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Burke-Gaffney, Thomas Noel (1893–1958)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Thomas Noel Burke-Gaffney (1893-1958), Jesuit priest, seismologist and astronomer, was born on 26 December 1893 at 9 Rathdown Terrace, Dublin, fourth son of Thomas Burke Gaffney, valuer, and his wife Jenny, née O'Donnell. Educated in 1901-12 at Belvedere College, Dublin, Noel entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg on 17 February 1913. He attended science lectures at the National University of Ireland in 1915-16 and in 1917-19 studied philosophy at Jersey, Channel Islands, and at Milltown Park, Dublin. After teaching at St Francis Xavier's College, Melbourne, in 1921, and at St Ignatius' College, Riverview, Sydney, in 1922-23, he returned to Ireland to complete his theology studies at Milltown Park where he was ordained priest on 31 July 1926.

In September 1928 he returned to Riverview where he taught science until becoming assistant-director of Riverview College Observatory in 1946 (director from 1952). Although Burke-Gaffney was a dedicated and unorthodox teacher of physics who used ingenious devices like his 'gaffoscope' to illustrate degaussing, he was a poor disciplinarian in the classroom, 'too gentle for the boys of Riverview'. Nevertheless, he was loved by his pupils and famed for his little zoo of native animals—his 'gafferoos' as he called them—which delighted a loyal and devoted following of country boys. He possessed 'an uncanny ability to tame wild creatures', and instilled into his boys the importance and nobility of the natural sciences.

A keen and devoted scientist, Burke-Gaffney published papers on the seismicity of Australia, on the detection of S waves in the earth's inner core and on special phases from New Zealand earthquakes. His most notable contribution was four papers written with Professor K. E. Bullen on the seismic aspects of nuclear explosions, studies which attracted worldwide attention. Burke-Gaffney was the first to discover that nuclear explosions detonated at or near ground level showed up on seismographs. A council-member (1954-58) and vice-president (1957-58) of the Royal Society of New South Wales, he unstintingly helped many young seismologists and did valuable work as secretary-convenor of the sub-committee on seismology of the Australian national committee for the International Geophysical Year (1957-58).

Father Burke-Gaffney also carried out extensive work on variable stars. A man of great faith, he found it hard to understand how an astronomer could ever be an atheist: 'Astronomy', he said, 'constantly impresses you with the majesty of the Almighty, and the regularity of its laws presupposes the Lawgiver'.

Slightly built and somewhat self-effacing, Burke-Gaffney lived quietly and austerely. Few outside his college friends and scientific colleagues got to know him well, but those who did found him 'a charming and liberal-minded man, graced with a gentle dignity and a delightful humour'. Revered as an outstanding community member, he was truly—vir Deo deditus et veritati (a man dedicated to God and to the truth). He died of Hodgkin's disease on 14 September 1958 in Lewisham hospital and was buried in Gore Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Lea-Scarlett, Riverview (Syd, 1989)
  • St Ignatius College, Riverview (Sydney), Our Alma Mater, 1952, 1957, 1958
  • Nature (London), 15 Nov 1958, p 1343
  • Australian Journal of Science, 21, 1958, p 133
  • Royal Astronomical Society, Monthly Notice, 119, 1959, p 344
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 93, 1959, p 86
  • Belvederian (Dublin), 1959
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Oct 1948, 9 Sept, 4 Oct 1952, 25 Apr 1953, 4 Mar 1954, 8 June, 3 July, 19 Sept 1957, 15 Sept 1958
  • private information.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Burke-Gaffney, Thomas Noel (1893–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-gaffney-thomas-noel-9632/text16989, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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