Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ernst Artur Matthaei (1904–1966)

by H. C. Bolton

This article was published:

Ernst Artur Franz Joseph Matthaei (1904-1966), optical microscopist, was born on 21 April 1904 at Trier, Germany, one of six children of Artur Matthaei, civil servant, and his wife Josephine, née Brentrup. The family pronounced their surname 'Mattay'. Artur served as an officer in World War I. During those years Ernst and his brother Hans lived with various relations. When the war ended, Trier was occupied by the allied armies.

Apprenticed to an optician at Trier, Matthaei studied under German masters of classical optics at the University of Jena and at the Institute of Microscopy. By 1926 he was employed as a trainee in the Carl Zeiss works. In the following year he transferred to the 'Opto' department which made spectacles and ophthalmological instruments. He moved in 1929 to E. C. Heyne & Co., which held the Zeiss agency in Melbourne, and arrived there on 25 September in the Mosul. In the 1930s he established Ernst Matthaei & Co., dealers in scientific instruments. He visited Germany on business in 1937. At Ridley College chapel, Parkville, on 26 May 1939 he married with Anglican rites Grace Moran Villiers, a 28-year-old journalist who also worked as a librarian in the geology department at the University of Melbourne. In June 1939 he was naturalized.

Following the outbreak of World War II, imports from Germany ceased and Matthaei's business was reduced. In December 1939 Professor (Sir) Douglas Wright offered him a junior position in the physiology department at the university. Matthaei's first major contribution to war-work came in 1941 when he transferred to Professor J. S. Turner's botany department and was put in charge of the annexe which made graticules for sighting telescopes and binoculars. After Japan declared war in December 1941, it was necessary to 'tropic-proof' equipment—even the inside of optical instruments—against fungal infections. In his annexe Matthaei was part of a multi-specialist team that solved this problem.

By 1945 he ran a well-stocked service laboratory and workshop, with many good staff. Matthaei recommended that the faculty of science absorb the annexe as a workshop for opto-mechanical servicing of university equipment. Aided by his constant helpfulness, the workshop proved a success; interdepartmental research flourished, especially in photo-micrography and fluorescence microscopy. In 1949 he began one of the first technical courses of lecture-demonstrations, on the optical microscope for research workers. Its immediate popularity caused it to be repeated, and extended to final-year science students; the courses ran every year thereafter. Joining the teaching and research staff as a part-time lecturer in 1950, he remained receptive to new scientific and technical ideas, such as the electron microscope.

Matthaei's devotion to the university and his adopted country was profound. He enjoyed a happy marriage and thoroughly appreciated his work at the university. A friendly and gregarious man, 'Matt' was a foundation member (1953) of University House and convener of its wine committee. Survived by his wife, he died of a cerebral tumour on 15 July 1966 at his Parkville home. The university's Ernst Matthaei Memorial Collection of Early Glass recalls his lifelong interest in glass, and his well-furnished table with good wine and his friends around him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Sept 1966, p 7
  • H. C. Bolton, 'Optical Instruments in Australia in the 1939-45 War
  • Successes and Lost Opportunities', Australian Physicist, vol 27, no 3, 1990, p 31
  • Matthaei archive (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • naturalisation file, A659/1, item 41/835 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. C. Bolton, 'Matthaei, Ernst Artur (1904–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 April, 1904
Trier, Germany


15 July, 1966 (aged 62)
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.