Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Wizards of Oz Book Launch

It is my great pleasure to join you this evening to support my former colleague, Dr Brett Mason, as we launch his book, Wizards of Oz: How Oliphant and Florey helped win the war and shape the modern world, here in South Australia.

I have worked with Brett in his capacity as Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and later as Australia's Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The characteristics I have come to associate with Brett come through clearly in this book.

His articulate writing, and his dedication to research and detail is outstanding.

What is also evident is Brett’s ability to see the significance of individuals and events, and how they fit into a bigger picture.

These attributes make him the ideal author of this story, which traces the lives of Oliphant and Florey across decades and continents, exploring the importance of their scientific work to Australia, the Second World War, and the progress of humankind.

It is fair to say that Brett’s decision to do a deep dive into the friendship between the two men has resulted in so much more than he anticipated.

While Oliphant and Florey are well known as scientists, their impact on the course of Second World War is less so, and I thank Brett for this important interpretation of their work.

Over an incredible 100 days in early 1940, Oliphant and Florey led teams to develop technologies that Brett argues, convincingly, were the most consequential innovations of the war – penicillin, microwave radar with the cavity magnetron at its heart, and the nuclear bomb.

The atomic bomb might have ended the war, but it was microwave radar that won it, and penicillin that enabled millions to survive it.

Outstanding achievements for two men born three years apart, three kilometres apart, here in Adelaide at the turn of the century.

The life and career choices they faced are ones other South Australians have grappled with over decades.

While receiving an excellent local education, in their case - and mine - at the University of Adelaide, the education and career opportunities available elsewhere compelled them to leave this city for the prestigious universities of England.

Oliphant of course returned to Australia in the 1950s to play a key role in the establishment of the Australian National University, and later to become one of my distinguished predecessors as Governor of South Australia.

I had the privilege of talking to him over a Sunday lunch one day in late 1991 at the home of his biographer and my stepfather, Stewart Cockburn, and my mother Jennifer Cashmore.

I, and, I know, many of you in this room, have known something of leaving a birthplace you love when opportunities are calling you elsewhere.

And I hope many of you have shared the pleasure I, and perhaps Sir Mark, felt, when one’s career and birthplace finally align.

Today, as Brett writes in the Afterword, talented Australians, including scientists, no longer need to leave our shores to pursue intellectual and scientific excellency.

Should they do so with the intention to gain experience and expertise, we should do all we can as a state, as I will as Governor, to ensure they are able to return to facilities and further growth opportunities that are equal to those elsewhere in the world.

I am pleased to note that we are well on the path to the second objective, with South Australian universities and research institutions achieving global eminence in medical research, space and other technologies, and many other fields.


Researching and writing a book of this length and magnitude is no small feat, and I congratulate Brett on its completion and release.

I thank him for shining new light on the stories of Oliphant and Florey, giving South Australians further reason to take pride in our state’s great individuals and our history of scientific achievement.

As I said to Brett when we spoke this afternoon, the book is written almost as if he were there – in the rooms and labs where it all happened.

I thank UNSW for publishing this book and the University of Adelaide for hosting this event.

I hope Wizards of Oz finds its way into the hands of every young South Australian scientist, inspiring them to go out into the world and do great things, in the fine tradition of their forebears – and into the hands of South Australians of all ages who like to know who we are, what we have done and what difference we – in this case Oliphant and Florey – made.

Coming events