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Tony and Vicki Anderson: Theodore Thomson Flynn: Not just Errol's father

  • University of Melbourne / Flinders University


This book review is available at:
364 Historical Records of Australian Science, Volume 25 Number 2
of various Stromlo Committees and the Anglo
Australian Telescope Board, it revived many
memories. I have met all the Stromlo Directors
from Bark Bok to Matthew Colless, the present
director and I have worked closely with Don
Mathewson on a number of projects.
This is a book you can read straight through
as a history of a pre-eminent Australian astro-
nomical observatory. On the other hand, it is a
great reference book for a scientist’s shelf. Just
the images themselves are a delight for anyone
interested in the history of astronomy.
This book is a must-read for anyone with an
interest in the history of science in Australia, and
indeed for all science professionals. The princi-
ples of the science discussed will be accessible
to people with minimal science background. The
book has been meticulously researched and has
the benefit of a number of personal interviews
conducted with astronomers over the years by
one of the authors. It does great justice to the
many people who contributed to the building
of the observatory and its continuing contri-
butions to science. The many cross-linkages
with other optical and radioastronomy obser-
vatories in the broader Australian astronomy
scene are well presented and allow the reader
to understand the broader developments in this
The reader is taken from Duffield’s vision
in 1905 for a Solar Observatory in Australia
through the first ‘Bush Observatory’ to Brian
Schmidt’s Nobel Prize in 2011. From its early
days as a solar observatory working in the new
field of ‘Astrophysics’, the observatory was a
significant contributor.The sun was the key sub-
ject in the early studies with Giovanelli and
Higgs discovering the linkage between radio
flares on the sun and short-wave radio com-
munication blackouts, which was later followed
up by Allen. Overseas radio communications in
those days depended on using multiple reflec-
tions between the ionosphere and the ground to
link Australian stations with those in Europe and
the United States. Allen’s work made it possible
to predict the blackouts.
After taking on the role of optical muni-
tions factory during the Second World War, the
observatory was well placed to become a major
centre for the development of optical instruments
for their own telescopes and more generally.
Woolley’s role in the post war period with his
acquisition of the Great Melbourne Telescope,
the building of the 1.9 metre telescope, and
the transfer of the observatory to the Australian
National University in 1955 is well presented.
In the midst of this, of course, Woolley had to
deal with a destructive bushfire that destryed the
workshop and many records.
The tensions between the radio and optical
astronomy communities that led to the appoint-
ment of Bok as Woolley’s successor are well
presented, as are those at the time of the estab-
lishment of the Anglo-Australian Observatory
when the community, led by Professor Han-
bury Brown at Sydney University, wanted an
independent facility, not under the control of
the Mount Stromlo group. We are told of the
destructive fires in 2003 and the recovery work
of Penny Sackett. Under Penny’s leadership
Mount Stromlo Observatory became involved
with the Giant Magellan Telescope—with its six
8.4 metre diameter segments.
Throughout the book, there are descriptions
of the work conducted at the Observatory such as
on invisible material, the galactic magnetic field,
the Magellanic Stream, measurements of the
Hubble constant, dark matter particle detection
and Brian Schmidt’s work on the acceleration of
universal expansion finishing with Brian’s Nobel
It is clear as one reads the book that a
key factor in the success of the Observatory
has been a series of leaders who were active
astronomers themselves and whose leadership
style has allowed a great deal of freedom to their
astronomers. This has played a critical part in the
great productivity of the observatory. Founder
Geoffrey Duffield’s desire was ‘that we take
our place among the great observatories of the
world’. Mt Stromlo Observatory has shown us
just how well that desire has been achieved.
Bob Frater
Toni & Vicki Harrison:
Theodore Thomson Flynn: Not Just
Errol’s Father. Artemis: Hobart,
2013. 238 pp., ISBN: 978-0-646-59478-1,
AUD $35.00.
