Sutherland, William

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(b, Dumbarton, Scotland, 4 August 1859; d. Melbourne, Australia, 5 October 1911)

theoretical physical chemistry, molecular physics.

One of five sons of a Scottish woodcarver, Sutherland immigrated to Sydney in 1864 and selled in Melbourne in 1870. Educated locally at Wesley College, in 1876 he matriculated in the University of Melbourne, graduating B.A. in 1879. In July, Sutherland left for England. He entered University College, London, on a science scholarship and studied under G. Carey Foster, graduating B.Sc. in 1881 with first-class honors in experimental physics. In 1882 Sutherland returned to Melbourne, where he received the M.A. in 1883. Supporting himself by part-time literary activities, he devoted himself to scientific research.

Although Sutherland remained indirectly attached to the University of Melbourne, he held no regular appointment. From 1885 he published about two or three major scientific articles per year, mostly in the Philosophical Magazine. He investigated such interrelated topics as the viscosity of gases and liquids, molecular attraction, valency, ionization, ionic velocities, and atomic sizes. His results were internationally recognized and highly valued.

In 1893 Sutherland introduced a quickly accepted dynamical explanation of the hitherto problematic relationship between the viscosity of a gas and its temperature. The Sutherland constant C increases in general with the size of the molecule and is a measure of the strength of the mutual molecular attraction. From 1900 he put forward the theory that the magnetism of the earth results from its rotating electrostatic field. His calculations were later confirmed by L. A. Bauer. Sutherland speculated in 1901 that the spectra of the elements were a function of their rigidity, and in 1902 he published his electric-doublet theory. His heterodox views (1902) regarding the complete dissociation of strong electrolytes at all concentrations were elaborated by S. R. Milner a decade later and by 1923 had become an integral part of the Debye-Hückel theory. Sutherland’s later research dealt chiefly with the electronic theory of matter.

Although J. J. Thomson had, in 1899, disputed Sutherland’s electron conceived as a disembodied charge, Sutherland’s electron conceived as a disembodied charge, Sutherland’s continued efforts to prove that the various properties of matter were essentially electrical in origin were later eulogized by Thomson for their significance.


Correspondence from Sutherland during the period 1905 – 1907 is in the Bragg Collection at the Royal Institution, London; additional material is available at the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

A list of Sutherland’s sixty-nine major scientific publications is given in W. A. Osborne, William Sutherland. A Biography (Melbourne, 1920), reviewed by G. Sarton in Isis, 4 (1922), 328 – 330. Additional articles are F. Johns, in Australian Biographical Dictionary (Melbourne, 1934), 346 – 347, and in Australian Encyclopedia, VIII (Sydney, 1965), 372; and P. Serle, in Dictionary of Australian Biography, II (Sydney, 1949), 394 – 395. The Sutherland constant is discussed in A. von Engel, ionizerd Gases (Oxford, 1965), 31. Sutherland’s speculation on complete dissociation in strong electrolytes at all concentrations is considered in its historical and scientific context by N. Feather, Electricity and Matter (Edinburgh, 1968), 218 – 219. His electrical theory of the atom and eccentric symbolism are considered in N. Feather, “A History of Neutrons and Nuclei,” in Contemporary Physics, 1 (1960), 191 – 193.

Thaddeus J. Trenn

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Sutherland, William

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