Skip to main content

Sir Rutherford Ness (Bob) Robertson [1913-2001]


Rutherford Ness (Bob) Robertson was born in Melbourne on 29 September 1913 and could trace his ancestry to migrations from Scotland and England to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. He says his grandfather’s generation failed as farmers in coastal Victoria and ‘most became preachers instead’, including his grandfather. Following in this tradition, his father (Joshua Robertson, ED, MA, DipSocSci) and two of his brothers chose to be preachers, his father being a Baptist. Bob said his father preached an unusual philosophy for those days that Christian people had to do something for the community as a whole and not just look after their own heavenly futures

In the interim his mother (Josephine Robertson, née Hogan) took Bob to stay with relatives in Brisbane, where he contracted poliomyelitis. This disease left him with a weak leg and a permanent limp. Bob recalled that the worst part was being dragged around from one person to another in a futile attempt to rectify the disability. After returning to Melbourne he spent the last three years of primary school at Carey Baptist Grammar School. He remembered this as an exciting and challenging place but also as a place where he began to learn what it was to have hard knocks with people with whom I didn’t see eye-to-eye

His mother encouraged his interest in science and talked to him about the exciting developments of the time, including a public lecture she attended by the renowned Ernest Rutherford. When Bob showed a particular interest in chemistry, she helped him get together some chemicals and equipment to do some experiments at home

His secondary schooling was at St Andrews College, Christchurch, New Zealand where he particularly remembered the companionship, the strong ethical outlook and good teaching ‘in traditional British subjects’. There was also a strong emphasis on sport and a strict discipline regime. He recalled resenting being caned for making spelling mistakes and not having his name in his sandshoes. There was little science taught there, however, and that by non-trained people. He recalled getting into some bother at one stage by pointing out that the atom was not the smallest indivisible particle of matter, and being told finally You are quite right but that is not in the syllabus

University education

The family returned to Sydney in 1930 and Bob enrolled in a science course at the University of Sydney. In retrospect, he believed this was a mistake. Lacking the solid science foundation provided by the New South Wales school system, he found first and second year hard going but, as he said, he did scrape through

As he proceeded through the course there occurred a critical change in his prime scientific interest from chemistry to botany and the emerging field of plant physiology. His honours project was on the mechanism controlling the opening and closing of stomata, the pores on the surface of leaves that regulate the exchange of gases such as carbon dioxide and oxygen into and from leaves. He graduated with First-Class Honours in 1934.

Postgraduate research at Sydney and Cambridge (1934-39)

With the aid of a University of Sydney research scholarship and then a Macleay Fellowship from the Linnaean Society of New South Wales, he continued working in Sydney on the stomatal opening problem for the next two years. In 1936, he was awarded a prestigious Science Research Scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. This was awarded to promising students from the Dominions to study in Britain. Professor AHK Petrie of Adelaide advised Bob that if he wanted to pursue a career as a physiologist then he should try to work with Professor GE Briggs in the Botany School at Cambridge.

Briggs agreed to accept this young colonial as a PhD student and so the course of Bob’s scientific research career was set. He departed for Cambridge on a cargo ship in October 1936 and was thrust into the exciting biological environment of Cambridge in the 1930s. It was the heyday of the Cavendish Laboratory and of the great pioneering biochemists including Frederick Hopkins, Joseph and Dorothy Needham, Robin Hill, Gordon Pirie and Dick Synge. Another prominent plant physiologist in the Botany Department, besides Briggs, was EJ Maskell. Bob said of Briggs that he was a most imaginative physiologist and one of the ablest thinkers, most acute minds, and most highly critical attitudes in the biology of the time

The primary aim of this research was to explain how the energy necessary to drive the active uptake of ions against a concentration gradient was made available from the process of respiration. In the latter part of 1938, the newly appointed Professor, Eric Ashby, offered Bob an Assistant Lecturer position in the Botany School at the University of Sydney. This set a deadline for completing his research at Cambridge and submitting a thesis. The mandatory oral examination was completed just before he sailed for Australia and news that his doctorate had been granted was received by radiogram as the boat approached Capetown.

The war years in Sydney

Bob’s intention was to continue his work on ion uptake in plant cells in Sydney but the Second World War intervened. The head of the Botany School, Professor Ashby, became involved in war-related matters that often took him away from the department. As a result, Bob took over some of Ashby’s administrative duties, a great experience for what was to come. He also served as the liaison officer between the University of Sydney and the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction, and as secretary to the Vice-Chancellor’s Research Committee.

