Emeritus Professor John de Laeter
AO PhD DSc BSc(Hons), BEd(Hons) HonDTech(Curtin) HonDLitt WAust FTSE FAIP
1933 – 2010
A physicist and science luminary of international standing, John de Laeter began his career as a science teacher at Bunbury High School. It was at a science teachers’ conference in Sydney in the late 1950s when, inspired by a debate on the origins of the universe, he made the life-changing decision to return to university to study nuclear astrophysics. Significantly, the decision would see him go on to lead research in dating the Earth’s mantle and exploring the extremities of the Solar System. He would play a central role in the way technology is developed and applied in Western Australia, and facilitate collaboration in science between government, industry and universities. He helped advance science education and influenced the direction of physical sciences research in WA.
In 1957, as a condition of his undergraduate bursary, de Laeter commenced the first of several years teaching at Perth Technical College. Ten years later at the age of 34, he became Head of the Department of Physics at WAIT. In this role and subsequent administrative and educational roles he negotiated with the university, businesses and State Government to invest in several visionary projects, all of which have become outstanding successes: Technology Park (Chair, 1988 – 93, and then Patron); the renowned Science and Mathematics Education Centre at Curtin; the Scitech Discovery Centre (Deputy Chair, 1988 – 96, and then Patron); and the Gravity Discovery Centre at Gingin (Foundation Chair). He also served as President of the Western Australian Conservation and Environment Council for three years.
De Laeter’s own research produced many achievements in numerous fields of interest. He measured the atomic weight of twelve elements, mapped the geological ages of many regions of Western Australia and demonstrated the potential of an African rock outcrop to contain radioactive material and hence store nuclear waste. Furthermore, his colleagues at the John de Laeter Centre of Mass Spectrometry, which he established in 1997, discovered the world’s most ancient minerals, at Jack Hills WA, which they identified as approximately 4.4 billion years old.
De Laeter was Deputy Chair of the world’s second largest mineral sands company, a long serving Governor of the Clunies Ross Foundation, captain of an Australian veterans hockey team, and served as a Lay Preacher of the Uniting Church. He received many awards, including the Order of Australia in 1992, a Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, an Honorary Doctor of Technology from Curtin in 1995 and, in respect of his research in astrophysics, a minor planet (Minor Planet de Laeter 3893) was named after him in 1996.
Professor of Physics at Curtin since 1986, de Laeter held several of the University’s most senior academic positions until he retired in 1995 as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Development.
Curtin has recognised his work with the naming of:
- John de Laeter Centre of Mass Spectrometry
- John de Laeter Building, Department of Applied Physics
White, Michael. 1996. WAIT to Curtin: A History of the Western Australian Institute of Technology. Perth: Paradigm Books Curtin University.