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Sir Richard Van Der Riet Woolley (1906–1986)

by S. C. B. Gascoigne

This article was published:

Sir Richard Van Der Riet Woolley (1906-1986), astronomer and science administrator, was born on 24 April 1906 at Melcombe Regis, near Weymouth, Dorset, England, fourth of five children of Charles Edward Allen Woolley, Royal Navy fleet paymaster (later rear admiral) and his South African-born wife Julia Marian Marguerite, née van der Riet. After attending Allhallows School, Honiton, Devon, Richard moved with his family to South Africa in 1921 to join his older brothers. He continued his education at the University of Cape Town (B.Sc., 1924; M.Sc., 1925), and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (BA, 1928; MA, 1937; Ph.D., 1931; Sc.D., 1951). Following his tutor’s suggestion to pursue a career in astronomy, he was chief assistant (1933-37) at the Greenwich Observatory, and John Couch Adams astronomer (1937-39) at the University of Cambridge. On 2 March 1932 at the register office, Cambridge, he had married Gwyneth Jane Margaret Meyler (d.1979).

Appointed director in 1939 of the Mount Stromlo Commonwealth Solar Observatory near Canberra, Woolley joined a modest establishment with a professional staff of about six. Aged 33, he was attracted to the position, aware that the southern sky was rich in objects of the highest astronomical significance, but too far south to be observed by the world’s large telescopes, all of which were located in the northern hemisphere. He planned to terminate the existing studies of solar and related geophysical phenomena and direct the CSO’s effort entirely into stellar astronomy. Because of the demands of World War II, Britain was unable to supply the equipment it needed and he converted the observatory into an optical munitions factory, recruiting about seventy workers, many unskilled, from the local area. Mastering the rules of public service infighting, he was as much at home in the upper echelons of government as in the telescope dome; he forged close links (and during the war shared a flat in Melbourne) with H. C. (‘Nugget’) Coombs, director-general of postwar reconstruction, and R. I. Downing, a government economics adviser.

After the war Woolley began the task of building up an astronomical observatory almost from scratch. Far-sighted, he persuaded the Australian government to fund a 74-inch (188-cm) telescope, which, with a sister instrument in Pretoria, South Africa, was for twenty years the largest in the southern hemisphere. He laid the solid foundation on which the CSO built its later success and, crucially, arranged for the observatory to be transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Australian National University, where he was professor of astronomy in 1950-55. He co-authored with the astronomer royal, Sir Frank Dyson, Eclipses of the Sun and Moon (1937) and, with D. W. N. Stibbs, The Outer Layers of a Star (1953); he also wrote articles in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. With a staff astronomer, C. W. Allen, he published a celebrated review of the physics of the solar corona. Later he developed an interest in stellar dynamics, particularly the dynamics of stellar clusters. In 1953 he was appointed OBE and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. A foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, he was president (1955) at the Melbourne meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.

Returning to England, on 1 January 1957 Woolley became the eleventh astronomer royal and director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. A member of the telescope board, he was an early and consistent advocate for the Anglo-Australian Telescope, which was eventually commissioned at Siding Spring, New South Wales, in 1977. Knighted in 1963, he was president (1963-65) of the International Astronomical Society. He was elected master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in 1969, and in 1971 was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s gold medal; however, he is said to have most enjoyed his Cambridge college honorary fellowship (1956). In 1972 he accepted an invitation to be the first director of the South African Astronomical Observatory. He retired in 1976 and settled at Somerset West, near Cape Town.

Sir Richard was tall, with a commanding presence. With his wit, mastery of the trenchant phrase, and the ability to think clearly, he moved easily in intellectual, athletic, musical, social or scientific circles. He was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Melbourne (LL.D, 1955), Uppsala, Sweden (Dr.Phil., 1956), Cape Town (Sc.D., 1969) and Sussex (D.Sc., 1970). On 28 August 1979 at the register office, Eastbourne, East Sussex, he married Emily May (‘Patricia’) Marples, née Rowley, a widow. After her death in 1985 he married Sheila Gillham, née Hammett, in South Africa. Survived by his wife, he died on 24 December 1986 at Somerset West. He had no children. As the director in turn of the principal observatories in Australia, Britain and South Africa, he had transformed each one. The Mount Stromlo office building, opened in 1995, was named the Woolley Building in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 1, 1984, p 59, vol 7, no 3, 1988, p 315
  • S. Gascoigne, ‘Bok, Woolley and Australian Astronomy’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 9, no 2, 1992, p 119
  • Guardian (Manchester, UK), 13 Nov 1971, p 11
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

S. C. B. Gascoigne, 'Woolley, Sir Richard Van Der Riet (1906–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 April, 1906
Weymouth, Dorset, England


24 December, 1986 (aged 80)
Somerset West, Western Cape, South Africa

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