Ivan Edgar Newnham [1919-1986]

By Helen WolffFebruary 16th, 2011


Ivan Edgar Newnham was born on 6 November 1919 in Victoria.

Spending all his school days at Carey Baptist Grammar School, 1930-1935, Ivan was one of a group of outstanding science students taught by Mark Stump who made such a significant contribution to science in Australia.

Ivan Newnham was not an ordinary man. Beyond his outstanding scientific abilities he had an energy and vision that enabled him to make a significant impact during his 37 years of service with CSIRO.

Time at CSIRO

Ivan Newnham joined the Organisation after working as a metallurgist in industry and his appreciation of industry motives and problems laid a basis for his major influence on the direction of CSIRO minerals research; first as a leader of a research group, then as Chief of the Division of Mineral Chemistry, subsequently a Director of the Minerals Research Laboratories and latterly as Director of the Institutes of Earth Resources and Energy and Earth Resources.

Ivan’s first major contribution to CSIRO came through the process he developed for the separation of zirconium from hafnium. There was at that time no prospect of the process being developed in Australia, so he went to a company in the United States, where he was able to demonstrate its feasibility on a larger scale. He then conducted a one-man negotiation to reach a licensing agreement with a return of $250,000 to CSIRO.

His ability as a scientist and his skills ill negotiation were rewarded by the Waverley Gold Medal ill 1957 and the MBE in 1959. When Ivan Newnham became Chief of the Division of Mineral Chemistry in 1961, he set about establishing close contact with the mining industry and visited mining operations throughout Australia with his section leaders.


When several Divisions conducting minerals research were grouped into the Minerals Research Laboratories in 1971, Ivan became MRL Director and initiated a series of CSIRO/AMIRA Study Groups to discuss how CSIRO research could contribute to the minerals industry. This unified approach of a group of Divisions interacting with a particular industry provided a model for the current CSIRO Institute structures, established after the Independent Inquiry led by Professor A Birch.

In December 1978, Ivan was made Director of the Institute of Earth Resources, which was renamed Energy and Earth Resources in 1981 after non-nuclear energy research groups from the AAEC were transferred to CSIRO, Ivan is a foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and in 1981, was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for his contributions to the mining industry.

In 1982 he received dual honour – the highest award of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the Leighton Medal, for his initiatives in directing chemical research to assist the mineral industry and the President’s Award of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy for his ‘personal achievements in research and development for the mineral industry and his leadership in these fields’.

He served on many committees whose decisions had a strong bearing on R&D in Australia, including the National Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Council and the Australian Industrial Research and Development Incentives Board.

In 1981 he took leave from CSIRO to head an industry working party appointed to report to the Government on the prospects for uranium enrichment in Australia.

A record of Ivan Newnham’s achievements does not provide an adequate picture of the man. His cheerful personality, sharp intellectual perceptions and his ability to match the aspirations or the research scientist to the needs of tile mineral industry can only be fully appreciated by those who know him. However, his contributions are evident in the existence of a strong Institute which has a research staff highly respected in both scientific circles and in industry, able to apply his scientific skills to the technologies and needs of the future.

He relinquished his post as Director of the Institute of Energy and Earth Resources in December 1983 and retired from CSIRO in November after 37 years of service.

Honours and awards

1957 Waverley Gold Medal
1959 Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) (Civil Division)
1975 Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences
1981 Officer of the Order of Australia for his contributions to the mining industry
1982 Leighton Medal
1982 President’s Award of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy


Adapted from a submission by Jenifer North to CoResearch, CSIRO’s staff newsletter (no. 272, July 1984), p. 3