John Robert Philip [1927-1999]

By March 23rd, 2011

Early life

John Robert Philip was born on 18 January 1927 in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. His father, Percy, was a farmer from Franklinford, near Castlemaine in Victoria, who moved to Foster after his marriage and became a stock and dairy inspector. John’s mother Ruth (nee Osborne) was a schoolteacher and a Methodist lay preacher who had a deep commitment to education and very high expectations for John and his younger brother, Graeme. Under his mother’s influence, he developed a precocious mathematical talent and he won an open scholarship to Scotch College in Melbourne at the early age of eleven. The family then moved to Carnegie on the outskirts of Melbourne so that John could attend Scotch as a day boy. At the age of twelve, John demonstrated his independence by walking out of an evangelical service when asked to promise his life to Christ. Frances (Fay) Julia Long from the girls’ side of the assembly was his sole fellow dissident. They were married ten years later.

At Scotch College, John was placed in a class where he was almost three years younger than his fellow students and where his intellectual world expanded enormously. He also discovered that his English teacher would accept poetry in place of an essay; his lifelong love of poetry was born, he said, from his discovery that poetry brought the greatest results for the least effort. He matriculated at 13 and spent a further two years studying ‘leaving Honours’ before he could enter the University of Melbourne. John said later that mathematics was his favourite subject at Scotch although he was not identified as exceptionally talented. This was probably because, in his class of six students, RH Dalitz, AK Head and John himself became Fellows of the Royal Society, JB Swan and SN Milford became professors of physics and ND Symonds became a biophysicist who later worked with Max Delbrück and Erwin Schrödinger.

John entered Queen’s College in the University of Melbourne in 1943 and graduated BEng in 1946. At 19 years of age, he was, and remains, the youngest Civil Engineer ever to graduate from the University of Melbourne. When he graduated, John was too young to be paid the Victorian Public Service Engineer’s adult wage but the University, for the first time ever, advertised for a graduate assistant in agricultural engineering at adult rates. He was appointed and seconded to the CSIR Irrigation Research Station at Griffith, New South Wales.

CSIRO career

At CSIR Irrigation Research Station at Griffith

It was a revelation to John that, for agricultural scientists struggling with the hydraulics of furrow irrigation, all things were not understood and no handbook existed. With his acute mathematical and physical insights he quickly identified a range of problems concerning water movement in the soil-plant-atmosphere environment that provided the scientific focus and sense of purpose that had previously eluded him. His original approach to these problems, his engineering aptitude, and his newly discovered enthusiasm to apply it prompted a comment from Vasey that when he left Griffith he left in the minds of the Extension Organization and quite a number of farmers a regret that the service did not employ a full time engineer of the Philip type

In 1948, John joined the Queensland Water Supply Commission with responsibilities for design in the Burdekin and Mareeba Irrigation Schemes. His supervisor, TA Lang, in his later role of Associate Commissioner with the Snowy Mountains Authority, recorded that during this time John was:

faced with an almost entire lack of basic information and exhibited considerable intelligence and aptitude in handling irrigation problems. He is apt to be a little untidy in his appearance. This may be the result of his hobby, which is writing poetry and his tendency toward a certain Bohemian outlook in his private life. This in no way affects his work which is technically of a high standard.

Lang was referring to John’s link, through the magazine Barjai, to Brisbane bohemia, including the artist Charles Blackman, the poets Barrie Reid and Vida Horn, and Charles Osborne, now a London music critic and writer.

At the CSIRO Regional Pastoral Laboratory of the Division of Plant Industry at Deniliquin

In 1951, he was appointed to the Regional Pastoral Laboratory of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry at Deniliquin, New South Wales. With post-war housing still in very short supply, John and his wife Frances spent the summer at the end of 1951 living in a tent in an orchard at the edge of Deniliquin. This accommodation was described in official correspondence as so primitive that the arrangements had to be abandoned

Shortly after John’s appointment, Sir Otto Frankel became Chief of the Division of Plant Industry. Frankel identified with the research ethos of Sir David Rivett‘s CSIRO, to find the best person for the task and give them the freedom to get on with it

John’s intellectual associations in Deniliquin were strengthened in 1956 by the appointment of Dan de Vries to Deniliquin. Dan had just completed his doctorate at Leiden based on research in the physics laboratory of what is now Wageningen University and his strong physical sciences background, his enthusiasm to apply physics to real-world problems and his sound experimental skills complemented and extended John’s horizons.

