Ian Polmear graduated with a Bachelor of Metallurgical Engineering from the University of Melbourne in 1949. After working briefly in local paper making, automotive and electroplating industries, he joined the Materials Division of the former Aeronautical Research Laboratories as an Experimental Officer.
He was seconded for two years for research training at the Fulmer Research Institute England after which he returned to ARL to initiate research programs concerned mainly with aircraft aluminium alloys. Later he became a Principal Research Scientist and Leader of the Aircraft Materials Group.
In 1967, he had a mid-career change when he was appointed to the Chair of Materials Science in the Department of Civil Engineering at Monash University. He was responsible for establishing the Department of Materials Engineering in 1970 and he and his colleagues developed the curriculum for a new undergraduate course in this discipline that was introduced in 1971. He continued his research interests in light alloys and was author of a book on this topic. From 1987 to 1990 he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He returned to a personal chair in 1991 after which he took early retirement to pursue consulting and other interests in the field of materials and energy.
During his career at Monash he also had visiting appointments in England, Switzerland and Japan. In 1965, he was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Engineering by his alma mater. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, London.
In 1993 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to materials science and to engineering. In 2008, his contributions to research in the field of light metal alloys were recognised by Monash University when he was presented with a 50th Anniversary Research Award.