Royal Reels: Gambling


Australia’s gift in radiation physics to Great Britain and Canada:

The cover has pairs of the two high values of the 150th Anniversary of Newcastle released on 8 September 1947, with a combined value of 1 shilling and six pence, the overseas airmail rate. The cover was postmarked MORNINGTON / 3 OC 47/ VICTORIA and it was addressed to Prof. J.A. Gray F.R.S., Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada (Figure 1).

There was no indication of the sender and there were no postmarks on the reverse, and I wondered if the Professor was a stamp collector. The Canadian Encyclopaedia gave only a thumbnail biography and a repeated search of internet sites in Australia, U.K. and Canada were unproductive. However an email to the Royal Society of Canada produced an amazingly complete obituary by B.W. Sargent in their Transactions of June 1968, pages 107-118., and yes there was a philatelic connection.

Joseph Alexander Gray (1884-1966), one of 9 children was born in Melbourne on February 7, 1884. His parents were James and Mary Margaret (Stewart) Gray, formerly of Glasgow and Aberdeen, Scotland, respectively. Gray graduated in 1907 from the University of Melbourne with a B.Sc. degree. He won several scholarships and prizes and obtained first class final honours in mathematics and physics. He chose Rutherford’s book on “Radio-activity” as a prize. He remained for a further year at the University to take additional studies in physics, but laid plans to go to England.

For a world-class physicist, Gray had a succession of bad luck or bad timing, without which he would have exceeded his many successes. He failed in 1908 for a scholarship to Cambridge (but went to England anyway) and he worked in radioactivity at the Imperial College of Science. The next year he won an Exhibition Scholarship, which he chose to hold for 3 years in Rutherford’s laboratory at the University of Manchester. His career was interrupted at crucial times by both World Wars forcing postponement of crucial experiments, and his ability to obtain necessary equipment at Queen’s University in Canada was hampered by lack of funds during the 1930’s Depression.

For his research on beta- and gamma-rays Gray was awarded the M.Sc. degree in 1912 and D.Sc. in 1913 by the University of Manchester. In 1912 he joined the Physics Department at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He served overseas with the Canadian Siege Artillery (1915-16) and the Royal Engineers (1916-19), rose to the rank of Captain, was mentioned in despatches twice and received the Order of the British Empire. His research on locating enemy gunfire batteries by sound ranging, and making corrections for wind and temperature variations, was very helpful at the Western Front.

In 1919 he returned to McGill as an associate professor of Physics and in 1924, he was made Research Professor of Physics at Queen’s University, a position he held with distinction until his retirement in October 1952. From hereon he had many honours and special appointments, being a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1922, and President of its Academy of Science Section in 1939-40. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1932 and received the first gold medal of the Canadian Association of Physicists in 1956. During the period 1924-52, his discoveries regarding the breadth of the energy spectrum of electrons and scattering of the X-rays were important contributions to the development of the new theory of the atom. The Royal Society of London credited his work as “clearly foreshadowing the Compton effect”, for which Compton received the Nobel Prize for Physics. In addition to his research contributions, many would proclaim that Gray’s greatest contributions to physics was his training of select research students who held him in esteem.

A librarian at Queen’s presented a portrait of Gray, the man: “tall and upright, courtly in bearing… with a broad forehead, blueness of eyes, prominent, commanding nose…..he was a man of striking appearance…he had a soft, well-modulated voice which would change suddenly, unexpectedly, under even slight provocation, to a stern firmness of tone which brooked no argument”. His portrait was obtained from his obituary (Figure 2).

He married Elizabeth Watson in 1919, and she survived him when he died at the age of 82 in London, England (having moved there in 1962), apparently with no issue. The obituary continues: “he had been a collector of books, particularly first and special editions and Canadiana, and of postage stamps”.

This paper was published in the N.S.W. Philatelist November 2003, Volume 25, Number 4, pages 9-11.

Categories: Professors, Science