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Lawrence Ernest (Lawrie) Lyons: 26 May 1922 - 14 October 2010

Lawrie Lyons was a fine Christian and excellent scientist, motivated in both by his strong faith in the Lord. And what a motivation that was! He was respected nationally and internationally for his pioneering work on the electrical and photo-conductivity of organic materials and in the Christian community for his long-standing commitment to the dialogue between Science and Christianity from an evangelical point of view. In 1989 he was the founder of ISCAST and its first President. Before moving to Brisbane in 1963, he was the prime mover in founding Christian Halls of Residence at Universities in Sydney.

Academic Life

He entered Sydney University as a boy of 16, and turned 17 in the middle of his first year there. He didn’t know whether he wanted to do medicine or science, and so did in science the four subjects common to both. After an Honours year in 1942, and subsequent war work in Australia on aircraft materials and an appointment at Sydney University he followed in the footsteps of his Honours supervisor Thomas Iredale, to do his PhD at University College London. There were other Australians there, many of whom, Like David Craig, and Lawrie, returned to become Professors of Chemistry here. Lawrie was the first Professor of Physical Chemistry in the University of Queensland and held the chair from 1963 until his retirement in 1987.

“Lawrence Lyons wrote, with Felix Gutmann, the first definitive work on organic semiconductors, according to the 1961 Noble Prize winner for chemistry, Melvin Calvin of Berkley. The work underpinned the, now extensive, and economically important, field of “molecular electronics” where polymer molecules can be used as transistors and sources of light. The future holds much promise using readily available organic materials instead of precious and highly purified inorganic semiconductors for solar energy capture and everyday applications.

Christian Activity

Christian Colleges

Lawrie, in a recent interview, said “after being at University College, London to the year 1953 I came back from England with the idea that we ought to have a church college in Sydney – in addition to St Paul’s College in the University of Sydney. But the Warden of that college, Felix Arnott, because of churchmanship ideas, didn’t want an evangelical Anglican college put in. He had ground to put in a women’s college, and we put that to him and put it to the university. Bickerton Blackburn (Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn) was the Chancellor of the university and he said he didn’t see why we shouldn’t have a college, but at a meeting which included Stephen Roberts [Sir Stephen Roberts], the Vice-Chancellor, it was made clear that the university didn’t want it.”

“Anyhow, we found that the lease for the University Hotel had finished and so the church had regained control of the building. Broughton Knox and I and Ron Winton – who was the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia and worked in a publishing building just across Parramatta Road from the University of Sydney site – approached the church to let us start a hostel in the University Hotel. They agreed. Broughton said, ‘We’ll pay the church. For every student night that a student is here, we’ll pay them one shilling,’ and they accepted that. There were about 40 students in the end there. So the church got £2 a night, which in those days was not as ridiculous as it might sound now.”

The University of New South Wales

“We called ourselves the New University Colleges Council. My wife Alison was also on NUCC. The council doesn’t exist now, but it did exist for a long while. First it founded New College, at the University of New South Wales”.

“I went to see Philip Baxter, the Vice-Chancellor, one day. And I said we’d like to start a college of the Church of England – Anglican Church – at the University of New South Wales. He said, ‘That’s very good. We’re delighted to have you.’ So after 20 minutes I went back to my committee and surprised them by saying, ‘He’s agreed, already!’ The Roman Catholics wanted to do the same thing, and I think he had them in mind also. Anyhow, we were partners with them; they got their bit and we got our bit.”

“Only the other day I was talking to the present Master, Professor Trevor Cairney. He’s got a $30 million “New College Village” going up across Anzac Parade for a graduate college, with authority from the university.”

Macquarie University

“I left Sydney before the Macquarie proposal started up. John Hawke became secretary of the New University Colleges Council. He hadn’t been on it before; he was then put on it and he was the one that did all the dealings with Macquarie University. And so that went along, all by itself.”

IVF , Research Scientists’ Christian fellowship and ISCAST

The Evangelical Union, EU, at Sydney University in the 1950s was strong, the Graduates Fellowship of the InterVarsity Fellowship was active and, for scientists, the Research Scientists Christian Fellowship (RSCF) held regular meetings and student conferences at which current issues in science and Christian faith were discussed.

Lawrie Lyons was prominent in this organisation. The origin of the universe, science and the first chapters of Genesis were hot issues for students and the Christian community, led by Oliver Barclay in London at the IVF. Members of the RSCF were occupied to study, discuss and write about these issues from a Christian point of view. What accommodation was possible between a literal interpretation of scripture and modern science? The strong faith of those involved gave conviction that an honest synthesis was possible within the Lord’s providence. In retrospect, the words of Calvin – thinking about the same matters 400 years ago –were and are still, appropriate.

Moses ”rather adapted his writing to common usage”
“he who would learn recondite arts, let him go elsewhere”

Calvin Commentary Genesis I,16

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.

Book Second, Chapter II, sections 15 and 16, on pages 236, 237.
(John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.)

The new scientific challenges of the 1960s, 70s and 80s have been met with intelligent, prayerful study by many in the UK, USA and Australia. In cosmology, for example, Science has changed also and may continue to change and in this context Lawrie had the vision to found ISCAST – an Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology. The emphasis here was study and the objectives were local Chapters, national Conferences, writing and, even at the early stage, a building in which scholars could be housed, near Sydney University. The Hugh Lyons Memorial Fund, established in 1984, was part of this scholarly vision. That ISCAST has grown and is tackling the challenges is a tribute to Lawrie Lyons’ early foresight, to his faith and to the current membership.

John White
24 October 2010

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