John Philip’s Deniliquin years were enormously productive and from 1953 until 1960 he published more than forty scientific papers, although his work habits, as in his undergraduate days, still varied between periods of intense activity when he often worked all night and periods when he was a quite disruptive influence in the laboratory. Nevertheless, he was gaining an international reputation.

His interests ranged from population dynamics to heat and mass transfer in the biosphere, and a scan of his first ten years of publications reveals how catholic his commitments were. In 1956, he visited Dr EC Childs at the Agricultural Research Council Unit of Soil Physics in Cambridge and a couple of years later had a brief visit to the California Institute of Technology which resulted in an effusive letter from Professor James Bonner to Otto Frankel with an invitation for John to spend sabbatical leave at Caltech.

At Canberra as Head of Agricultural Physics Section in the Division of Plant Industry

The responses to these visits confirmed for CSIRO that, while John had a difficult personality, he was very able and an asset to be nurtured. Otto Frankel therefore agreed that, on their return from Caltech, the Philip family should move to Canberra where John would establish an Agricultural Physics Section in the Division of Plant Industry.

Following Otto Frankel’s advice to forgo a PhD, John took a DSc (physics) from the University of Melbourne in 1959 for an extraordinary set of eight papers that brought unity to the existing approaches to water movement in soil.

John’s reputation, as a very able young man in a hurry, was growing. In 1963, when John Falk succeeded Otto Frankel as Chief of the Division of Plant Industry, John became one of his four Assistant Chiefs.

In 1969, when John Falk became very ill, John became Acting Chief of Division. In 1971, however, Lloyd Evans was appointed substantive Chief and John became Chief of a new, small and autonomous Division of Environmental Mechanics.

Chief, CSIRO Division of Environmental Mechanics 1971-80 and 1983-91 and Director of the CSIRO Institute of Physical Sciences 1980-83

The new Division’s objectives emerged from those of the Agricultural Physics Section and sought to link laboratory experiments with field behaviour and to develop practical mathematical descriptions of environmental processes. The Division was created about three small groups set up to investigate and bring together the components of the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum that was conceived by Gradmann and van der Honert to unify the terrestrial hydrological cycle. This concept recognised that water in the soil, the plant and the atmosphere forms a thermodynamic continuum. Water flows from one domain to the next along gradients of water potential, so its flow could be analysed in a mathematical-physical framework. Coupled with the concept of a critical water potential at which plants lose turgor and stomata begin to close, the analysis could be used to predict how the properties of each domain controlled transpiration and water extraction by plants and the onset of wilting.

A fourth group, called Applied Mechanics, which John himself led, provided theory complementing the three more experimental groups. John insisted on scientific quality and his support for a series of very distinguished Pye Fellows ensured that Environmental Mechanics was recognised internationally as a centre of excellence.

Except for a three-year period as Director of the CSIRO Institute of Physical Sciences, John was Chief until his retirement in 1992. His three years as Foundation Director of the CSIRO Institute of Physical Sciences from 1979 were energetic and idealistic and Institute meetings were wonderful forums for interdisciplinary discussion among ten Divisional Chiefs of wide-ranging persuasion. John’s aspirations, based on scientific quality, were evident in the four major divisional reviews he conducted, although his impatience with so-called Standards measurement raised disquiet among staff who felt that he did not understand the challenge of fine measurement. His aspirations were also challenged by the ambitions of fellow Directors and some Chiefs who did not share his vision for CSIRO as set out in the Task Force Report. The ultimate factor, which he deplored, arose, however, from political pressure to use ‘external income’ as a measure of scientific achievement and for CSIRO thence to operate, as former Minister for Science Barry Jones put it, ‘like an upbeat panel-beating shop’.

Following his retirement he became the first CSIRO Fellow Emeritus. His retirement saw no diminution in his research. He continued to collaborate internationally and delivered his last paper in Amsterdam, two days before his death.

Scientific achievements

Modern theories of mass and energy movement in the biosphere, focused on water, were generally accepted by the mid-twentieth century. They tended to be reductionist in character and flow equations combined macroscopic material, force and energy-balance equations with flux laws based on space gradients of potential. These equations were difficult to solve because the transfer coefficients tended to be strongly related to the local concentration of the entity of concern, the location, or both. The architecture of the crop canopy and the root system complicated their formulation as well as the scale of their application and test. Nevertheless, their solutions were required to deal with important problems of land and water management and crop and forest production. When computers were in their infancy, John sought practical methods for description and measurement in each phase of the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum but his principal interest was in soil water and his initial focus in Deniliquin in 1951 was on border and furrow irrigation.

