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.

Oscar Ulrich Vonwiller (1882–1972)

by J. B. T. McCaughan

This article was published:

Oscar Ulrich Vonwiller (1882-1972), professor of physics, was born on 18 February 1882 at Paddington, Sydney, second child of John Ulrich Vonwiller, a Swiss-born merchant, and his native-born wife Josephine, née Hug. Oscar was educated at Paddington Superior Public School and Sydney Boys' High School where he was dux (1898) and won a Barker scholarship and Horner exhibition. At the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1902) he enrolled in engineering, but changed to science, graduating with the University medal and first-class honours in physics and mathematics. Appointed junior demonstrator in physics (1902) and assistant lecturer (1910), he published—with Professor J. A. Pollock—his first scientific paper on electric waves in the Philosophical Magazine. They also produced a textbook, Practical Physics (1907, 1918).

At Woollahra on 30 December 1907 Vonwiller married with Presbyterian forms a cousin Annie Vera Bennett, niece of Samuel Bennett of the Evening News. Assistant professor from 1913, Vonwiller published several articles on the electrical properties of solids: selenium, molybdenite and silicon. During World War I he shouldered Pollock's duties, but was incapacitated by pneumonic influenza for months in 1919-20. His wife Vera died suddenly in 1920. On 1 January 1925 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married a divorcee Elsie Isobel Bridges, née Whiteman.

He was promoted associate professor in 1921 and again took charge when Pollock died in office next year. Appointed to the chair in 1923, Vonwiller completed the plans for the new physics building which opened in 1925. He had only three members of staff until 1938 and had to carry an increasing load as his subject rapidly advanced, particularly under the sway of quantum mechanics.

Despite the difficulties, Vonwiller switched his chief interest in physics to the neglected but important area of optics, particularly spectroscopy. He produced several competent papers: following his leave in 1929 at Utrecht, Netherlands, one of them was published in the American Physical Review. In 1939-41 he was dean of the faculty of science and member of the senate. At the onset of World War II, as a member of the Commonwealth panel he organized the Sydney contribution to optical munitions, producing anti-aircraft gun-sights and pioneering the work of reconditioning thousands of requisitioned binoculars.

A scholar in a community of scholars, Vonwiller used his knowledge of the classics with telling effect; his writings on historical figures, such as Newton and Galileo, showed freshness and independence; he understood, lectured on and debated the great themes of science, philosophy and religion; he was in the vanguard of those concerned with the social applications of science. Vonwiller gave of his services freely and headed the university union (1914-15), science society and rifle club. He was foundation president of the Science Teachers' Association of New South Wales, president of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1930) and of section A, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1935), a member of the Physical Society, London, the British Astronomical Association and of the boards of visitors of Sydney Observatory (1930-61) and the Mount Stromlo Observatory, Canberra (1944-55), fellow of the Institute of Physics, London (1927) and the Australian Institute of Physics (1963), and treasurer of the Australian National Research Council (1934-40).

In the 1930s his wife ran their farm at Castle Hill. Retiring in 1946, Vonwiller lived at Kangaroo Valley, but continued to make contributions to science, to university life and to the Union Recorder. In his prime he was of medium build, with grey hair and a serene, open face, conveying the same impression as his measured writing style. He died in Lewisham Hospital, Sydney, on 30 July 1972 and was buried in the Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by a son of each of his marriages. Vonwiller's portrait by Erwin Reiner (1954) is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Philosophical Magazine, 3 (1902), p 586
  • Physical Review, 35 (1930), p 802
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 3 (1931), p 333, 76 (1942), p 316
  • ANZAAS, Report of Meeting, 22 (1935), p 38
  • Sydney University Science Journal, 1936, p 24
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 7 Oct 1937, p 215
  • Australian Journal of Science, 1 (1938), p 30
  • Sydney Mail, 26 Apr 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Apr 1923, 15 Sept 1925, 20 Aug 1927, 8 May 1930, 15 Sept 1936
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 15 Sept 1925
  • Vonwiller papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Professorial Board minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. B. T. McCaughan, 'Vonwiller, Oscar Ulrich (1882–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 February, 1882
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


30 July, 1972 (aged 90)
Lewisham, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.