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Thomas Howell Laby (1880–1946)

by Cecily Close

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Thomas Howell Laby (1880-1946), by unknown photographer, c1941

Thomas Howell Laby (1880-1946), by unknown photographer, c1941

Australian War Memorial, 006067

Thomas Howell Laby (1880-1946), physicist, was born on 3 May 1880 at Creswick, Victoria, youngest child and only son of Thomas James Laby, flourmiller, and his wife Jane Eudora, née Lewis. About 1883 the family moved to New South Wales, Laby senior establishing a ropeworks at Toongabbie. His death in 1888 left the family in straitened circumstances. After education at various country schools, supplemented by private study, Laby obtained Senior Public Examination mathematics and history, but was unqualified to matriculate. In 1898 he joined the Taxation Department in Sydney, but with brief coaching in chemistry won a position in the Department of Agriculture's chemical laboratory. In 1901 he became junior demonstrator in chemistry at the University of Sydney on the recommendation of his chief F. B. Guthrie.

Laby attended university evening classes in chemistry, physics and mathematics, and undertook research resulting in two papers published by the Royal Society of New South Wales: 'The separation of iron from nickel and cobalt' (1903) and, with (Sir) Douglas Mawson, 'Preliminary observations on radio-activity and the occurrence of radium in Australian minerals' (1904). In 1905 he left for England with an Exhibition of 1851 science research scholarship. He intended to work in chemistry at the University of Birmingham, but was advised instead to pursue his interest in radio-activity at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, under (Sir) J. J. Thomson. Here he received in 1907 the B.A. degree by research for theses on the ionization produced by alpha-particles and on the supersaturation and nuclear condensation of organic vapours. Supported by a renewal of his scholarship, a research exhibition from Emmanuel College and the Joule studentship of the Royal Society of London (he also won the Sudbury Hardyman research prize) he remained to pursue further investigations. At this time he met Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, later a valued friend.

In 1909 Laby took up the new chair of physics at Victoria (University) College, Wellington, New Zealand, imbued with an enthusiasm for Cambridge and a conviction that a university would be judged by its research. For this Wellington offered little opportunity, but Laby established his laboratory, campaigned to reform the University of New Zealand, and completed work begun in Cambridge with G. W. C. Kaye leading to the publication of their Tables of Physical and Chemical Constants with some Mathematical Functions (London, 1911) which ran to fourteen editions. In 1910 he became a foundation member and treasurer of the Wellington Round Table group, thus entering upon a lifelong interest in Imperial affairs. He presided over section A of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in Melbourne in 1912, and on 17 February 1914 married, in London, Beatrice Littlejohn, daughter of a Wellington jeweller and optician.

In 1915 Laby moved to the Melbourne chair of natural philosophy. He promptly joined the Melbourne Round Table group, to become its secretary until his death, and acting Dominion secretary in 1916-19, expressing through this movement and elsewhere his concern for Australia's Imperial war effort. He developed valves for an anti-gas respirator (accepted by the military authorities but not used in action) designed with W. A. Osborne and (Sir) D. O. Masson; he undertook radiographic testing of fuse for the Defence Department and inspected X-ray equipment for military hospitals; but he chafed at the shortage of scientific war-work. In 1918 Mr Justice Higgins engaged him to report on the training and classification of Commonwealth Public Service professional officers.

Laby had on arrival taken his place on several university faculties, and later on the technical colleges and schools boards; he served as dean of science in 1926-28 and professorial representative on council in 1927-31. After the war he sought improved accommodation and apparatus for his department, developed its practical teaching and promoted research. The most promising of his research students, twelve of whom received 1851 Exhibition scholarships, were encouraged to proceed to the Cavendish Laboratory.

