Journey Through the Life of Joan Freeman: 1918-1998

On June 24, 1918 a prodigy was born. Her name was Joan Freeman. She started her life in Perth, Australia with her parents, Ada North and Albert Freeman. Her father was an accountant. When his job was relocated, they moved to Sydney where Ada insisted Joan would receive a better education. However, Joan still managed to have a rough start to her education. On the first day of kindergarten at age 6, she punched another student in the stomach because she had the same birthday as hers. Joan claimed that it could only be her birthday and therefore the other student was lying to her. Later that night, her mother Ada explained to Joan that there are too many people in the world for her to have her own special day. Joan’s education was almost cut short when “the Sydney Theatre Company, J. C. Williamsons, offered [her] mother a contract for [her] to appear on the professional stage” after a ballet performance (Freeman, 1991, p. 9). However, Ada Freeman had much bigger plans for her daughter’s education.

© 1991 Joan Freeman

© 1991 Joan Freeman p.3

© 1991 Joan Freeman

© 1991 Joan Freeman p.7

When Joan was 7, her family moved to New Zealand for a year. This is where she developed her love for reading. Joan’s love for physics started during this year too at Christmas. One of the neighbor boys received a Meccano set. This is an erector type set that you can use to build objects. Joan let the boy play with her motor toy because she was fascinated by this Meccano set. This marked the beginning of Joan’s love for physics. Shortly after her family’s return to Sydney, Joan was enrolled in the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School (SCEGGS). Early in her education at SCEGGS, Joan won a prize for one of the stories she wrote and was awarded her “first publication—on the Children’s Page of the Sydney Morning Herald” (Freeman, 1991, p. 23). In 1929, when Joan was 11, the Great Depression hit and this deeply affected her family. Her father lost his job and her mother had to fight to keep her in the SCEGGS. This was a private school, which was exceptionally expensive, but her mother wanted nothing else than for her daughter to get a proper and prestigious education. Because her family was relatively poor due to education costs for Joan, a family of two of her school mates, Mary and Ruth Stevens, took her in for the holidays where they developed a close friendship. Her mother and father couldn’t afford to celebrate holidays, so this helped Joan keep the holiday experience throughout her childhood.

In 1931, at age thirteen, Joan reached top of her class at SCEGGS. She was awarded a prize of her choice. She chose a textbook called “Science for All”. A year later, “an event occurred which was to prove of special significance for [her]” (Freeman, p. 29). As article in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Splitting the Atom at the Cavendish Laboratory” was published. This perplexed Joan because she was under the impression that the atom was the smallest quantity of any element that could never be divided. When she brought this to the attention of her science professor, she didn’t know what to say and Joan believes her teacher was “silently cursing her precious pupil for embarrassing her in front of the class” (Freeman, 1991, p. 30). This is a significant point in Joan’s life where her love and curiosity for the sciences further developed.

The year preceding her final year at SCEGGS Joan was faced with a dilemma. Her final year at SCEGGS offered “no further chemistry, and had scarcely even heard of physics” (Freeman, 1991, p. 31). This is when Joan’s journey to Sydney Tech began. G. H. Godfrey was the Professor of the physics class that Joan was interested in. Her mother and her went to the physics department and spoke with Dr. Godfrey about allowing Joan to attend classes. Before he accepted her, he warned her by saying, “‘I am taking some risk, of which the authorities might not approve. This is not a safe area for a young girl on her own’” (Freeman, 1991, p. 34). He told them that Joan could attend on the premise that her mother bring her, take her home, and remain in the building while Joan was in class. This was a sacrifice that Ada was willing to take and this led to Joan becoming the first and only girl in Dr. Godfrey’s physics class. The course was running quite smoothly for Joan until one day she was pulled aside by Dr. Godfrey’s assistant, Mr. Price, and told that there was an inspector coming by the lab. Therefore, “we think it would be best if he didn’t notice you” (Freeman, 1991, p. 38). Joan waited in another room until the inspector had come and gone. Other than this instance, Joan ran into little problems with the class. At the end of the course, Joan ended up being top of her class, in front of all her male counterparts. Shortly after this the “authorities” found out about Joan’s enrollment of the course and the physics department was no longer allowed to have girls. Luckily, Joan had finished the course.

Joan was nearing the end of her education at SCEGGS and was required to take the Leaving Certificate Exam. One of the subjects on the exam was math, but there wasn’t a honors math course at SCEGGS offered and Joan was incredibly interested in graduating with all math and science honors. Therefore, her mother enrolled her in private math classes from Percival Andersen. He was the head professor in the math department for an all boys academy. When the exam came around, she ended up scoring four first class honors and two A’s. These accomplishments put her in the running for some incredibly prestigious scholarships. Shortly following the results of her test, the paper announced that Joan was awarded the James Aitken Scholarship and the Fairfax Prize for general Proficiency amongst Female Candidates. With this, she was able to enter Sydney University in 1936 where she planned on specializing in chemistry because she was advised that there were more opportunities for women.

Her first physics class was taught by none other than the co-author of “Physics: Fundamental Laws and Principles”, Dr. Edgar Booth, which was the textbook she used at Sydney Tech. The other author, Phyllis Nicol, she met shortly after. She was a tutor at the Women’s College and the second woman to graduate in physics at Sydney University. At the conclusion of her first year at Sydney University, she was awarded the George Allen Scholarship for Math. It wasn’t until Joan’s second year that her interest in chemistry subsided and she made the decision to major in physics. When she went to Phyllis Nicol for advice, she was told “‘It’s difficult enough for a man to get a job as a physicist…but for a woman the possibilities are very limited indeed’” (Freeman, 1991, p. 51). This was not the encouragement she was looking for, but she pressed on anyhow.

One afternoon, while attending a physics lecture, her professor informed her that Lord Rutherford had died. If you remember, I mentioned him on the opening page. He was the man that discovered the nucleus and the proton. Among these achievements, he was also a brilliant scientist. In Joan’s autobiography she states, “This event reinforced my desire to pursue my studies in physics and clinched my resolve to become a physicist” (Freeman, 1991, p. 55). From here, Joan completed a “Bachelor of Science in 1939 and Master of Science in 1943” at Sydney University (Morrell, 2001, ¶ 2). From 1941-1946 Joan worked at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). In 1946 she was offered the opportunity to study in Britain at the University of her choice to earn a PhD. She was incredibly excited about this opportunity and opted to study at Cambridge. At this point in time she focused her love of physics to nuclear physics. In August of 1946, she and a colleague of hers arrived at Newnham College in Cambridge. She quickly found that women were subjected to strict rules. In her autobiography, she explains that this is due to the fact that women were still trying to gain acceptance and therefore had to hold themselves to higher standards. Joan remains at the Newnham College where she worked at the Cavendish Laboratory earning her PhD in 1949 and working at the laboratory until 1951. Joan then moves to the Van de Graaf Accelerator Group in Harwell from 1951 to 1978 where she was forced to retire at age 60. In 1958 Joan married John Jelley who she met at the Cavendish Laboratory. Upon their retirement, they took up sailing.

© 1991 Joan Freeman p.182

© 1991 Joan Freeman p.182

Joan spent the remainder of her life writing articles, making appearances at events where she was asked to speak, and finally writing her autobiography, much of which is reflected here. Joan Freeman’s accomplishment that she is known best for is her attainment of the Rutherford Medal in 1976. At the time, no other woman had ever been awarded this honor and only one other Australian, Sir Mark Oliphant, had been given this honor. Her work at the laboratories served to be incredibly important to the history of physics and will be discussed more closely on the Technical Accomplishments page.


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