Richard Threlfall

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Sir Richard Threlfall

Sir Richard Threlfall GBE FRS [1] (14 August 1861 – 10 July 1932) [2] was an English chemist and engineer, he established the School of Physics at the University of Sydney and made important contributions to military science during World War I. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1899, and was created KBE in 1917 and GBE in 1927.


Early life and education

Threlfall was a son of Richard Threlfall of Hollowforth, near Preston, Lancashire. He was educated at Clifton College, where he was captain of the Rugby XV, and shot in the Rifle VIII. Going on to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, he represented his University at Rugby and also at rifle shooting. He distinguished himself as a speaker at the union, and did a remarkable course, taking a first class in the first part of the natural science tripos, and a first in both physics and chemistry in the second part. [3]

He married Evelyn Agnes, daughter of John Forster-Baird, one of four sisters who all married distinguished men, one of whom was Bernhard Wise.

Science career

After graduating he was appointed a demonstrator in the Cavendish laboratory, where he did successful original research work and showed himself to be an able teacher. He also studied at Strasburg University and for a short period was a successful university coach. He lost two-thirds of his fingers in an explosion while he was carrying nitroglycerine, but in spite of this continued to be an excellent manipulator.


In 1886 Threlfall was appointed professor of physics at the University of Sydney and founded the school. He had no building and little apparatus when he began his work, but in 1888 a physical laboratory was completed and the necessary appliances were purchased. He carried out his duties with energy and also found time for research. An early invention was the rocking microtome, an instrument which proved to be of great value in biological study. Another was a quartz thread balance which enabled him to obtain great accuracy in his comparison of values for gravity at different places. In 1896 he was president of a royal commission on the carriage of coal in ships. He obtained leave of absence in 1898 to inquire into methods of teaching electrical subjects in Europe, but on his return resigned his chair as from 31 December 1898, as circumstances had made it necessary that he should live in England.

Consulting engineer

Threlfall now became a consulting engineer and established a high reputation as an electro-chemist, combining chemical insight with the aptitude of an engineer. He joined the firm of Albright and Wilson, large producers of phosphorus, at Oldbury, and continued his connection until the time of his death. His experience in this direction was to prove of the greatest service to his country during the 1914–18 war, particularly in connexion with smoke screens and tracer bullets. In 1915 he was on the Board of Invention and Research, in 1916 he joined the advisory council for scientific and industrial research and also the munitions inventions board. In 1917 he became a member of the chemical warfare committee, and in 1918 he joined the food preservation board. An organization which carried on its work after the war, the fuel research board was joined by him in 1917 and he became its chairman in 1923.

Though his main work was in industrial chemistry he kept up his interest in pure science, and was a frequent attendant at meetings of the Royal Society of London.


Threlfall died on 10 July 1932 and is buried in a family tomb at St Anne's Church, Woodplumpton, Lancashire. He was survived by four sons and two daughters. He was the author of On Laboratory Arts, published in 1898, and of papers in scientific journals.

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Hollowforth is a heritage-listed residence in Kurraba Point, North Sydney Council, New South Wales, Australia. It was designed by Edward Jeaffreson Jackson and in association with S. G. Thorp and built from 1893 to 1893. The property is privately owned. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 2 April 1999.

Florence Martin was an Australian-American physicist and philanthropist. She performed research at the University of Sydney under Sir Richard Threlfall and at Cavendish Laboratory under J. J. Thomson.


  1. t., J. J.; h., W. B. (1932). "Sir Richard Threlfall. 1861-1932". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society . 1: 45–53. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1932.0010.
  2. Serle, Percival (1949). "Threlfall, Richard". Dictionary of Australian Biography . Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
  3. "Threlfall, Richard (THRL880R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.