Academics generally switched their research to aspects related in some way to the war effort. In what free time he had left, Bob devoted himself to two problems related to the storage and shipping of food. One was to develop procedures to prolong the storage life of apples and other fruit. The other was related to the open-air storage of the huge reserves of wheat in Australia. The problem was to determine why the wheat, stored in such large quantities, was getting hot. As Bob suspected, the generation of heat was not due to the respiration of the grain itself, which was very low, but rather, to the respiration of the insects infesting the wheat.


At war’s end Bob made a very significant career change, accepting a position as head of a research group in the CSIR Division of Food Preservation and Transport. The concerns of this Division included basic and applied aspects of fruit and vegetable storage. This move undoubtedly changed the course of Bob’s career and, as he said, was not taken lightly

Later, he was appointed head of the Plant Physiology Unit created within the Botany School, Sydney University and run jointly with that School, to study the physiology of plants including, of course, fruit and vegetables. This Plant Physiology Unit was set up in 1950. There followed, through the decade of the 1950s, a remarkably productive period of research activity in the Plant Physiology Unit. Many of the students passing through during this time were to go on to significant independent careers. Bob’s own work on ion transport, and especially the link with mitochondrial respiration, progressed substantially. He was also remembered for the pace at which he strode about the corridors of the Unit constrained only by his polio-induced limp, for his amazing Ford Prefect car which just managed to reach the city speed limit in top gear, and for his availability as adviser and counsellor.

In late 1958, Bob accepted a visiting professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles. By this time he was numbered amongst the leaders in both research and speculation relating to the energetics of ion transport and accumulation in plant cells. His views were outlined in two important review articles and in a book Electrolytes in Plants co-authored with GE Briggs and AB Hope that appeared between 1957 and 1960.

By this time his contributions to understanding the mechanism and energetics of active ion uptake were being widely recognised. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1954, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1961 and a Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1962.

A full account of the life and achievements of Bob Robertson can be found by following the link in the Sources below.

Member of the Executive of CSIRO (1959-62)

While in the United States, Bob was asked if he would join the four-man Executive of CSIRO then headed by Sir Ian Clunies Ross. Bob reluctantly accepted this challenge, realising that it would seriously affect his research interests. He said, I felt I owed it to the organization to help where required, particularly since I had enjoyed such a satisfying research position

This was the first of a number of instances where Bob undertook such responsibilities in the cause of science or public interest and at the expense of his research. In subsequently discussing such conflicts of interest he noted that research certainly flourishes best when the mind becomes filled, even obsessed, with the investigation

At that time CSIRO had a staff of more than 4 000. Research interests ranged from the most applied aspects of agriculture and secondary industry to the most esoteric basic research including astronomy. Bob saw the role of the Executive as being to serve the interests of the scientists at the coalface. But of course the Executive still had to deal with the Chiefs of Divisions, with politicians and with various outside bodies, and had the final say in the general direction of research and the allocation of funds.


Professor of Botany, University of Adelaide

Early in 1960, the University of Adelaide advertised the Chair of Botany rendered vacant by the death of Professor JG Wood. The Department was founded in 1912 and had had only two previous Professors, TGB Osborn and JG Wood. Bob was invited to fill the chair with the understanding that, to complete his obligation to CSIRO as an Executive member, he would not take up the position until February 1962. He held the position with great distinction from 1962 to 1969.

He continued his research on ion transport but also developed other areas. He expanded the Department’s reputation in the physiology of ion transport by the appointment of Michael Pitman, introduced metabolic biochemistry with the appointment of Joe Wiskich, and established ecophysiology with the appointment of Russell Sinclair. He also took a keen interest in the physiology of arid zone vegetation using the reserve on Koonamore station between Yunta and Lake Frome, established in 1925 by Osborn.

In the latter part of his period in Adelaide, Bob wrote an important review and his widely acclaimed book, Protons, Electrons, Phosphorylation and Active Transport. In his notes and records Bob draws attention to the distraction from research occasioned by the various committee activities that took him to Canberra so frequently. His students and colleagues, however, remember the extent to which he was able to keep his hand in research at the same time as he was building opportunities for others.

Master of University House, ANU

These burgeoning national committee responsibilities made it sensible to consider a permanent move to Canberra. He resigned from the Chair of Botany at Adelaide on 9 August 1969 and moved to Canberra to become Master of University House, the original Faculty and graduate student ‘college’ at the Australian National University (ANU). This position went along with provision of laboratory space at the Research School of Biological Sciences (RSBS) and some research support. He was especially attracted by the opportunity for some uninterrupted research.

