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STEEL, William Howard ‘Beattie’ (1920-2004)

Dr William Steel.

Dr William Steel.

STEEL, Dr William Howard ‘Beattie’ (1920-2004)

Optics physicist, Dr William Steel, was the son of Thomas Heron Steele and Emily Mary Vivien nee Davies and first attended Portarlington State School.

‘He boarded at the College from 1933 to 1937 and was one of its most brilliant students. His school nickname, resulting from his reading the part of Beatrice in 'Much Ado about Nothing', stayed with him for the rest of his life. ‘Beattie’ studied under two legendary masters, Tammy Henderson (science) and E B Lester (mathematics). He was Dux of the School in 1936. In his final year he gained 1st class honours in six subjects and in three of them won the exhibition, (the highest marks in the state.) He went on to the University of Melbourne, residing in Ormond College and graduating in both arts and science. During World War II, he carried out essential work in optics. After the war, he studied at the Sorbonne, where he received his Doctorate en Sciences Physiques in 1953 and a copy of this theses is held in the School Archives. He returned to Sydney and, from 1953 to 1985, worked at CSIRO National Measurements Laboratory gaining an international reputation in optics and interferometry. His achievements were not widely known in Australia because his field was very specialised. After his retirement from CSIRO, he continued to teach and work as an honorary professor at Macquarie University for another fifteen years. He was the first chairman of the Australian Optical Society and for many years, president of the International Commission for Optics.

His awards included the 1985 Mees Medal of the Optical Society of America, awarded every two years to a person 'who exemplifies the thought that optics transcends all boundaries —interdisciplinary and international alike.' The society acknowledged his contributions to many international organisations as well as his technical achievements in diffraction theory, interferometry and optical design. The Australian Optical Society, on news of his death, resolved to rename its premier award 'The Australian Optical Society W.H. (Beattie) Steel Medal.' Beattie always kept his parting gift from the technical staff at CSIRO - a model with the inscription, 'Optics is Light Work.'

Dr William Steel was inducted into the Old Geelong Collegians' Association (OGCA) Notables Gallery at Geelong College in 2011.

Sources: Ad Astra December 1985 p 3; Alan Douglas (1932) and Ken Aitken (1934), Obituary-Ad Astra January 2005 p 29; Sydney Morning Herald 20 September 2004.
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