Professor William O'Neil

William Matthew (Bill) O'Neil (1912-1991) is indisputably one of the foremost psychologists Australia has produced. In 1933 he graduated from the University of Sydney as Bachelor of Arts with Hons. 1 and the University Medal in Psychology, repeating this performance in 1935 as Master of Arts. From 1936 to 1940 he was Psychologist-in-Charge, The Vocational Guidance Section, in the NSW Department of Labour and Industry, where he pioneered research into state-wide statistical norms for test interpretation, as well as investigating occupational demands in relation to test results. This work continued when in 1940 he moved to Sydney Technical College as Vocational and Research Officer.

In 1945 O'Neil ended what he was later to term his 'nine years' exile in applied psychology', when appointed to the chair of Psychology at his old University (Sydney), only the second occupant of that chair, at that stage the only chair of Psychology in Australia. He embarked immediately on a massive programme of expansion, building up the miniscule department he had inherited with only one other permanent member of staff into a flourishing concern able to handle a huge influx of ex-servicewomen and men students, and to produce graduates to meet the rapidly increasing post-war demands of government and industry for psychologists. The result was what has been widely proclaimed to have been during the 50's and early 60's the foremost department in the country. From 1946 other departments proliferated, many of which drew their senior staff from the ranks of O'Neil's graduates. During this period he was also actively involved in the professionalization of the discipline, especially through the Australian Oversea Branch of the British Psychological Society, set up (at Sydney) in 1944.

In 1965 O'Neil became Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Sydney, and thereafter took on numerous roles, including being the second chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee. Impressively, he maintained his research and publishing in this demanding administrative post. In psychology his concerns had always been wide, but came to focus increasingly on theoretical, philosophical and historical issues; a strong secondary interest was in ancient astronomy and time-reckoning. His best-known books are 'The beginnings of modern psychology' (2nd edn. 1982), 'Time and the calendars' (1976), and 'A century of psychology in Australia' (1988). His influence as a teacher and colleague was in fostering a great tough-mindedness and critical analytic rigour - an influence which made itself felt across a whole ensuing generation of Australian psychologists.

Upon his retirement in 1978 O'Neil was made an Officer of the Order of Australia; the next year his university awarded him an honorary D. Litt. For the rest of his life, indefatigable as ever, he continued writing; three publications have appeared posthumously.