Professor T.H. Laby
With a lecture theatre at the University of Melbourne named after him, as well as the Laby medal awarded to an outstanding physics student each year, it is quite clear that Thomas Howell Laby was an extraordinary man in the field of physics. His personal passion for the advancement of the science and his dedication to research left the University of Melbourne a somewhat changed place. Despite having priorities that often differed from the norm, many past students and colleagues have recorded their admiration for the professor who has become a legendary figure in the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics.
Laby’s early life does not contain the prestige that one may have expected. Far from being born into a scholarly environment, Laby was born in Creswick, Victoria in 1880 to Thomas James Laby, a prosperous flour–mill owner and his Welsh born wife, Jane Eudora. He was the third child in the family, having two elder sisters. After his father made an unfortunate business decision the family moved to a dairy farm that Laby’s mother ran due to his father’s ill health. Thomas James died when Laby was eight years old leaving his mother, with minimal income, to raise the children alone.
Laby’s schooling lacked stability resulting in his never passing a matriculation examination. Despite this hurdle, and also not having an undergraduate degree, in 1898 he was employed as a junior in the chemistry laboratory at the New South Wales Department of Agriculture. This led to a position as a junior demonstrator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney between 1900 and 1904. Whilst in this post his devotion to physics was evident to those around him. At the University of Sydney he was able to attend undergraduate science classes. In 1905 he was rewarded for his dedication by becoming a recipient of the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship.
The scholarship enabled him to further his academic career in England where he studied under Sir J.J. Thomson, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge. Through numerous scholarships, such as the Joule Studentship of the Royal Society, Laby was able to remain in England and continue his research until 1909. Throughout his Bachelor of Arts research degree, Laby’s dedication to experimentation and research was noted by many. Sir J.J. Thomson wrote of Laby ‘I have been greatly impressed by Mr Laby’s skill as an experimenter, in fact I do not remember after a long experience anyone who has excelled him in this respect’i . Laby was gaining quite a reputation having also excelled in chemical research whilst at the University of Sydney.
Although busy with his work Laby made the most of his European location. He visited the Continent four times during his student years spending most of his time in Berlin and Zurichii . In 1909 he decided to leave England to take up an appointment as Chair of Physics at Victoria University College, Wellington, New Zealand. It was during his time in New Zealand that the first edition of Tables of physical and chemical constants and some mathematical functions was published in 1911.
When Professor Thomas Lyle took early retirement in 1915 Laby was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy (i.e. Physics) at the University of Melbourne. He held this position until his retirement in 1944. From 1926 – 29 he also held the position of Dean of the Faculty of Science.
At the University of Melbourne Laby placed immeasurable importance on research activity. He believed that, along with teaching, experimentation and research should be a priority in a university. Through his research Laby promoted areas such as precisions physics, radio physics, x- rays as well as atomic and nuclear physics. The research that Laby pursued was not undertaken purely for academic interest as it also led to practical uses in the community. One such accomplishment was the invention, with Osborne and Masson, of the anti- gas box respirator, also known as the ‘Melbourne University Respirator’, for use in the First World War. Another accomplishment was assisting in the organization of the radium supply for hospitalsiii . The University of Melbourne’s website contains a full list of Laby’s work within the university.
Laby is also remembered for encouraging a large portion of his undergraduate students to continue their study at the Department of Natural Philosophy by completing Master of Science degrees. At the time Australian universities were focused primarily on undergraduate training and so Laby’s interest in further study and research was admirable. He was also successful in convincing his friend Ernest Rutherford, the Director of the Cavendish Laboratory, to supervise many of his students for their PhD degrees in the United Kingdom. This was most fortunate for Laby’s students as PhD degrees were not yet part of the Australian curriculum. Many students were able to do this by receiving the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship that Laby had himself won in 1904.
The manner in which Laby inspired his students is quite intriguing. As Laby’s first love was research his teaching methods often differed from other lecturers. For instance, he felt that examinations were ‘utterly over rated as a test of education and of human ability’ discarding all practical examinationsiv . Professor Oliphant, who was Assistant Director of Research at Cavendish Laboratory, described Laby’s lectures as ‘somewhat uninspiring’ believing that it was not his classes that persuaded students to become physicists but his pure love of the discipline’v . It was Professor Oliphant’s belief that Laby inspired students by illustrating Australia’s need for physics and its future importance for the country. He concluded that what made Laby an exceptional teacher was his ‘ability to inspire a love of physics in others, to engender a desire to emulate Laby’s own achievements’vi .
