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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Greenwood, John Neill (1894–1981)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Neill Greenwood (1894-1981), professor of metallurgy, was born on 12 December 1894 at St Helens, Lancashire, England, youngest of six children of Walter Greenwood, grocer, and his wife Ellen, née Neill. Leaving school at 13, Neill studied at night at St Helens Technical College while working as a laboratory assistant in a lead-smelting works. In 1913 he won a scholarship to the University of Manchester (B.Sc., 1916; M.Sc., 1917; D.Sc., 1922) and graduated with first-class honours in metallurgy. Although attracted by research, he sought further experience in industry. Appointed chief of the research department (1919) at Samuel Fox & Co. Ltd, Stocksbridge, Yorkshire, Greenwood carried out, under a Carnegie scholarship, work on optical pyrometry. His marriage to Gladys Uhland, a scientific chemist, on 3 May 1920 at the Prestwich register office, was followed by a ceremony conducted under Theosophical auspices.

In 1924 Greenwood was appointed to the chair of metallurgy in the faculty of engineering, University of Melbourne—the first such chair in Australia. He quickly set about devising courses that would provide an educational bridge from primary to secondary industry, from ore-extraction to metal manufacturing and processing. He designed and equipped a new laboratory; established evening lectures for working students; oversaw the introduction of courses in physical metallurgy in technical schools; and upgraded the university’s course in dental metallurgy. From the mid-1920s he toured the major mining and metallurgical centres to learn their needs and—with a `terrier-like determination in fund-raising’—solicit support to develop a research program. Made a doctor of science at Melbourne in 1927, Greenwood was also awarded a master’s degree in metallurgical engineering (1931) in recognition of his investigations into the failure of boilers at Yallourn.

A dedicated and inspiring teacher, Greenwood sought to create an inclusive department; his generous leadership attracted outstanding students, many of whom went on to prominent positions in industry, research and teaching. With their assistance and in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization after 1949), he developed an internationally recognised program of research into phenomena such as metal creep. With the outbreak of World War II, he and his team turned to producing much-needed tungsten carbide cutting tools, rods and wires. In 1946 he was appointed to a chair of metallurgical research largely financed by the Broken Hill group of mining companies, and with laboratories supported by the Baillieu family.

For all his academic success, Greenwood felt himself an outsider at the university—a situation exacerbated by his sympathetic interest in the Soviet Union, which he had visited in 1932. In 1935 he had founded the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. His divorce, in 1932, had caused further stress. On 19 January 1934 he married Mabel Winifred Borrie (d.1977) in a civil ceremony in Melbourne. Greenwood’s 5-acre (2 ha) bush block in Kinglake National Park was a solace in a dark period. He was a committed member (1926-48) and chairman (1940-48) of the park’s committee of management. In the Cold War atmosphere of the early 1950s he felt so isolated at the university that he spent lunchtimes writing a novel rather than enduring `distracting silences when there should have been conversation’.

As the political climate in the university thawed, Greenwood’s quest to `blend the cultural with the technological’ bore fruit. After a term as dean (1957-59) of the faculty of science, he persuaded the university to establish a new faculty of applied science, in which he accepted a personal chair (1960-64) and served as dean. There he applied his talents to creating an innovative program but, five years after his retirement as professor emeritus in 1964, the faculty was dissolved.

Beyond the university Greenwood’s expertise was widely recognised. He was an early member of committees of the Australian Commonwealth Engineering Standards Association (Standards Association of Australia after 1929), an active council member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (president 1936; medallist 1961) and a recipient of the Australasian Institute of Metals’ silver medal (1958). In 1962, as a royal commissioner inquiring into the failure of Kings Bridge, Melbourne, he was the principal author of an outstanding example of a report into such an event. Awarded an honorary doctorate in applied science (1968) by the University of Melbourne, Greenwood was also made an honorary doctor of engineering by Monash University (1974) and an honorary fellow of the Institution of Metallurgists (1979).

Small, compact and dark-haired, Greenwood never lost his pleasure in detailed research nor his capacity for long hours of sustained work. His greatest friendships remained with his students, many of whom acknowledged their debt to `the little man’ by raising funds to support a medal in his name for the university’s best metallurgical student; in 1968 former colleagues and students also presented to the university a portrait of Greenwood by Noel Counihan. Survived by a daughter and two sons from his first marriage, Neill Greenwood died on 30 August 1981 at Mornington and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Presentation of the Medal of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy to J. Neill Greenwood, on May 25th, 1962 (1962)
  • C. Rasmussen, The Lesser Evil (1992)
  • J. Poynter and C. Rasmussen, A Place Apart (1996)
  • Paper Clip Collective, Melbourne University Portraits (1996)
  • C. Rasmussen, 'A Metallurgist Looks at Russia: Professor J. Neill Greenwood and the Soviet Union', in S. Fitzpatrick & C. Rasmussen (eds), Political Tourists: Travellers from Australia to the Soviet Union in the 1920s-1940s (2008), pp 78-101
  • Proceedings (Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy), no 280, 1981, p 4
  • J. Neill Greenwood papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Greenwood, John Neill (1894–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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