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Thomas Parnell (1881–1948)

by R. W. Home

This article was published:

Thomas Parnell (1881-1948), physicist, was born on 15 July 1881 at West Haddon, Northamptonshire, England, third of seven children of Richard Parnell, farmer, and his wife Kate, née Cotterell. His father was the local agent for the Liberal politician, Earl Spencer. Thomas attended the Northampton and County School, from which he won scholarships to the University of Cambridge that allowed him, despite his father's opposition, to enter St John's College.

A good wrestler and boxer, and an excellent marksman, Parnell represented the university in cross-country running and his college in rowing. He studied for the natural sciences tripos and, after two years, completed part I with first-class honours. While preparing for the second part of the tripos, he collaborated with (Sir) Owen Richardson at the Cavendish Laboratory in research on the diffusion of hydrogen through hot platinum. He never sat the part II examinations, but took an ordinary B.A. in 1903 (M.A., 1907) after being appointed a resident tutor in mathematics and physics at Trinity College, University of Melbourne.

Parnell arrived in Melbourne early in 1904 and taught at Trinity until 1911. On 25 March that year he became foundation lecturer in physics at the new University of Queensland, nominally responsible to the professor of mathematics and physics H. J. Priestley, but in fact charged with setting up the teaching programme in his subject. He also became an examiner for the Public Examinations Board and was responsible for a marked improvement in the standard of mathematics and physics teaching in Queensland's schools. At St James's Old Cathedral, Melbourne, on 10 March 1913 he married Hermiene Friederica Ulrich, assistant-lecturer in modern languages at the University of Queensland.

On 29 January 1917 Parnell enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He joined the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade on the Western Front in October that year. Commissioned in May 1918, he was appointed to Australian Corps headquarters as gas officer: his duties included defusing unexploded gas-shells. Lieutenant Parnell returned to Brisbane and was demobilized on 5 May 1919. He refunded £437 'excess salary' paid by the university, asking that it be used to help ex-servicemen to undertake tertiary studies.

In Parnell's absence the university had created a separate chair of physics, to which he was appointed with effect from 1 January 1919. He was to remain in the post until his death. Under his leadership the physics department developed a useful service role, both in providing a scientific base for the Queensland hospital system's X-ray and radium services and, during World War II, in operating an ionospheric recorder for the Radio Research Board. Its focus, however, was always firmly on teaching. Parnell himself did effectively no research, his closest approach being to take part in the Melbourne Observatory's solar-eclipse expedition to Goondiwindi in 1922 to test Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

At the university Parnell was chairman (1919-23) and dean (1928-31 and 1935) of the faculty of science, a member (1932-35, 1938-44) of the senate, and president (1938-44) of the professorial board. He was involved in the protracted negotiations that led to the creation (1933) of a massage school and the introduction (1937) of a diploma in physiotherapy. In 1935 he was a member of the planning committee for the faculty of medicine, and of a delegation to the Queensland government that resulted in the establishment of a separate faculty of dentistry.

While president of the professorial board, Parnell represented the university on the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee. He was president of the Royal Society of Queensland (1928-29) and of Section A—Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy—at the congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Canberra in 1939. In World War II he was a member of the Radio Research Board, the Queensland Cancer Trust, and the board of visitors of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, Mount Stromlo, Australian Capital Territory.

Parnell was a smallish but strong man, fluid and precise in his movements, and deft with tools and apparatus. He was a nominal Anglican, but religion played little part in his life. Otherwise of firm views, formal and somewhat shy, he preferred his regular game of bridge with friends to active participation in university social life. He was an enthusiastic fly-fisherman and regularly caught trout in the New England district of New South Wales. Survived by his wife and son, he died of hypertensive cardiorenal failure on 1 September 1948 at Indooroopilly, Brisbane, and was cremated. The university named a building after him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. C. Webster, A History of the Physics Department of the University of Queensland (Brisb, 1977)
  • H. Gregory, Vivant Professores (Brisb, 1987)
  • Brisbane Courier, 17 Mar 1919
  • Parnell file, University of Queensland Archives
  • University of Queensland, Parnell Project (unpublished, privately held).

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Parnell, Thomas (1881–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 May 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]


15 July, 1881
West Haddon, Northamptonshire, England


1 September, 1948 (aged 67)
Indooroopilly, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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