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Australian Biography - Sir Marcus Oliphant

From the website Australians At Work.
Video clip synopsis – The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Sir Mark Oliphant helped to create the bomb, but even though it ended the war he can never reconcile himself to the loss of civilian life.
Year of production - 1991
Duration - 1min 35sec
Tags - conflict, nuclear energy, science, see all tags


Australian Biography - Sir Marcus Oliphant

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About the Video Clip


Sir Marcus Oliphant is an excerpt from the program Sir Marcus Oliphant (26 mins), an episode of Australian Biography Series 1 (7 × 26 mins), produced in 1991.

The Australian Biography series profiles some of the most extraordinary Australians of our time. Many have had a major impact on the nation’s cultural, political and social life. All are remarkable and inspiring people who have reached a stage in their lives where they can look back and reflect. Through revealing in-depth interviews, they share their stories – of beginnings and challenges, landmarks and turning points. In so doing, they provide us with an invaluable archival record and a unique perspective on the roads we, as a country, have travelled.

Australian Biography Series 1 is a Film Australia National Interest Program.

Curriculum Focus


4.5 identifies the meaning, purpose and context of historical sources
4.6 draws conclusions about the usefulness of sources as evidence in an inquiry
4.10 selects and uses appropriate oral, written and other forms, including ICT, to communicate effectively about the past.

Working Historically
Historical skills to be integrated into this topic include:
identify primary and secondary sources
distinguish between fact and opinion
examine the actions, motives, values and attitudes of people from the past
draw conclusions about the usefulness of sources for an historian identify perspectives of different individuals and groups.

This material is an extract. Teachers and students should consult the Board of Studies website for more information.

Background Information

While at Adelaide University in 1927, Sir Marcus Oliphant was accepted by Cambridge University, where he became part of a team whose task was to split the atom. Following the onset of World War 2, Oliphant’s research focus changed to support the war effort. Initially, he was in charge of a team that successfully developed microwave radar. Then, in November 1943, Oliphant moved to the USA to work on the Manhattan Project — the development of the first atomic bomb. Nazi Germany was at the point of developing its own atom bomb and so the race was on. Initially, the bomb was developed for use against Nazi Germany; but after their surrender before the bomb was ready, it was used to force the Japanese to surrender. Two bombs were dropped in August 1945 with devastating results — one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki. They remain the only two atomic bombs ever used in warfare.

After the war he returned to Australia, where he publicly opposed the development of atomic weapons as a misuse of atomic power.
'I suddenly realised that anybody who has a nuclear reactor can extract the plutonium from the reactor and make nuclear weapons, so that a country which has a nuclear reactor can, at any moment that it wants to, become a nuclear weapons power. And I, right from the beginning, have been terribly worried by the existence of nuclear weapons and very much against their use’.

On his return to Australia Oliphant became the first Director of the Australian National University’s Research School of Physical Sciences. After retiring from the ANU in 1967, Oliphant became the State Governor of South Australia in 1971.

Sir Marcus Oliphant retired to Canberra in 1976 and died in 2000.

Classroom Activities

  1. Sir Marcus Oliphant is associated with possibly the most significant event of the 20th century.
    1. What was the event?
    2. Investigate why the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima has been controversial?
    3. What is the issue that Sir Mark Oliphant cannot reconcile?
    4. In terms of working historically – when you watch the clip can you pick up any opinions that are stated as ‘fact’? Explain
    5. Is the film clip an example of primary or secondary source material?
    6. How useful is this film clip as a source for historians?
    7. If you were the interviewer what other questions would you have asked Sir Mark Oliphant?
    8. Consider how the questions asked by an interviewer can influence the value of the interview for future historians. Discuss your thoughts with a partner.
    9. Sir Mark Oliphant gives his perspective on the dropping of the bomb on ‘civilians’. What other perspectives may there be that contrast to this view?

Further Resources


Go to Australian Biography and select Sir Marcus Oliphant