University House had by then served its function in support of the nation’s embryonic premier research university. As the second Master, he had to guide the transformation of the House into a financially self-sustaining entity and hospitality centre on campus, while retaining its collegial character. While moving the House in this direction, he became even more heavily involved in national scientific affairs, first as President of the AAS (1970-74) and later as second Director of the RSBS. He remained in Canberra until retirement in 1978.

Director of the Research School of Biological Sciences, ANU

His career reached its greatest heights as second Director of the RSBS at the ANU. He took up the appointment in January 1973, a few months after the School moved into its new building, and retired in 1978. By then RSBS was an impressive institution moving from its foundation in 1967 under David Catcheside with 46 staff to an establishment with 290 staff on its tenth anniversary in 1977.

While Director he still found time for research and in the 1976 Annual Report he noted that:

Directors of Research Schools do not get much time for research, so it is pleasing to note that the Bioenergetics Unit with which I am personally concerned has made considerable progress during the year

His unit listed twelve projects in 1977, many involving collaborations with other groups, and he co-authored an important paper with NK Boardman on the link between charge separation, proton movement and ATPase reactions; a considerable achievement in austerity years when funding cuts consigned his carefully prepared plans for a Department of Membrane Biology, foreshadowed in his first Annual Report (1973), to the scrap heap.

Bob’s links to the ANU continued throughout his retirement. He served as Pro-Chancellor (1984-86) and made a point of commuting from his retirement home in Binalong to participate in the ANU-sponsored Robertson Symposia, named in his honour and held in RSBS.

Contributions to National Science policy

Bob Robertson was primarily responsible for setting up a number of structures and institutions critical to the future of Australian science. He was secretary of the Australian National Research Council (ANRC) in 1952, when steps were taken to review the problems of Australian universities that in due course led to the formation of the Murray Committee and the subsequent transformation of the Australian university scene. He also played an important role in negotiations that led the ANRC to make way for the foundation of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) in 1954.

He was associated with the founding of the Australian Society of Plant Physiologists in 1958 and while Professor of Botany in the University of Adelaide, played a key role in the development of the research capacity in Australia’s university sector at a time when it was expanding most rapidly. His most enduring role was in the creation of the Australian Research Grants Committee (ARGC) that survives today as the Australian Research Council.

In April 1965, at the invitation of Senator (later Prime Minister) John Gorton, Minister in Charge of Commonwealth Activities in Education and Research, Bob accepted appointment as Chairman of a committee of ten academics, representing the natural sciences, engineering and the applied sciences, the humanities and the social sciences. Bob recalled Gorton, who knew his man, saying it will be a bloody awful job and I wouldn’t advise you to take it, but I would be tremendously grateful if you would

He was involved in discussions with the Victorian and South Australian Departments of Education about updating the school biology syllabus and textbooks. The resulting book, The Web of Life, went through three editions between 1967 and 1981 and sold over a million copies. This set the precedent for AAS-sponsored textbooks in chemistry, mathematics, geology and environmental science.

He revived a Standing Committee on National Parks and Conservation, and nurtured relationships with the other Australian Academies to develop major interdisciplinary environmental conservation projects involving the Murray River basin and, later, the Botany Bay Project. During this period he was also joint leader of the delegation that initiated scientific exchanges with the People’s Republic of China after the Cultural Revolution, a member of the Science Advisory Committee for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1972-74) and a member of the first interim Advisory Committee for Science and Technology, set up in 1972 by the then Liberal Government. Changes of government saw such interim committees come and go and it was several years before its descendant, the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) was formally incorporated. As AAS President, Bob also solicited government support for a comprehensive survey of Australia’s biological resources. Various interim bodies directed to this cause finally led to the official establishment of the government-funded Australian Biological Resources Study in 1978.

Rutherford Ness Robertson ‘ the person

Rutherford Ness Robertson died in Yass, New South Wales, on 5 March 2001. A sad and unexpected addendum to this story is that his wife, lifelong companion and confidante, Mary, died soon afterwards. As Barry Osmond so aptly said in an obituary:

Descending from a long line of ministers of religion, Bob’s tolerance, unselfishness and unswerving sense of duty is legendary

He was an avid reader and dabbled in watercolour painting. Despite his ‘polio leg’ he played hockey, captaining the Sydney University second grade team for many years and was a wily squash player. In later life, especially during his Adelaide and Canberra years, he returned to a boyhood love of horse riding stating that his riding technique was transformed from that of an Australian bush rider