Awarded a Cambridge Sc.D. for research in 1921, Laby continued working chiefly in the fields of heat and X-ray spectroscopy, the former culminating in his precise determination, with E. O. Hercus, of the mechanical equivalent of heat. His experience with X-rays and radium directed him towards problems in their medical use. He assisted in introducing radiology in the medical course. In 1925 he inquired into methods of cancer treatment during his visit to Europe and the United States of America, urging the foundation of a Melbourne centre modelled on the Paris Cancer Institute. In 1929 the Commonwealth Radium Laboratory was formally established in university premises with Laby as Commonwealth adviser in radium. He assisted in implementing Australian Cancer Conference resolutions, supporting the movement to establish the Victorian Anti-Cancer Council, and promoting university diplomas in radiology in Melbourne. He made strenuous efforts to secure facilities to investigate and advise on regulation of X-ray dosage, and standardization of dosage measurement. In 1935 the Department of Health agreed to locate its new X-ray laboratory within Laby's department of natural philosophy. The arrangement, however, foundered on problems arising from shortage of space and equipment, and from a divided authority. Laby resigned as Commonwealth adviser in 1937, and the Commonwealth laboratory was re-sited in the university grounds.

Always deeply interested in the organization of science, Laby had taken part in the early deliberations of the Advisory Council of Science and Industry and joined its Victorian committee. When the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was formed in 1926, however, he found himself excluded from it. Further, he resigned from its maintenance of standards committee when not appointed chairman. Nevertheless, in 1927 he joined C.S.I.R.'s Australian Radio Research Board which from 1929 funded research into field strength of radio signals, a subject already investigated under Laby's supervision for the Broadcasting Co. of Australia. The Melbourne group moved on to study atmospherics, Laby helping to design equipment and producing with his students a paper showing that atmospherics are reflected by the ionosphere. But when the board turned its attention to radar, centreing this activity in Sydney, Laby resigned. In 1928 he joined the executive committee of the Imperial Geophysical Experimental Survey, to which his laboratory gave technical assistance, and in 1929 helped edit its final report, Principles and Practice of Geophysical Prospecting (Cambridge, 1931).

In 1931 Laby was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He continued research other than that sponsored by C.S.I.R., undertaking studies in measurement including (with V. D. Hopper) that of the electronic charge. He travelled regularly to Europe and U.S.A. and in 1936 he attended the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire at Cambridge, and Round Table discussions during which he tried to assess Britain's likely attitude to Imperial defence in the event of European war.

A fellow of the Institute of Physics and Physical Society (IPPS) since 1923, Laby became in August 1939 foundation president of its Australian branch. In May 1940 he began contributing articles to the Argus on World War II. In July he became chairman of the Optical Munitions Panel (later Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel) appointed to draw up optical specifications for lenses for telescope sights and other military instruments. The panel co-ordinated work in several laboratories and was administered from Laby's own, where all unrelated research was set aside.

A tall, thin figure, Laby had long suffered from recurring low blood pressure and asthma. Never of equable temperament, he many times demonstrated his readiness to resign rather than yield a point he deemed essential. As his health declined, he showed increasing inability to accommodate the difficulties inseparable from co-operative enterprises. In 1941 he resigned as chairman of the Australian branch of the IPPS and late in 1942 he relinquished his department ('by far the best in the Southern Hemisphere', (Sir) Mark Oliphant had told him). In 1944 he resigned from the Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel. He died on 21 June 1946 of arteriosclerosis, survived by his wife and two daughters, the elder of whom later became a senior lecturer in his old department. He was cremated.

Many testified to Laby's essential diffidence, his helpfulness and generosity as well as to his tenacity in pursuing the advancement of his discipline. A collection of his published papers is held by the physics school of the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Beaglehole, Victoria University College (Well, 1949)
  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • W. F. Evans, History of the Radio Research Board, 1926-1945 (Melb, 1973)
  • J. F. Richardson, The Australian Radiation Laboratory (Canb, 1981)
  • Australian Cancer Conference, Report, 1930-37
  • Australian Physicist, 17 (Dec 1980)
  • Historical Studies, 20 (Apr 1983)
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 5 (May 1948)
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 3 (Mar 1975), no 1.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cecily Close, 'Laby, Thomas Howell (1880–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Howell Laby (1880-1946), by unknown photographer, c1941

Thomas Howell Laby (1880-1946), by unknown photographer, c1941

Australian War Memorial, 006067

Life Summary [details]


3 May, 1880
Creswick, Victoria, Australia


21 June, 1946 (aged 66)