SUTHERLAND, William (1859-1911)

SUTHERLAND, William (1859-1911)
was born at Dumbarton, Scotland, on 4 August 1859, son of George Sutherland, a carver of figure-heads for ships, and brother of Alexander Sutherland (q.v.). The family arrived at Sydney in 1864 and removed to Melbourne six years later. Sutherland, after a few years at the model school, won a government scholarship and went to Wesley College. The headmaster was M. H. Irving (q.v.) who had been the second professor of classics at the university of Melbourne, but the influence of the second master, H. M. Andrew, afterwards professor of natural philosophy at the same university, was of more importance to Sutherland. From Wesley he passed on to the university in February 1876, and three years later graduated with first-class final honours and the scholarship in natural science, and third-class honours in engineering. He was then nominated by the Melbourne university council for the Gilchrist scholarship in England, which was awarded to him and he left for England in July 1879. Entering as a science student at University College, London, he came under the influence of Professor Carey Foster, and in the final examination for the B.Sc. degree took first place and first-class honours in experimental physics and the clothworkers scholarship of £50 for two years. Almost at once Sutherland started for Australia and arrived in Melbourne in February 1882.
Sutherland's home life meant much to him for it was a home of affection and culture, every member of it excelled in either literature, music or art. In July 1882 he was offered the position of superintendent of the school of mines, Ballarat, but it was too far from his home and the public library, and the offer was declined. For many years he earned just enough to pay his way by acting as an examiner and contributing articles to the press; the rest of his time was given to scientific research. In 1884 he applied without success for the chair of chemistry at Adelaide, and in 1888 when Professor Andrew died he was appointed lecturer in physics at the university of Melbourne until the chair should be filled. He applied for this position through the Victorian agent-general in London, but there appears to be some doubt whether his application ever reached the right quarters. Professor Lyle was appointed and in 1897, when he was away on leave, Sutherland was again made lecturer in physics. He had begun contributing to the Philosophical Magazine in 1885, and on an average about two articles a year front his pen appeared in it for the next 25 years. For the last 10 years of his life he was a regular contributor and leader writer on the Melbourne Age, though he declined all offer of an appointment on the staff of the paper. His life work was scientific research and nothing could be allowed to interfere with it. He died quietly in his sleep on 5 October 1911.
Sutherland was a well-built man of slightly under medium height, very quiet in manner. The present writer who met him only once has an abiding memory of his modesty and charm. He would have been a good musician had he been able to give time to it, and again he might have been a painter. He had a wide mind which could take an interest in all the arts, but his real happiness was in his work. Money and fame meant nothing to him, but the solving of some intricate problem in science, some increase in the knowledge of the world was everything. His scientific work was never collected in book form and is known to few besides his fellow workers. A list of 69 of his contributions to scientific magazines is given at the end of his biography. One of the earlier papers to bring Sutherland into notice was on the viscosity of gases which appeared in the Philosophical Magazine in December 1893. Other important papers dealt with the constitution of water, the viscosity of water, molecular attractions and ionization, ionic velocities and atomic sizes. The ordinary reader may refer to a discussion of his scientific work in chapter VI of his biography, but the full value of it could only be computed by a physicist willing to collate his papers with the state of knowledge at the time each was written. It was well known and valued in England, Germany and America, and at the time of Sutherland's death he was spoken of as having been "the greatest authority living in molecular physics" (Professor T. R. Lyle, F.R.S.). He had none of the vanity that demands results. Quite selfless, he was content to add something to the sum of human knowledge and to hope that another man would carry the work further. He never married.
W. A. Osborne, William Sutherland a Biography; The Age, Melbourne, 6 October 1911; The Bulletin, 25 November 1920; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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