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First woman radio astronomer, Ruby Payne-Scott (1912 – 1981), lived away from her family as a teenager.

Ruby Violet Payne-Scott was born in Grafton, a city in New South Wales about 608 km north of Sydney. Ruby’s father, Cyril, was an accountant, and her mother, Amy, was a teacher. A year after Ruby was born the couple had a son named Henry. By 1915, the family had moved and because of the lack of records, little is known about Ruby’s early education, although she and Henry may have been home-schooled since Amy was a teacher.

Between 1923 and 1925 Ruby attended the Cleveland Street School in Sydney. It appears that her parents and Henry did not move to Sydney until 1925, and therefore it is likely that Ruby was living with a maternal aunt, Eva Mary Neale.

Armed with her Intermediate Certificate, Ruby then attended Sydney Girls High School where she completed her Leaving Certificate in 1928. Then at the at the age of sixteen, Ruby commenced studying at the University of Sydney the following year.

Ruby was the third woman to attain a degree in physics from the University of Sydney. She then gained a Masters of Science in 1936 with research undertaken at the Cancer Research Committee, also at the University of Sydney. Due to a lack of opportunities in academia, Ruby obtained a Diploma of Education and began teaching at the Woodlands church of England Girls’ Grammar School in Adelaide, South Australia.

Next, Ruby returned to Sydney and began working as a radio engineer at Amalgamated Wireless Australia. When the advent of WWII World War II sent many men away to the front lines, she was able to return to her academic career.

In August 1941, Ruby began her ten year term as a scientist at the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, renamed the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in 1949) Division of Radiophysics.

She was part of a pioneering group of radar scientists during the Second World War, led by J.L. Pawsey, whose scientific distinction and leadership qualities have been referred to by all writers in the field. Although it was mainly due to him that radio astronomy developed in Australia from 1944, she was one of the key people contributing to Australia’s pre-eminence in the world of radio astronomy for many decades (p. viii, Goss & McGee).

Her work led to the discovery of deep-space phenomena like black holes and pulsars and later helped astronauts understand how solar storms disrupt weather in space and electrical grids on Earth (Halleck).

When WWII ended, Ruby believed that her secret should no longer be classified. Later, her desire for her work to be made public, along with her political ideologies towards human rights and support for the Community Party led to a decision within the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) that Ruby was a security risk.

Ruby resigned as a research officer shortly before the birth of her first child in 1951 and never returned to physics research. During her research career, she had to keep her marriage to William Hall secret due to a law that women employees of the Australian Public Service had their permanent positions revoked upon marriage. After her marriage came to light, Payne-Scott lost what pension contributions her employer had made for that time and her permanent position was converted to a temporary one.

Ruby Hall stayed at home to care for her children, Peter and Fiona, until they were about ten and twelve. She then taught maths and science at Danebank Anglican School for Girls from 1963 to 1974.

It was many years before Ruby Payne-Scott received public recognition for her contribution to radio astronomy. Then in 1999, Danebank School initiated the Ruby Payne-Scott Lecture (given by women scientists), in 2008 the CSIRO established the Ruby Payne-Scott Award, in 2017 the University of Sydney set up the Payne-Scott Professorial Distinctions, and in 2018, The New York Times published a much-belated obituary.


Australian Women’s Archive Project (2024). Payne-Scott, Ruby Violet (1912 – 1981). The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia

Goss, William & McGee, Richard. (2009). Under the radar: the first woman in radio astronomy. Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 

Goss, William. Making Waves. (2013). The Story of Ruby Payne-Scott: Australian Pioneer Radio Astronomer. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. 

Halleck, Rebecca. “Overlooked No More: Ruby Payne Scott, Who Explored Space with Radio Waves.” The New York Times, 29 August 2018. Available here.

Image available here.