Thomas Harley Spurling

By Colin Ward September 7th, 2011

Early years

Thomas Harley (Tom) Spurling was born in Perth on the 24th December 1940. His sister Ruth Elaine was born 20 minutes later giving his parents and two older sisters an unexpected Christmas present. His parents were Bernard (an accountant) and Jessie (nee Barrow, a shorthand typist). His older siblings left home in 1951 when the family moved to Albany.

In the early 1950s Albany High School was a five year high school serving the Great Southern region of Western Australia. It had very well qualified teachers who had come into the teaching profession from both post-war training programs and from the rapidly expanding opportunities for tertiary education. It was at school that Tom became interested in Chemistry as a discipline that was also an industry.

Tertiary education and early career

Tom entered the University of Western Australia in 1958 as a trainee teacher bonded to the WA Education Department. He did teacher training at the Claremont Teachers College in the weeks before and after the University teaching year until the end of his 4th year when he resigned from Education Department and agreed to repay his bond.

He obtained First Class honours in Physical Chemistry in 1962 and a PhD in Physical Chemistry in 1966. He was awarded a CSIRO Post-Graduate Studentship in 1963 and a CSIRO Overseas Studentship in 1965. He married Heather Bowen in 1965 and they went to the University of Maryland on the CSIRO Studentship.

His research interest in these years was in measuring the equilibrium and transport properties of gases and using such measurements to estimate intermolecular forces. This work was summarised in the monograph, ‘The Virial Equation of State’ (EA Mason and TH Spurling, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1969).

Tom was appointed a Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Tasmania in 1967 and was there until 1969 when he was appointed as a Research Scientist at the CSIRO Division of Applied Chemistry at Fishermens Bend.

At CSIRO 1969-84

His position at CSIRO was described as a ‘Theoretical Physical Chemist’ and the Chief of the Division of Applied Chemistry, Dr SD Hamann, suggested that he talk to the senior scientists in the Division to find out how he could be of use. He developed interests in the rational design of biologically active molecules, in the use of Monte Carlo methods to calculate the adsorption of gases onto solids and in developing computational methods to study the kinetics of polymerisation reactions. He is the author or co-author of about 100 papers on these various topics.

In 1974 the Division of Applied Chemistry was divided into the Division of Applied Organic Chemistry and the Division of Chemical Technology. Dr DH Solomon was appointed Chief of the Division of Applied Organic Chemistry and Tom was assigned there also. In addition to his role as Chief of Division, Dave Solomon was the leader of the Polymer banknotes project and in 1981 appointed Tom as the Assistant Chief to allow him to devote more time to that project.

As Senior Private Secretary to the Minister for Resources and Energy 1985

After the election of the Second Hawke Government in December 1984, Tom took leave from CSIRO to work with Senator Gareth Evans (the Minister for Resources and Energy) as his Senior Private Secretary.

Return to CSIRO 1985-98

On his return to CSIRO in late 1985 he was able to use this experience as a team member of the McKinsey & Co study of the rare earth industry. When Dr Solomon was appointed the Acting Director of the Institute of Industrial Technology in 1986, Tom joined his staff and became involved in negotiations with the Reserve Bank over the sale of the polymer bank note technology.

The ‘McKinsey restructure’ of CSIRO saw the formation of the Institute of Industrial Technologies in 1988 and Tom was appointed the Institute’s Manager of Policy and Planning. He was appointed the Chief of the Division of Chemicals and Polymers in 1989. This Division merged with the Division of Biomolecular Engineering in 1996 and Tom was appointed Chief of the new Division of Molecular Science.

Representing CSIRO in Indonesia 1998-2001, returning as a CSIRO Fellow until 2002

In November 1998 he went to Indonesia to manage the World Bank funded CSIRO-LIPI Management Systems Strengthening project. LIPI is the CSIRO sister organisation in Indonesia. That project ended in 2001 and he returned to the Division of Molecular Science as a CSIRO Fellow. An opportunity to work at Swinburne University of Technology emerged in July 2002 and he was seconded there until he resigned from CSIRO in January 2003.

At Swinburne University of Technology

Tom was the Director of the Institute of Industrial Technology Swinburne from 2002 to 2004 when he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Industrial Sciences in 2004. This was on the understanding that the University would commence a search for a suitably qualified engineer to replace him. This occurred in 2005 and Tom took up the position of Chief Executive of the CRC for Wood Innovations. He held this position until the CRC ended in 2008.

From 2005 until the present he has had a part time appointment as a Research Professor in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences. His current research interests are in the use of social networks to understand the commercialisation of public sector research and in the history of Australian science.

Back to CSIRO

Tom was a member of the CSIRO Board from 2008 to 2015 and the Board of the International Centre for Radioastronomy Research (in Perth) from 2009 to 2015.

Honours and awards


1993 Fellow, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
1992 Foundation Fellow, Federation of Asian Chemical Societies
1974 Fellow, Royal Australian Chemical Institute


2011 RACI, International Year of Chemistry, Living Luminary of Australian Chemistry
2008 Member of the Order of Australia
2003 Federation of Asian Chemical Societies, Award for Distinguished Contribution to Economic Advancement
2001 Centenary Medal
2000 CSIRO Award for Business Excellence in Technology Transfer
1994 Leighton Memorial Medal, RACI
1971 Rennie Memorial Medal, RACI

Other appointments

2005-2007 President, Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
2005-2007 Member, Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council
1989-1991 President, Federation of Asian Chemical Societies
1987 President, Royal Australian Chemical Institute


  • Spurling, T H, Personal communication.
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