Woman Payne-Scott, Ruby Violet (1912 - 1981)

28 May 1912
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia
25 May 1981
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Physicist and Teacher

Written by Dorothy Erickson, Independent Scholar

Ruby Payne-Scott was a leading physicist, whose groundbreaking research paved the way for later developments in radio astronomy, nuclear fission research and medical imaging technology. She was born in Grafton, New South Wales in 1912, daughter of accountant Cyril Hermann Payne-Scott and his wife Amy. Educated at Fort Street High School and the University of Sydney, she graduated with a BSc with first class honours in physics and mathematics in1933. She shared the Deas Thomson Scholarship for Physics IIII and the Walter Burfitt Scholarship for physics, and also won the Norbert Quirk Prize for Mathematics III and worked as a demonstrator in the Physics Department before becoming the assistant physicist in cancer research while she worked on her MSc, which she obtained in 1936. Since there were few opportunities for academic promotion, she undertook a Diploma in Education and accepted a teaching post at Woodlands Church of England Grammar School in South Australia. Later, she returned to Sydney and joined the staff of Amalgamated Wireless Australia as a radio engineer. World War II intervened and with many men away at war she was able to return to a career in her chosen field. In 1941 she was appointed assistant research officer in the Division of Radio Physics in the CSIR (later CSIRO).

During the war years Payne-Scott worked on radar development and after the war on research into radio astronomy, discovering three of five categories of solar bursts originating in the solar corona. She published papers in scientific journals, often in collaboration with others. In 1944 she was reclassified as a research officer despite clashing with bureaucracy over petty issues, which they tried to enforce, such as the wearing of skirts rather than shorts. In 1944, she had married William (Bill) Hall, something she kept secret in order to be able to continue her career; she resigned in 1951 to await the birth of a son. She disagreed with her work being kept secret once the war was over and that, together with her stance on human rights and her allegiance to the Communist Party, meant that ASIO deemed her a security risk. In 1961 she returned to the workforce but it was too late to return to physics research; instead she taught mathematics and science at Danebank Anglican School for Girls.

Payne-Scott retired in 1974 and died in 1981, survived by her husband Bill, son Peter (a professor of mathematics) and a daughter Fiona Hall (a celebrated artist). Early onset of Alzheimers's disease clouded her last years. In a story on the ABC's Science Show, producer Pauline Newman described her as 'the first woman to listen to the heavens'.

Published Resources


  • Goss, William Miller, Under the Radar: The First Woman in Radio Astronomy: Ruby Payne-Scott, McGee, Richard X, Springer, Heidelberg, Germany, 2010. Details
  • Hooker, Claire, Irresistible Forces: Australian Women in Science, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004. Details

Edited Books

Online Resources