BRAGG, MAWSON AND BROWN,
AND THE EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
* School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia
GPO Box 2471 Adelaide SA 5001
The discovery of uranium at Radium Hill in the Olary region in 1906 excited much public interest
in South Australia as well as the attention of three of its most prominent scientists: W.H. Bragg,
D. Mawson and H.Y.L. Brown. At the same time, radioactivity was recognised in the Moonta
mines. The reaction of each was different with Bragg being revealed as more of a pure (rather than
applied) scientist who was held in the highest public esteem, whilst Mawson quickly became the
entrepreneur. Brown shows himself as the trustworthy, yet cautious, Government advisor. As the
youngest of the three, Mawson continued his pioneering interest for the rest of his life. With the
discovery of uranium at Mount Painter in 1910, his entrepreneurial acumen was enhanced,
supported not only by intensive geological investigations, but also by skills in accessing the
resource, sourcing development capital and envisaging mining development. His rising status as
a heroic Antarctic explorer was presumably an advantage. Reduced Government and public
interest in the Mount Painter discovery initially is reflected by delayed involvement from Brown,
who was then approaching retirement. In 1909, Bragg left SouthAustralia to pursue his academic
career and further scientific research on radioactivity and X rays in the United Kingdom. This led
to the award of the Nobel Prize in 1915 (jointly with his son), yet no ongoing involvement in
South Australian uranium.
KEY WORDS: William Henry Bragg, Douglas Mawson, Henry Yorke Lyell Brown, Uranium,
Radium Hill, Mount Painter, South Australia.
Uranium is an important mineral in SouthAustralia today, given its commercial value and the opportunity that
it provides for economic development. Historically, South Australian uranium was also significant. It was
recognised as early as 1890, even before great interest was fermented by the 1896 discovery of its radioactivity,
and there has been a long subsequent history of uranium exploration, discovery and mining in the State.
In this article the focus is on the earliest period of uranium discovery in South Australian, at the beginning
of the twentieth century, and the role that was played by University of Adelaide scientists, William Henry
Bragg (1862–1942) and Douglas Mawson (1882–1958), and their interaction with South Australian
Government Geologist, Henry Yorke Lyell Brown (1844–1928). A significant amount of historical
documentation exists, especially in press reports. This documentation, as well as other unpublished material
is referenced in footnotes.
Both Bragg and Mawson subsequently attained wide international fame in their chosen fields. Sir William
Bragg received acclaim as a physicist, who, together with his son, W.L. Bragg, received the Nobel Prize in
1915 for their groundbreaking research on X Rays. Sir Douglas Mawson first achieved wide recognition as
an Antarctic explorer and geologist, during the Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica, 1907–1909. H.Y.L.
Brown is also highly respected amongst geologists as a pioneering explorer-geologist, especially in South
Australia and the Northern Territory (1882–1912). All three scientists were born in or had strong links with
the United Kingdom, yet by 1906 all had resided in Australia for 20 years or more.All three were members
of the Royal Society of South Australia. They were also each of a different generation given their year of
Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia (2009), 133(2): 199–218
birth, yet each interacted on the subject of uranium and radioactivity for a few short years in South Australia.
Tomlin (1979), Jacka (1986) and Dunlop (1979) provide a biographical summary of each scientist in the
‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’.
1906 proved to be a pivotal year for the history of uranium in Australia (Mudd 2005). The possibility of a
commercial uranium resource was recognised for the first time as a consequence of discoveries made in the
Olary region of South Australia, near the New South Wales border, which was close to the established
transport corridor leading to Broken Hill. A uranium rush ensued, the first of its kind in Australia. It had
similarities reminiscent of the gold rushes that had periodically burst across the Australian outback during
the previous century. The occurrence of radioactive material in the Moonta Mines was also publicised at the
same time. A few years later in 1910, a further uranium discovery was announced at Mount Painter in the
northern Flinders Ranges. Another surge in interest followed, but on this occasion, a development company
was carefully established with the involvement of Mawson, the public spotlight was less intense, and interest
from the Government was not so apparent.
The discovery of uranium as an element is an important part of modern history. Unlike traditional metals, such
as iron, copper and tin, its discovery by the German chemist M.H. Klaproth in 1789 is well documented.
However the element was of mere academic interest until French physicist, Henri Becquerel, discovered its
natural radioactive character in 1896 at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Soon after, in 1898, Marie
Curie announced the discovery of a new, strongly radioactive element, in association with it, which was
named radium. Radium excited more immediate public attention than uranium; however, in order to find
radium in nature, uranium minerals were the target.
Crockers Well, 1951
Goulds Dam, 1974
Olympic Dam, 1975
Mount Painter, 1910 Beverley, 1969
NEW SOUTH WALES
0 50 100 Kilometres
DATUM GDA 94 MAP PROJECTION ZONE 54
SELECTED URANIUM DISCOVERIES
SOUTH AUSTRALIA, 1906-1982
Uranium deposit and
Figure 1. Map showing location of principal uranium discoveries in South Australia. The town of Moonta is also shown.
The possibility of uranium occurring in South Australia had been suggested, as early as 1889, by well-known
mining promoter, J.B.Austin (1827–1896)1. The first reported uranium record in South Australia dates from
1890 in the Mount Rhine silver/lead mine near Cambrai in the Murray Mallee (O’Neil 1982, p.152–154)2.
However at the time of this initial discovery, the radioactivity of uranium was unknown, little use for the metal
could be envisaged and the reports were virtually ignored. There is also a record that uranium was discovered
in the Olary region, as early as 1896 by a J. Newson, who thought that he had discovered copper3. W.B.
Greenwood later advised that he was also prospecting in the Mount Painter area during the same year4.
However there is little doubt that major interest in uranium in South Australia did not develop until after the
success of Marie Curie’s research and the application of radioactivity in medicine with the resulting high price
that was offered for radium.
As reviewed by Randall and Driver-Smith (1989), detection of radioactivity during the subsequent period of
uranium exploration and research was achieved by utilising either the photographic method by which uranium
minerals are exposed on a photographic plate or by an electroscope being rapidly discharged by radioactivity.
Brugger et al (2003) explain that electroscopes were manufactured in Adelaide for radioactivity testing
(including geological field work) for both William Bragg and Douglas Mawson by L.A. Rogers, Instrument
Maker, during the early years of the 20th century. According to Laby (1910), the use of strong nitric acid to
produce yellow/green solutions from uranium minerals, and the availability of a ‘prospector’s scintilloscope’
provided further means of detection.
South Australian authorities 1906
At the time when uranium occurrences became
widely known in South Australia during 1905 and
1906, William Bragg had been Elder Professor of
Mathematics and Physics at the University of
Adelaide since 1886. He was also popular in the
community and active in the cultural and educational
affairs of South Australia.
His interest in physics, initially an adjunct to his
mandate in mathematics, developed slowly and his
first research papers in physics were published in
1891. His earliest research on radioactivity probably
occurred in Adelaide during 1903 and he presented
his first paper on the radioactivity of radium during
the following year at the meeting of the
‘AustralasianAssociation for the Advancement of Science’in Dunedin, New Zealand (Bragg 1904a). Further
research was quickly published via the Royal Society of South Australia in Adelaide as well as in London
(Bragg 1904b) with additional papers published in South Australia, England and Germany by 1906 (Bragg
1906a,b,c). These efforts earned him a Fellowship of the Royal Society of London, also in 1906. At the same
time, Bragg had also gained public recognition for his research in South Australia, as he gave public lectures
to large audiences on radioactivity in which he detailed his collaboration with Ernest Rutherford in Montreal
(Nobel Laureate for Chemistry 1908) as well as Becquerel in Paris and unashamedly proclaimed that
‘Adelaide University had made a material contribution to the world’s knowledge of radioactivity’5.
