Saturday, March 21, 2009

Phyllis Mary Nicol - Physicist from Thirroul

It all started with Phyllis Mary Nicol. I was intrigued, who was this former Thirroul girl who had made it into, not only a BrightSparcs entry, but also the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition. I wanted to know more about this amazing woman, & to redress that virtually nobody knew of her, in her birthplace, Thirroul.

Researching on some council related issues, Phyllis Mary Nicol surfaced in one of my Google searches. Joe Davis, who knows most stories of Thirroul had heard only a little of her. Robyn Hutton, Bulli resident & Science Teacher at St Mary's Star of the Sea College, had encountered her in the Physics Labs & at Women's College during undergraduate days at Sydney University.

For a long time I had been presumptuous enough to believe that I was the first girl in Thirroul to carve out a university graduate career in the non traditional fields of science, engineering, technology or medicine. I was wrong - Phyl Nicol, University Lecturer in Physics, had graduated over 50 years earlier in 1925. She was the second woman to have graduated in Physics from Sydney University, before being awarded an MSc in 1926!

The Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition entry reads as follows.

"NICOL, PHYLLIS MARY (1903-1964), lecturer and demonstrator in physics, was born on 2 March 1903 at Thirroul, New South Wales, eldest daughter of native-born parents Walter George Phillip Nicol, teamster, and his wife Florence, née Reeves. Educated at North Sydney Girls' High School, Phyllis won a bursary in 1921 to the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1925; M.Sc., 1926).

She shared the Deas Thomson scholarship (1924) and graduated (1925) with first-class honours in physics and in mathematics from a department somewhat unwelcoming to women students. Awarded an 1851 Exhibition science research scholarship, she wrote her thesis on the optical properties of selenium and published her findings in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales; she was to join the society in 1935.

In March 1927 Miss Nicol resigned her scholarship. She worked for the rest of her life in the department of physics. A full-time demonstrator (1927-33), reduced to part-time (1933-46), she became a part-time lecturer in 1946 (following the retirement of Professor Oscar Vonwiller) and a full-time lecturer in 1948 but with 'temporary' status. She had written with her colleague Edgar Booth, 'Physics' (1931, 16th edition 1962), a standard text for high-school students and undergraduates (KC note - now a collectible).

Nicol unsuccessfully applied in 1952 for the position of senior lecturer. Her status and that of other 'temporary' members of the department was reviewed by a senate committee in July 1953. Although she was damned with faint praise by Harry Messel, the dynamic new professor of physics, who considered that she 'coached' rather than lectured, but was worthy of consideration because she 'had been here for many years', the committee recommended that she be offered a permanent appointment. After almost thirty years of teaching, her reward was the position of 'tutor demonstrator with the status of lecturer'.

Her devotion to the department was equalled only by her attachment to Women's College, where she had lived from 1921 as student, tutor in physics and mathematics, and sub-principal (1933-54). Hindered by a lack of opportunity for overseas research, by limitations within the physics department and by her reluctance to take any public role of leadership, she remained as a subordinate within her department and college, voicing no grudge or criticism of others. The stereotype of the scholarly spinster, untidy, careless of dress and seemingly always running late, 'Phylly Nic' spoke on the benefits of eight hours sleep a night and exhorted her female students to dress in their best for examinations as a means of boosting confidence.

Nicol resigned as sub-principal in 1954 to live with her unmarried sister at Lane Cove. She underwent a mastectomy in 1953 and later suffered severe illness, but continued to work, resigning from the physics department 'due to ill health' only four days before she died of cancer on 13 June 1964 at her home; she was cremated with Anglican rites. Students were her vocation. Her genius was that, through her teaching, the most unpromising candidates could pass physics I, the first hurdle for many university courses. Her legacy was to help others on the path to opportunities she never enjoyed."

Phyl Nicol played a role model to her student, Joan Freeman, although the advice was blunt - “It’s difficult enough for a man to get a job as a physicist…but for a woman the possibilities are very limited indeed” - Joan became one of Australia's first female nuclear physicists at the CSIRO & then at Cambridge University in the 1940's, before later going onto Harwell - British Atomic Energy Research Establishment; also the first woman to be awarded the Rutherford Medal, and only the second Australian.

Another student inspired by Phyl Nicol, whilst at Women's College, Sydney University was to become Her Excellency Prof Marie Bashir, Governor of NSW - "She considers her years at the Women's College were greatly enriching, intellectually, spiritually and socially. This was due to the outstanding influence of the Principal, Miss H.E. Archdale, the Vice-Principal and physicist, Phyllis Nicol "

Select Bibliography on Phyllis Mary Nicol
D. Branagan and G. Holland (eds), Ever Reaping Something New (Syd, 1985); R. Annable (ed), Biographical Register, The Women's College within the University of Sydney, vol 1, 1892-1939 (Syd, 1995); W. V. Hole, 'Phyllis Mary Nicol, MSc (1903-64)', University of Sydney, Record, 2, 1989, p 2; P. M. Nicol staff file (University of Sydney Archives); University of Sydney Senate minutes, 6 July 1953 (University of Sydney Archives); University of Sydney and Women's College Archives. More on the resources
Author: Rosemary Annable
Print Publication Details: Rosemary Annable, 'Nicol, Phyllis Mary (1903 - 1964)', Australian Dictionary Biography,of Volume 15, Melbourne University Press, 2000, p. 478. "

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