Throughout a remarkably busy and very influential life in science, he gained a reputation for his willingness to ‘go the extra mile’, for his fair-mindedness, his generosity, and his concern for friends and colleagues in all walks of life. He was equally at ease with Prime Ministers and just-hired laboratory assistants or cleaners. He had a personality and management style not common amongst those who took on the responsibilities and undertakings that he did.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, he put it simply and directly, as was his wont, when he wrote:

Perhaps, if it’s not too much to be known as a generous man, who, despite human failings, talked sense and occasionally showed signs of wisdom

Honours and awards

Sir Rutherford Ness (Bob) Robertson was one of Australia’s most distinguished, influential and respected scientists. He was eminent both for his contributions to scientific thought and knowledge and for the remarkable range of activities he undertook in the cause of science. His contributions to our understanding of the bioenergetics of inorganic ion transport in plant cells were widely recognised.

In his other life he served in a number of key administrative-managerial positions, was the prime mover in a variety of major initiatives that had critical and lasting impacts on the development of Australian science and was a trusted friend and adviser to a generation of younger plant scientists.

The Research School of Biological Sciences at the Australian National University honoured him with the establishment of the Robertson Symposia in 1987 and the naming of the Robertson Theatre, opened in 1992.

The Australian Society of Plant Physiologists honoured him with a named lecture, commencing in 1996.

Public honours

1980 Companion of the Order of Australia (AC)
1972 Knight Bachelor
1968 Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG)

Fellowships and memberships

1986 Honorary Member, Australian Society for Biophysics
1986 Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of New South Wales
1986 Honorary Fellow, Australian Institute of Biology
1983 Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh
1973 Honorary Fellow, St John’s College Cambridge
1973 Honorary Fellow, University House, Australian National University (ANU)
1973 Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts & Sciences
1971 Foreign Member, American Philosophical Society
1971 Honorary Member, Royal Society of New Zealand
1962 Foreign Associate, US National Academy of Sciences
1961 Fellow, Royal Society of London
1954 Foundation Fellow, Australian Academy of Science
1953 Corresponding Member, American Society of Plant Physiologists


1988 Three Societies Lecturer: The Royal Society of London, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, The Royal Irish Academy
1975 Burnet Lecture and Medal, Australian Academy of Science
1974 Macleay Memorial Lecturer, Linnaean Society of New South Wales
1974 DSc (Hon. Causa) ANU, Canberra
1973 Oscar Mendelsohn Lecturer, Monash University
1971 Bertrand Russell Lecturer, Flinders University
1971 JG Wood Memorial Lecturer, Australian Society of Plant Physiologists
1970 DSc (Hon. Causa) Monash University, Melbourne
1970 Mueller Medal, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS)
1969 ScD (Hon. Causa) Cambridge University
1968 ANZAAS Medal
1966 AE Mills Orator, Royal Australasian College of Physicians
1965 DSc (Hon. Causa) University of Tasmania
1963 Macleay Memorial Lecturer, Linnaean Society of New South Wales
1963 Farrer Memorial Medal and Lecture
1963 DSc (ad eundem gradum) University of Adelaide
1962 Macleay Memorial Lecturer, Linnaean Society of New South Wales
1959 Kearney Foundation Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley
1954 Clarke Memorial Medal, Royal Society of New South Wales


1977 – 81 Deputy Chairman, Australian Science and Technology Council
1971 – 73 Chairman, Advisory Committee of the Ramaciotti Medical Research Foundation
1970 – 74 President, Australian Academy of Science
1965 – 69 Chairman, Australian Research Grants Committee
1965 President of ANZAAS
1958 Secretary (Biological Sciences), Australian Academy of Science
1954 President, Botany Section of ANZAAS
1949 President, Linnean Society of New South Wales

Positions held 1939-86

1984 – 86 Pro-Chancellor of the Australian National University
1973 – 78 Director of the Research School of Biological Sciences at the Australian National University
1969 – 72 Master of University House at the Australian National University in Canberra
1962 – 69 Professor of Botany at the University of Adelaide
1959 – 62 Member of the Executive of CSIRO
1958 – 59 Visiting Professor at the University of California, USA
1955 – 59 Chief Research Officer at the CSIRO Division of Food Preservation and Transport
1952 – 55 Senior Principal Research Officer at the CSIRO Division of Food Preservation and Transport
1952 – 55 Principal Research Officer at the CSIRO Division of Food Preservation and Transport
1946 – 47 Senior Research Officer at the CSIR Division of Food Preservation and Transport
1939 – 46 Assistant Lecturer, later Lecturer in Botany at the University of Sydney