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Figure 2. William Henry
Bragg (1862–1942) in
1See Mount Barker Courier under Mining, 8 November 1889.
2O’Neil discusses reports that were published in Observer, 26 June 1890, 5 July 1890, 12 July 1890.
3“Radium at Olary” Register, 21 April 1913 page 4, column 6.
4“Radium at Mount Paynter” Register 30 November 1910, page 9, columns 7–8.
5“The New Science - Professor Bragg on Radioactivity – Adelaide University Experiments”, Advertiser, 19 June 1906, page 8,
column 6. “Radioactivity – Lecture by Professor Bragg” Register, 19 June 1906, page 7, column 6.
Douglas Mawson’s earliest association with
uranium and radium also occurred in 1903, when he
was a Junior Demonstrator in Chemistry at the
University of Sydney (Corbett 1998, Branagan &
Holland 1985, p.45 & 46). Mawson’s research at
that time examined mineral samples across NSW,
together with a few from Western Australia, for
radioactivity. A joint paper with chemist/ physicist
Thomas Laby entitled ‘Preliminary Observations on
Radioactivity and the occurrence of Radium in
Australian minerals’ was published (Mawson &
Laby 1904). Mawson later claimed that this work
records the first radium to be discovered in
Australia. Furthermore he suggested that Mawson
and Laby’s record of radioactive minerals from the
Barrier Ranges in NSW might in fact have included specimens collected from adjacent South Australia6, and
provided an advance notice of the discovery of uranium mineralisation in the Olary region.
Laby and Mawson (1905), in an article in the Sydney press, advise that ‘The discovery of minerals from
which radium can be extracted is of high scientific and commercial importance” and “granite country is
essentially the uranium prospector’s hunting ground and it is, therefore, in such parts of Australia, as that
in which large intrusive masses of granite occur that these explorations should be carried on’. This pioneering
article also concludesd that uranium occurs in common association with lodes of silver, lead and copper.
These predictions were made immediately before Mawson arrived in South Australia in time to commence
teaching at the University of Adelaide on 1 March 1905. This article also discussed the price of radium and
offered photographic testing for radioactivity at the University of Sydney.
Mawson’s early introduction to uranium reflects the foresight of T.W. Edgeworth David and A. Liversidge
(University of Sydney) in proposing the research, and Mawson’s appreciation of this. Branagan and Holland
(1985 p. 45) and Branagan (2007) have discussed the circumstances of Mawson’s and Laby’s introduction
to uranium minerals, and Mawson’s construction of an electroscope at the University of Sydney following
the collection of uranium bearing gadolinite from Western Australia (Davis 1902).
By 1906, Henry Yorke Lyell Brown had been
Government Geologist in South Australia since
1882. He had had a long and varied professional
experience as a geologist, miner and public servant
in Australia dating back to 1865 and at the time of
his retirement in 1912, ‘correctness, care and
caution’ were considered his chief attributes as well
as ‘a loveable disposition’7. His role was to provide
technical advice to the SA Government and to the
community on mineral potential. He was highly
respected in this position and ‘honoured throughout
the Commonwealth as a sound geologist’8.
However, he was keen to point out as late as May
1906 that he had no experience with uranium
Figure 3. Douglas
field photo taken in
1902, prior to his arrival
in South Australia.
6“Concerning Radium – Interview with Mr Mawson” Register 5 May 1906, page 7, columns 2–4.
“Carnotite at Olary – Views of Mr Mawson” Advertiser 5 May 1906, page 9, column 8, Page 10, columns 1 & 2.
7“Mr H.Y.L. Brown retires – Long and Useful Career – The Story of his Work” Advertiser 8 January 1912 page 9, columns 2 & 3,
and “Concerning People” Register 9 December 1911, page 15, column 3.
8“Concerning People” Register 9 December 1911, page 15, column 3.
Lyell Brown (1844–
1928), in field attire
about the time of the
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
mineralisation (O’Neil 1982, p.153). With the discovery of radioactivity and radium, Brown was aware of
growing community interest in radioactive minerals and the high value that was being placed on radium, but
advised a prospector in 1903 ‘not to waste time searching for it’. Despite his long experience with minerals
in Australia, Brown, like most other geologists at the time, had never explored for, nor found uranium
minerals, when they were recognised in 1906. Consequently it appears that he was doubtful about the
advantages of devoting much effort trying.
At the start of the 20thcentury, the largest mining operations in South Australia were the Moonta-Wallaroo-
Kadina copper mines on northern Yorke Peninsula, the so-called ‘Copper triangle’. Starting in September
1905, an exhaustive investigation for signs of radioactivity was carried out at the Moonta Mines after a
radioactive substance was discovered ‘almost by accident’9. There is some suggestion that the discovery
resulted from an assessment of all minerals, additional to copper, in the Moonta ore body.
The response to this discovery demonstrates the contrasting approaches of William Bragg and Douglas
Mawson towards uranium, in particular Mawson’s entrepreneurial approach towards mineral discovery,
which had already been demonstrated in his article in the Sydney press before his arrival in South Australia.
The Moonta radioactivity was initially discovered by the photographic method and it can be safely assumed
that it was a chance observation, cultivated by curiosity in radioactivity by the Assistant Chemist at the
Moonta Mines, Sydney Radcliffe. Certainly Radcliffe is recorded as having ‘spent practically almost all his
time in continuing his examination of the ores’ during the period September 1905 – May 190610 and both
Bragg and Mawson later credited Radcliffe with the discovery11. As reported by D. Davidson (Secretary,
Wallaroo and Moonta Mines) on 10 May 190612, Radcliffe had investigated hundreds of samples at the
Moonta mine over some 9 months and found uranium to occur very rarely both in Treuer’s as well as Taylor’s
shaft at the mines. In addition, Radcliffe noted, ‘uranium lode material contains a good percentage of copper’,
thus providing an early record of the common co-occurrence of copper and uranium in South Australia.
William Bragg became involved in the Moonta discovery in March 1906, presumably because of his known
research interests in radiation and links that he had cultivated with Moonta over the years13. Bragg also seems
to have been the only authority in Adelaide at that time to possess an electroscope that could be used to test
The initial recognition of radioactivity at the Moonta mines remained secret until the Olary discovery was
announced in early May 1906. The overall attitude of the Wallaroo and Moonta Mines management suggests
that release of the knowledge was a breach of confidentiality. From 3 May 1906, the shares of the Wallaroo
and Moonta Mines consequently advanced from 42 to 50 shillings (ie $AU4.20 to $AU5.00 in modern
currency) as a result of speculation that one shareholder advised was “on the basis of Professor Bragg’s
determination of radioactive minerals”14.
In the press, Bragg is quoted as saying that radium was worth £5 a milligram but it was costly to extract and
the existing material was not of sufficient size 15. As a consequence of the ‘unusual amount of interest in
commercial circles and especially on the Stock Exchange’, Bragg also needed to advise ‘nothing had occurred
9“Is It Radium?” Register 4 May 1906, page 5, columns 2-3.
