Early history of the Department of Mathematics, University of Queensland

By Vincent G. Hart

Web version formatted by Keith Matthews
The list of lecturers below was kindly assembled
by Megan Lyneham, University Archives,
at the request of Keith Matthews.

The first four Professors of the University with their wives.
Back - left to right: Professors J.L. Michie, B.D. Steele, H.J. Priestley, A.J. Gibson
Front - left to right: Mrs Priestley, Mrs Steele, Mrs Gibson
05 Jun 1911
UQA S177 P822
[Donated by Mrs K Bathgate]

1910 - 1932

The chair of Mathematics and Physics was one of the first four chairs to be established at the founding of the University. After Professor Ernest (later Lord) Rutherford declined the offer, Henry James Priestley was appointed in 1910 to this chair which he occupied until his death in 1932. Priestley was a Cambridge graduate where he gained first-class (second division) honours in the Mathematical Tripos in 1906. Subsequent to his appointment to this University, he published papers in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society and in other journals - largely on applied mathematics and mathematical physics [1]. At the time of his appointment here he is described [2] as being "strong in mathematics and sufficient in physics, and was also said to be a good lecturer, and to have an attractive personality, reliable conchology, a wife and good social qualifications".

It is clear that Priestley spent a great amount of time on the administrative and organisational side of the University. He served on the Senate for some ten years, was Dean of the Faculty of Science for nine years, President of the Board of Faculties (later the Professorial Board) for four years, and was a member of many standing committees of Senate and Board. His obituary notice describes him as being highly popular with his students, being freely accessible to them and to their parents, and having nothing donnish or academic in his personality [3]. His interest in University organization would seem also to have been inherited by his son, Henry Thomas, who was a prime mover in the establishment of Townsville University College in 1960.

In 1919 separate departments of mathematics and physics were created; Priestley was offered either chair and chose mathematics - with one of his lecturers, T. Parnell, becoming professor of physics. For many years the total mathematics staff remained small. The 1910 - 1922 Report of the University of Queensland lists a professor, a lecturer and an evening lecturer in Mathematics, and by 1935 this has changed only to a professor and two lecturers. An honours course in mathematics was inaugurated by Priestley, and in 1935 it extended over three years with the first honours graduates appearing in 1914 (Agnes Park Bevington I, and Eric Maxwell Fisher II) [4]


Professor E.F. Simonds succeeded Priestley as Head of Department in 1932, having previously been a lecturer in the Department since 1926. He had graduated BA with first class Honours and a University Medal in 1909 at the University of Sydney. Having obtained an MA degree and Teacher's Diploma at Teachers' College, Columbia, New York in 1913, he proceeded in 1917 to a Ph.D. in Mathematics at the University of Columbia. Here his interests were in Continuous Groups and Differential Geometry and he subsequently published several papers on these subjects in later years. In 1917 and 1918 he was Instructor in Mathematics at the University of Illinois and in 1918 he returned to Sydney where he taught Mathematics for 8 years more. Like his predecessor Priestley, he held the chair here for an equivalent period of 24 years to his retirement in 1955 as Emeritus Professor. His biographer J. P. McCarthy [5] remarked that he had a distinguished teaching career extending over 54 years at a wide variety of levels including primary and secondary schools and in technical colleges and universities. His clarity of exposition and readiness to help were favourably noted.


With the appointment of Clive Selwyn Davis as Professor and Head of Department in 1956, the Department of Mathematics could be said to have entered the modern era. The new professor had graduated from Sydney University with first class honours in Mathematics in 1937 followed by a first in Physics in 1938 and an MSc. in Mathematics in 1939. However his academic career was interrupted by the Second World War for six years. During this time he gave distinguished service in the Royal Airforce, and later the Royal Australian Airforce, as an operational pilot and on the Air Staff. He was awarded the DFC and rose to the rank of Wing Commander.

After hostilities had ended Clive Davis gained a scholarship in 1946 to the University of Cambridge, where he graduated Ph.D. in 1949 with a thesis on Number Theory under the supervision of L. J. Mordell. Later, as a member of staff of the Mathematics Department of Bristol University, he commenced the publication of a number of papers on the geometry of numbers.

With an unusually broad and varied experience in academic affairs and scholarship and in service administration both in peace and war, in Australia and overseas, C. S. Davis was to play a significant part in the building up and great expansion of the modern Department. To appreciate the background of his task one has to remember the dire state of Australian Universities in the late 1950s. The Murray Committee set up to deal with this situation reported in 1957: "they had hoped to find [the Australian Universities] at present adequately staffed and equipped, [but] this is unfortunately far from the case". They "requested immediate action in 1958 to 1960 if the situation is not to become catastrophic." [6, p.4]. The Federal Government agreed to this action being taken.

To reflect this general malaise in the local scene there were just five other members of staff in Mathematics in 1956: J. P. McCarthy, H. M. Finucan, H. K. Powell, I. A. Evans and P. B. McGovern (part-time lecturer). All were heavily loaded with about 11 or 12 lectures per week each and, although able, had found little time available for research. The ethos of the Department was in fact that it was a teaching unit.

Professor Davis' first task was to improve the mode of teaching. He immediately effected two principal changes which were firstly to institute tutorial or practice classes for the students, and secondly to separate the honours stream and pass streams of lectures in undergraduate years. Funds generated by the Murray initiative enabled general improvements to be made, and new staff were appointed - by 1961 there were 12 academic staff members in Mathematics plus several vacancies [7] - and the teaching loads gradually decreased to about 5 lectures per staff member per week in 1965. This might be called a golden age for academics - they were in a seller's market. For example on at least one occasion C. S. Davis had to travel personally to Europe to recruit three members of staff.

