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Nuclear Physicist

JoanFreemanJOAN FREEMAN, a great Australian, a nuclear physicist who helped unlock some of the secrets of the universe, died 18 March 1998.

Her story is outlined in her autobiography, A Passion for Physics, an engaging story of a woman achieving against the odds. She might have grown up to be a ballet dancer, this diminutive, bright-eyed girl who came to Sydney from Perth in 1922.

There was no scientific interest on either side of her family. Her passion for ballet was overtaken by her fondness for her meccano set (thoughtfully provided by a gender enlightened mother). An announcement from the Cavendish Laboratory headlined in the world press in 1932 – ‘Splitting the Atom’ was the final turning point for Joan. She was fourteen, but . . .her school taught no physics or chemistry for matriculation. Her mother persuaded Mr G.H. Godfrey, the Head of Physics at Sydney Technical College, to smuggle Joan into evening classes with the engineering apprentices. Her attendance was never totally approved, so she was advised to hide behind the laboratory bench when officials came. Since at fifteen (or indeed ever) she barely reached five feet, this proved fairly easy. Joan’s story records the highest achievements: First Class honours in Physics and Maths at Sydney University, Masters of Science under Dr Bailey who proved to be her mentor, a PhD in nuclear physics at Cambridge, and a place as nuclear physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory. Her research there resulted in the award of the Rutherford Medal. She was the only woman, to be so honoured.

The place of the Women’s College in her life was special. Joan was not a resident here, but her tutor in physics at Sydney University, Phyllis Nicol, (Vice Principal of the College) feared the pressure on a lone and shy girl in second year physics classes, so made her a member of the College, to give her refuge and support.

Joan married Dr John Jelley, a brilliant British scientist, and their shared interests resulted in the happiest of marriages.

When Joan was awarded an honorary doctorate from Sydney University in 1994, she spoke to students with such warmth and interest in their career, that both men and women were captivated. The final chapter of Joan’s biography is entitled ‘Women in Physics’. She reveals no sense of grievance, no sense that in a man’s world her life was difficult. Rather, it was fun.

Edited extracts from an Obituary published in
Women’s College journal 1998

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