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Russell, Henry Chamberlain (1836–1907)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Henry Chamberlain Russell (1836-1907), astronomer and meteorologist, was born on 17 March 1836 at West Maitland, New South Wales, second son of Bourn Russell (1794-1880) and his wife Jane, née Mackreth. Bourn Russell, born at Rye, Sussex, England, was part-owner and commander of ships on the India, China and South Sea runs and surveyed parts of Sakhalin Island, the north coast of Japan, the Solomon Islands, the Louisiade Archipelago, Dampier Strait and New Guinea. He arrived in Sydney in 1826 and after some whaling ventures opened a store at West Maitland in 1835. Elected to the first Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in 1856, he was later disqualified; in 1858-80 he was in the Legislative Council.

Educated at West Maitland Grammar School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1859), Henry joined the Sydney Observatory under Rev. W. Scott. In 1862-64 he was acting director and succeeded G. R. Smalley as government astronomer on 12 July 1870 with a salary of £555. Russell reorganized the observatory for systematic work on star positions and observations of double stars and star clusters; he also re-established the meteorological stations discontinued by Smalley. In 1871 with R. L. J. Ellery he organized an expedition to Cape Sidmouth to observe a total eclipse of the sun. In 1874 he sent parties to Woodford, Goulburn and Eden, while in Sydney he observed the transit of Venus; next year he went to England to present his results to the Royal Astronomical Society and to buy instruments for trigonometrical survey. His photographs of the transit were thought 'the best and most complete' and contributed much to the final analysis of data. Russell met leading astronomers and technicians in Europe and America and ordered a six-inch (15 cm) transit instrument, which was also used to determine longitudes for the survey. In 1881 he organized parties to observe the transit of Mercury, but bad weather frustrated his plans to observe the transit of Venus in 1882.

He increased the number of weather stations from 43 in 1870 to 50, plus 210 observers, in 1882; by 1898 there were 1600 observers, using equipment often designed by Russell. He invented and made many instruments including telescope mountings and self-recording meteorological devices: one of his portable anemometers is in the Science Museum, London. He exchanged weather data by wire and set up a system of forecasting with Ellery and Charles Todd and from February 1877 released a daily weather map to the press. In Sydney that year he published his Climate of New South Wales: Descriptive, Historical, and Tabular in which he adverted to periodicity. In 1879 he presided over the first Intercolonial Meteorological Conference held in Australia, began river records and published a seminal paper on artesian water in the Darling basin. His Physical Geography and Climate of New South Wales first appeared in 1884. Russell was a pioneer of the global approach to meteorology and 'the first to think comprehensively about the southern hemisphere', his greatest contribution being the radical suggestion that the movement of anticyclones was a hemispheric phenomenon.

In 1887 Russell attended the International Astrophotographic Congress in Paris where Sydney Observatory was allotted the region from –52° to –64° to chart; he then visited other Continental observatories. By 1893 he had remeasured all the principal stars in J. F. W. Herschel's Results of Astronomical Observations … at the Cape of Good Hope (London, 1847) and discovered 500 new double stars. He was also a dedicated natural historian, interested in terrestrial magnetism, underground water, the growth rate of trees, the effects of vegetation upon climate, the artificial production of rain and the measurement of tides and seiches. He was one of the world's pioneer limnologists. He published over 130 papers, 69 in the local Royal Society journal.

Russell was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1871 and of the Meteorological Society and a member of the Royal Colonial Institute in 1875. In 1886 he was the first graduate of the University of Sydney to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Four times president of the local Royal Society, in 1888 he was the first president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. Made C.M.G. in 1890, he was a founder of technical education in the colony and a vice-president of the Board of Technical Education from 1883. He was a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1875-1907 and vice-chancellor in 1891-92.

Russell suffered a severe illness in 1903 and after a year's leave of absence retired on a gratuity of over £2300. Survived by his wife Emily Jane, née Foss (d.1923), whom he had married in Sydney in 1860, a son and four daughters, he died at the observatory on 22 February 1907 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery.

Vigorous and striking, Russell was often forthright with his staff though kind to them in times of trouble and often sympathetic with their claims for better pay and conditions. In 1877 a bomb had been sent to him at the observatory and in 1889 he was attacked by one of his workmen. His relations with his colleagues Ellery, P. Baracchi and J. Tebbutt were cordial. He was one of the most eminent men of science in Australia in the nineteenth century and the closing words of his 1885 presidential address to the Royal Society of New South Wales sum up his life and work. Reflecting on the contrast between nature's slow change through aeons and man's brief lot, Russell said that the lesson to the scientist is that he must be 'patient in investigation, accurate in measurement, cautious in accepting results, content to stand one in a long series who, for the good of humanity, are striving to interpret the laws of Nature'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. W. Wood, Sydney Observatory, 1858 to 1958 (Syd, 1958)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1871-72, 2, 959, 1885-86, 6, 552, 582
  • Royal Astronomical Society, Monthly Notice, 68 (1908)
  • Royal Society, Proceedings (1908)
  • C. H. B. Priestley, ‘The global atmosphere: a memorial to H. C. Russell’, Search (Sydney), 2 (1971) no 8
  • Town and Country Journal, 15, 22 Sept 1877, 23 Dec 1903
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 13 Oct 1877, 17 June 1893
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Dec 1898, 23 Feb 1907
  • Russell papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • printed catalogue under H. C. Russell (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Russell, Henry Chamberlain (1836–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 January 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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