John William White (1937–2023)

Richard Welberry
Photo of Professor White published with permission of the Research School of Chemistry, Australian National University, Canberra, and David White.

It is with sadness that we report that Professor John White, whose name will be familiar to many in crystallography and neutron science circles, passed away at his home in Canberra, Australia, on 16 August 2023 at the age of 86. Our thoughts are with his wife, Ailsa, his four children and their extended families, and many friends and colleagues. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

John William White AO CMG FRS FAA FAIP FRACI (born 25 April 1937) was a Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry in the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University in Canberra. He was a past president of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and President of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering. He held the Argonne Fellowship (University of Chicago, IL, USA) and was for many years a Fellow of St John's College, Oxford, UK. Between 1975 and 1981, he was director of the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL), Grenoble, France. He was a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

John was born and grew up in Newcastle, NSW. He was born on Anzac Day – an important day for all Australians. He was proud of this coincidence and made a point of attending the Anzac Day Parade (held at dawn) whenever he was in Australia. He was the eldest child of George and Jean White and had two younger sisters, Wendy and Gina. Both his parents were immensely supportive and proud of him. He was the first in the family to go to university – at the age of 16. John graduated from the University of Sydney in 1957 with First Class Honours in chemistry and won the Frank Dixon Prize. He went on to obtain his MSc in 1959 and then won a prestigious 1851 Scholarship to continue his studies in Oxford, where he obtained his DPhil and subsequently became a Lecturer and Fellow of St John's College (at the tender age of 26). He remained in Oxford until 1985, apart from a five-year period between 1975 and 1981, when he moved with his family to Grenoble to take up the appointment of joint director and then director of the ILL. He returned to Australia in 1985 to take up the appointment of Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the Research School of Chemistry in the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University. He maintained his links both with St John's in Oxford and with the ILL in Grenoble and frequently visited both, usually managing to do some experiments, either at ILL or at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Neutron Source (ISIS) near Oxford. He kept his house in Grenoble.

John was very proud of his association with St John's College, and it has been said that since that time, the only tie that he ever wore was his St John's tie. His time in Oxford affected him in many ways, and he valued every moment. His family recalls with affection that he met his wife-to-be, Ailsa, during his early days at Oxford, and he would often relate the story of their first meeting and maintained that it was the single most important and best thing that ever happened in his life. John and Ailsa shared an incredible bond through 57 years of marriage.

Perhaps John's most significant contribution to Australian science has been his role in getting both the OPAL Neutron Source (in Sydney) and the Australian Synchrotron (in Melbourne) funded by governments and built to the highest international standard. Together, these two research facilities represent at least a AUS$500M investment in the country's scientific and technological future, and they have accelerated the internationalisation of Australian science, in addition to decelerating the brain drain. Although not in the direct management chain, John served on many important committees and used his position in the Australian Academy of Science to help make the political, scientific and business case for both OPAL and the Australian Synchrotron. This has given the next generation of Australian researchers in many fields of science and engineering "the opportunity of a generation" and has allowed them to do their research in Australia rather than to have to travel overseas.

From an early age, John liked to experiment in the laboratory himself. His family recalls that as a schoolboy, he set up a laboratory in his grandmother's house. Every week, he obtained a new chemical from the local pharmacy, on which he experimented using a textbook his father bought him. He claimed never to have had a fire or an explosion! Later, even when he had a large group of students and postdocs working with him, he would still like to be involved himself. He led from the front!

One of the marks of John's career has been the talent that he nurtured and grew at Oxford and the Australian National University in Canberra, where he has played a leading and influential role for the last 30 years or so. Several of his protégés have become directors of leading international research centres around the world. The Bragg Institute at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) employs at least three of John's students or postdoctoral fellows from the Australian National University. He has deeply influenced the careers of many more.

John was the second President of the Asia-Oceania Neutron Scattering Association and was one of the leading players in its formation (along with colleagues in Japan and Korea). As recently as July 2015, he was awarded the AONSA Prize in recognition of his leadership across the Asia–Pacific. He has advised many overseas laboratories, including the CCLRC in the UK and several others in the USA. Most significantly, he was chair for many years (2002–2012) of the International Advisory Committee for the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex, the other leading facility (along with OPAL) of its type in our region.

John has made huge contributions to global science: most notably, I think he must have been the first to open up the new method of neutron scattering (using neutrons from research reactors) to chemistry in the 1960s. This gave British and Australian chemists a leadership position they have never relinquished. In addition, he was a prime mover in using specific deuteration of molecules to change the contrast in such experiments, which now turns out to be the "killer application" of neutron scattering worldwide. Indeed, it was a key factor in Australia's decision in 1997 to build the new OPAL Reactor and later on to fund the world-leading National Deuteration Facility at ANSTO.

Another aspect of John's legacy to Australia was his involvement in the setting up of the Oxford Australia Scholarship fund over 20 years ago. This Fund was initiated to endow scholarships each year for academically top Australian graduates to go to Oxford University for study and research. John took the lead in raising the endowment, which now totals AUS$4,500,000, and for those 20 years, he chaired the committee that awards the scholarships annually. So far, about 100 young Australians have benefited from this scheme.

On a personal level, I have enjoyed many stimulating interactions with John, covering a wide range of mutually interesting topics, which I will greatly miss.

4 October 2023

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