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Nicol, Phyllis Mary (1903–1964)

by Rosemary Annable

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Phyllis Mary Nicol (1903-1964), lecturer and demonstrator in physics, was born on 2 March 1903 at Thirroul, New South Wales, eldest daughter of native-born parents Walter George Phillip Nicol, teamster, and his wife Florence, née Reeves. Educated at North Sydney Girls' High School, Phyllis won a bursary in 1921 to the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1925; M.Sc., 1926). She shared the Deas Thomson scholarship (1924) and graduated (1925) with first-class honours in physics and in mathematics from a department somewhat unwelcoming to women students. Awarded an 1851 Exhibition science research scholarship, she wrote her thesis on the optical properties of selenium and published her findings in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales; she was to join the society in 1935.

In March 1927 Miss Nicol resigned her scholarship. She worked for the rest of her life in the department of physics. A full-time demonstrator (1927-33), reduced to part-time (1933-46), she became a part-time lecturer in 1946 (following the retirement of Professor Oscar Vonwiller) and a full-time lecturer in 1948 but with 'temporary' status. She had written with her colleague Edgar Booth Physics (1931, 16th edition 1962), a standard text for high-school students and undergraduates.

Nicol unsuccessfully applied in 1952 for the position of senior lecturer. Her status and that of other 'temporary' members of the department was reviewed by a senate committee in July 1953. Although she was damned with faint praise by Harry Messel, the dynamic new professor of physics, who considered that she 'coached' rather than lectured, but was worthy of consideration because she 'had been here for many years', the committee recommended that she be offered a permanent appointment. After almost thirty years of teaching, her reward was the position of 'tutor demonstrator with the status of lecturer'.

Her devotion to the department was equalled only by her attachment to Women's College, where she had lived from 1921 as student, tutor in physics and mathematics, and sub-principal (1933-54). Hindered by a lack of opportunity for overseas research, by limitations within the physics department and by her reluctance to take any public role of leadership, she remained as a subordinate within her department and college, voicing no grudge or criticism of others. The stereotype of the scholarly spinster, untidy, careless of dress and seemingly always running late, 'Phylly Nic' spoke on the benefits of eight hours sleep a night and exhorted her female students to dress in their best for examinations as a means of boosting confidence.

Nicol resigned as sub-principal in 1954 to live with her unmarried sister at Lane Cove. She underwent a mastectomy in 1953 and later suffered severe illness, but continued to work, resigning from the physics department 'due to ill health' only four days before she died of cancer on 13 June 1964 at her home; she was cremated with Anglican rites. Students were her vocation. Her genius was that, through her teaching, the most unpromising candidates could pass physics I, the first hurdle for many university courses. Her legacy was to help others on the path to opportunities she never enjoyed.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Branagan and G. Holland (eds), Ever Reaping Something New (Syd, 1985)
  • R. Annable (ed), Biographical Register, The Women's College within the University of Sydney, vol 1, 1892-1939 (Syd, 1995)
  • W. V. Hole, 'Phyllis Mary Nicol, MSc (1903-64)', University of Sydney, Record, 2, 1989, p 2
  • P. M. Nicol staff file (University of Sydney Archives)
  • University of Sydney Senate minutes, 6 July 1953 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • University of Sydney and Women's College Archives.

Citation details

Rosemary Annable, 'Nicol, Phyllis Mary (1903–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicol-phyllis-mary-11239/text20043, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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