Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry James Priestley (1883–1932)

by C. S. Davis

This article was published:

Henry James Priestley (1883-1932), professor of mathematics, was born on 10 April 1883 at Crouch Hill, London, son of Henry William Priestley, warehouseman and later a mantle manufacturer, and his wife Mary Sophia, née James. He was educated at Mill Hill school and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained first-class (second division) honours in the mathematical tripos. During 1906 and 1907 Priestley engaged in research on experimental physics at Cambridge and presented a paper on 'Diffraction of electro-magnetic waves'.

He was appointed to a lectureship in mathematics in the University of Manchester in 1907 and married Margery Hope Hewitt on 27 July 1909 at Crouch End. In 1910 the newly founded University of Queensland advertised its first four chairs; after Professor Ernest (Lord) Rutherford at Manchester declined the offer, Priestley was appointed professor of mathematics and physics. With a reputation as a good lecturer, strong in mathematics, reliable, of attractive personality and 'good social qualifications', he arrived in Brisbane in February 1911. In 1919 the senate of the university decided to create separate departments of mathematics and physics. Priestley was offered either chair and chose mathematics.

In 1912 he became a member of the London Mathematical Society and subsequently published papers in its Proceedings and in other journals, largely on various areas of applied mathematics and mathematical physics. Despite shortage of staff, Priestley had considerable influence on university affairs and the intellectual life of the community. With A. J. Gibson and J. L. Michie, he was one of the first three professors elected to the senate (1916-20, 1923-26). He served as dean of the faculty of science (1911-19), was president of the board of faculties (later professorial board) (1922-25) and was a member of many standing committees of senate and board. A fighter when necessary, Priestley found administrative work and its inevitable conflicts distasteful. In matters of university policy he was thorough and essentially a liberal. He cared deeply for his students, inspired them with his teaching, enthusiasm and attitude to scholarly work, and was freely accessible to them and their parents. He was devoted to music, took a keen interest in sport and encouraged both within the university.

A founder of the Queensland branch of the Mathematical Association of Great Britain, Priestley was its president for many years. He also served on the committee of the Royal Society of Queensland (president, 1923) and presided over section A of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in Hobart in 1921. He brought the university before the public by lecture tours throughout Queensland, notably on Einstein's theory of relativity, a topic then quite new.

Priestley died on 26 February 1932 of cerebral tumour after a long illness, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter, and was buried in Lutwyche cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His eldest son Henry Thomas was a prime mover in the establishment in 1960 of Townsville University College.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Queensland Jubilee 1910-1960 (Brisb, 1960)
  • M. I. Thomis, A Place of Light and Learning (Brisb, 1985)
  • Galmahra, First Term 1932
  • Mathematical Gazette (London), 16 (1932), p 305
  • Royal Society of Queensland, Proceedings, 44 (1933), p 1
  • Town and Country Journal, 20 Oct 1907, p 57
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 29 Feb 1932
  • PRE/A360 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

C. S. Davis, 'Priestley, Henry James (1883–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 April, 1883
London, Middlesex, England


26 February, 1932 (aged 48)

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