10 “Is it Radium? - Concerning Radium - Interview with Mr Mawson” Register 5 May 1906, page 7, columns 3 & 4
11 “Radium” Yorkes Peninsula Advertiser. 24 August 1906, page 2, column 6.
12 “Radioactive Material: Experiments at the Wallaroo Mines” Register 10 May 1906, page 7,
column 4. “The Moonta Discovery: Interesting Reports” Advertiser 10 May 1906, page 4, column 8.
13 Jenkins (2007) advises that Bragg was Examiner at the Moonta School of Mines in 1895 and 1896.
14 “Wallaroo and Moonta Mining Company - To the Editor” Register 5 May 1906, page 4, column 3.
15 “Is it Radium? Chat with Professor Bragg” Register, 4 May 1906, page 5, column 2.
at present to suggest that the local discoveries (he was also referring to the Olary/Radium Hill discovery) were
a justification for a commercial boom’16.Thus Bragg is notably circumspect and cautious, suggesting that
he may have been embarrassed by the breach of confidentiality. Mawson’s approach was different and he
acted independently of Bragg.
Mawson, given his background and experience in uranium minerals and exploration, was likely aware of the
Moonta discovery early, as a consequence of his university contact and friendship with Bragg. However,
Mawson only seems to have visited Moonta to examine the site of the discovery on 8 May, after the initial
press announcements and after publication of personal interviews17. In these, Mawson promoted the
possibility of ‘a most important discovery at Moonta’ in addition to advising of his previous work on
radioactive minerals, including his recognition of radium in samples from Western Australia, two years
earlier. In contrast to Bragg, he was more positive, perhaps opportunistic in the commercial sense. It is later
reported of his visit that he: ‘made an inspection of the radioactive substances recently discovered… (and
noted)… that the carnotite found at both Moonta and Olary is of low grade and is practically of no value
excepting as specimens, but great hopes are entertained that better material will be developed in the
workings’18,hence, despite an apparent lack of success, Mawson remained positive. He maintained an
optimistic stance in the same way as a modern mineral exploration geologist. Another report noted ‘Mr
Mawson seemed more impressed with samples from Moonta than from Olary…’19.
Three months later at the 7 August 1906 meeting of the Royal Society of South Australia, Mawson exhibited
a collection of radioactive minerals, including carnotite from Moonta and Radium Hill, as well as samples
from localities in the Pilbara in Western Australia, Emmaville in NSW and near Cairns in Queensland. This
suggests that collections associated with the investigations by Mawson in Sydney prior to his arrival in
Adelaide had been forwarded from Sydney and that Mawson was signalling his intention to continue his
interest in radioactive minerals.
During 1906, Bragg also spoke on radioactivity at the April, September and October meetings of the Royal
Society of SouthAustralia. On 22 August 1906, he was invited to deliver a lecture on ‘Radium’to the Moonta
Institute by a ‘Mr H.W. Uffindell (Chairman of the local university centre)’20. Bragg spoke for one and quarter
hours to a local audience with reference to the recent discovery at Moonta and ‘paid a high compliment to
Mr S. Radcliffe, one of the company’s chemists who made the discovery’21. At the 4 September 1906 meeting
of the Royal Society of South Australia, Bragg also communicated a paper by Sydney Radcliffe on ‘Radium
at the Moonta mines’. Unlike Mawson, there is no suggestion that Bragg promoted the commercial potential
of uranium on any of these public occasions and it is likely that he emphasised the intrinsic scientific interest
of its radioactivity.
Somewhat later in 1911, H.L. Hancock (General Manager,Wallaroo and Moonta Mines) reported in retrospect with
respect to radioactive material at the Moonta mines: ‘The quantity of material being so limited and its occurrence
so difficult to distinguish made the discovery only of scientific value and impractical for commercial application.’22
There is no known evidence that H.Y.L. Brown was directly involved in the Moonta uranium discovery and
its assessment, although he was certainly aware of it. He was asked by his Minister to comment on a report
of Mawson’s Moonta visit on 8 May 1906, which was submitted to the Government on 15 May 190623. In
16 “Carnotite at Olary: Professor Bragg’s opinion” Advertiser 5 May 1906, page 9, column 8, page 10, columns 1-2.
17 “Concerning Radium – Interview with Mr Mawson” Register 5 May 1906, page 7, columns 2-4.
“Carnotite at Olary – Views of Mr Mawson” Advertiser 5 May 1906, page 9, column 8, page 10, columns1-2.
18 Yorkes Peninsula Advertiser 18 May 1906, page 2, column 5.
19 “The Carnotite Discovery – Radioactive Ore at Moonta” Advertiser 17 May 1905, page 9, column 4.
20 “Professor Bragg” Yorkes Peninsula Advertiser 20 July 1906, page 2, column 5.
21 “Radium” Yorkes Peninsula Advertiser 24 August 1906, page 2, column 6.
22 Report in L.C.E. Gee (1911)
23 Letter and Report from Mawson to Minister of Mines dated 15 May 1906. Report entitled “Occurrence of Radioactive Ore at the Moonta
Mines” Government File DM 638/1906 stored in the SouthAustralian Archives Government Records Group GRG 30/4/1906/638.
this, Mawson advised the Minister with respect to the Moonta Mine uranium discovery ‘that the company,
though not overkeen, intends to take the matter up and endeavour to turn this scarce though valuable resource
to account’. Furthermore, Mawson asked for confidentiality on behalf of the Wallaroo and Moonta Mines. Brown
responded to his Minister, somewhat caustically on 23 May, that Mawson had already not maintained such
confidentiality, and that his report had already been published in the media on 17 May. By this time, Brown was
already acting to deny Mawson a free Government rail pass over another matter (O’Neil, 1982, p 154). It is
possible that such a rail pass had been used by Mawson to travel to Moonta to inspect the uranium discovery on
8 May and that this was the reason that Mawson felt obliged to communicate a report to the Minister.
Radium Hill 1906
Concurrent with public knowledge of the Moonta discovery on 4 May 1906, a report of carnotite, a complex
uranium-bearing mineral, occurring near Olary (later named Radium Hill), and located by a prospector,
Arthur John Smith, was announced by the State Government24. Kakoschke (2007, p 135) has noted that
Smith pegged a Mineral Claim over the deposit on 20 March 1906.
Smith advised the press, soon after, that he had first collected the carnotite as an unknown mineral at the end
of February 1906, and had brought it to the newly appointed Government Assayer and Analyst, Walter
Chapman, for identification a few weeks later25. It was identified as radioactive by William Bragg working
with Chapman. Former Government Analyst, G.A. Goyder, then working as an independent, also identified
carnotite using textbooks26. Many years later, Douglas Mawson claimed that he was the authority who
recognised the carnotite at Olary in the first instance27, although this is not substantiated by written
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
24 “Is it Radium? - Interesting mineral discovery - Carnotite at Olary –‘Strongly Radioactive’ ” Register, 4 May 1906, page 5,
columns 2,3. H.Y.L. Brown sent a minute to his Minister L. O’Loughlin, dated 1 May 1906 (GRG 30/4/19906/199).
25 “The Carnotite Find –The discoverer interviewed” Advertiser 16 May 1906 page 5 column 7.
26 “Is it Radium?” Register 16 May 1906, page 5 column 6.
27 Letter Mawson to S.B. Dickinson 26 September 1956, Mawson Archives, South Australian Museum 40DM. However an earlier
report entitled ‘Discovery of Radium Hill’ in The Register 17April 1913 notes “the field was discovered in May 1906 by Mr A.J.
