Alan Walsh (physicist)

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Sir Alan Walsh

CSIRO ScienceImage 1107 Sir Alan Walsh 19161998 the father of atomic absorption spectroscopy.jpg
Born19 December 1916
Hoddlesden, England
Died3 August 1998 (aged 81)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Alma materUniversity of Manchester
Known forAtomic absorption spectroscopy
Spouse(s)Audrey Dale Hutchinson
ChildrenThomas Haworth
David Alan
Scientific career
CSIR (later CSIRO)

Sir Alan Walsh FAA FRS (19 December 1916 – 3 August 1998) was a British-Australian physicist, originator and developer of a method of chemical analysis called atomic absorption spectroscopy.[1][2][3]


Walsh was born on 19 December 1916 and brought up in Hoddlesden, a small village about twenty miles from Manchester. He was the eldest son of Thomas Haworth Walsh, cotton mill manager, and Betsy Alice (née Robinson).

From the age of ten Walsh attended the local grammar school in the nearby town of Darwen, where he passed the Northern Universities Matriculation examination in 1933 and the Higher School Certificate examination in 1935. He then went to the University of Manchester to read physics. On graduation in 1938 he was also awarded a research scholarship, which he took up in the physics department, where he was particularly influenced by Henry Lipson’s suggestion that he work on the structure of β-carotene. Walsh spent on year at Manchester working on this, before moving to the physics section of the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (BNF) in London, where he continued the theoretical work on the analysis. He was awarded an MSc (Tech) in 1944.[2]

War began on the day Walsh joined BNF, and so he set the task of determining which metals were being used in enemy bombers that had been shot down, information that could help establish how the German war effort was advancing. He devised several methods for the rapid and accurate spectrographic analysis of alloys based on aluminium, copper or zinc.[4] While developing the method he discovered that it could not always be transferred uniformly from one laboratory to another, so he set about devising a General Purpose Source Unit. This generated a stable and reproducible source of discharge, essential in spectrographic emission work. He then assisted Hilger & Watts Ltd to develop a commercial version.

In 1945 Alan applied for the post of Research Officer for Spectroscopic Investigations at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Melbourne. After a long delay, he was offered the job in March 1946, but he first had to spend 3-4 months in Gordon Sutherland’s lab in Cambridge, to gain experience in the new field of infrared molecular spectroscopy. This led to a paper on the structure of phthiocerane,[5] the hydrocarbon derived from phthiocerol, found in tubercle bacilli.[6]

Walsh arrived at CSIR, via laboratory visits in the USA, in April 1947. He set about installing the first operating infrared spectrometer in Australia, a Perkin-Elmer Model 12B. He soon realised that its resolution was insufficient for any but the lightest molecules, so he devised and patented a double-pass system, which was licensed to Perkin-Elmer.

Walsh is probably best known for his development of atomic absorption spectroscopy as an analytical tool.[7] This is a complex story, recounted in detail by Hannaford.[2]

In late 1976 Walsh received a telex from the Royal Society telling him that he had been awarded a Royal Medal in recognition of “your distinguished contributions to emission and infrared spectroscopy and your origination of the atomic absorption method of quantitative analysis”.[8] He retired from CSIRO on 5 January 1977, and in June was created a Knight Bachelor. In 1982 he was invited back to CSIRO as a Senior Research Fellow.

Honours, awards, affiliations and degrees[edit]

Medals and awards

Academic affiliations

Honorary degrees

The Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) Alan Walsh Medal, awarded for significant contributions in physics by an Australian industrial physicist, is named in his honour.[9]


Soon after he emigrated to Australia Walsh met Sunderland-born nurse Audrey Dale Hutchinson, whom he married in 1949. They had two sons, Thomas Haworth and David Alan.

Alan Walsh died in Melbourne on 3 August 1998.


  1. ^ McCarthy, G.J. "Walsh, Alan - Biographical entry". Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Hannaford, P. (2000). "Sir Alan Walsh. 19 December 1916 – 3 August 1998: Elected F.R.S. 1969". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 46: 535–564. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0100. JSTOR 770415.
  3. ^ Peter Hannaford. "Alan Walsh 1916-1998". Biographical memoirs. Australian Academy of Science. originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.13, no.2, 2000. Also published in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 2000.
  4. ^ For example Walsh, A (1945). "The spectrographic analysis of aluminium alloys by the direct comparison method". In Smith, D M (ed.). Collected papers on metallurgical analysis by the spectrograph. London: British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. pp. 65–81.
  5. ^ Ställberg-Stenhagen, S; Stenhagen, E; Sheppard, N; Sutherland, G B B M; Walsh, A. "Infra-Red Spectrum and Molecular Structure of Phthiocerane". Nature. 160 (4069): 580–582.
  6. ^ Ställberg-Stenhagen, S; Stenhagen, E (1 March 1950). "Studies on Hydrocarbons Structurally Related to Phthiocerol: Synthesis of the Levorotatory Enantiomorph of 4-Methyl-Tritriacontane". Journal of Biological Chemistry. 83 (1): 223–229.
  7. ^ Walsh, A (1955). "The application of atomic absorption spectra to chemical analysis". Spectrochimica Acta. 7: 108–117.
  8. ^ "Award winners : Royal Medal". The Royal Society: Royal Medals. Retrieved 19 January 2021.
  9. ^ "16th National Congress 2005" (PDF). Australian Institute of Physics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 March 2012. Retrieved 14 March 2012.

See also[edit]