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Clinton Coleridge Farr (1866–1943)

by R. W. Home and John Jenkin

This article was published:

Clinton Coleridge Farr (1866-1943), physicist, was born on 22 May 1866 in Adelaide, last of seven children of George Henry Farr, headmaster of the Collegiate School of St Peter, and his wife Julia Warren, née Ord. Beginning in 1884 at the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1888; D.Sc., 1902), Coleridge (known to his family as 'Cole') failed first-year science in 1885. His studies blossomed, however, with the arrival of (Sir) William Henry Bragg to teach mathematics and physics: Farr graduated with second-class honours in both subjects. That year (1888) he was the first recipient of the Angas engineering exhibition, and next year won the Angas engineering scholarship for three years work in Britain.

Farr enrolled at University College, London, but serious illness caused him to return to Australia in 1890. His health recovered and he continued his scholarship at the University of Sydney in 1891-93, studying electrical engineering under (Sir) Richard Threlfall. Farr was appointed clerk-of-works for the distribution of electricity through Redfern. Threlfall also involved him in research into magnetism. Several publications resulted, although the diamagnetism of bismuth proved intractable. Farr tutored at St Paul's College, within the university, until 1894 when he went back to the University of Adelaide as lecturer in electrical engineering. In 1895-96 he renewed his tutorship at St Paul's, in the vain hope of finding employment with Threlfall.

Late in 1896 Farr was appointed lecturer in mathematics and physics at Lincoln Agricultural College, Christchurch, New Zealand. He sought the assistance of Pietro Baracchi, acting government astronomer for Victoria, to extend the contemporary magnetic survey of the globe to the neighbourhood of New Zealand, and Baracchi secured a loan of instruments from Kew Observatory and the Royal Society, London. With the backing of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Farr persuaded the New Zealand government to fund a comprehensive survey of the islands and a magnetic observatory at Christchurch, with Farr as director, a position he occupied in 1899-1903. In 1902 he was awarded the University of Adelaide's first doctorate of science for his thesis on the early New Zealand magnetic survey. He published a comprehensive report on the project in 1916.

On 22 April 1903 Farr married Maud Ellen Haydon at St Paul's Church, Papanui. Next year he became lecturer in electricity and surveying at Canterbury College, Christchurch, being appointed professor of physics in 1911 when a chair was created. His teaching was effective and stimulating, his manner idiosyncratic and absent-minded, his support for original research strong. He had a colourful personality, a keen sense of humour and wide human interests. In the early 1920s the case of his wife's confinement for many years to mental institutions in Sydney and New Zealand came to the attention of the Lunacy Reform League and in part led to a wide-ranging royal commission on the lunacy laws in New South Wales. The league's claim that Mrs Farr was wrongfully confined was completely rejected by the commission.

Farr's later research included work on the properties of liquid sulphur, the radioactivity of New Zealand artesian waters and igneous rocks, and the breakdown of insulators on electrical transmission lines. He became a fellow of the New Zealand Institute (Royal Society of New Zealand) in 1919, winner of its Hector medal and prize in 1922, and its president in 1929-30. In 1928 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He retired in 1936. During World War II he taught at St Peter's College, Adelaide. Farr died on 27 January 1943 at Christchurch and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4 (Auckland, New Zealand, 1998), p 167
  • Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, vol 73, 1943-44, p xlv
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 13, no 4, 1944, p 503
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 12, 1984, p 76
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 3, 1986, p 333
  • Australian Historical Studies, vol 24, no 97, Oct 1991, p 340
  • New Zealand Science Review, vol 58, no 2, 2001, p 71
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 1921, p 8, 4 May 1921, p 8
  • Melbourne Observatory, outward letter books (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Royal Commission into Lunacy Laws and Administration, 12/1398 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Farr (Sharp) family papers, MSS 1826 K22137 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • St Peter's College, Adelaide Archives
  • University of Adelaide Archives
  • University of Sydney Archives.

Citation details

R. W. Home and John Jenkin, 'Farr, Clinton Coleridge (1866–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 May, 1866
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


27 January, 1943 (aged 76)
Christchurch, New Zealand

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.