Smith ofAdelaide and not by Dr Mawson as was erroneously stated in one of the eastern States papers recently”. Kakoschke (2007)
quotes from a Letter, dated 1940, from Mawson to M. Mawby (Zinc Corporation) where Mawson claims intimate connection with
Radium Hill “from the beginning”.
Figure 5. Field photo of the Radium Hill mine, soon after its discovery.
information from the time of the discovery28. Certainly Mawson had already studied radioactive minerals,
including carnotite, before the discovery, and quickly gained a reputation for his mineral identification skills.
He was also a close colleague of Bragg. From the press announcements at the time, Bragg’s role in the
identification was recognised as the most authoritative. Even in his paper proposing the new mineral, davidite,
which was published soon after the discovery, Mawson (1906) advised of a “lemon-yellow powdery substance
determined by the Government Analyst to be carnotite”, and did not claim the discovery.
As a result of the carnotite determination, Government Geologist, H.Y.L. Brown, caught the Broken Hill
Express to Olary on 3 May for the purpose of examining the discovery. Despite statements that he was not
an expert on radioactive minerals, Brown was automatically drawn into the issue because of its mineral
industry development implications, and his pre-eminent, experienced and well respected Government
advisory role in this regard. When approached by the press, Bragg “preferred not to discuss the discovery at
Olary”29.On the contrary, Mawson was very willing to talk with the media.
Mawson was already interested in the Olary district as a consequence of his newly initiated field studies in the
region, studies that would ultimately lead to the award of a Doctorate of Science at the end of 1909. In January
1906, he had commenced fieldwork and on 13 February 1906, had reported to Government30 on cobalt, copper,
gemstone (viz chiastolite), ironstone and monazite deposits (in that order of discussion) from the area. Monazite
is a radioactive mineral, containing small amounts of thorium, and often associated with uranium minerals,
however Mawson did not mention this radioactive character in his February 1906 report to Government, despite
having considered its radioactivity in his recently published paper (Mawson & Laby 1904).
Something similar to a minor gold rush quickly took place following the press reports on the Olary discovery,
coupled with interviews with the Minister of Mines (Lawrence O’Loughlin), Bragg and Mawson, although
it is likely that few miners had ever seen or determined a uranium mineral. Kakoschke (2007, p.136) notes
that two brothers even jumped ship in PortAdelaide and join the rush by walking the 460km to the discovery.
As subsequently noted, “public interest was aroused because Brown had immediately left Adelaide for Olary
when he had been informed of the find”. The Minister also advised the press “that Brown would never get
excited unless he was impressed by the importance of the discovery”31. Brown’s action and the Minister’s
comment led to speculators travelling by train to Gawler in order to speak with travellers returning from
Olary.After a rapid one-day assessment, Brown advised the public that he was “unable to give any opinion
as to the persistency of the ore in depth”32.
By 8 May upwards of 50 Miners Rights were newly issued and within three days a similar number of
prospectors were reported to have inspected the Olary prospect and had commenced “stripping the reef”. One
prospector advised “men are advised not to rush the field without means as this is not a poor man’s digging
like a goldfield”33.At the same time, an expert sceptic appeared in the form of Henry Gilbert Stokes, one time
mineralogist at the Queensland Museum. He visited the prospect and saw “no justification at present for
any excitement or rush to the field”34 but had to defend his statements given subsequent criticism from
prospectors and syndicates on the field35.
28 “Radioactive Minerals – Papers at the Royal Society” Register 5 September 1906. This article states that Walter Chapman,
Government Analyst, identified the carnotite.
29 “Important Mineral Discovery - Carnotite near Olary - Radioactive substance” Advertiser 4 May 1906, page 5, column 5.
30 Report on Geological Features of Bimbowrie District: From D. Mawson. State Records of South Australia, Government Records
Group 30/4/1906/199. Seven pages. Letter from D. Mawson 13 February 1906. Received 15 February 1906. Mawson (1912a) notes
that he commenced fieldwork in the area in January 1906.
31 Direct quotes from O’Neil (1982, p 152).
32 “Is It Radium? – Return of Mr Brown – More Specimens for Assay - Mr Brown’s Report - Thorough Prospecting Recommended”
Register 5 May 1906, page 7, columns 3-4.
33 “Is it Radium? - Instructions to Prospectors - A Prospector’s Views - Letter to the Editor. Register 11 May 1906, page 5, column 3.
34 “Is it Radium?“ Register 9 May 1906, page 4, column 6. “The Carnotite Discovery – An Expert’s Opinion” Advertiser 9 May 1906
page 8, column 8.
35 “The Carnotite Discovery – Reply to Mr Stokes” Advertiser 10 May 1906 page 4, column 8.
Letter to the Editor from H.G. Stokes, Register 11 May 1906, page 5, column 3.
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Bragg reported on the radioactivity and uranium/radium occurrence at Olary to the Government on 11 May
1906. Utilising Bragg’s remarks Brown reported on the geology three days later36.Bragg was cautious in his
statement that “the percentages of radium and uranium, for example could not be deduced nor any
information as to the stone being of commercial value” yet stressing the importance of further scientific
research when he wrote: “The whole subject of radioactivity is so new that each opportunity of investigating
the circumstances in which radioactive substances are found is of value”.
Brown was cautiously optimistic when he stated that “judging from the persistent character of the lode itself
in length of outcrop and its width, where visible, I am of opinion that it will be found to extend to a
considerable depth. From the fact that the carnotite occurs as incrustations it appears most probable that it
was derived from the solution and redepositation of other uranium compounds below, and that, therefore, such
ores in addition will be found by exploration in depth”.
Whilst Mawson’s immediate involvement in uranium issues during May 1906 is recorded in the press and
in Government files there is no record at that time of his field assessment of the Olary find. Consequently
his statements tended to make comment about the Olary and Moonta discoveries together. Much later
Mawson has written that he made an agreement with the prospector, A.J. Smith, to obtain a half share of his
Olary claim in return for his commitment to investigation and development37. This was stated to have existed
until Mawson departed on his expedition to Antarctica with Shackleton. There is no known documentation
as to the exact timing of this agreement. Smith reported to the press in October 190638 that “his company was
in negotiations with Mr A.O. Watkins of Perth, Western Australia, the patentee of a process for the extraction
of uranium from its ores”, but there is no mention of Mawson at this time or in any other known press reports
The rush to Olary quickly subsided. The press of 31 May reports only about 15 men at work (2 weeks before
hand) with an offer of leases “to the American Consul for £5000 and a quarter interest”39. By 1908, it was
reported that mining had lapsed at Radium Hill after a shaft 70 feet deep shaft was sunk and tests taken by
the original syndicate.
On 7 August 1906, Mawson exhibited uranium minerals from Olary at the meeting of the Royal Society of
SouthAustralia thus suggesting that he had visited the locality during the previous month.At the 4 September
meeting of the Royal Society of South Australia; he reported the discovery of the new uranium mineral,
davidite, from the site, which he then named Radium Hill. In this paper, published as Mawson (1906), he
reviewed the Olary discovery and commented, “Only within the past month have representative samples
been obtained at the University” and “The locality of the find was visited a fortnight ago”. It is possible that
Mawson’s first visit to the Olary discovery was delayed until August given the cancellation of his Government
rail pass as well as his other commitments. If this is the case, Mawson described davidite on 4 September 1906
based either on specimens very recently collected or on samples that were collected by others over the
previous few months.