His outstanding research contributions (described in detail in the Source details listed below) were in the following areas:

  • soil water physics
  • micrometeorology and physical ecology
  • surface heterogeneity and advection
  • the plant canopy
  • the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum
  • measurement methods in the messy context of the biosphere
  • general applied mathematics.

Art and the man

John Philip was an enthusiastic traveller, a connoisseur of architecture, a catholic reader and a published poet. He loved cooking and eating and he was a charming host and vivacious dinner guest. He played chess with a computer, watched sport on television and admired and loved his cats.

His first poems were published in 1943 when he was 16 years old. Subsequent poems appeared regularly in Australian Poetry, in Overland, in Quadrant and in at least four Australian anthologies, the most recent of which was The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse edited by Les Murray. The poet and the scientist in John tended to be quite distinct. A note, for example, in an anthology of Australian poetry edited by Inglis Moore (1953, Australia writes: an anthology) focused on his poetry but conceded that He also contributes papers to scientific journals

Personally, John Philip was competitive and self-opinionated with rigorous standards of academic excellence that he also expected of his fellows. Early in his career he was known to be ‘difficult’ and Fred (FWG) White, the then Deputy Chairman of CSIRO, delicately observed in 1957 that Philip’s personality does not attract everyone

A staff survey in the mid-1980s rated John second to none as a scientist and second-last as a manager of people. He claimed that he never wanted to be loved, but the latter ranking cut deep and it was unfair. In particular, his discriminating appreciation of excellent data, and his wholehearted support for skilled experimentalists more than compensated for what he recognised as his own clumsiness. CSIRO managers did not love him much either. His election to the Royal Society in 1974, for example, was not widely publicised by the organisation because, as the Chairman said in response to criticism from Bill (CHB) Priestley, While a Fellowship of the Royal Society is of very great significance to us, it does not mean much to the average newspaper reader and consequently is only of minor interest to the press


John Philip was struck by a car and killed on Saturday 26 June 1999 in Amsterdam where he was visiting the Centre for Mathematics and Information Science. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, a Foreign Member of the All-Union (later Russian) Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and only the second Australian Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Engineering. He was the first non-American recipient of the Robert E. Horton Medal, the highest award for hydrology of the American Geophysical Union. In 1998, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for ‘service to the science of hydrology, to scientific communication in promoting the interests of science for the community, and to Australian culture through architecture and literature’. This memoir discusses John Philip’s character and his work as Australia’s most distinguished environmental physicist. It explores his management of science and his role in the Australian Academy of Science as well as his poetry and his fascination with architecture.

Frances, their children Peregrine, Julian and Candida and others of his family and friends buried him near his parents in a small graveyard at Franklinford, near Castlemaine, Victoria, on 9 July 1999. His last poem, published in Quadrant in 1998, is inscribed on his grave:

Against cremation

Indigestible in life, indeed obtuse,

prone to argument and even clashes

my body please do not reduce

to an old tin of greasy ashes

But take a measure less obscene:

throw my remnants in the earth,

let worms and microbes pick me clean,

angular, indigestible, as at birth.

Honours and awards


1995 Foreign Associate, US National Academy of Engineering
1991 Foreign Member, All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences
1991 CSIRO Fellow Emeritus
1974 Fellow, Royal Society of London
1967 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science


1999 Jaeger Medal, Australian Academy of Science
1998 Officer of the Order of Australia
1995 DSc (honoris causa), University of Guelph
1992 DPh (honoris causa), Agricultural University of Athens
1983 DEng (honoris causa), University of Melbourne
1982 Robert E Horton Medal
1981 Thomas Ranken Lyle Medal, Australian Academy of Science
1966 David Rivett Medal, Australian Academy of Science
1957 Robert E Horton Award of the American Geophysical Union


John’s contributions to the Australian Academy of Science were energetic. He was proud of the distinction that his Fellowship was considered by four of the six Section Committees of the Academy; those of mathematical, physical, terrestrial and biological sciences. In Council meetings John’s contributions were wide-ranging, witty and irreverent in presentation but balanced in their recommendations. He was an activist Secretary (Biological Sciences) from 1974 to 1978, and played a major role in planning the intellectual (as opposed to the ceremonial) activities of the Academy’s 25th anniversary in 1978. As part of those activities, he introduced the symposium Science and the polity: Ideals, illusions and realities and contributed significantly to discussion of issues of scientific accountability and autonomy that featured in the Science Task Force report.

1975 Chair, Science Task Force of the ‘Coombs’ Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration
1974-78 Secretary (Biological Sciences), Australian Academy of Science
1972-78 Council Member, Australian Academy of Science
1953 Secretary of a committee set up to recommend ways to manage hydrology research in CSIRO