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Michell, John Henry (1863–1940)

by T. M. Cherry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Henry Michell (1863-1940), mathematician, was born on 26 October 1863 at Maldon, Victoria, eldest child of John Michell (pronounced Mitchell), miner, and his wife Grace, née Rowse, who had migrated from Devonshire in 1854. His parents were energetic and adventurous but above all serious-minded people, very respectful to scholarship and quick to recognize the intellectual promise of their sons John and George.

In 1877 the family moved from Maldon to Melbourne, mainly so that John might be placed at Wesley College under Henry Martyn Andrew, a severe but inspiring teacher who had been a Cambridge wrangler. Here, where he won the Draper and Walter Powell scholarships, and at the University of Melbourne to which he proceeded in 1881, Michell was always at the top of the mathematical classes, and he stood high also in the classical and other courses which he attended. On his graduating B.A. with first-class honours in 1884, his teachers in mathematics (Professor Edward Nanson) and natural philosophy (Andrew, who had moved to the university) urged him to pursue his mathematical studies at the University of Cambridge; and there, accordingly, his parents moved.

Michell proceeded to justify their faith in his powers by attaining the senior wranglership in 1887—one of four bracketed equal for this honour, an unprecedented happening—a Smith's prize in 1889, and a fellowship of Trinity College in 1890. Shortly after that award he returned, with his family circle, to Melbourne to take up a newly created lectureship in mathematics at the university. In this position, where he was responsible for the teaching of applied mathematics, he remained until he succeeded Nanson as professor in 1923 and turned his attention to the teaching of pure mathematics. He greatly enlarged the activities of the school, establishing practice-classes and tutorials, providing class-rooms with models and large-scale drawings and inaugurating special lectures and courses. Among his distinguished pupils were (Sir) Kerr Grant, H. S. W. Massey, E. J. G. Pitman, Joseph Baldwin and Samuel McLaren. He retired at the end of 1928 with the title honorary research professor. He did not marry, and after his Cambridge days did not again travel beyond Australia.

Michell attained a reputation as one of the leading mathematicians in the world through his researches in the theories of hydrodynamics and elasticity, published in the period 1890-1902. In hydrodynamics his papers on the theory of free stream lines, the highest waves in water and the wave resistance of a ship were works of major importance whose conception and execution showed imagination and skill of the highest order. Most of his publications, however, were in elasticity, to which subject he was a major contributor in the period of systemization and consolidation which followed the pioneer researches of the nineteenth century. He was the first to formulate the complete system of fundamental equations in terms of stress-components only, he gave the first account of thin-plate theory which was free from questionable assumptions, he systematized and extended the theory of flexure and torsion of beams, and he gave ingenious solutions of a variety of special problems. These researches were recognized in his election to a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1902. However, Michell never showed concern for recognition of his work and for the most part did not exploit his theories by working out special cases.

His only publication after 1902 was a textbook, The Elements of Mathematical Analysis (London, 1937), written with Maurice Belz, his colleague in the mathematics department of Melbourne University during the 1920s. This book embodied the pedagogical ideas which Michell had been pondering and developing during his later years as a teacher; in an interesting and original way it combines twentieth century rigour with nineteenth century clarity and spaciousness in exposition.

Michell's predominant interest lay in the applications of mathematics to the elucidation of natural phenomena, but he had also a wide and precise knowledge of pure mathematics; throughout this field he read continually, and he was constantly incorporating new works in his lectures. His concern for the applicability of his work was nourished by contact with his engineer friends, and by some experimenting by himself. In 1906 he helped to found the Mathematical Association of Victoria, to whose meetings he presented original papers almost to the end of his life, and for a time he occupied the chair of the Victorian Schools Board. He was a most skilful teacher; his pace appeared to be slow, but by judicious selection of material he covered an astonishing amount of ground. His skill in condensing what he wished to say to its essentials was shown also in his conversation and in his published work.

Michell was reckoned to be a shy man; but here the essence was that he had exceptionally high standards of intellectual and moral integrity, and was irked by the company of those who seemed at all insincere. When he gave his friendship he gave it without reserve. He was punctilious in attending to his teaching and examining responsibilities, to the extra-tutorial functions of his position, and (after the death of his father) to his duties as head of his family circle. He found relaxation in classical music—he was a capable performer on the organ—in wide reading and in gardening; he was a learned connoisseur and lover of plant life, especially Australian trees and shrubs.

Michell died, after a brief illness, at Camberwell, on 3 February 1940 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. W. Niedenfuhr and J. R. M. Radok, Collected Mathematical Works of J. H. and A. G. M. Michell (Groningen, 1964)
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1940
  • J. H. Michell papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

T. M. Cherry, 'Michell, John Henry (1863–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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