As later recorded by Gee (1911) and O’Neil (1982), the Radium Hill discovery led to specimens being sent
to W.L. Davies (Imperial Institute, London) and to M. Curie (Faculté des Sciences de Paris) respectively for
confirmation. Specimens sent to the Imperial Institute were re-examined by Crook & Blake (1910) for
confirmation of the new mineral davidite and doubts were raised about its validity as a new mineral (see
Branagan 2007 for discussion).
36 Both Brown’s and Bragg ’s reports were published under “The Carnotite Find – Government Geologist Report - Lode of
considerable depth - Mining amply justified” Advertiser 16 May 1906, page 5, column 7 together with comments by G.A. Goyder.
Brown’s and Bragg’s reports were subsequently republished in Gee (1911).
37 Letter Mawson to S.B. Dickinson 26 September 1956, Mawson Archives, South Australian Museum 40DM. Kakoschke (2007)
quotes similar information obtained from a Letter dated 1940 from Mawson to M. Mawby (Zinc Corporation).
38 “Uranium at Olary” Advertiser 10 October 1906 page 9,column 9.
39 “Carnotite at Olary” Advertiser 31 May 1906 page 9, column 7.
The site was subsequently developed by the Radium Hill Company (1908–1914), which deepened the mine
to 130 feet and explored the wider region.Additional prospects were found, whilst radium and uranium were
also extracted, but interest lapsed with the outbreak of World War One (Gee 1911, Sprigg 1954).
Sydney Radcliffe, former chemist at the Moonta mines and discoverer of the Moonta uranium, was sent
samples of Radium Hill ore at his new post as Director of the Bairnsdale School of Mines in eastern Victoria
in late 1910. He reported soon after that he could produce marketable radium bromide from it. Prominent
critic of the Olary discovery, Henry Stokes, later became involved with the Mount Painter discovery.
Following Brown’s retirement, newly appointed Government Geologist, L.K. Ward, completed an extensive
geological assessment of Radium Hill (Ward 1914a).
Mawson spent the period, December 1907 – April 1909, on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition returning to
Adelaide to a hero’s welcome. Mawson had, by then, devoted considerable time to field work in the Olary
region and the adjacent area in New South Wales, which earned him his Doctorate at the end of the year. Late
in 1910, it was reported that Mawson had visited Radium Hill and collected pitchblende, the first record of
this characteristic uranium mineral in Australia40.
Mawson’s interest in the Radium Hill continued throughout his life.A major interest was his proposal of the
new mineral davidite (Branagan 2007). On 9 February 1910, Mawson exhibited specimens of his new mineral
at a meeting of the Geological Society of London. And following criticism by Crook and Blake (1910) that
“the results stated by Mr Mawson are quite inadequate for the purpose of establishing the existence of a new
mineral” and that the Radium Hill material “corresponds very closely with the Government Geologist’s
description”, Mawson (1916) published further analytical data, in collaboration with his University of
Adelaide chemist colleague, W. T. Cook, claiming that these British researchers had tested the wrong material.
Despite some lingering doubts, davidite seems to be regarded as a valid mineral by several mineral authorities
today (Branagan 2007).
Mawson’s Doctorate (completed in 1909) was also published in a slightly modified form as a large
monograph (Mawson. 1912a). Radium Hill did not feature prominently in this publication however it did
contain a concise discussion of the uranium mineralisation and revealed that it “resulted from a pegmatitic
magma” which was “very basic and exceedingly titaniferous” with “a genetic connection between the uranic
ore body and the basic igneous rock”. In this way, Mawson provided good evidence that he was closely
considering the origin of uranium minerals.
Following the Radium Hill discovery, William Bragg continued to be very active in radiation research, although
not with the field occurrence of radioactive minerals. The following year he published in Adelaide his first
paper on X Rays (Bragg 1907), his initial foray into research that later earned he, and his son, the Nobel Prize.
He continued to publish on radiation in the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society of SouthAustralia’until 1908
with parallel publication in periodicals of the Royal Society of London (Bragg & Madsen 1907, 1908, Bragg
& Glasson, 1908a,b) as well as presenting papers at meetings ofAustralasianAssociation for the Advancement
of Science in Adelaide and Brisbane (Bragg 1907, 1909a). Two papers on X Rays were also published in
‘Nature’ (Bragg 1908a,b). Bragg left South Australia in early 1909 to take up a Chair at the University of
Leeds in the United Kingdom. He took no further part in issues involving uranium in South Australia.
Bragg’s address as AAAS President delivered in Brisbane on 11 January 1909 on “The Lessons of
Radioactivity” was very much a testimony on the man, his orientation with respect to scientific research, as
well as his feeling towards Australia and its mineral resources. This thinking could have been influenced by
his experiences with uranium resources or conversely may have influenced his attitude towards the uranium
discoveries. Bragg (1909) stated:
40 “First pitchblende in Australia” Advertiser 5 October 1910 page 10, column 5. This is a report of Mawson exhibiting pitchblende
at a meeting of the Royal Society of South Australia a few days earlier.
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
In the history of every new country there is a phase – it has not yet passed in Australia – where the prospector
and surveyor traverse the land through, and through mapping its features investigating its riches and its
possibilities. Their labour is absolutely necessary, though they set out in their quest in ignorance of what they
shall find…… Now it is true that there are branches of science, which have more or less obvious relation to
Australasian progress. But we must also aspire to do work which does not appear to advantage our own
country more than the world at large. Indeed if we wish to take our place amongst the progressive people of
the world… we must play our part in this sense also…..Pure scientific research is necessary not only to
Australasia but in Australasia….”
Mount Painter 1910
Not long after Bragg’s departure, Mount Painter in theArkaroola area of the North Flinders Ranges became
the site of another uranium discovery in July 1910, after having been recognised by prospector, W.B.
Greenwood. Valuable historical summaries of this discovery and its subsequent development have been
provided by Randell & Driver-Smith (1989) and Brugger et al (2003). Mawson and Brown were also
involved, and this reveals Mawson assuming a more prominent role as a mining entrepreneur as well as a
geologist, a fact likely assisted by his rising stature in the South Australian community.
Following the Radium Hill discovery, Brown devoted significant time on three expeditions to the Northern
Territory, taking many months and examining its mineral potential (see O’Neil 1982). During the same
period, Mawson was a member of Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica and otherwise preoccupied with
completing his doctorate, visiting London to promote Antarctic exploration and even examining a gold mine
in Hungary (Ayres, 1999). When public interest was again raised in uranium during 1910, the level, as
reflected by press reports, was not as great as in 1906. This presumably resulted from the lack of novelty
surrounding it , coupled with the demonstrable difficulty in establishing a mining operation at Radium Hill.
By early 1910, a revival of interest in radioactive minerals in South Australia, focussing initially on Radium
Hill, was indicated by a press article in Adelaide by Mawson’s former colleague, T.H. Laby, on the
prospecting, testing and use of radium and its occurrence (Laby 1910). Since his earlier collaboration with
Mawson, Laby had completed research under Thomson at Cambridge (1905–1907) and had recently relocated
to Wellington, New Zealand (Close 1983). He was keen to hear of any new uranium discoveries and discussed
prospecting techniques. Reporting visits to Radium Hill in March and June 1910, the press also quoted positive
opinions by Bragg (prior to his departure), as well as Mawson’s earlier discovery of davidite41. Then on 14
September 1910, the press reported, in a small article, that W.B. Greenwood had made a new discovery of
carnotite at the northern end of the Flinders Ranges, presumably referring to Mount Painter 42.
