Donald Burgess McNeill

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Donald Burgess McNeill

DB McNeill from cropped from image of Rita Duffy painting.jpg
DiedAugust 8, 2010(2010-08-08) (aged 98–99)
Alma mater Queen's University Belfast
OccupationUniversity lecturer
Known for

Donald Burgess McNeill (1911 – 8 August 2010) was a physics and transport history writer, with his most notable academic work "A Dictionary of Scientific Units - Including dimensionless numbers and scales co-authored with H. G. Jerrard whilst a lecturer at Southampton University. He was also a prolific writer on various modes of transport on the Island of Ireland and served as Chairman of Trustees of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Educated at Queen's University Belfast he helped resurrect their rowing club and was associated sculling throughout his adult life. A member of the Territorial Army he served in the Royal Corps of Signals in World War II and was active in the Officers' Training Corps of both Queen's and Southampton universities and was awarded the Territorial Decoration (TD) for long service.



Early life

McNeill's father founded the Belfast-based engineering and construction company McNeill group at the beginning of the 20th century. [1] McNeill was educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, [1] where he claimed he was administered corporal punishment by Samuel Beckett, his dormitory prefect. [2] [3] [lower-alpha 1] It was also while at Portora his first transport article was accepted by The Railway Magazine for publication in 1930. [1] As Portora school did not offer physics to advanced level McNeill self-studied to achieve the required level for Queen's University Belfast. [1]


NcNeill studied physics at Queen's University Belfast from 1931 to 1938 achieving PhD level. [1] Outside of academia he was one of a group who re-founded the Queen's rowing club of which he was later to serve one or more terms as president. [4] He was also a member of Queen's Officers' Training Corps. [3] NcNeill had the honour to be chosen to represent Queens at the 1936 bi-centennial celebrations of Harvard University in America. In 1938 he gained an appointment as a physics lecturer at University College Southampton, Hampshire, England. [lower-alpha 2] His career was soon interrupted by enlistment to the army in 1939 at the start of World War II and he returned to Northern Ireland. [1]


McNeill was assigned to the Royal Corps of Signals on enlistment in 1939 and was to ascend to the rank of Major during his service. His first assignment in Northern Ireland as part of the 53rd Welsh Brigade required him to deploy to the west of Dublin should the Germans invade the south. He was also to serve in North Africa where he became chief instructor of signals. He was briefly in Italy before becoming senior technical support to Army broadcasting; being released to resume university lecturing in December 1945, though he remained with the Territorial Army until 1954. [1]


McNeill resumed as a physics lecturer at Southampton after the war, and was actively involved with the University Officers' Training Corps. [1] In 1953 as the mace-bearing Esquire Bedell he assisted the institution to formally transition from Hartley University College to Southampton University with the chartered authority to award its own degrees. [1] [5] He had the role of Assistant Dean to the Faculty of Science at the university, though he preferred the title Faculty secretary. As an eccentric touch perhaps typical of the period he kept a pink elephant in his room as an introductory icebreaker when communicating with new students. [1] A key work he co-authored with co-worker Dr. Jerrard was A Dictionary of Scientific Units - Including dimensionless numbers and scales [6] which ran to six editions between 1962 and 1993 and was translated into four languages. [1]


McNeill retired from Southampton University in 1971 and returned to Northern Ireland. In 1972, in the midst of The Troubles, he joined the non-sectarian Alliance Party. [2] In 1974, on the death of his brother Sean, NcNeill took over chairmanship of the McNeill Group. He was subsequently invited to the board of trustees of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum becoming their chairman from 1978 to 1983. [1] As such he was honoured by a portrait painting by Rita Duffy depicting him by favourite locomotive, the JT Class No. 93. [3] His later years seen him continue be involved with rowing with all the Lagan clubs and tutoring upcoming scullers with his megaphone from the shoreline. [4] His retirement seen him author and co-author a number of transport and historical publications. His final work aged about 97 was a comparative study of Presbyterian Church hymnals. He died two years later on 8 August 2010 aged 99. His collection of transport books and ephemera has been combined with those of his brother-in-law, Frank Green, to constitute the "McNeill-Green Collection" at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. [1]


NcNeill was generally known as "DB" or "Mac". He never married. He was at one point an elder in the Presbyterian Church but latterly often liked to attend services at the Church of Ireland. On his death he bequeathed his body to Queen's for research. [2]

Selected bibliography

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  1. It is unclear if the beating was just on a single occasion and whether it was justifiable in the context of the standard practices of the era in the United Kingdom
  2. Hartley University college was the predecessor institution to Southampton University