Celebrating Dr Elizabeth Bradford: the first woman to receive a PhD in physics from ANU

Publication date
Wednesday, 26 Jun 2019
Photo of Dr Bradford and Sir Mark Oliphant

Dr Bradford and Sir Mark Oliphant. Credit: Rare Books & Special Collections, The University of Adelaide Library

When Elizabeth Bradford was completing her PhD in theoretical physics at ANU, the view from the Oliphant Building wasn’t of Lake Burley Griffin, but a grassy race track. Her PhD came before the water.

It was 1962 when Dr Bradford graduated, the same year that the Research School of Physical Sciences got its first computer, the IBM 1620. Dr Bradford’s graduation marked another first for the school: she was the first female student to receive a PhD in physics.

Dr Bradford came to ANU after completing a Bachelor of Science with Honours in physics and mathematics at the University of Queensland. While she was originally interested in astronomy, she didn’t like the idea of staying up all night completing observations, so instead moved into theoretical physics.

Supervised by Dr Fred Barker, Dr Bradford’s thesis was on proton reactions in light nuclei. While she was the only female PhD student, there were already other women working at the research school as computer operators and ‘calculators’. This was a critical function which many women held within physics at the time, including thousands who served at Bletchley Park - where the newly arrived Head of Theoretical Physics ANU, Kenneth Le Couteur had worked during the war.

Now in her eighties and living in Wellington, New Zealand, Dr Bradford says she has fond memories of ANU from the 1960s.

“I enjoyed my time at ANU. I didn’t face difficulties being a female student – rather I was given positive support.”

Professor Brian Robson, who collaborated with Dr Bradford on two papers and remembers her as a “self-assured student”, says that in many ways, she benefited from being the first.

“There were no other female students, so no-one thought to treat her differently.”

After graduating, Dr Bradford received a scholarship to travel to Copenhagen and Brighton, where her thesis examiners were located, and later spent three years at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, UK, before returning to work for several years at the CSIRO in the Division of Plant Industry.

At this point in her career, she says she realised that theoretical nuclear physics was not her interest, and instead moved to the Applied Mathematics Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in New Zealand, where she stayed until the early 1990s, when DSIR was split into several standalone parts.

“Then I got a job in Fisheries analysing fisheries data, which I enjoyed,” Dr Bradford says. “The part of Fisheries where I was working soon got merged into the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA). By the time I reached 65, I knew that if I was to progress, I would have to do some formal statistical study or retire.”

Dr Bradford opted to retire and study other interests. “I found out more about New Zealand, mainly flora and fauna, and I did courses on classical Greece and Rome.”

Over a cup of coffee at University House, Professor Robson recalls his years working with Dr Bradford. He has been a member of University House for almost 60 years, starting from when he used to live here. He remembers when Canberra’s first traffic lights were installed, and he remembers the lake being filled with water.

It’s tempting to add Dr Bradford’s graduation to a list of these historic moments, but it doesn’t feel like a notch on a timeline, fixed in the past. It feels more fluid than that, like that water rushing into the lake. She set in motion the circumstances for other female physicists to graduate after her, and for a previously closed-off future to open up.

“What she achieved was important,” Professor Robson says. “She showed it could be done.”

The ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering is celebrating its 70th anniversary on October 25, 2019. For more information, please email: Ea.rspe@anu.edu.au