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Walter Geoffrey Duffield (1879–1929)

by C. W. Allen

This article was published:

Walter Geoffrey Duffield (1879-1929), astronomer, was born on 12 August 1879 at Gawler, South Australia, son of David Walter Duffield, merchant, and his wife Florence Evangeline, née Kirkpatrick, and grandson of Walter Duffield. He attended Queen's School and the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. After graduating B.Sc. from the University of Adelaide in 1900 he won the Angas engineering scholarship and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, England, where he obtained his B.A. after two years. He spent 1903 at the National Physical Laboratory on a Nobel research studentship.

Duffield then began research at the Victoria University of Manchester on the effects of pressure on arc spectra. His work, facilitated by a Royal Society Mackinnon studentship in 1906 and 1907, led to a D.Sc. (1908) and was described in four memoirs of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society between 1907 and 1910. In 1910-23 Duffield was professor of physics at University College, Reading. He investigated the measurement of gravity at sea, undertaking experimental work during voyages to Australia in 1914 and 1923. He served in the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force in 1914-19.

In 1905 at Oxford and 1907 in Paris, Duffield attended meetings of the International Union for Solar Research, and assisted in editing the proceedings. Noting the lack of solar observatories near the longitude of eastern Australia he promoted the idea of an Australian establishment. In 1908 he became secretary of a committee appointed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to forward the scheme, and next year visited Australia to pursue contacts with scientists and government. By 1910-11 a site on Mount Stromlo, Australian Capital Territory, had been chosen and a telescope erected for testing local conditions. Duffield inspected the site in 1914 but the war prevented any development. The final decision to proceed was taken in 1923 and Duffield was appointed first director of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory in January 1924.

Duffield intended the work of the observatory to embrace studies of the sun and its variations, geophysics that might be influenced by the sun, spectroscopy of the sun and relevant laboratory sources, and southern sky astronomy. A chronic asthmatic, he died of pneumonia on 1 August 1929 at Mount Stromlo while work was still in the preliminary stages. However, he had been able to supervise the completion of the buildings, the installation of equipment, the initial laboratory experimentation, and the photographing of stellar spectra. He wrote 'The luminosity of the night sky', which appeared in the Memoirs of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory in 1928.

Duffield was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1908, and helped to form the Canberra University College. Remembered as sympathetic and kindly, he was a foundation member of the Canberra Rotary Club and a double-bass player in the Stromberra Quintet. He was survived by his wife Doris Tennant Boult whom he had married on 9 June 1909 at St Peter's Anglican Church, Glenelg, South Australia, and by three children. His estate was valued for probate at £70,096. His grave lies on a western slope of Mount Stromlo, commanding a view of the observatory, and there is a commemorative plaque in St John's Church, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Coombe (ed), History of Gawler 1837 to 1908 (Adel, 1910)
  • Royal Astronomical Society, Monthly Notices, 90 (1930), no 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July, 8 Sept 1923, 2 Aug 1929
  • Observer (Adelaide), 24 Nov 1923, 21 Feb 1925
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 8 Aug 1929
  • biography file (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

C. W. Allen, 'Duffield, Walter Geoffrey (1879–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 13 July 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

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