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Professor Sir Harrie Massey (1908 - 1983):
Mathematical physicist

Sir Harrie Massey was an Australian mathematical physicist who worked primarily in the fields of atomic and atmospheric physics. Perhaps his most famous work was during the Second World War when, ably assisted by David Bates, his research student at Queen’s University, Belfast (later Professor Sir David Bates of Queen's University) amongst others, he was able to develop successful countermeasures to the devastating German magnetic mines. But his interests and achievements ranged far and wide.

Harrie Stewart Wilson Massey was born at Invermay, Victoria, only son of a miner and sawmill owner. He was nothing if not precocious, obtaining his state school merit certificate, which normally took eight years, in only four, and won a scholarship to University High School, Melbourne. He proceeded to the University of Melbourne with a government scholarship, where he graduated BSc in 1928 then BA with Honours and MSc in 1929.

In August of that year he was awarded the University’s Aitchison travelling scholarship which enabled him to travel to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, led by Nobel Laureate Ernest Rutherford, in August 1929. At this time the Cavendish Laboratory was one of the leading centres of physics in the world. In 1932 Laboratory scientists John Cockcroft and Ulster-educated Ernest Walton split the atomic nucleus. He was admitted to Trinity College, and quickly built up an impressive list of publications. When the scholarship expired he obtained one from the College which enabled him to complete his PhD in 1932.

By 1933 Queen’s University Belfast, during a period of considerable expansion under Vice-Chancellor Richard Winn Livingstone, had created quite a number of new lectureships, including that in mathematical physics; Massey was appointed independent lecturer, the first member of the new department.

In the words of the Australian Dictionary of Biography:

He proved a superb lecturer while also maintaining a prodigious output of research publications on collision theory which, in its many ramifications, remained a lifelong preoccupation. He also began a long-running study of negative ions and their role in the ionosphere. His Negative Ions (1938) largely defined the field and in a series of papers written with his student, (Sir) David Bates, he developed the theory of recombination processes that underpinned subsequent thinking about the behaviour of the ionosphere.

In 1938 he left Queen’s on his appointment as Goldsmid professor of mathematics at University College, London. Bates went with him as a research student. The following year saw the outbreak of war and in December 1939 he joined an Admiralty research group with the special and highly urgent task of devising and developing a defence against German sea mines which were proving a devastating weapon against British shipping. He later led a group designing mines for use against German shipping. In August 1943 he went to the United States of America as a member of the British team that worked with the Americans in developing the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project). For the next two years he was the leader of a group at Berkeley, California, that investigated problems associated with the use of cyclotron techniques to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium.

Massey returned to a physically damaged UCL in October 1945. To rebuild his department, he appointed a number of mathematical physicists, with most of whom he had previously collaborated, and established a research program in experimental atomic physics. In 1950, when he was appointed Quain Professor of Physics and Head of the Physics Department at University College, London, .he took his group with him. The Department was merged with Astronomy in 1973, but he remained its Head until he retired in 1975. He also served as University College, London's Vice-Provost from 1969 to 1973. From 1950 to 1975, under Massey’s leadership, Physics prospered exceedingly at University College, its research programme heavily orientated towards atomic and nuclear physics. The department acquired several particle accelerators and collaborated more and more with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell and, later, with CERN, the European centre for nuclear research in Geneva.

Through his entire career Massey published prodigiously; The British Library catalogue lists no fewer that 44 titles under his name variously as author, joint author, editor and contributor. The Library of Queen’s University also has a long list, including his History of British Space Science; Space Physics; Atomic and Molecular Collisions; and Space Travel and Exploration.

Massey was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1940, and was winner of its Hughes and Royal Medals in 1955 and 1958 respectively. He served twice as a member of the Society’s Council (1949-51 and 1959-60) before serving as physical secretary and vice-president (1969-78). He was a member of the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee of the United Kingdom’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research from 1956, of the governing board of the National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science from its foundation in 1957, and of the Research Grants Committee from 1959. Knighted in 1960, Sir Harrie became the foundation chair, which he occupied from 1965 until 1969 of the Council for Scientific Policy, which was established to advise the Minister on all aspects of civil science policy.

Though firmly and successfully settled in the United Kingdom, Massey nevertheless retained strong links with his native country, though not as strong as a number of institutions there would have preferred. The University of Melbourne was very keen that he take up its chair of physics in 1942. Later that decade many hoped though in vain that he would join Sir Mark Oliphant as a founding member of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the new Australian National University in Canberra. In the 1950s and 1960s his involvement in space science brought him back more frequently since the principal launch site for Britain’s rocket program was at Woomera, South Australia. So, too, did his involvement in the negotiations leading to the establishment of the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) at Siding Spring Mountain, New South Wales; he was a United Kingdom member, 1975-83, of the AAT’s governing board, and its Chairman in 1980-83. He served on numerous committees, appeared frequently in the press and media and was awarded several honorary degrees including of LLD in 1955 and DSc in 974, both from the University of Melbourne. In the UK he received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, in 1975.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography offers this description of him:

Short, wiry, with penetrating, deep-set eyes and an engaging zest for life, he was kindly and thoughtful in his relations with others. He had an astonishing memory and remarkable powers of concentration. Retaining a strong affection for his native land, he never lost his Australian accent.

Massey was also a keen athlete who enjoyed, and excelled at, various sports such as billiards, tennis, baseball and hockey. During his last year at the Cavendish Laboratory he captained their cricket team.

He married, in 1928 at Perth District Registrar's Office, Jessica Eliza Bruce, a schoolteacher whom he met in 1926, while attending an Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science Congress in Perth.

Massey died on 27 November 1983 at his home, “Kalamunda”, Surrey, named after a district of Australia where his wife grew up, survived by his wife and their daughter, Pamela Lois. A lecture theatre at University College London is named in his honour as are the Harrie Massey Prize, and the Harrie Massey Medal and Prize jointly awarded by the Institute of Physics (UK) and the Australian Institute of Physics.


Born: 16 May 1908
Died: 27 November 1983
Richard Froggatt
RW Home: “Massey, Sir Harrie Stewart (1908–1983)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 18 (Melbourne University Publishing, p 201; http://adb.anu.edu.au/); TW Moody & JC Beckett: Queen’s, Belfast 1845-1949 (The Queen’s University of Belfast/Faber & Faber, 1959); BM Walker & Alf McCreary: Degrees of Excellence, The Story of Queen’s University Belfast 1845-1995 (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994); www.qub.ac.uk; www.bl.uk