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Joan Maie Freeman (1918–1998)

by Michelle Bootcov

This article was published online in 2024

Dr Joan Freeman, c1970

Dr Joan Freeman, c1970

Courtesy of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

Joan Maie Freeman (1918—1998), physicist, was born Joan Maia Freedman on 7 January 1918 in Perth, only child of Western Australian-born Ada Gillham Freedman, née North, musician and teacher, and her London-born husband Albert Emanuel Freedman, accountant. When Joan was four, the family moved to Sydney and modified their name to Freeman, later settling at Vaucluse in 1926 after a year in Auckland, New Zealand. Small and timid, with a curious mind and a fondness for reading, dancing, swimming, and writing stories, she was especially close to her mother who, though unhappily married, was dedicated to her daughter’s education. From an early age Joan took an interest in science, cherishing her parents’ gift of a ten-volume set of Arthur Mee’s The Children's Encyclopedia (1922) and a Meccano set, which she used to construct mechanical models.

Between 1927 and 1935, Freeman attended Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (SCEGGS), Darlinghurst, where her short stature earned her the nickname ‘The Squib.’ Her passion for science matured and she consistently outperformed her peers, receiving a fee waiver when her parents faced financial hardship during the Depression. Driven and diligent, she was a prefect and house captain, and twice dux of the school (1934 and 1935). Set on a career in science but unable to study advanced physics or chemistry at SCEGGS—they were not commonly taught at girls’ schools in the first half of the twentieth century—she attended evening classes in physics at Sydney Technical College and received private lessons in mathematics during her senior years. In 1935 she succeeded spectacularly in the Leaving certificate, topping the State to win medals, prizes, and a university scholarship. The headmistress of SCEGGS, Dorothy Wilkinson, proclaimed a holiday in celebration.

Freeman excelled at the University of Sydney (BSc Hons, 1940; MSc, 1943). She was a recipient of the Slade prize (1937) as well as the George Allen (1937) and Deas Thomson (1939) scholarships, and graduated with first-class honours in physics. World War II opened new opportunities for women and, in 1941, she accepted a position at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) newly established radiophysics laboratory. There she worked alongside a team of scientists, including Ruby Payne-Scott, Joseph Pawsey, and Jack Piddington, on the secret defence technology of microwave radar.

In 1946 Freeman was awarded a CSIR senior research studentship. She decided to apply to Newnham College, Cambridge (PhD, 1950), to study nuclear physics at Sir Ernest (Lord) Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory. The first six months in England were difficult. There was a record-breaking cold winter and a devastating spring flood; food and electricity shortages; and the discovery that not only were women not awarded degrees at Cambridge but that the Cavendish was operating at a much-diminished capacity, being under-staffed and overwhelmed by new students as it sought to reorganise after the war. Finding fresh resolve in the spring of 1947, she found a niche for herself researching short-range alpha particles under the supervision of the experimental nuclear physicist Bill Burcham.

Cambridge began to confer degrees on women in October 1948 and Freeman was among their earliest female PhD graduates. Acknowledging that there were few job prospects for a nuclear physicist in Australia, the CSIR relieved her of the obligation to return and she continued her research at the Cavendish. There she met John Valentine Jelley, an English astrophysicist who pioneered modern gamma-ray astronomy. They married on 7 February 1958 at St Aldate’s Church, Oxford.

In June 1951 Freeman joined the Van de Graaff accelerator group of the nuclear physics division at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Harwell, near Oxford. She gained a reputation as a meticulous experimenter, working within a lively team of scientists on nuclear reactor technology and fundamental nuclear physics. From 1960 she managed the new tandem accelerator, assuming responsibility for a large all-male team of physicists and twenty technical staff. She also began a new line of experimental research, collaborating with Roger Blin-Stoyle, a British theoretical physicist she met while on sabbatical leave in 1958–59, to study nuclear beta decay and the decay of elementary particles. Their research shed light on the underlying nature of matter and earned them the Institute of Physics’s prestigious Ernest Rutherford medal and prize in 1976. Freeman was the first woman to receive the award, and the second Australian after (Sir) Marcus Oliphant.

When Freeman turned sixty, the AERE forced her to retire. Though ‘seething with indignation’ (Freeman 1991, 212) at the injustice of having to leave while her male colleagues were allowed to continue until sixty-five, she was placated by the offer of a special consultancy. Her husband took an early retirement and they both worked as consultants while enjoying sailing, country rambling, and travelling, including several trips to Australia. In 1991 she published an autobiography, A Passion for Physics, before becoming a devoted carer of her husband when his health failed in 1995. A year after his death, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, on 18 March 1998, and her ashes were scattered over the daffodil beds at Oxford Crematorium. She was survived by her god-daughter, Jane Cooper, who was ‘the nearest equivalent’ (Freeman 1991, 158) to a child of her own, and left a significant bequest to SCEGGS.

Behind Freeman’s bright blue eyes, unassailable modesty, and intelligence was a woman of quiet strength and steely determination. Throughout her life she remained a committed Christian and her warm easy-going personality earned her many loyal friends. For her scientific achievements she was awarded an honorary doctorate in science by the University of Sydney (1993) and posthumously appointed AO (1999). She was also elected a fellow of the American Physical Society (1958) and the Institute of Physics (1976). In 1994 SCEGGS named their senior physics prize in her honour, and in 2013 they established the Joan Freeman Science, Art and Technology Centre.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Blin-Stoyle, Roger, and Godfrey Stafford. Obituary. Physics World, August 1998, 59
  • Cameron, Marcia. S.C.E.G.G.S.: A Centenary History of Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1994
  • Freeman, Joan. A Passion for Physics: The Story of a Woman Physicist. Bristol, UK: Adam Hilger, 1991
  • Herd, Juliet. ‘Freeman Finds Fun in Logic: Passion for Physics Inspires Science Supremo.’ Australian, 23 October 1991, 21
  • Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School Archives. Freeman Collection

Citation details

Michelle Bootcov, 'Freeman, Joan Maie (1918–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 25 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Dr Joan Freeman, c1970

Dr Joan Freeman, c1970

Courtesy of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Jelley, Joan Maie
  • Freeman Jelley, Joan Maie
  • Freedman, Joan Maie
  • Freedman, Joan Maia

7 January, 1918
Perth, Western Australia, Australia


18 March, 1998 (aged 80)
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England

Cause of Death


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