The secret life of Miss Ruby Payne-Scott

Media release: Thursday, 12 March 2009

How times have changed . . . to mark Women's History Month, the National Archives has uncovered previously secret ASIO files which shed light on the extraordinary career, cut short by pregnancy and forced retirement, of pioneer radio physicist and outspoken advocate for women's rights Ruby Payne-Scott (1912–81).

Payne-Scott became one of Australia's first paid female physicists when she was hired by the Radiophysics Laboratory of the then Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) at the University of Sydney in 1941. She was part of an Australian team that developed a means of measuring radio emissions from the sun, a breakthrough which would lead to the construction of sophisticated radio telescopes.

Payne-Scott was passionate about the independence of scientific research. She was also an alleged member of the Communist Party of Australia. This brought her to the attention of ASIO. Scott-Payne's ASIO file – the Archives' Find of the Month for March – indicates that she was of interest from 1948 to 1959.

In an ASIO report dated March 1959, an informant, whose name has been withheld, incorrectly alleged that she was dismissed from what is now the CSIRO, 'for failing to give notification of her marriage'. Until November 1966, the Australian Public Service required married women to resign. For this reason Payne-Scott hid her marriage and when her six-year secret was exposed in 1950, she was retired but immediately reinstated by CSIRO on a temporary basis.

In July 1951, with the birth of her first child imminent, Payne-Scott was obliged to resign. Her daughter is artist Fiona Hall and her son mathematician Professor Peter Hall.

A biography of Payne-Scott is finally being written – Under the Radar : Ruby Payne-Scott, the first Woman Radio Astronomer by Professor Miller Goss and Dr Richard McGee – to be launched in Australia in November 2009.

To learn more about the life of Ruby Payne Scott see our special web pages The secret life of Miss Ruby Payne-Scott.

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