Wizards of Oz: Oliphant and Florey – their story


Wizards of Oz

How Oliphant and Florey helped win the war and shape the modern world 
By Brett Mason
Published by New South
RRP $34.99 in paperback | ISBN 9781742237459

Almost eight decades after childhood friends from Adelaide — physicist Mark Oliphant (born 1901) and medical researcher Howard Florey (born 1898) — initiated the most significant scientific and industrial projects of the Second World War, author Brett Mason finally tells the story of how these two outstanding Australian scientists played a vital yet largely unknown role in the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Mason tells how Oliphant and Florey were also instrumental in convincing a reluctant United States to develop and deploy the three breakthrough inventions in time to change the course of the war: manufacturing penicillin, developing microwave radar and building the atomic bomb as part of Project Manhattan.

The use of the atomic bomb by America against Japan to end the war in the Pacific has inevitably raised questions about its necessity.

But as Mason writes, the young men destined to participate in the assault on Japanese beaches suffered no such qualms. He quotes one platoon leader recalling how we broke down and cried with relief. ‘We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all’.

And Howard Florey, writes Mason, ‘never set out to save humanity from pain and misery’, quoting Florey as saying it: ‘I don’t think it ever crossed our minds about suffering …. because it was of some use in medicine is very gratifying …’

The development of penicillin saved millions upon millions of lives and of course its legacy continues to this day.

But beyond the towering achievements of these two men, Mason contends that their achievements helped Australia change the way we think of ourselves, to see ourselves as a smart and self-assured nation, yet these men achieved what they did, not within Australia, but by leaving.

Today, Mason writes, Australians can now change history without leaving home. The legacy of these two towering figures in Australian scientific research lives on.

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