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Wilson, William Parkinson (1826–1874)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

William Parkinson Wilson (1826?-1874), professor of mathematics, was born at Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England, and baptized on 1 February 1826, son of John Wilson, silversmith, and his wife Elizabeth, née Parkinson. Educated at the Cathedral Grammar School, Peterborough, he won a sizarship at St John's College, Cambridge, and was admitted in February 1843 (B.A., 1847; M.A., 1850); senior wrangler, first Smith's prizeman, and fellow of St John's in 1847-57, in August 1849 he became founding professor of mathematics at Queen's College, Belfast. In 1850 he published A Treatise on Dynamics.

In 1854 Wilson was chosen as professor of mathematics, pure and mixed, at the newly established University of Melbourne; he had weighed prospects of a greater personal influence and a trebled salary against academic exile. One of the four foundation professors, he arrived in Melbourne on 31 January 1855 and gave the university's first lecture on 13 April. Students were few. Three days later an apprehensive Wilson and his colleague William Hearn issued a pamphlet, which rejected the 'Oxford model' held responsible for the University of Sydney's 'want of success', and urged that the study of classics be optional. The university council rejected the scheme and a similar proposal in 1857. Besides Euclid, trigonometry, algebra, analytical geometry and calculus, Wilson taught in the B.A. course natural philosophy 'illustrated by models and experiments'; he spent £500 on apparatus in the first year. In a two-year course he lectured on mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, heat, meteorology, optics, astronomy, electricity and magnetism. He also set and corrected the matriculation papers in mathematics. In 1858 he devised the first engineering course at an Australian university and the three-year course leading to a certificate of civil engineering was begun in 1861. Two of his students were William Kernot and Henry Andrew.

Wilson deplored what he termed an 'incomplete' university without residential colleges to provide moral and religious education, the encouragement of study after graduation, tutorial teaching, training for the clergy, and the cultivation of 'university spirit and feeling'. In September 1865 he became secretary of a committee set up to found an Anglican college at the university. In 1872 Trinity College was opened and he was a trustee from November 1871 and secretary of its first council.

With an extensive knowledge of architecture and the arts, Wilson served on the royal commission on fine arts in 1863-64. He was a member and a vice-president of the Philosophical Institute (founded 1855) and was active in the affairs of its successor, the Royal Society of Victoria. He was keenly interested in astronomy and in Belfast had founded and directed an observatory. In November 1856 in a paper read before the Philosophical Institute he advocated Melbourne as the site for the southern hemisphere observatory so long planned by the Royal Society, London; a committee was formed to induce the government to achieve Wilson's 'noble object'. In June 1858 he demonstrated a model of a 4-ft (122 cm) reflector for the proposed Melbourne observatory, which opened in 1863. Wilson had been its secretary from 1860 and was a most active member of its Board of Visitors. In December 1871 he had charge of the small equatorial telescope of the expedition which set out to observe the eclipse of the sun off Cape Sidmouth, Queensland. At Mornington, south of Melbourne, he established an observatory as part of the transit of Venus observations on 9 December 1874. He had written a report of his findings to his friend Robert Ellery when on 11 December he died of apoplexy, aged 48. He was buried in the Moorooduc cemetery. A bachelor, he had lived in the university's quadrangle apartments; at the time of his death his two nephews were being educated under his care.

A little man of fiery temperament, Wilson was at times outspoken and punctilious but was never factious. His ready analysis of issues, his constancy, correctness and unremitting industry made him most effective in the advocacy of causes. He was a thorough and lucid teacher.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • T. W. Moody and J. C. Beckett, Queen's, Belfast 1845-1949 (Lond, 1959)
  • Age (Melbourne), 12, 29 Dec 1874
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Dec 1874
  • Daily Telegraph (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1874
  • Australasian 19 Dec 1874
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1874.

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Citation details

'Wilson, William Parkinson (1826–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-william-parkinson-4870/text8143, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 30 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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