Other major achievements of the new Professor were the planning of the present Priestley Mathematics building which was first occupied in 1964, and the provision within it of a Mathematics library. He also contributed to the general affairs of the University, being a member of the Senate from 1961 to 1971, a member of the Research Committee from 1964 to 1971, and Chairman of this Committee from 1969 to 1971. In addition he spent much time in attempting to improve staff conditions, particularly in respect of provision for study leave (or SSP in current jargon), and in the setting up of the FSSU superannuation system. No small further contribution was his part in obtaining proper tenure conditions for non-professorial staff who had previously been employed on five-year contracts. Sadly these conditions have now been substantially eroded.

In the period of expansion in the 1960s following the Murray report, the Department, being the only tertiary mathematics unit in Queensland, sought to cover a wide range of mathematics in its courses and a multi-professorial Department was constructed. J. J. Mahony was appointed as Professor of Applied Mathematics in 1961 to 1963, to be succeeded by Professor A. F. Pillow (1964 - 1986). Mr H. M. Finucan had been giving statistics courses since 1946, and Professor S. Lipton was appointed as the first Professor of Mathematical Statistics in 1967. He served until 1991 when he took early retirement. Two further Professors, L. Bass (1967 - 1994) in Mathematical Physics and Biomathematics, and R. Vyborny (1968 - 1989) in Analysis completed a group of five Professors who, among others, had much influence on the direction of the Department in subsequent years.


The first non-professorial Head Dr. B. L. Adkins was appointed in succession to Professor Davis in 1973, the latter retiring from the University in 1983. Dr Adkins was appointed at another period of reform in universities resulting from the world wide student unrest in 1968. The emphasis now was on consultation with staff and students, and a Departmental Consultative Committee dates from this period. This was supplemented by Departmental Meetings at which all staff could have their say - and later student representatives made their contributions to this forum. Thus although the final responsibility for academic and financial matters still rested with the Head, the position became one which required considerable diplomatic and consultative skills of the incumbent. It could be said with confidence that both Dr. Adkins and his successor, Professor Lipton (Head from 1980 to 1984), ably met these requirements.

During the late 1960s and 1970s many new staff entered the Department and much effort went into the development of a full four year honours course for Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Statistics. Supplemented by weekly research seminars all of this had the aim of training students for research work, and by the end of the 1960s our programme was fully comparable with those of the senior southern universities. We have had many appreciative remarks from former students regarding the quality of these courses, and it is interesting to note that by 1991 at least 70 former students had obtained positions on the staffs of universities in Australia and overseas.

Research work expanded generally, and between 1964 and 1994 one hundred research degrees were awarded as follows: 2 D.Sc., 64 Ph.D., and 34 MSc. But the pace is quickening; it has taken just over 4 years - 1995 to March 1999 - to produce an extra 43 research graduates: 1 DSc, 37 PhD., and 5 MSc. Members of staff to be appointed to Personal Chairs as a result of their research work were A. P. Street (1985), A. J. Bracken (1990, Mathematical Physics) and G. J. McLachlan (1998).

A significant new appointment in 1990 was that of K. Burrage to a Chair of Computational Mathematics in order to stimulate this area of mathematics and early in the 1990's four Centres or Units were established to focus research and to collaborate with outside agencies. The success of this venture will be described later in this Report.

A substantial bequest in 1988 came to the Department from the estate of a former lecturer Ethel Harriet Raybould, the Department being assisted in this by Dr. D. Sandars, a Senate member at that time. From these funds overseas researchers called Raybould Visiting Fellows were enabled to spend substantial periods of time in the Department, and secondly Raybould Tutorial Fellows or selected secondary school mathematics teachers could spend six months in the Department - to the mutual benefit of all.

During the 1970's the Department attained to its largest size as regards numbers of staff (49 in 1974) [8]. In 1983 however, the University responding to financial constraints, inaugurated the present Group System of Departments, wherein a group of cognate Departments were to be controlled as regards funding by a single Pro-Vice Chancellor (more lately called an Executive Dean). Mathematics entered the Engineering and Physical Science Group of 10 Departments (5 Engineering, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Computer Science and Mathematics). A later regrouping in 1997 puts this Department into the Faculty of Engineering, Physical Sciences and Architecture with Chemistry moved into a different Faculty, and replaced in our Group by Architecture and Planning and Geographical Sciences and a number of Centres.

Alphabetical list of staff, 1911-1972

Chronological list of staff, 1911-1972


  1. H. J. Priestley, by C. S. Davis, Dictionary of National Biography.
  2. A place of light and learning, M. Thomis, The University of Queensland's first Seventy-five years, University of Queensland Press, 1985.
  3. Professor H. J. Priestley, obituary by H. W. D., The Telegraph, Brisbane, 26 Feb. 1932.
  4. C. S. Davis, private communication.
  5. Emeritus Professor E. F. Simonds, by J. P. McCarthy, University of Queensland Gazette, September 1955.
  6. Report of the Committee on Australian Universities, K.A.H. Murray, Chairman, September, 1957.
  7. University of Queensland Calendar, 1961.
  8. University of Queensland Calendar, 1975.

Last modified 25th January 2005