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Martin, Florence (1867–1957)

by R. W. Home

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Florence Martin (1867-1957), physicist, was born on 25 December 1867 at Clarens, Potts Point, Sydney, eleventh child of Sir James Martin, premier of New South Wales and later chief justice, and his native-born wife Isabella (d.1909), sister of William Long. She received her early education from a governess and later attended Madame Gilder's school, Campbell Lodge.

Her father died in 1886 but through Lady Martin's standing and large fortune, her children moved in the highest social circles. Not content with the life of idleness prescribed for young ladies of her class, Florence enrolled in arts at the University of Sydney in 1891. After completing the first year with honours in physics, she re-enrolled in 1892 but during the year began working instead as an unpaid research assistant in the university's physics department under a family friend, Professor (Sir) Richard Threlfall.

This was no mere whim. During the two years Martin spent in Threlfall's laboratory she proved a reliable and accurate observer whose 'most constant assistance' Threlfall valued very highly. When her mother and most of her sisters left for Europe in early 1893, she remained behind to complete the chief piece of research on which she had been engaged, an attempt to verify experimentally some of the conclusions of Maxwell's electromagnetic theory concerning forces acting in magnetic circuits. A report written jointly with Threlfall was read to the Royal Society of New South Wales in July 1893 and was published in London in the Philosophical Magazine. Martin then sailed for Europe, preceded by a letter of recommendation from Threlfall to (Sir) J. J. Thomson, director of Cambridge's renowned Cavendish Laboratory.

She appears to have been only the second Australian research student to work at the Cavendish, then rapidly becoming the Mecca for every aspiring experimental physicist. Few Australian women have ever done so. She spent about eighteen months there, attending the advanced undergraduate practical classes as well as pursuing her own tidy but fairly inconsequential research on the expansion of the gas between the plates of a capacitor when the capacitor was discharged. Returning to Sydney in 1896, Martin immediately resumed her collaboration with Threlfall, publishing two more joint papers. Two years later, however, he returned to England, and Martin's career in physics was over. For six months during 1899 she acted as the university's tutor to women students, then she became housekeeper for her mother, now hopelessly senile.

In 1905 Martin met a wealthy young American explorer, William Cooke Daniels, and shared her home with his fiancée Cicely Banner during his sixteen-month absence on an expedition to New Guinea. The couple married next year and Martin went to live with them, chiefly on their English and French estates but also travelling the world until the outbreak of war in 1914.

Daniels died unexpectedly in 1918. When his widow succumbed to the influenza epidemic shortly afterwards, Martin found herself heir to a large income for life from the Daniels estate based on the Daniels & Fisher department store at Denver, Colorado. She settled there in 1919 and soon became prominent in local society. For much of the 1920s she and her sister Emily spent their summers at Florence's spectacular mountain-top residence outside Denver and their winters in London. Florence became a patron of the arts, endowing the Cooke-Daniels lectures at the Denver Art Museum. She also gave parkland to the city as a memorial to William and Cicely Daniels.

Florence Martin continued to travel widely until her last years. She died at Denver on 27 October 1957, leaving an estate of over $US200,000 to her niece.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Grainger, Martin of Martin Place (Syd, 1970)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Dec 1867
  • Denver Post, 9 Sept 1920, 25 Feb 1925, 12 July 1927, 7 Jan 1935, 8 Feb, 23 Aug 1936, 28 Jan 1937, 27 Jan 1938, 26 Jan 1955, 28 Oct, 1 Nov 1957
  • Rocky Mountain News (Denver), 28 Oct 1957
  • Martin family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Threlfall correspondence (University of Sydney Archives)
  • J. J. Thomson correspondence (University of Cambridge Library).

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Martin, Florence (1867–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/martin-florence-7504/text13085, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 11 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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