Five Australian scientific discoveries that changed the world

How have Australian scientists impacted modern society? From developing penicillin antibiotics to the bionic ear, Australian scientists have dramatically improved and saved the lives of millions worldwide.

We Aussies are a creative bunch. From the boomerang, fridge, ute and Hills Hoist to Aspro, wi-fi and Google Maps, we’re responsible for countless inventions used in everyday life worldwide.

More importantly, some of our scientists have changed history and dramatically improved – if not saved – the lives of millions worldwide with their discoveries. Here are five of the greatest.

Penicillin-based antibiotics

Australian scientist Howard Walter Florey was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1945 for his role, alongside Ernest Chain and Alexander Fleming, in the development of penicillin.

Although Fleming is often credited with discovering penicillin, it was Florey who carried out the first clinical trials, demonstrating penicillin’s ability to fight bacterial infections. It’s estimated the trio’s discovery has saved around 200 million lives. Our longest-service Prime Minster, Sir Robert Menzies, called Florey ‘the most important man ever born in Australia’ in terms of ‘improving world well-being’.

The Bionic Ear

La Trobe University’s Graeme Clarke successfully tested the bionic ear in 1978, which has since gifted over 200,000 deaf people with the power of hearing and speech. The bionic ear is a cochlear implant into the head, which captures sounds, coverts it to digital code and then electronically stimulates the auditory nerve to send the message to the brain where it can be interpreted.

Motivated by his father’s hearing difficulties, Clarke’s groundbreaking achievements garnered him three major scientific awards. He later established Australia’s first university training in audiology – the Bionic Ear Institute, which furthers research into bionic hearing, bionic vision and neurobionics to improve lives.

Lithium medical treatment

Australian psychiatrist Dr John Frederick Joseph Cade revolutionised mental illness treatment when he discovered lithium carbonate as an effective mood stabiliser for bipolar disorder. Previous to Dr Cade’s 1948 discovery, the common treatment for psychosis was electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy.

Dr Cade was recognised for his work in the 1970s, when he joined the Distinguished Fellow of American College of Psychiatrist, received the highest psychiatry honour and became an Officer of the Order of Australia.


In the 1950s, concern was growing around the effect of X-rays on pregnant women and their unborn babies. Working at the Department of Health, Australian’s David Robinson and George Kossoff built the first commercially practice ultrasound scanner in 1961, which completely changed the way medicine used ultrasound technology. Nowadays, ultrasound technology is used to diagnose problems of the breast, abdomen and reproductive organs as well as monitor the health and development of foetuses.

Black box flight recorder

‘How or why did the plane crash?' This question largely remained a mystery until 1958, when chemist David Warren invented the durable black box flight recorder, which records flight data and cockpit conversations. If a plane comes down, the recordings of the black box could be used to work out the cause and to apply preventative measures to future aircrafts. Warren’s invention is now installed in every commercial plane in the world – of course, the device is now coloured orange, not black.

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