In a comprehensive letter to the press Greenwood later described the history of mineral exploration at Mount
Painter prior to November 1910, as well as the role of Brown and Mawson in the discovery43. Greenwood
implied that the uranium discovery should have been made more than a decade earlier had samples been
analysed by the Government and had Brown appreciated the mineralisation in the field.
Such assessment may be seen to confirm Brown’s lack of interest when dealing with uranium mineralisation,
as it was made in response to comments attributed to Brown in the press, which had in turn been precipitated
by Mawson’s report a few days earlier. Brown had indicated to the press that Mt Painter was ‘no new
discovery’ and that the Government had been supporting exploration in the area since 189844. Perhaps as a
consequence of further critical comment by Greenwood about Government charges for use of equipment45,
additional Government geological assessment at Mount Painter was not manifest until Brown reported some
41 “A Visit to Radium Hill” Register 18 March 1910. page 10, column 3. “Radium Hill” Advertiser 22 June 1910, page 14 column 2.
42 “Carnotite Ore” Advertiser 14 September 1910, page 14, column 8.
43 “Radium at Mount Paynter” Register 30 November 1910, page 9, columns 7-8
44 “Radium Extraction Company, Mount Paynter Radium Find” Register 28 November 1910, page 8 column 8.
45 “Government Mining Subsidies” Register, 1 December 1910, page 9, column 8.
nine months later in September 1911. A newly appointed Assistant to Brown, H. Basedow, had even been
available during this period yet only held his post from August 1910 until May 1911.
In summary, Greenwood recalled in November 1910 that the earliest records of mineral exploration in the
Mount Painter area dated from 1896 when he was first active as a Government sponsored prospector in the
area. At that time, samples had been collected and sent to Adelaide for identification but these had been
discarded without determination. However samples of corundum, collected also at this time, were identified
in Germany. In 1905, Greenwood prospected the Mount Painter region again, but the uranium mineralisation
remained unrecognised, even following a visit with Brown in August 1906. Brown’s visit occurred at a time
soon after the Olary discovery.As a result of his 1906 visit, Brown reported on the deposit of corundum and
also mentions the occurrence of monazite. However, he did not test for radioactivity. According to
Greenwood, another visit was planned by Brown in April 1910, but was aborted at the last moment when he
was in the northern Flinders Ranges with him.
In July 1910, Greenwood recognised the uranium mineralisation at Mount Painter and the Government
Analyst, Walter Chapman, confirmed the discovery. In September 1910, Greenwood personally reported the
discovery to Brown who, according to Greenwood, was unable to act on it quickly. At this time the discovery
also became public, although the response from both the Government and the public was minimal.
Greenwood was then invited to see Mawson, who arranged an expedition of 4 people, including the two of
them.According to Mawson’s preliminary report to the press, the Government provided “complete equipment
in the manner of camels and necessary gear” and they were accompanied by Harry Fabian (Government
prospector) on the expedition46, which examined the Mount Painter area from 23 October until 2 November
191047. Notably Mawson took an electroscope on the expedition and thus was able to detect radioactivity
for the first time whilst undertaking his field examination. It is probable that this electroscope was
manufactured in Adelaide and not presented to him by Marie Curie in Paris, as suggested by Sprigg (1984),
because there seems to be no evidence that Mawson had visited Paris or met Marie Curie until April 1911
(Ayres 1999). After his return from Mount Painter, Mawson delayed releasing the report on his expedition
until mining rights over the area had been secured48.
Corbett (1998) records that Mawson’s field notes advise, “so far as I am aware this is the most extensive
uraniferous lode formation in the world”. Certainly in later notes filed in the Mawson archives, dating from
this period, Mawson compared the uranium mineralisation at Mount Painter with the original surface outcrop
of the Broken Hill ore body49.
The press report on 25 November 191050 was decidedly optimistic when it stated: “Dr Douglas Mawson’s
report on his recent trip to the Far North does more than confirm faith in the latent mineral resources of South
Australia. It excites wonderment regarding the properties of certain geological formations, newly discovered
and present to the mind fascinating possibilities of marvels, which may yet be revealed. Stretches of rough
mountainous country useless for agriculture or pastoral pursuits offer the promise of yielding to the patient
scientist and industrious miner rare and mysterious minerals of fabulous value”. This report, although
probably not Mawson’s written words, seems to convey an excitement that only Mawson, as an entrepreneur
promoting mining, could express.
A more reasoned report, labelled ‘by Dr Mawson’ was subsequently published51 in which Mawson concludes
“From these facts let it be known that the value of the radium content of the reef is, as yet, speculative and
46 “Radium discovery – Dr Mawson’s Research – An interesting report” Register, 24 November 1910, page 8, column 7.
47 Mawson’s Field Notes for the excursion held by the Mawson Centre, South Australian Museum, record that he departed Leigh Creek
on 23 October 1910 and started on his return trip on 2 November 1910.
48 Discovery of Radium near Mount Paynter – Chat with Dr Mawson Advertiser 22 November 1910, page 8, column 8.
49 Unpublished Report entitled “Mount Painter Minerals” held at the Mawson Centre, South Australian Museum Series in 34DM.
50 “Radium” Register, 25 November 1910, page 6, column 3.
51 “Radium Extraction Company - Important Information - [By Dr Mawson]” Register 28 November 1910, page 8, column 7.
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
can only be determined by mining development. Great possibilities are however, sufficiently obvious from the
immense size of the lode, which can be judged from the fact that its iron content alone would keep Australia
supplied with that metal for many years”. As with Moonta and Radium Hill, a few years earlier, it is thus
obvious that Mawson had lost none of his entrepreneurial enthusiasm. Furthermore by using his geological
skills, accessing exclusive rights to the best resources, obtaining investment finance and envisaging a plan
for development, Mawson was now also demonstrating significant business acumen.
What followed then was what Sprigg (1984) has later labelled the “Mount Painter radium—uranium rush of
1910–1914.” ‘The Radium Extraction Company of SA’ was incorporated on 28 November 1910, followed by
the ‘Mount Painter Propriety Company Limited’and the ‘Mount Painter East Prospecting Syndicate’. Greenwood
returned to Mount Painter in December 1910 and hurriedly pegged further claims. Both Mawson and Greenwood
invested in the Radium Extraction Company, which had a nominal capital of £5000. Mawson also sent his young
geology student, A.C. Broughton, on this expedition with an electroscope (Mincham 1983, p. 238).
When attending the Australasian Advancement of Science conference in Sydney in January 1911, Mawson
advised a reporter for the London-based ‘Mining Journal’ “The radium lode is remarkable, being three miles
long and 1,000 feet above the valley floor near by”52 and went on to expound on his vision for a processing
plant at Port Pirie and the associated deposit of sapphires that could also be profitably mined concurrently.
T.H. Laby, also at the conference, supported Mawson’s comments. At the same conference, Mawson
presented a paper, describing the geological setting of the Mount Painter uranium mineralisation, which was
subsequently published (Mawson 1912b).
Only a few weeks later, the unnamed Adelaide correspondent for the ‘Mining Journal’, on 12 February 1911,
followed up the original report with more cautionary remarks, together with comments critical of Mawson
stating53 “The importance of the discovery of a radium-bearing lode near Mount Paynter ….. appears to
have been considerably over-estimated by Dr Douglas Mawson, of the Adelaide University. Analyses of
siliceous hematite and granite from Mount Paynter containing the uranium copper phosphate torbernite, as
sparsely disseminated flakes, prove the presence of only .2 to .5 per cent of uranium trioxide in the hard
specified matrices of the lode, which, moreover, occurs in a far more remote district where water is scarce.
