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Slattery, Joseph Patrick (1866–1931)

by John P. Wilkinson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Joseph Patrick Slattery (1866-1931), Catholic priest and physicist, was born on 21 May 1866 at Waterford, Ireland, child of John Slattery, and his wife Hanna, née Walsh. He was educated at the Christian Brothers' College, Waterford, and at St Vincent's College, Castleknock, Dublin (1877-86), where he was taught by Fr R. Bodkin, whose science laboratory contained an original Callan battery. He gained honours in experimental physics in the university examinations in 1886 and on 7 September entered the Vincentian seminary at Blackrock, Dublin.

While still a clerical student, Slattery joined the Vincentian staff, who arrived in Sydney on 29 November 1888 to take over direction of St Stanislaus' College, Bathurst, from 1 January. While continuing his ecclesiastical studies, he taught natural science. He acquired more scientific equipment, some of which he made himself, being an expert glass-blower and gifted with deft fingers. Until 1897 he had an able collaborator in C. A. Mulholland, an outstanding chemistry teacher.

Ordained priest on 8 December 1891 in the college chapel, he became prefect of studies. The standard was high: after 1893 students from the college won gold medals in the senior and junior public examinations for physics and chemistry. Slattery continued to teach mainly physics, chemistry and geology until 1911.

In 1893 he introduced into the study-halls lighting by gas with incandescent burners, nearly twelve months before their availability on the Australian market. By 1895 the college possessed a gas engine, a six-inch (15 cm) sparking coil and two Crookes tubes. Later that year an oil engine, dynamo and storage batteries supplied electric light to the science halls—no other electric light was in use at Bathurst. He built an acetylene gas generator to provide stage lighting for college theatricals and took an early interest in colour photography.

After learning of Röntgen's discoveries of the rays associated with his name, reported in January 1896, Slattery directed his attention to radiography. Following reports on work done in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, on 25 July he took a splendid radiograph of the hand of Eric Thompson, enabling the surgeon to extract shotgun pellets. Until 1911 doctors brought patients to Fr Slattery and his reputation grew. With a thirteen-inch (33 cm) coil, financed by local people, he could use shorter exposures. His radiographs were in demand for fractures as well as for objects embedded in the flesh. However the European-made focus tubes with long use produced harder rays as the vacua in the tubes increased. This caused annoyance and expense. Slattery devised a kind of regulator to improve the working of the tubes which he communicated to Röntgen, who replied appreciatively.

Sharing growing interest in wireless telegraphy, Slattery by 1900 was sending electrical signals within the college without wire. That year, on 10 September, he presented a paper, 'The development of electrical sciences', to the Australasian Catholic Congress in Sydney. He lectured at Bathurst Technical College on 'Electrical discharges through the air and rarefied gases'. By July 1903 the college took delivery of a plant from London for wireless telegraphy: messages were transmitted from the college and received at the cathedral tower on 9 February 1904 and next day at Kelso, three miles (5 km) distant. In 1910 his scholarly and fascinating paper, 'Wave motion in ether', was published in the college's Echoes. Slattery's transmitter was dismantled on the outbreak of war in 1914, but the receiver that he built is preserved in St Stanislaus' College.

He was of middle height but of strong muscular build, unhurried and deliberate in movement. Somewhat stern in appearance, he could relax unexpectedly, smile and laugh heartily. He spoke with precision and grace. Exact, punctual, constant and exacting, he refused to tolerate foolishness in class or vagueness in answering, nor could he resist a slight sarcasm. His students regarded him with awe and admiration.

Early in 1911 Slattery was transferred to pastoral charge of St Vincent's parish, Ashfield, Sydney. From 1912 he preached missions and retreats throughout New South Wales and Queensland. Between 1920 and 1927 he was spiritual director at the Springwood and Manly seminaries, and also, from 1923, rector of St Joseph's Novitiate at Eastwood. In September 1926, in declining health, he was appointed vice-rector at St John's College, University of Sydney. He died of heart disease on 31 March 1931 in Lewisham Hospital and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He never lost his natural reserve and was less persuaded than anyone else of the value of the aid he had given to the development of medical and surgical science in Australia and to the technology connected with wireless telegraphy.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Hall, The History of St. Stanislaus' College Including St. Charles' Seminary (Syd, 1944)
  • W. Watson & Sons Ltd, Salute to the X-ray Pioneers of Australia (Syd, 1946)
  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Vincentian Fathers in Australasia (Melb, 1980)
  • Echoes from St Stanislaus', 1891, p 24, 1893, p 3, 1897, p 123, 131, 1901, p 151, 1904, p 115, 1910, p 25, 1911, p 8, 1931-32-33, p 26, 1936–June 1937, p 24
  • College of Radiologists of Australasia, Journal, 9, 1965, p 24
  • Australasian Radiology, 14, 1970, p 129
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1896
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Mar, 13 June 1896
  • Bathurst Free Press, 23, 25, 27 July, 10 Aug 1896
  • National Advocate (Bathurst), 24 Mar 1902
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 1, 8, 15 Aug, 26 Sept 1896, 9 Apr 1931
  • F. D. King, Father Joseph Patrick Slattery (manuscript, St Stanislaus' College (Bathurst) Archives).

Citation details

John P. Wilkinson, 'Slattery, Joseph Patrick (1866–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/slattery-joseph-patrick-8453/text14863, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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