The secret life of Miss Ruby Payne-Scott

Julia Church
Thursday, 21 March 2019

The redoubtable Ruby Payne-Scott (1912–81) – pioneer radio physicist, mother, teacher, bushwalker and outspoken advocate for women's rights – was, until recently, one of our unsung heroines.

In 1940s Australia there were few opportunities for female scientists like Ruby Payne-Scott. However, the manpower shortage brought on by World War II gave Ruby her lucky break. In June 1941 she and Joan Freeman became the first women physicists to be employed by the Radiophysics Laboratory of the then Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) at the University of Sydney.

Their work was classified 'top secret' and would be instrumental in forcing the Japanese out of the Pacific. War demanded practical as well as scientific resourcefulness – Australia's coastline was protected by radars developed out of 'coathangers and sticky tape' by Ruby and her colleagues.

What followed was a brief but extraordinary career marked by scientific milestones. Ruby was part of the Australian team that developed a means of measuring radio emissions from the Sun and stars, a breakthrough which would in turn lead to the construction of sophisticated radio telescopes. Colleague Joseph Pawsey put a name to their groundbreaking work: 'radio astronomy'.

Like many of her CSIR colleagues, Ruby was passionate about the independence of scientific research. She was also a suspected Communist. Such sentiments were deemed a security risk in Cold War Australia. Ruby's ASIO file indicates that she was 'a person of interest' from 1948 to 1959. Although she was in fact a member of the Communist Party, ASIO officers were unable to confirm anything other than an association with the Party, a commitment to international co-operation among scientists and to trade unionism. In Ruby's ASIO file an informant, whose identity has been withheld, states that the scientist 'may be a supporter of [human rights activist] Jessie Street but it is not known whether that is in the political or feminist field' and adds, 'I would not put anything beyond her'.

In an ASIO report dated March 1959, it was noted that there was no record 'of any activity in this State [Victoria] on the part of Miss Payne-Scott'. The report noted that an informant claimed, incorrectly, that Ruby was dismissed from what was now the CSIRO 'for failing to give notification of her marriage'.

Until the amendment of the Public Service Act in November 1966, women employed in the Australian Public Service were required to resign upon marriage. Married women were obliged to accept temporary positions with poor career prospects and no entitlements. Like countless other women, the scientist hid her marriage. When her six-year secret was finally exposed in 1950, she was forced to retire as a permanent staffer and was reinstated on a temporary basis. Never one to mince words, Ruby told the CSIRO:

Personally I feel no legal or moral obligation to have taken any other action than I have in making my marriage known… the present procedure with regard to married women… seems to go far beyond the simple statement in the Act … [it] is ridiculous and can lead to ridiculous results.

In July 1951, with the birth of her first child imminent, Ruby was obliged to leave the CSIRO. In a letter to the organisation's Chief Executive Officer, she wrote:

I am, of course, sorry to give up the research work I have been doing and also to leave the laboratory where I have been so happy and have so many friends. If all goes well, I do not expect to be returning to Radiophysics at least for some years, but I hope that I may be able to hear the latest on solar noise at the ANZAAS and more particularly the URSI conference in Sydney next year.

Ruby did attend the Sydney conference, but she never returned to the CSIRO. For ten years she devoted herself to raising her two children, the artist Fiona Hall and mathematician Professor Peter Hall. When her children matured, the former physicist took up a post as science teacher at Danebank Anglican School for Girls.

Ruby Payne-Scott died on 25 May 1981. Her achievements are remembered in the CSIRO’s Payne-Scott Award, which assists researchers who have taken career breaks to care for family to re-enter their field; and in the Danebank Anglican School for Girls annual Ruby Payne-Scott Lecture, which is delivered by a leading female scientist.

CSIR staff file for Ruby Payne-Scott 1941–51. NAA: A8520, PH/PAY/002

ASIO personal file for Ruby Payne-Scott 1948–59. NAA: A6119, 167