Exaggerated reports on discoveries, whilst still in the prospecting stage, are, at any time, a bad policy for a
young country, such as South Australia that is striving hard to secure a firm footing in other parts of the
world for her various mineral industries”. These comments were the first to suggest that Mawson had been
premature in his optimistic assessment.
In the first half of 1911, the Radium Extraction Company, which carried out most of the work at Mount
Painter, sent 5 tons of ore to Europe for testing54. On 6 September 1911, it also published a 4-page report by
Mawson on the ‘uranium-radium ores’ and corundum deposits at Mount Painter55. In this statement,
undoubtedly intended to attract additional investors, Mawson described the Mount Painter locality as
requiring a few hundred pounds to complete a road into the property and estimated a cost of landing ore in
London at £5 per ton excluding mining. He also determined a wide range of secondary uranium minerals and
considered that there is “unlimited tonnage of these low grade ores” as well as smaller quantities of high-
grade material. With mining the high-grade material, a profit of £100 per ton was postulated.
Throughout all this activity during late 1910 and early 1911, the State Government and the Government
Geologist H.Y.L. Brown were, in comparison to the Olary (Radium Hill) discovery in 1906, conspicuously
52 “Radium and Sapphires” in Mining Journal (London) 18 February 1911 page 158.
53 “Radium” in Mining Journal (London) 25 March 1911 page 297.
54 Mining Review South Australia (A Review of Mining Operations in the State of South Australia during the Half Year ended 30th
June 1911) 14, 10.
55 “Report on The Radium Extraction Company’s Property at Mount Painter” by Douglas Mawson, Melbourne, 6 September 1911.
Printed pamphlet held at the Mawson Centre, South Australian Museum Series 34DM: Radio Mineral investigations:
Correspondence and related papers 1905–1954. “Radium – The Mount Pitt and Painter Deposits – Value of the Finds” Register, 9
September 1911, page 18, column 4 provides the same report in a rewritten form.
silent. In January 1911, the press reported that Brown was in Western Australia56. Uranium seemed no longer
a major concern for the Government after the energetic Minister of Mines, Laurence O’Loughlin (1896–1899,
1899–1902, 1905–1909) had been succeeded in June 1909 by several short-term arrangements where mining
was often split between two portfolios and/or administrated by the Premier of the day. Brown was also
moving towards retirement in January 1912, a fact that he had announced on 1 June 1911. Ironically in
discussion about a possible successor to Brown in July 1911, a University delegation raised the possibility
that Mawson would be a suitable replacement (O’Neil 1982, p.173). However, there is no evidence that
Mawson ever seriously considered this opportunity.At his retirement Brown highlighted a range of mineral,
coal and water opportunities in South Australia but made no reference to radioactive minerals57.
In one of his last field trips as Government Geologist, Brown visited the Mount Painter Uranium field and
reported on it on 11 September 191158. His report is typically noncommittal, yet encouraging. In contrast to
Mawson, who initially reported a lode of 1 mile in length, Brown reported on outcrops of iron oxides some
40 yards long containing uraniferous torbernite, and another outcrop of ironstone and manganese extending
for 100 yards that had crystals of uraniferous torbernite and autunite “in places in this formation”. Just prior
to the release of the report, Mawson also issued a revised report, which maintained a positive viewpoint59.
One month after release of Brown’s report, the Government (via the efforts of its Mineral Engineer, L.C. Gee)
compiled and published a 12-page Bulletin (Gee 1911) entitled “The occurrence of uranium (radio-active)
ores and other rare metals and minerals in South Australia”. It published Brown’s report together with a
summary of Mawson’s views. Information on the Radium Hill and Moonta discoveries dating back to 1906
was also included. O’Neil (1982, 167) records that interest in this publication was so great that the State
Library, in November 1911, organised distribution of additional copies around Australia and internationally.
By the beginning of 1912, the Radium Extraction Company reported that its goals at Mount Painter had not
been realised60. It then proceeded to appoint Henry Stokes, the same person who was initially sceptical about
the Radium Hill discovery, to undertake further general prospecting. In a meeting of shareholders in August
1912 it was reported “if Dr Mawson’s anticipations had been realised they (=Radium Extraction Company)
would have been able to float the property for a large amount but the results of the mine had not confirmed
Dr Mawson’s report in regard to expectations”61.
Figure 6.Loading uranium ore at Mount
56 “Gold in the Granite – Important Discovery” Advertiser 17 January 1911, page 8, columns 3 & 4
57 “Mr H.Y.L. Brown retires – long and useful career – the story of his work” Advertiser, 8 January 1912 page 9, columns 2 & 3
58 “Radium in South Australia – Uranium Ores at Mount Painter–An important discovery” Advertiser, 13 September 1911, page 21,
59 “Radium – The Mount Pitt and Painter deposits – Value of the finds” Register 9 September 1911, page 18, column 4
60 Mining Review South Australia (A Review of Mining Operations in the State of SouthAustralia during the Half Year ended 30th
June 1912) 16: 10
61 Mining Meetings – Radium Extraction Company - Further exemption to be sought. Advertiser 7 August 1912, page 12, column 9
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Ageneral assessment of Mount Painter uranium mining operations was provided by the Government in Ward
(1913). It noted that the Radium Extraction Company then held 11 mineral leases and ‘Mount Painter
Propriety Company Limited’and the ‘Mount Painter East Prospecting Syndicate’held 27 claims. Mawson’s
company undoubtedly held the best ground and had been most active. An additional report followed a year
later (Ward 1914b). Brugger et al (2003) have reviewed these operations.
During 1913, A.C. Broughton produced yellowcake from Mount Painter uranium ore, which is probably the
first production of this uranium product in Australia62. In the same year, Stokes reported for the Radium
Extraction Company that “we have at last reached a starting point in the prospecting stage that if followed
up will lead to payable results in our work here, and that the Directors would be justified in raising additional
capital to develop the property”63. Despite such promotional efforts, it was now apparent that sufficient funds
could not be raised and work was suspended at Mount Painter in August 191464. Subsequently the company
continued in its endeavours to sell their title to a larger investor without success, World War One likely
becoming a negative factor. According to Blissett (1971), the Radium Extraction Company went into
liquidation in 1917 after having spent £7000.
From December 1911 until February 1914, Mawson led the AustralasianAntarctic Expedition and was absent
from Australia. Obviously he played no role in uranium developments during this period. However during
his absence he was criticised for his statement with respect to uranium that “the Olary field is outclassed by
that in the Yudanamutana district”65. Yudanamutana is in the same region as Mount Painter. Preparations
for the Antarctic expedition had commenced in earnest at the AAAS conference in Sydney in January 1911
and thus presumably occupied much of his attention during 1911 (Ayres 1999).After the expedition, marriage
followed, then a visit to London for the publication of his popular account of the Antarctic expedition,
followed by the bestowal of a knighthood, a visit to the United States, then involvement with World War One.
Ayres notes that it was not until 1922 that Mawson returned to geological research. Yet during this period
Mawson maintained his interest in the Mount Painter area and despite not returning to the region completed
two research papers that were published (Mawson 1916, 1923).
With the decline of the Mount Painter uranium mining activity, only Mawson of the three uranium experts
of 1906 retained an interest in the discoveries.
