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1916 - 1980

John James McNeill studied physics at the University of Melbourne, winning the Dixon Scholarship in 1936 as the top student in his graduating class. T.H. Laby was Head of the Department at this time, and was one of McNeill's supervisors.

In 1938, McNeill joined the Munitions Supply Laboratories (MSL) at Maribyrnong. He became increasingly interested in optics and in August 1939 sailed for England under the auspices of the MSL to study a two-year course in technical optics and optical design at the Imperial College in London. The Second World War broke out while the ship was on its way to London, and the ship and McNeill were initially stranded in South Africa. Fortunately, the relative calm of the first year of the war allowed McNeill to restart his journey, this time by QANTAS flying boat. He reached London in February 1940.

Life in London during the war was not easy; McNeill was trying to continue his work and studies among some of the heaviest bombing raids on London. He wrote: 'You will appreciate the difficulty of performing an optical computation when the air is vibrant with the roar and rumble of the AA barrage.'(1)

While in London, McNeill also gained a great deal of hands-on experience, including visiting optical instrument firms (such as Adam Hilger Ltd); he sent regular reports back to the MSL. In June 1940, a letter from McNeill's superior at MSL, E.L. Sayce, informed him of the establishment of the Optical Munitions Panel. McNeill's reports on optical glass and techniques were circulated to the Panel members, and were invaluable to the physicists and technicians struggling with their new and urgent work.

When McNeill returned to Australia in early 1942, he was was one of the most experienced men in optics. He quickly became a colleague and friend to another MSL scientist, G.G. Schaefer. The two shared a flat, worked late at the labs three nights a week, and played squash together. Their friendship was life long; they were even known as the 'Optical Twins' as their scientific skills complemented each other so well.

McNeill's delight in optics allowed him to face all the tasks with tremendous enthusiasm, energy and drive. Without these, the joint solutions of McNeill and Schaefer would never have been produced in time. Eventually, all the activities of the optical glass shop, optical instrument shop and optics laboratory were put under McNeill, with links to the design office and mechanical workshop. - H.C. Bolton (2)

McNeill was a vital link between the MSL physicists and the optical technicians, and he had a great effect on the smooth running and success of the MSL. McNeill transferred to the CSIRO Division of Chemical Physics in 1955, and remained there until his retirement in 1978. His ability to communicate between techical and scientific staff earned him a strong commitment from T.C. Alldis, an MSL optical technician, who even followed McNeill to the CSIRO.

After the war McNeill worked with Schaefer to develop a microscope - an MSL project. He served for many years on the Technical Advisory Committee on Optical Munitions (chaired by N.A. Esserman), which tried to restart the optical industry in Australia. However, when the focus of the Committee moved to acoustics, he lost his enthusiasm.

McNeill was a generous man with wide ranging interests; he was also a devout churchgoer. In 1943, McNeill married Joan Felicity Hogan, a stenographer in the Physics Section of the MSL. Between 1944 and 1953 they had four children. McNeill was enthusiastic about athletics and was a field judge at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. He also enjoyed family life, fishing, growing camellias and classical music, especially Beethoven.

(1) D.P. Mellor (1958), 'Optical Munitions', Australia in the War of 1939-1945: The Role of Science and Industry, ch. 12, series 4: civil, vol. 5, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, p. 8.
(2) H.C. Bolton (1983), 'J.J. McNeill and the Development of Optical Research in Australia', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 5, no. 4, p. 59.

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Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 30 April 1997
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
Prepared by: Denise Sutherland and Elissa Tenkate
Updated by: Joanne Evans
Date modified: 4 January 1998

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