Scientific biographies are, as Erwin Chargaff
once claimed, a ‘most awkward literary genre’.
Review section 365
All too often, it is the science that is exciting and
interesting, rather than the scientists themselves.
Arguably, the life of scientists—the personal and
particular—offers relatively little insight into
the ideas and developments for which they are
famous. Science is, after all, a collaborative
enterprise, a community of knowledge, rather
than an expression of individuality. If Darwin
had not formulated the theory of evolution by
natural selection, Wallace would have. Scien-
tific discoveries growwithin a shared milieu, and
while some participants might be blessed with
having birthed a particularly ingenious, insight-
ful or innovative idea, their creations cannot be
said to be the product of a singular individual life
in the same way that the work of an artist might
be said to be unique.
This is not to say, as many have, that the
personal lives of scientists are boring. On the
contrary, closer inspection often reveals scien-
tific lives every bit as passionate, irrational and
troubled as that of any artist or celebrity. But the
relationship between scientists’ lives and their
intellectual achievements is often more difficult
to reconcile.
Tony and Vicki Harrison’s biography of
Theodore Thomson Flynn provides an excel-
lent illustration this dilemma. As the found-
ing Chair of Biology at the University of
Tasmania, Flynn provides a fascinating case
study of the early development of the biologi-
cal sciences in Australia. His diverse range of
research interests, from the reproductive biol-
ogy of marsupials to marine fauna of southern
oceans, attests to the flexibility and breadth that
researchers often demonstrate in nascent disci-
plines. The difficulties Flynn faced balancing
his research interests with his teaching respon-
sibilities will be all too sadly familiar to mod-
ern academics, as will the dubious behaviour
of university administrators exploiting gener-
ous research bequests. The risks faced by suc-
cessful researchers on ‘soft money’ were also
amply illustrated by Flynn who, after twenty-one
years of service at the University of Tasma-
nia, summarily found himself an unemployed
Like many researchers who consider them-
selves undervalued in their home countries,
Flynn’s skills and credentials were better recog-
nised by overseas institutions. He secured the
position of Professor of Zoology at Queen’s
University, Belfast, which he held 1931–1948.
The appointment of an Australian born and
trained scientist to the senior post of a presti-
gious European university seems at odds with the
common perception that Australian universities
and departments, at least in their early develop-
ment, were often dominated by British-trained
staff. Perhaps even more unexpected was the fact
that Flynn emerged from a working-class coun-
try family with no history of university educa-
tion. And yet, the Harrisons’biography suggests
that this was not as uncommon as we might
Flynn’s pioneering work continues to be well
cited in the relevant scientific literature today,
suggesting that scientists have retained a place
for him in their own ongoing, and constantly
evolving intellectual histories. But the attrac-
tion of Flynn as a subject for biography is not
just his science, but also his personal life, most
notably as the father of the famous Tasmanian
movie star, Errol Flynn. Notwithstanding the
close bond between father and son it is difficult
to see that much light is shed by Theodore on his
son’s remarkable life, nor by the famous son on
his father’s professional achievements.There are
many elements of Theodore’s life that are, per-
haps, noteworthy—from his fractured childhood
family life and his own unconventional marriage,
to his challenging attitudes to administration and
impressive response to wartime efforts in the
Belfast Blitz. But he remains a somewhat elu-
sive figure for much of the Harrisons’biography,
often swamped by a vast cast of surrounding
characters. Given the disjunction between the
personal and the professional, perhaps it is not
surprising that it is only in retirement, largely
spent managing his son’s estate in Jamaica, that
Theodore Thomson Flynn seems to emerge in his
own right.
Amassing a vast array of disparate informa-
tion around a person must always be challenging
for biographers. A careful chronological struc-
ture may often be their friend, but not one always
used to best effect in this case. Despite this
limitation, historians of science, and perhaps
film, will find much to intrigue them in this
meticulously researched biography.
Danielle Clode
Flinders University
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