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1880 - 1946

Laby was a very strong character and a very patriotic man; he burned with a great zeal to help Australia, while pushing the affairs of Melbourne University and the Department of Physics thereof, not, I should hasten to add, unfairly. He was, to say the least of it, not the soul of tact, but the Panel was, I suppose, completely successful in accomplishing all that it had been set to do, including some supposedly impossible tasks. To these successes Laby's drive contributed materially. He was very good company, if he unbent, as he sometimes did, at dinner after a hard day's work. More than once he took umbrage and resigned his Chairmanship: and in the end his resignation was accepted. - R. v.d.R. Woolley (1)

Thomas Howell Laby had been a student of E. Rutherford at Cambridge University, and a great admirer of the 'classical' Cambridge tradition of research. His focus was on precision experimental physics (in the fields of thermal conductivity and X-rays) but he would tolerate other branches if they offered contributions to his field.

T.H. Laby - 73.7 K

Making an optical instrument is a classical problem and its use is at the heart of many classical scientific experiments. The problems of making and using optical instruments were exactly what Laby's fertile classical imagination could handle so well. Added to this was an ability to be a good if dominant administrator.H.C. Bolton (2)

In 1939, Laby was the President of the Australian Branch of the Institute of Physics and had been pushing hard for the Government to utilise the skills of Australian physicists in the war effort. In July 1939, Laby wrote to A.D. Ross:

I am persuaded that the position of Australia is very much less secure than we suppose and that the physicists will seriously fail in their responsibilities if they do not consider very thoroughly the scientific advice the Government is receiving.(3)

In August 1939, just one month after this correspondence, Laby wrote to the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, with the suggestion that a consultative committee of Australian physicists should be established to advise the Government on war-related scientific matters. The Government's reply was that 'foreseen requirements were at present well provided for', but that if the unexpected occurred, 'lines on which immediate action could be taken' had been established. Impatiently, Laby waited for the call to action. J. Dooley, then one of Laby's students, 'remembers a whole lecture given over to a tirade about the government's lack of foresight'. (4)

Finally, in June 1940, Laby's vision of Australian physicists being involved in the war effort began to take form. At a meeting of interested Australian physicists in Melbourne on 26 June, the Optical Munitions Panel was formed and L.J. Hartnett asked Laby to be the Chair.

Laby was the driving force behind the Panel and ran things from his laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He introduced new ideas and methods to the Panel physicists and directed that all research in the Natural Philosophy Department focus on optical munitions.

He himself worked very enthusiastically and for very long hours at various problems, and in this he was ably assisted by his staff. A big research and investigational staff was built up by using young graduates. (5)

Laby's health began to deteriorate during the years of the Second World War, and K. Grant would chair any meetings that Laby was too ill to attend. In 1942, Laby resigned as Chair of the Natural Philosophy Department at the University of Melbourne.

In March 1944, the Panel could not agree with Laby's attitude towards some of the research being undertaken on the tropic proofing of optical instruments. Panel members told the Director of Ordnance Production (Harnett) that they could no longer work with Laby. For one meeting only, the Panel was renamed the 'Advisory Committee on Scientific and Optical Instruments', and during this time Laby resigned as Chair. After Laby's resignation (primarily due to ill-health rather than the problems just mentioned), the Panel resumed its original name and continued under the leadership of Grant, who had been the Deputy Chair.

At its final meeting in November 1945, Grant said:

Australia was highly indebted to [Laby] for the zeal with which he had devoted himself to the work of the Panel in its early years. Dr Laby had never spared himself and it was his overwork which has led to his breakdown in health which had necessitated his resignation.(6)

Laby remained involved in the work of the Optical Munitions Panel until it was disbanded at the end of the war (either in his original capacity of Chair or, after his resignation of this position due to ill-health in 1944, as a Member.) He died in 1946.

Laby brought the Australian physicists together and established the successful national wartime research effort coordinated by the Optical Munitions Panel. He could grasp problems quickly, and just as quickly offer solutions. Despite his often difficult personality, he was the driving force behind the Panel and it could not have succeeded without him.

(1) R. Woolley (1968), 'Mount Stromlo Observatory', RAAS, vol 1, no. 3, November, pp. 53-7.
(2) H.C. Bolton (1990), 'Optical Instruments in Australia in the 1939-45 War: successes and lost opportunities', Australian Physicist, vol. 27, no. 3, March, pp. 32.
(3) T.H. Laby, letter to Professor Ross, 25 October 1923, Basser Library Manuscript Collection, MS 86/1/1.
(4) Tim Sherratt, Interview with J. Dooley, 2 July 1994.
(5) J.S. Rogers, The History of the Optical Munitions Panel: July 1940 - December 1946, Australian Archives, Brighton, Melbourne, MP 730/11, Box 3, p. 38.
(6) H.C. Bolton (1990), 'Optical Instruments in Australia in the 1939-45 War: successes and lost opportunities', Australian Physicist, vol. 27, no. 3, March, pp. 37.

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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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