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Cecil Ernest Eddy (1900–1956)

by R. W. Home

This article was published:

Cecil Ernest Eddy (1900-1956), radiological physicist, was born on 21 June 1900 at Albury, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Alfred Eddy, a primary schoolteacher, and his wife Samuelina, née Evans. The family moved several times in Cecil's childhood as Alfred was transferred from one Victorian country school to another. Cecil boarded at Colac and attended high school there before joining the Victorian Education Department in 1918 as a junior teacher.

After a year at Wangaratta High School, Eddy entered the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., Dip.Ed., 1923). Instead of returning to the classroom, he was granted leave in 1923 to undertake research on X-ray emission spectra for his M.Sc. (1925) under T. H. Laby. Eddy spent 1924-25 investigating the spectra of several rare earth-elements. Although his undergraduate degree had been relatively undistinguished, he had been marked out by Laby for a career in research, and he eventually resigned from the Education Department and paid out his bond.

Eddy spent 1926 as senior science master at Geelong College. Appointed research physicist at the university next year, he investigated the possibility of doing chemical analyses by X-ray emission spectroscopy; he then obtained a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and leave to work under Sir Ernest (Baron) Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.

At the registrar's office, Collins Street, Melbourne, on 19 August 1927 Eddy married Letitia Isabella Reid who later joined him in England. He matriculated as a research student of Trinity College, Cambridge, implying an intention to do a Ph.D., but he did not enjoy Cambridge and stayed only one year before returning to his earlier project in Melbourne. Several publications followed in which he and Laby announced promising results for the X-ray method in detecting minute quantities of impurities in metals. For this (now classical) work Eddy was awarded a D.Sc. in 1930 and shared the David Syme research prize in 1931.

Eddy's knowledge of X-rays qualified him to advise those using them for medical purposes, and also to judge the research of his peers. In the 1930s his annual review of the latest developments in X-ray physics became an eagerly awaited feature of the Australian Cancer Conference. When he published damning criticism in 1935 of the X-ray techniques pivotal to the research programme of the University of Sydney's cancer research committee, his opinion carried weight.

In that year the Commonwealth Radium Laboratory, a small unit housed at the University of Melbourne, was given new responsibilities in relation to X-rays and renamed the Commonwealth X-ray and Radium Laboratory. On 8 August Eddy was appointed physicist-in-charge (director), a position he was to retain until his death. The laboratory continued to house the Commonwealth's stock of radium and to prepare from it radon applicators for the treatment of cancer. It was additionally charged with establishing a system of national standards for radiation dosimetry, with carrying out research on all physical aspects of radiotherapeutics (including questions of safety), and with advising cancer-treatment centres on these matters. Eddy was almost at once transformed into a full-time science administrator, responsible, in effect, for overseeing the provision of medical-physical services in hospitals throughout Australia. He travelled widely, advising and giving lectures that were renowned for their 'lucid and critical style'.

World War II brought further demands, especially in relation to the use of radiographic techniques for quality control of munitions, and of chest X-rays to screen members of the armed services and munitions workers for tuberculosis. Eddy also advised the armed forces on X-rays and medical X-ray equipment. When chest X-ray surveys were initiated en masse after the war, his laboratory drew up specifications for the equipment. The laboratory also became the sole authority for the procurement and distribution of radioisotopes in Australia.

Because of the laboratory's responsibilities for dosimetry standards, Eddy was a government nominee on the council of the National Association of Testing Authorities from its formation in 1946. Chairman of the National Health and Medical Research Council's standing committee on X-rays, he was a member of its standing committee on industrial hygiene and chaired (from 1947) its standing committee on radioactive isotopes. He represented Australia at several international conferences on radiation physics and in 1956 was elected chairman of the United Nations scientific committee on the effects of atomic radiation.

In the absence of a local professional organization for physicists, Eddy had joined the (British) Institute of Physics as a fellow in 1931 and was president of its Australian branch in 1948-49. He presided over section A at the congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Hobart in 1949. The (British) Society of Radiographers made him an honorary member (1945) and he was a founding fellow (1950) of the Australasian Institute of Radiography. His medical colleagues elected him an honorary member (1950) and honorary fellow (1953) of the College of Radiologists (Australia and New Zealand), and an honorary member (1952) of the Faculty of Radiologists, London.

A large man, widely liked and trusted, Eddy was good company and enjoyed a beer with friends. From 1954 he was president of Kingswood Golf Club, Melbourne. He and his wife were staunch supporters of the Yooralla Society of Victoria. As a member of the Federal government's safety committee for atomic weapons tests, in mid-June 1956 he observed tests conducted at the Monte Bello Islands, off Western Australia. While there he fell ill. He died of lobar pneumonia with myocarditis and septicaemia on 27 June 1956 at Subiaco, Perth, and was cremated; his wife and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. Richardson, The Australian Radiation Laboratory (Canb, 1981)
  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • Australian Journal of Science, Oct 1956, p 63
  • British Journal of Radiology, 29, 1956, p 535
  • Radiographer, 6, no 4, July 1958, p 6, 11, no 2, June 1964, p 6
  • H. Hamersley, Radiation Science and Australian Medicine, 1896-1940 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1984)
  • Commonwealth Dept of Health, Eddy staff file, A 1928/1, item 1036/1, and MP 81/1 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Eddy, Cecil Ernest (1900–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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