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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jauncey, George Eric (1888–1947)

by R. W. Home and John Jenkin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Eric Jauncey, n.d.

Eric Jauncey, n.d.

photo supplied by John Jenkins and Helen Burns

George Eric Macdonnell Jauncey (1888-1947), physicist, was born on 21 September 1888 at Norwood, Adelaide, second child of George Jauncey, an accountant from England, and his Adelaide-born wife Agnes Binnie, née Davis. The economist and author Leslie Jauncey was a younger brother. Two of his five siblings died in infancy, and his father died when Eric was 11.

After primary and early secondary education at public schools, he won scholarships to Prince Alfred College, where he completed the higher public examination in 1906 with outstanding results in physics, chemistry and mathematics. At the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1910; D.Sc., 1922), Jauncey held a cadetship in the physics laboratory, which provided tuition fees and a small living allowance. Taught mathematics and physics by (Sir) William Henry Bragg in 1907 and 1908, he obtained first-class honours in physics.

In 1911-12 Jauncey held an 1851 Exhibition science research bursary at Adelaide under (Sir) Kerr Grant, and in 1912-13 an 1851 Exhibition scholarship with Bragg at the University of Leeds, England, where he studied X-ray absorption and scattering, heard of Bragg's particle theory of X-rays and observed his early pioneering research on X-ray spectroscopy and crystallography. Jauncey's scholarship was not extended when Bragg reported that he was 'an enthusiastic, persevering student [but] I cannot say that he has originality or exceptional merit'. On 16 January 1913 at Idle, Yorkshire, he married with Congregational forms Ethel Sarah ('Effie') Turner of Adelaide.

From 1913 to 1918 Jauncey successively held positions as demonstrator or instructor in physics at the University of Toronto, Canada, and at Lehigh University (M.Sc., 1916), Pennsylvania, and the University of Missouri, Columbia, in the United States of America. He attempted to return to Australia in 1917 but was refused a passport because of pacifist comments he had made in private letters, which were intercepted by censors. The Australian government made his views known to the U.S. authorities, they were published in the American press and in December 1917 Jauncey was forced to resign his university post. Unemployed for some months, he eventually found work with the socialist-inclined National Non-partisan League in St Paul, Minnesota, and wrote several articles on the Australian experience with state-owned enterprises. During the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 he was seriously ill and again out of work for several months. In December 1919 he returned to university teaching, to a temporary position at Iowa State College, Ames. Repeated appeals by Jauncey to be allowed to work, teach and raise his family in his own country were refused, despite Grant's support.

In 1920 Arthur Compton was appointed head of the physics department at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri. Jauncey was one of his early appointments and built a successful career at the university as instructor and then assistant-, associate- and eventually professor of physics. Compton had long thought that the scattering of X-rays could be explained by classical electrodynamic theory, until late in 1922 he suddenly and successfully adopted a quantum interpretation. It was Jauncey who, from his familiarity with Bragg's ideas, prompted Compton to pursue this explanation, for which Compton shared the 1927 Nobel prize in Physics.

Continuing to study X-rays and their interactions with matter, Jauncey was awarded a doctorate by the University of Adelaide in 1922 for some of this work. He had, to an unusual degree, expertise in both experimental and theoretical physics, and published nearly one hundred research papers, many in the premier American journal, The Physical Review, of which he became an associate editor. Having regained his passport, in 1926 he returned briefly to Adelaide and lectured in Australia.

An excellent and dedicated teacher, Jauncey was the author of the widely used undergraduate text Modern Physics (1932, 1937, 1948), and a sympathetic supervisor of postgraduate students. When a severe illness curtailed his experimental research, he turned to the history of physics, publishing several articles.

Jauncey died of chronic rheumatic heart disease on 19 May 1947 at St Louis, Missouri, and was cremated. His wife and daughter survived him. At a memorial service, colleagues spoke movingly of his major contributions to American physics, his scientific objectivity and integrity, his humanity, and his modesty and courage. Contributions to a memorial fund enabled Jauncey prizes in physics to be awarded at Washington University from 1948 to 1961.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Stuewer, The Compton Effect (New York, 1975)
  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • American Journal of Physics, 15, no 5, 1947, p 434
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 13, 1985, p 100
  • J. Jenkin, ‘G. E. M. Jauncey and the Compton Effect’, Physics in Perspective, 4, 2002, p 320
  • Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 (Imperial College archives, London)
  • University of Adelaide archives
  • Washington University archives, St Louis, Missouri, United States of America
  • Jauncey, G. E. M.--permission to return from USA, A1 1923/26495 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

R. W. Home and John Jenkin, 'Jauncey, George Eric (1888–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Eric Jauncey, n.d.

Eric Jauncey, n.d.

photo supplied by John Jenkins and Helen Burns