MICHELL, John Henry (1863-1940)


MICHELL, John Henry (1863-1940)
mathematician
son of John and Grace Michell, was born at Maldon, Victoria, on 26 October 1863. Educated at first at Maldon, he went to Wesley College, Melbourne, in 1877, where he won the Draper and Walter Powell scholarships. In 1881 he began the arts course at the university of Melbourne, and qualified for the B.A. degree at the end of 1883. He had a brilliant course, heading the list with first-class honours each year, and winning the final honour scholarship in mathematics and physics. He then went to Cambridge, obtained a major scholarship at Trinity College, and was bracketed senior wrangler in the first part of the mathematical tripos in 1887. In the second part of the tripos in 1888, Michell was placed in division one of the first class. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1890, but returned to Melbourne in the same year, and was appointed lecturer in mathematics at the university. He held this position for over 30 years. His academic work occupied so much of his time that it was difficult to do original research. The first of his papers, "On the theory of free streamlines", which appeared in Transactions of the Royal Society in 1890, had drawn attention to his ability as a mathematician, and during the following 12 years about 15 papers were contributed to English mathematical journals. It was recognized that these were important contributions to the knowledge of hydrodynamics and elasticity, and in 1902 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London. The number of his students at the university was steadily increasing, but there was no corresponding increase in the staff for a long period. Michell continued his research work but none of it was published. In 1923 he became professor of mathematics and, obtaining some increase of staff, established practice-classes and tutorials, thus considerably improving the efficiency of his department. He resigned the chair at the end of 1928 and was given the title of honorary research professor. He died after a short illness on 3 February 1940. He never married. He published in 1937 The Elements of Mathematical Analysis, a substantial work in two volumes written in collaboration with M. H. Belz.
Michell, a shy and retiring man, was one of the earliest graduates of an Australian university to be elected to the Royal Society. He was a good teacher, modest, good-natured and thoroughly painstaking with students, but his heart was really in his research work. His assistance was freely given to his engineering friends in clearing up their problems, and he did a good deal of physical experimentation including the devising and construction of several new forms of gyroscopes. He was continually at work, and it is not known why he did not choose to publish any papers after 1902. The value of his paper on "The wave resistance of a ship", published in 1898, was not realized until some 30 years later, when both English and German designers began to recognize its importance. A brother, Anthony George Maldon Michell, born in 1870, educated at Cambridge and at Melbourne university, made remarkable contributions to mechanical science, including the famous Michell thrust bearing. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1934 and was awarded the James Watt International medal in 1942.
Obituary Notices of the Royal Society, London, 1940, with portrait, appreciations, and list of his papers; The Age, Melbourne, 5 February 1940; E. Nye, The History of Wesley College; Calendars of The University of Melbourne, 1851-4, 1929; Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, series A, vol. 177, p. 6; Wesley College Chronicle, May 1940; Who's Who in Australia, 1938; The Herald, Melbourne, 20 June 1942; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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