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Oddie, Thomas Harold (Hal) (1911–1990)

by R. W. Home

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Thomas Harold (Hal) Oddie (1911-1990), medical physicist and bridge player, was born on 19 July 1911 at Ballarat, Victoria, youngest of five children of Victorian-born parents Thomas Alfred Oddie, grazier, and his wife Marion, née James. His grandfather, Thomas Oddie, and great-uncle, James Oddie, were notable figures in the early history of Ballarat. Educated at Glamorgan Preparatory School for Boys at Toorak, Melbourne, as a boarder and then, supported by scholarships, at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1925-28), Hal won a scholarship to Trinity College, University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1932; M.Sc., 1933; D.Sc., 1944), where he graduated with first-class honours in natural philosophy (physics). At Trinity, with a fellow student, Colin Juttner, he invented ‘Juttoddie’, a colourful steeplechase through the college grounds that remains an annual feature of the college calendar.

Employed part time at the Commonwealth Radium Laboratory (later the Commonwealth X-ray and Radium Laboratory), Oddie also worked in the natural philosophy department at the University of Melbourne. Here he investigated the efficiency of the separation of hydrogen and deuterium in electrolysis, using the electrolyte from the local Tramways Board’s storage batteries that in due course became Professor T. H. Laby’s chief source of deuterium to underpin the research program in nuclear physics that he hoped to launch. Oddie’s appointment at the Commonwealth Radium Laboratory became full time in late 1934. His chief responsibility was the routine operation of the laboratory’s radon plant and the issuing, for use in the treatment of cancer or in industrial radiography, of radon ‘needles’—fine gold tubes filled with the radioactive radon gas given off by radium. He successfully redesigned the plant to make it operate more efficiently and published papers on aspects of radiation dosimetry.

In 1940 Oddie moved to a job more directly related to Australia’s immediate wartime needs, in the laboratories of Philips Lamps (Australasia) Pty Ltd (later Philips Electrical Industries of Australia Pty Ltd) in Sydney, where he was involved in the design and testing of components and materials used in electrical communication equipment. He returned to Melbourne and to radiation physics in 1947 when he became officer-in-charge of the tracer elements section of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization). Radioactive isotopes produced in cyclotrons or nuclear reactors were just becoming available for use in medical and industrial applications, and as tracers in biological research; the newly formed section advised local users.

Oddie’s life was transformed in 1952 by the award of a Fulbright grant for use in the United States of America. He went to the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, Little Rock, as assistant-professor of physics in the department of radiology. With Isadore Meschan he investigated the medical use of radioisotopes produced in nuclear reactors, especially radiocobalt in treating carcinoma of the cervix and radioiodine in studying thyroid function. Oddie had begun research on the latter subject in Australia and it became the major focus of his work thereafter; he published over eighty papers on the subject.

In 1955 Oddie and Meschan both moved to Wake Forest College, North Carolina, where Oddie was associate-professor of physics in the department of radiology of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine. He was also a consultant at the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies in neighbouring Tennessee. In 1956 he returned to Australia to a position as research physicist at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, and continued his thyroid studies and research on the clinical use of radioisotopes. He went back to the USA in 1960, becoming associate-professor (and in 1964 professor) of radiology in the University of Arkansas Medical Center. In 1974 he transferred to a position as biophysicist at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Torrance, California. After he retired in 1982 he lived in Australia, first at Scotts Head and later at Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, then in Melbourne from 1988.

Already a keen card player, during his student years Oddie became one of the Australian pioneers of contract bridge. Adept at developing interesting methods of bidding and playing, he was a member of State teams that won the national championship (Victoria 1937, 1938; New South Wales 1958, 1959) and of the Australian team that played at the first World Bridge Olympiad at Turin, Italy, in 1960. Eventually, in America, he became a life master.

Oddie had married Marion Taylor (d.1961) on 25 July 1935 at the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School chapel. On 12 February 1966 at Little Rock, Arkansas, he married Phyllis Isom, whom he had met through bridge; this marriage was dissolved in 1974. Of slim build and six feet (183 cm) tall, he loved dogs and horses and made sure that his daughters learned to ride. From his student days he also loved jazz. He was an enthusiastic stamp collector and keen gardener. At Coffs Harbour for a bridge tournament, he died on 4 November 1990 and was cremated; the three daughters from his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. Richardson, The Australian Radiation Laboratory (1981)
  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (1990)
  • C. Chua, The History of Australian Bridge 1930-1990 (1993)
  • Australian Bridge, Aug 1987, p 32
  • Mescham papers (Dorothy Carpenter Medical Archives, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, North Carolina, USA)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Oddie, Thomas Harold (Hal) (1911–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oddie-thomas-harold-hal-15392/text26599, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 11 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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