Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richard Daniel Kleeman (1875–1932)

by R. W. Home and John Jenkin

This article was published:

Richard Daniel Kleeman (1875-1932), physicist, was born on 20 January 1875 at Rowlands Flat, South Australia, eldest of nine children of native-born parents of German-Lutheran ancestry Christoph Daniel Kleemann, farmer, and his wife Johanna Elenore, née Munchenberg. At 13 Richard left school to work on the family farm. In 1893 he was apprenticed to a cooper at Yalumba winery, then practised that trade at Chateau Tanunda distillery until 1901. Meanwhile, he also read mathematics and physics privately with help from his Lutheran pastor. In 1897 he began sending short papers to Professor (Sir) William H. Bragg who, impressed, arranged for his special admission to the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1905; D.Sc., 1908). In 1901-03 Kleeman (as he generally spelt his name) passed compulsory mathematics and physics subjects for the ordinary degree, before obtaining first-class honours in physics.

An evening lecturer and demonstrator in physics at the university in 1904-05, he also assisted Bragg in his pioneering studies of radioactivity: Bragg included him as joint author on three papers. As a result Kleeman was awarded an 1851 Exhibition research scholarship to study science in 1905-08 in England at the University of Cambridge (B.A., 1907). At the conclusion of this time Ernest (Lord) Rutherford reported that Kleeman had published 'five important papers' after 'unusually good work'. In 1908 he shared the Emmanuel College Sudbury-Hardyman prize for his dissertation and was awarded his Adelaide doctorate. Kleeman held a Mackinnon studentship of the Royal Society, London, in 1909-11 and shared the Clark Maxwell scholarship at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1910-13, enabling him to continue his research at Cambridge. Renewing his association with Bragg at Leeds, in 1909 he produced two papers on the ionization of gases. In England Kleeman published prolifically on radioactivity and the interaction of its several radiations with matter and on the subject of his later, major work, A Kinetic Theory of Gases and Liquids (New York, 1920).

In 1908-09 and 1912-13 Kleeman applied for professorial positions in several countries but was unsuccessful. He was bitterly disappointed not to win the foundation chair of mathematics and physics at the University of Western Australia. In 1911 he visited Australia on holiday and on 11 July 1912 at the parish church, Woburn Square, London, he married Bertha Pauline Martin of Adelaide. They had two children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. In November 1914 Kleeman travelled to the United States of America. He was 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. Bertha followed in June 1915. Richard became an assistant professor (1914-20) and associate professor (1920-27) of physics at Union College, Schenectady, New York. From 1919 until 1927 he was also a consulting physicist at the General Electric Co. of New York.

Kleeman's early years in America were spent preparing his 1920 book. Thereafter he elaborated and developed themes discussed there, focussing initially on the electrical and magnetic properties of atoms and molecules in gases and liquids. In 1927 he left the college and devoted himself to private research, undertaking theoretical studies of the properties of substances at the absolute zero of temperature. He died of pneumonia on 10 October 1932 in the Presbyterian Hospital, Manhattan, New York, and was buried in Mount Hope cemetery. His wife and one son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. E. Teusner, Kleeman Family History (Adel, 1969)
  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 13, 1985, p 100
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 Nov 1932, p 16
  • Kleeman student card (Emmanuel College Library, Cambridge, United Kingdom)
  • Kleeman faculty file (Schaffer Library, Union College, Schenectady, New York)
  • Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 (Imperial College Archives, London)
  • University of Adelaide Archives
  • Bragg-Kleeman correspondence in Bragg papers (Royal Institution, London)
  • Rutherford-Kleeman correspondence in Rutherford papers (Cambridge University Library, United Kingdom).

Citation details

R. W. Home and John Jenkin, 'Kleeman, Richard Daniel (1875–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 14 July 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]

Alternative Names
  • Kleeman, Richard

20 January, 1875
Rowlands Flat, South Australia, Australia


10 October, 1932 (aged 57)
New York, New York, United States of America

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