Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Leo Arthur Cotton (1883–1963)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with:

COTTON FAMILY: Francis (1857-1942), journalist and politician, Leo Arthur (1883-1963), professor of geology, and Frank Stanley (1890-1955), professor of physiology, were father and sons. Francis was born on 5 May 1857 in Adelaide, son of Richard Cotton, grocer, and his wife Esther Ann, née Payne. Leo Arthur was born on 11 November 1883 at Nymagee, New South Wales, and Frank Stanley was born on 30 April 1890 at Camperdown, Sydney.

Educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, Francis later worked on a cattle station at Port Lincoln. At 17 he moved to western New South Wales, becoming a shearer, a farmer, a drover and a Methodist lay preacher. On 1 January 1883 at Forbes he married Evangeline Mary Geake Lane, born at Bathurst. Developing as a noted open-air orator, he became a social reformer with radical views on land taxation; in 1887 he founded a tax reform group in Forbes, and in 1889 he joined the Single Tax League in Sydney; he became a journalist and a leading supporter of single-taxer Henry George. A firm free trader, in March-April he was active in the middle-class Liberal Association, trying to influence the founding of a free trade party on Georgian lines. Next year he represented the Wagga Wagga shearers on the Trades and Labor Council, where mixed feelings were held about him. His eloquence and literary talents made him a valuable member of the Labour Defence Committee in the 1890 maritime strike. He was on the royal commission which inquired into the strike in 1890-91.

Although Cotton's importance was later exaggerated, he did take a prominent part in the council's planning in 1890-91 to form a political party. In February 1891, with Thomas Houghton and R. Boxall, he was on a sub-committee 'to draft a scheme of government of [the Labor] leagues'. The single tax was rejected but a compromise land tax plank was adopted; accused of disloyalty, Cotton survived a clash on the council with a protectionist, C. Hart. He was now editor of the Democrat, a single-tax paper, and was informing Sir Henry Parkes by letter about the incipient Labor Party. At a by-election in April he ran as an independent for the Legislative Assembly electorate of East Sydney. By June he had joined the Labor Electoral League, and at the general election he won a seat at Newtown and was admitted to the party's first caucus.

In parliament Cotton's free trade views soon produced tension with the developing solidarity system of the Labor Party. He attended the 'unity' conference of November 1893, but in April next year he joined (Sir) Joseph Cook in refusing to sign the party's pledge. Defeated in 1894, at the 1895 general election he was returned as a free trade candidate and held his seat (Newtown-Camperdown) until 1901. He continued as a reforming journalist and pacifist, writing for the Australian Worker among other publications; he developed an interest in science and invention. Predeceased by his wife and survived by three sons and three daughters, he died at Lindfield on 28 November 1942 and was cremated.

Leo Arthur was educated at Fort Street Model Public School and the University of Sydney, winning several prizes (B.A., 1906; B.Sc., 1908; M.A., 1916; D.Sc., 1920). In 1902 he became a draughtsman in the Department of Lands, undertaking his arts course as an evening student. On completing his science degree he went (on the voyage only) with Professor Edgeworth David to the Antarctic on the 1907 Shackleton expedition. On his return in 1908 he became a junior demonstrator in geology at the university and in 1909-11 was Macleay fellow in geology of the Linnean Society of New South Wales; he was a demonstrator, assistant lecturer and lecturer in the department of geology in 1911-20. At Hornsby Methodist Church on 9 February 1910 he married Florence Edith Channon; she died on 7 October 1930, leaving three sons and two daughters.

Cotton was taught by David and was influenced by him. His main research fields were isostasy, diastrophism, polar wanderings and the strength of the earth's crust—geophysical studies that reflected his mathematical expertise. Acting head of the geology department in David's absence during World War I, in 1920 Cotton became assistant professor. In 1925 he succeeded David in the chair of geology and the W. H. Hovell lectureship in physical geography. His heavy administrative responsibilities reduced his research work but several of his students achieved high academic distinctions. He served on many scientific committees and in World War II he was chairman of the Advisory Committee on Scientific Manpower (General). He was a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales and a fellow of the Geological societies of London and America. Dean of the faculty of science in 1944-46, he retired in 1948.

Popular and respected, Cotton was a good chess-player and liked bowls. On 9 November 1946 at Artarmon he married Lilian Reed (d.1980). He died at Newport on 12 July 1963 and was cremated after a Methodist service. The geology department of the University of New England is named after him.

Frank Stanley was educated at Sydney High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1912; D.Sc., 1931). He excelled in sport and developed a lifelong interest in its effects on the body; he won a blue for swimming, and in 1921 he took the New South Wales 440 yards (402 m) and 880 yards (805 m) championships; he held all university titles from 220 yards (201 m) to one mile (1.6 km) for over twenty years. He had become a lecturer and demonstrator in physiology in 1913, and married Catherine Drummond Smith with Presbyterian forms at Hornsby on 25 August 1917. He was made chief lecturer in 1923.

Cotton's doctoral thesis was on 'Studies in centre of gravity changes' and he published papers on the physiology of circulation and respiration. In 1932 he was awarded a Rockefeller travelling scholarship and spent eighteen months in the United States of America. Appointed reader in 1938, he was senior research fellow of the National Health and Medical Research Council in 1939-45. He became research professor in 1941 and was professor from 1946 until his retirement in 1955.

In World War II, with the Royal Australian Air Force, he was mainly responsible for the invention of the 'Cotton aerodynamic anti-G flying suit', which minimized the effects of high-speed flying on pilots. His research into the techniques of various sports and their physiological effects won international renown after the war. He devised machines and instruments to test the effects of strain on athletes, and his experiments made it possible to improve training methods and to predict the adaptability of competitors to certain sports. Friendly and congenial, he received co-operation from many men and women. Amongst the Australians he assisted were Denise Spencer, Judy Joy Davies and Jon Henricks in swimming, Peter Evatt in rowing and Edwin Carr in running. In 1949 he used his ergometer to help select the victorious university eight-oar crew, and in 1952 was scientific adviser to the Australian Olympic team at Helsinki.

Cotton died of coronary-vascular disease at Hornsby on 23 August 1955 and was cremated after a Methodist service. He was survived by two sons and his wife, who had graduated in 1911 with first-class honours and the University of Sydney medal in geology; in 1938 she published Ludwig Leichhardt and the Great South Land.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • F. Picard, ‘Henry George and the Labour split of 1891’. Historical Studies, no 21, 1953, p 45
  • Australian Journal of Science, 18 (1955), p 21
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 97 (1964), p 224
  • People (Sydney), 25 Aug 1954
  • Australian Worker, 13 Aug 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Dec 1942, 25 Aug 1955, 13 July 1963.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Cotton, Leo Arthur (1883–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 November, 1883
Nymagee, New South Wales, Australia


12 July, 1963 (aged 79)
Newport, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.