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William Matthew (Bill) O'Neil (1912–1991)

by Barbara Gillam

This article was published:

William Matthew O’Neil (1912-1991), professor of psychology, was born on 15 June 1912 in Sydney, youngest of four children of New South Wales-born James Lambert O’Neil, grazier, and his Irish-born wife Susan, née Kennedy. His father had a small leasehold sheep property at Collarenebri, New South Wales. Initially taught by his mother, who had been a pupil-teacher, at the age of eleven Bill was enrolled in Blackfriars Correspondence School. Foreshadowing his later critical approach, he challenged exercises he thought silly, such as imagining a conversation between a cat and a canary. About this time he encountered some articles in the School Magazine by the State astronomer, William Ernest Cooke, describing the constellations. Under the outback skies he used these articles to identify them himself, beginning a lifelong interest in astronomy. Another State astronomer, Harley Wood, later became a close friend.

Each O’Neil child was allowed two years at boarding school, but due to the advocacy of his elder sister, Ida, O’Neil returned to De La Salle College, Armidale, to complete his Leaving certificate. Achieving a modest pass, he won a Teachers’ College scholarship to the University of Sydney (BA, 1933; DipEd, 1934; MA, 1935). At university he worked hard to overcome his educational deficiencies. He succeeded, obtaining a high distinction and the Lithgow scholarship in first-year psychology, first-class honours in English and psychology and the university medal in psychology in his third year, and a second university medal for his Master's thesis. As a student, he lived with Ida, who had settled in Sydney with her husband. To stretch his finances in these Depression years, he made his own pyjamas and shirts and even his MA hood on her sewing machine.

Appointed to teach English and history at Marrickville Girls’ Intermediate High School (later Marrickville High School) in 1936, O’Neil was not a success. He ‘learned to teach’ (O’Neil 1978, 200), and in later years his university teaching was highly regarded: characterised by deep scholarship, conceptual clarity, and taking students seriously. He was rescued from school teaching by appointment in 1936 as psychologist-in-charge of the Vocational Guidance Bureau, Department of Labour and Industry. There he was active in developing and validating aptitude tests and in producing the first careers leaflets for school leavers. On 19 December that year he married Kathleen Ferris, a fellow arts student and school teacher, at the district registrar's office, North Sydney. Kath was to be a strong and supportive figure in his career. Four years later he became vocational and welfare officer at Sydney Technical College. During World War II he was involved in a range of applied projects, including the rehabilitation and vocational guidance of disabled service men and women.

In 1945 O’Neil ended what he referred to as ‘my nine years’ exile’ (O’Neil 1978, 200), having obtained a lectureship in psychology at the University of Sydney. However, he had also applied for the McCaughey chair of psychology being vacated by his teacher, H. Tasman Lovell. Given his youth and strong Australian accent he was not optimistic, but he personally impressed the committee and was offered the chair. At the age of thirty-two he thus became the second professor of psychology at the university, which then had the only chair of psychology in Australia.

The boy from the bush set up a department somewhat at odds with the formal Oxonian traditions of the faculty of arts. Neither O’Neil nor his lecturers wore gowns, and they maintained their Australian accents. Gradually he developed a flourishing department with many more staff, a revised curriculum, and raised standards. He regarded himself as a generalist, routinely teaching the courses of any staff on sabbatical leave. There were frequent meetings and social occasions, characterised by spirited intellectual discussion and witty exchanges, including O’Neil’s many Irish jokes. At the same time he maintained a certain gravitas and personal reserve.

O’Neil’s academic interests included his discipline’s method and history, psychological theory and the philosophy of science, and perception. Using his book An Introduction to Method in Psychology (1957), he exposed first-year students to logic and the testing of hypotheses as well as methods. He continued applying psychometrics, introducing the scaling of student marks and carrying out research on student assessment. His greatest intellectual influence was his colleague John Anderson, Challis professor of philosophy. O’Neil adopted Anderson’s direct realist epistemology, as well as his atheism and, most importantly, his critical approach to all things.

Unlike Anderson, however, O’Neil fostered academic freedom in course content. He appointed Richard Champion, a behaviourist, and John Maze, a Freudian. He encouraged all lecturers to analyse underlying concepts and to have their students consider different points of view and think critically. Many O’Neil graduates achieved international distinction for their research. Thirteen appointees to Australian chairs of psychology and multiple overseas professors were former staff or students.

Along with the two professors of philosophy, Anderson and Alan Stout, in 1958 O’Neil was named in a pamphlet by V. J. Kinsella, alleging they were corrupting student morals by their teaching. Despite not being directly involved, O’Neil was seen to be a fellow traveller of ‘the Push,’ a movement with an Andersonian core and a commitment to anti-bourgeois values, irreligion, sexual freedom, and convivial drinking involving a number of staff and students in the psychology department in the 1950s and 1960s. The accusation gained wide currency when taken up in a 1961 sermon by the Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Hugh Gough. O’Neil wrote a response in the student newspaper, Honi Soit, denying that explicit advocacy of moral positions was occurring and defending the free academic exploration of ideas.

After serving two terms as chairman of the Professorial Board (1955-59 and 1961-65), O’Neil became deputy vice-chancellor in 1965, relinquishing the headship of psychology. In his administrative roles he participated in major changes to universities, including the implementation of the Report of the Committee on Australian Universities (Murray report, 1957), the introduction of student quotas, the setting up of the Australian Research Grants Committee, and the introduction of more democratic forms of university governance. He wrote evidence-based articles on predicting student performance for the University of Sydney News, advocating more stringent selection criteria. This interest in performance was also relevant in his service on the New South Wales Board of Senior School Studies and as chair (1969-72) of the Australian Research Grants Committee. He retired from the university in 1978.

As an educator and a prominent figure in the Australian Psychological Society, O’Neil was arguably the most influential figure in the development of psychology in Australia. He published papers, pamphlets, and short commentaries throughout his career, spanning applied and academic interests. His books, An Introduction to Method, Fact and Theory (1969), and The Beginnings of Modern Psychology (1968), were translated into other languages, and his historical work, A Century of Psychology in Australia (1987), was the first book on that subject. He also published two books on astronomy: Time and the Calendars (1975) and Early Astronomy from Babylonia to Copernicus (1986). In 1978 he was appointed AO, and in 1979 the University of Sydney conferred on him an honorary doctorate of letters. Survived by his wife and two children, he died on 1 June 1991 at home in Chatswood, and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Day, Ross. ‘William Mathew O’Neil, 1912-1991.’ In Annual Report, 91-93. Canberra: Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, 1991
  • O’Neil, W. M. ‘Autobiography.’ In Conceptual Analysis and Method in Psychology: Essays in Honour of W. M. O’Neil, edited by J. P. Sutcliffe, 195-206. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1978
  • O’Neil, William Matthew. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 4, 7 December 1973. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Turtle, Alison M. ‘Institution, Ideology, Icon: Psychology at Sydney 1921-1996.’ Australian Journal of Psychology 49, no. 3 (December 1997): 121-27.

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Citation details

Barbara Gillam, 'O'Neil, William Matthew (Bill) (1912–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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