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Boyce Wilson Worthley (1917–1987)

by Ralph Nicholls

This article was published:

Boyce Wilson Worthley (1917-1987), medical physicist, was born on 3 March 1917 in North Adelaide, son of South Australian-born parents Harry Worthley, soldier, and his wife Amy Myrtle, née Wilson. Boyce was educated at Adelaide High School, Adelaide Teachers’ College and the University of Adelaide, where he attained first-class honours in physics and a master’s degree (B.Sc., 1939; BA, 1941; M.Sc., 1944). On 10 May 1941 at Malvern Methodist Church, Adelaide, he married Marjorie Ruth Grant, a teacher.

After a brief appointment as a teacher in South Australia and as a physicist at the Commonwealth X-ray and Radium Laboratory, Melbourne, in 1942 Worthley was appointed physicist to the University of Adelaide’s Anti-Cancer Campaign Committee (later the Anti-Cancer Foundation). His early work included dose calibration of Adelaide’s therapy X-ray machines and, in a laboratory in the university’s old administration building, extraction of radon gas from a radium source and its encapsulation in gold needles for implanting in tumours. He set up South Australia’s first radiation protection and monitoring service.

From 1949 Worthley recruited other physicists. Under his leadership the ACF Physics Section, by then located in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, developed comprehensive medical physics roles in cancer treatment and the early application of reactor-produced radionuclides in diagnostic nuclear medicine. His techniques for detecting nuclear fallout led to the design and construction in 1961 of Australia’s first whole-body scanning system for measurement of radioactive contamination.

Worthley’s most important work was in establishing radiation dosimetry standards and accurate computation of dose, fundamental science that provided the basis for radiotherapy. With his colleagues in the 1950s he constructed a primary standard free-air-chamber and electrometer system of advanced design and in 1952 they constructed an analogue dosimetry computer. They developed primary and secondary standard dosimetry systems through to the 1970s to cater for the full range of radiotherapy applications, from superficial to megavoltage-energy X-ray and electron beams. Some of these systems served as de facto national standards. Worthley’s group routinely commissioned, calibrated and maintained the linear accelerator radiotherapy machines that produce these high-energy beams.

One of Worthley’s strengths was his intuitive ability to analyse measured data and derive empirical formulae for computing dose in clinical practice. Access to mainframe digital computers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and the University of Adelaide in 1965 enabled him to make substantial computing contributions at a time when only a few centres anywhere in the world were doing similar work. During the next decade he and his staff produced software programs based on his empirical formulae for a wide range of radiotherapy applications, including a pre-CT (computed tomography) scanning foray into three-dimensional treatment planning. He published more than forty papers, and a book with J. Tooze and R. M. Fry, Dosage Estimation in Radiotherapy and the Wheatley Integrator (1955).

Actively promoting the profession of physical sciences in medicine, in 1961 Worthley was a founding member of its Australian association and, in 1977 its successor the Australasian College of Physical Scientists in Medicine. He was elected a fellow (1982) and the organisation’s first life member (1985); that year the college endowed the annual Boyce Worthley Prize, awarded to younger members or associates.

Worthley lived a well-rounded life and was a loving family man. He had an ever-present sense of humour, read widely and voraciously, was an entertaining conversationalist and played a range of vigorous sports. Although exceptionally gifted, he was modest, appreciative of other people and aware of the responsibility to use his talents well. He retired in 1982. Survived by his wife and their two sons and four daughters, he died of cancer on 31 March 1987 in his home at Glenelg North and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Physical & Engineering Sciences in Medicine, vol 10, no 2, 1987, p 56
  • Australasian Radiology, vol 32, no 1, 1988, p 5
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Ralph Nicholls, 'Worthley, Boyce Wilson (1917–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 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

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