The Moonta copper mines closed in 1923 and true to the thorough assessment made in 1906, no economic
uranium mineralisation was ever determined or mined at the site.
Yet from a wider perspective, the co-occurrence of uranium with copper at Moonta had great significance
with the subsequent discovery of the giant copper, uranium, gold and silver deposit at Olympic Dam in 1975.
When the copper resource was first discovered at Olympic Dam, no one initially thought to check the uranium
resource, until the copper-uranium association was recalled and Western Mining Corporation was advised to
test for uranium. These tests quickly proved Olympic Dam to be the world’s largest single uranium resource,
the classic representative of a ‘breccia complex uranium deposit’.
62 Personal records of A.C. Broughton held by P. Driver Smith viewed in 1984.
63 Open printed letter signed by J.K. Samuel (Secretary) under the Letterhead of the Radium Extraction Company of South Australia
Limited dated 18 June 1913 held at the Mawson Centre, South Australian Museum, Series 34DM: Radio Mineral investigations:
Correspondence and related papers 1905–1954.
64 Mining Review, South Australia (A Review of Mining Operations in the State of SouthAustralia during the Half Year ended 31st
December 1914) 21, 8
65 “Olary Radium Field — To the Editor” Register 2 May 1912, page 4, column 6.
Mawson (1944) reviewed the Moonta discovery in hindsight, based on field notes and memories of his field
visit in May 1906. He added that uraniferous torbernite had been subsequently been recovered from dumps
of carbonaceous material at the abandoned mines.
Brown reported in 1906 that, with respect to Radium Hill, “the curious combination of rare minerals here
may yet be turned to profitable account”66, a statement that subsequently bore truth.
Australia’s first uranium production occurred from Radium Hill in 1909, albeit a meagre 31 tonnes
dispatched to Europe and ~3 tonnes sent to the US (Mudd 2005, Table 1). Further sporadic production
occurred until 1925.
Mawson (1944) recorded that he returned to Radium Hill in 1923 and 1924 when “a fairly exhaustive
examination” took place at a time of mining and R.G. Thomas undertook a “partial analysis”.
The occurrence of uranium at Radium Hill became the subject of intensive exploration and testing by the
State Government as the value of uranium for weapons manufacture and energy generation was realised
from 1944. Consequently, the State Government operated the Radium Hill uranium mine between 1954
and 1961. The wider impact of this period of uranium mining at Radium Hill is also significant. The
research expertise, marshalled to prove and mine the resource, was maintained to create the Australian
Mineral Development Laboratories (AMDEL) in 1960.
Mawson maintained an interest in Radium Hill until the end of his life, writing to then South Australian
Director of Mines S.B. Dickinson about the initial discovery in 1956 only two years before his death67.
The 1910 uranium discovery at Mount Painter indirectly led to its more-broadly-based appreciation as a
scenically beautiful region of South Australia, as well as ongoing interest in radioactive minerals. A.C.
Broughton, who was sent by Mawson to Mount Painter following Mawson’s initial expedition, maintained
a life long interest in the area. His 1912 paper to the Royal Society of South Australia (Broughton 1912)
provided an exuberant description of the Mt Painter landscape as well as its uranium minerals. This
provides one of the earliest statements on the scenic potential of the Mount Painter – Arkaroola region,
Figure 7. Radium Hill
Concentrating Plant, 1926.
66 Mining Review South Australia (A Review of Mining Operations in the State of SouthAustralia during the Year ended 31st
December 1906) 6: 15
67 Letter Mawson to S.B. Dickinson 26 September 1956, Mawson Archives, South Australian Museum 40DM.
BRAGG, MAWSON, BROWN: EARLY URANIUM DISCOVERIES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
which was presumably also appreciated early by Mawson and the Greenwood family, the latter having
pastoral interests in the region.
Uranium mining at Mount Painter took place sporadically from 1911 until 1949 (Mudd, 2005, Table 1).
After World War One, development companies returned to the region with Broughton as either Manager
or Consultant. After 1926, the Australian Radium Corporation also developed the Paralana Hot Springs as
a radioactive health spa in addition to its mining activities. Several patients were attracted (Randell &
Mawson was involved directly in the effort to develop the Mount Painter uranium from 1923–1927. He
visited the area again in 1924 with A.R. Alderman and R.G. Thomas with ‘camels transporting our
luggage’ (Mawson 1934). He was back again with student parties in 1929 and later years.
In 1944, Mount Painter became the immediate focus of attention when uranium was required for weapons
research. Within weeks, the remote and rugged region was made accessible by road construction and by
establishment of camps. Despite demonstrating that the uranium occurrences were small, this activity led
to Mawson’s last major paper on uranium (Mawson, 1944) and cultivated the interest of a new generation
of exploration geologists, including R.C. Sprigg, arguably Mawson’s most prominent student.
Uranium exploration companies returned to Mount Painter region in 1967 and constructed the now famous
scenic ‘Ridgetop track’. Soon after, the Sprigg family acquired the associated Arkaroola pastoral lease in
1969 and developed it as an eco-tourism resort.
In 2007, a proposal to mine uranium in the Mount Painter region resulted from new exploration that
showed that Mount Painter has one of Australia’s largest undeveloped uranium resources.
Sedimentary basins in South Australia were not a target for early uranium prospecting in South Australia.
Mawson maintained the view that ‘granite country’ should be the focus of uranium exploration and this
view long pervaded mainstream geological opinion in Australia. Not until US models of sedimentary
uranium occurrence were introduced to the State during the late 1960s did this situation change. Then
exploration quickly shifted onto the sedimentary regions adjacent to the uranium discoveries in the Olary
(Radium Hill) region and at Mount Painter. Coupled with the application of modern exploration tools
including aerial surveys and geophysical technologies (magnetic. gravity, resistivity) in association with
intensive drilling, the concealed, yet nearby, Beverley and Honeymoon sedimentary uranium deposits
were discovered in 1969 and 1974 respectively (Cooper 2008).
This paper has been greatly facilitated by Primary Industries and Resources South Australia (Minerals &
Energy Branch) and its predecessors. It has developed as a adjunct to another project examining the history
of sedimentary uranium in SouthAustralia, which is published elsewhere. David Corbett, Mark Pharaoh, Jim
Jago and Kevin Kakoschke are thanked for critically examining early drafts. John Jenkins provided advance
extracts from his biography ofW.H. Bragg. David Branagan provided an advance copy of his paper on davidite
and suggested several additional information sources. Allan Pring provided published information on the
history of Mt Painter. Many of the archival newspaper articles referred herein are now readily accessible on
Compact Discs of ‘Newspaper Cuttings’ produced by the Customers Services, Mineral & Energy Branch
(PIRSA) who also sourced most of the historical photos. Historical archives and publications have also been
freely accessed at the Mawson Centre, SouthAustralian Museum and the State Library of SouthAustralia. We
acknowledge the assistance of their staff. The Spatial Information Services group within PIRSA has
accomplished map drafting.
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Bragg, W.H. (1904b). On the absorption of alpha rays, and of the classification of the alpha rays from radium. Philosophical
Magazine,S.6, 8 (1904), 719–725 and Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 28: 298–299 (Abstract only).
Bragg, W.H. (1906a). On the ionization of various gases by the alpha particles of radium. Transactions of the Royal Society of South
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Bragg, W.H. (1906b). The alpha particles of uranium and thorium. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 30: 16–32;
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