. He worked for pest control not only in Australia but also in several developing countries around the world.

Name: John Cornforth
Lived: September 7, 1917 - December 8, 2013
What he did
When Dr. John Cornforth was around ten years old, he developed a condition that led to a complete loss of hearing over the next few years. However, his determination led him to become one of the greatest scientists of his day. Dr. Cornforth studied in great detail the enzymes that caused changes in organic compounds and went on to construct a complete degradation of the structure of cholesterol. His work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions earned him several accolades, along with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975, which he shared with co-recipient Vladimir Prelog.

Name: John Paul Wild
Lived: May 17, 1923 - May 10, 2008
What he did
John Paul Wild was a physicist, astronomer, and mathematician. He was a part of the team that invented the 'radioheliograph'―an instrument that produced images of solar activity at different altitudes from the Sun's surface. He also led the team that developed the 'Interscan Aircraft Landing System' which later attained international standard.

Name: David Warren
Lived: March 20, 1925 - July 19, 2010
What he did
The Black Box, or the flight data recorder; also called the cockpit voice recorder, is an electronic instrument that records every sound in the cockpit. In a case of an accident, the readings from the Black Box can be used to determine the cause and the series of events that led to the air crash. Dr. Warren came up with this idea of recording flight data following a mysterious airplane accident in Australia. Though initially his ideas were not paid much heed, they soon took the world by storm, and in 1960, Australia became the first country to pass a ruling that all airplanes were to be equipped with the flight data recorder. Though it is called a Black Box, it is bright in color so as to make it easier to locate it in the wreckage. Today, almost every airline is equipped with it.

Name: Gustav Nossal
Born: June 4, 1931
What he did
Gustav Nossal's contributions in the field of research biology have given the present world a firm basis to understand human immunology and the formation of antibodies. He has also been extensively involved with the WHO (World Health Organization), focusing on diseases in underdeveloped nations.

Name: Graeme Clark
Born: August 16, 1935
What he did
Graeme Clark is known for the invention and development of the Bionic Ear, a cochlear implant that provides a deaf person with the sense of hearing. Growing up, Graeme Clark watched his deaf father struggle with communication and understanding. This inspired him to create a device that could be implanted inside a person's inner ear, which would register sound. Years of careful and thorough research finally resulted in the Bionic Ear, which has helped countless deaf people all over the world.

Name: Robin Warren and Barry Marshall
Born: June 11, 1937, and September 30, 1951, respectively
Their contribution
Robin Warren and Barry Marshall discovered the Helicobacter pylori bacteria that causes stomach ulcers and gastritis. Further research revealed that ulcers and similar stomach problems could be treated using antibiotics, which Marshall proved by testing the theory on himself. The duo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005, for their work.

Name: Peter C. Doherty
Born: October 15, 1940
What he did
Peter C. Doherty is an immunologist and pathologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Rolf M. Zinkernagel for their work on the immune system. Their work highlighted how the immune system recognizes and protects the body from viruses, and this has considerably helped research revolving around cancer and other such ailments.

Name: Suzanne Cory
Born: March 11, 1942
What she did
Suzanne Cory is a well-known molecular biologist. Along with her husband Jerry Adams, she has delved into research of genes that are known to cause cancer and antibody genes. A school for academically gifted students has been established in Melbourne, Australia, and to honor the great molecular biologist, it has been named the Suzanne Cory High School.

Name: John Shine
Born: July 3, 1946
What he did
John Shine is responsible for several breakthroughs in molecular biology. Popularly known as the 'Father of Cloning,' Professor Shine was the first to clone a human gene and the first to clone an endorphin gene. He also played a major role in the cloning of the growth hormone gene, as well as the insulin gene. His achievements also include the discovery of the first sequence that replicated cancer causing virus and the realization that human genes cloned in bacteria could be expressed in a form that was biologically active.

Name: Elizabeth Blackburn
Born: November 26, 1948
What she did
Elizabeth Blackburn is a biology researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research on the effects of telomere (the ends of chromosomes that are required to protect the chromosome) and outstanding discovery of the telomerase ( an enzyme that replenishes the telomere) earned her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was jointly shared by Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, and her. Her research on the telomere and the telomerase has led to many discoveries about its effects on cancer and other medical conditions.

Name: Ian Frazer
Born: January 6, 1953
What he did
Ian Frazer, along with his colleagues, is widely accredited with the development of a vaccine that is designed to prevent HPV infections (Human Papilloma Virus) and cervical cancer.

Name: Tim Flannery
Born: January 28, 1956
What he did
Tim Flannery is a renowned Australian environmentalist, zoologist, conservationist and writer. His achievements include the discovery of over thirty new species of mammals, publication of over hundred papers relating to the environment, a discovery of fossils in Australia, and comprehensive research on climate change.

Stephen Hawking famously said, "Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." This list of Australian scientists and their brilliant contributions to the world certainly proves him right.