Laby and the Scientific Community
As well as his university commitments Laby contributed to the larger scientific community. He assisted in the establishment of the Australian Radio Research Board (RBB) and played a vital role on the Board from 1929 to 1941. In 1939 Laby was also appointed the first President of the Australian Branch of the Institute of Physics. The Institute was established to connect and support Australian physicists. It also aimed to promote the field in the general community.
As World War II encroached upon Australian life, Laby attempted to find ways in which his research and physics as a whole could assist the war effort. At the beginning of the war Laby, along with A.D. Ross of the University of Western Australia, had offered his skills to the government. For some time Laby had seen the threat Germany posed to the rest of the world and as early as 1910 had written articles on the possibility of conflict in both Australian and New Zealand publicationsvii . However it was not until the fall of France in 1940 that physicists were called upon to create optical glass and a variety of devices, using optics, for the war effort. To oversee this task the Prime Minister established the Optical Munitions Panel (OMP) of which Laby was chairman from 1940 to 1944.
The Family Man
Although it may appear that Laby’s life was wholly devoted to his love of science he did find time for a social life and a family. Whilst in London he met Beatrice Littlejohn and in 1914 they were married. Daughters, Jean and Betty, were born to the couple in 1915 and 1920. Ed Muirhead, former Head of the School of Physics, paints a rosy picture of the Laby family writing that ‘he [Laby] was supported through the whole of his professional career especially in the latter period of indifferent health’viii . This nurturing environment allowed the girls the opportunity to pursue their academic interests in a male dominated field. Both girls become educated individuals in their own right, with Jean following her father into physics and Betty becoming a statistician. Dr Jean Laby, who studied underneath her father, has been described as ‘probably Australia’s sole women atmospheric physicist of her generation’ix .
Laby’s friends also thought of him as a kind and inspirational man. In an obituary notice the Hon. Mr Justice Nicholas discusses his friend’s personality with warmth and affection. He states ‘If one were to particularize Laby’s outstanding qualities… they would be his integrity of mind, his humour and his enthusiasm. His humour was constant and universal’x . Within two years of his retirement Laby passed away. He died on the 21st June 1946 aged sixty-six. After suffering a long illness he had been hospitalised for the final three months. Not only was he mourned in Australia, his loss was felt overseas. On the 24th of June 1946 an obituary was published in The Times where his work and foresight into the uses of physics were praisedxi .
The 1914 advertisement for Melbourne’s Natural Philosophy Chair stated that the new professor would need to ‘devote the whole of his time to the work of his department’. Whilst the writers of the advertisement were most likely referring to the professors working hours, T.H. Laby clearly devoted his entire life to the field of physics. He worked harder than most and produced results that exceeded expectation. Laby’s work was not only admired by his fellow physicists but, though its practical uses in Australia, it was appreciated by the pubic as well.
Student Projects Placement, Cultural Collections 2005
iT.H. Laby, 'Application for the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Melbourne', 22.09.1914, p.7. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.
iiiMassey, H.S.A., "Professor T.H. Laby, F.R.S.', Nature, Vol. 158, No. 4005, August 1946, p.2.
ivPicken, D.K., 'T.H. Laby', Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 5, May 1948, p.754. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.
vOliphant, Professor M.L.E., 'Laby's place in physics' in Picken, D.K., 'T.H. Laby', Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol 5, May 1948, p.753. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.
vii'Dr T.H. Laby, F.R.S. Natural Philosophy at Melbourne University', The Times, 24.06.1946. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.
viiiMuirhead, E., A Man Ahead of his Times: T.H. Laby's Contribution to Australian Science, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 1996, p. 7.
ix Australian Academy of Science, 'Interview with Dr Jean Laby', accessed on 26.08.2005
xPicken, D.K., "T.H. Laby', Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol 5, May 1948, p 752. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.
xiThe Times, op cit.