Robert Street, 1920-2013

A prominent physicist and former University of Western Australia vice-chancellor has died

August 22, 2013

Robert Street was born into a coal-mining family in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1920. The first in his family to attend university, he knew early on that he would pursue a career in physics. Speaking to the Australian Academy of Science in 2005, he said: “I have always thought that in almost any endeavour, if you can discover things for yourself – even though they’ve already been known for many, many years – this is a real encouragement to continue. That is what happened to me when I was 12.”

Originally destined for undergraduate study at New College, Oxford in 1939 after being awarded a scholarship, Professor Street saw his place disappear after he failed to meet the university’s Latin requirement. Instead he took up a place at King’s College London, which was teaching in Bristol after the outbreak of the Second World War.

In just over a year, he completed a physics “BSc special” – a shortened degree designed to train scientists to help with the war effort. He was then sent to work at the Air Defence Research and Development Establishment in Christchurch, Dorset, where he conducted research into measuring the power of radar signal generators. It was on this topic, known as “absolute measurement of power”, that Professor Street completed his PhD at University College, Nottingham, now the University of Nottingham.

After serving as an assistant lecturer at Nottingham, he took a senior lecturer role at the University of Sheffield, which he held for six years between 1954 and 1960, producing a number of landmark papers on magnetism. It was then, aged 40, that Professor Street, with his wife and two young children, moved to Australia to become foundation professor of physics at Monash University, Melbourne, which had been established just two years earlier.

During his 25-year career in Australia he became vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia in 1978, and he held the position until 1986. In between Monash and Western Australia, he spent four years as director of research at the Australian National University in Canberra.

In his position on the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, Professor Street advised the Australian government on the use of atomic power and the – ultimately abandoned – plans to build a nuclear reactor in the country.

A tribute published in the University of Western Australia newsletter described Professor Street as “a much-loved research mentor” who “had a building named after him in 2010 and the number of people who attended the celebration of that was testament to his popularity”.

Professor Street died peacefully aged 93 at the Royal Perth Hospital on 4 July, and is survived by his wife, Joan, and two children, Alison and Nicholas.

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