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William Matthew (Bill) O'Neil (1912–1991)

by Ross Day

Emeritus Professor William Mathew O’Neil, an Honorary Fellow of the Academy, died peacefully at his home in Sydney on 1 June, a few weeks before his seventy-ninth birthday. Bill O’Neil, as he was always known, was appointed to Membership of the Social Sciences Research Council, the precursor of the Academy, in 1944 and served as its Chairman during 1964-1966. He has been an Honorary Fellow since 1982.

Bill O’Neil was a leading figure and a major force in the development of academic and professional psychology in Australia during the post-war years. He was a distinguished scholar and university teacher and a skilful and respected administrator. His long association with the University of Sydney with which he was so closely identified began in 1930 with his enrolment for BA. The connection was broken by what he chose to call, ‘my nine years’ exile in applied psychology’ between 1936 and 1945, resumed with his appointment to the McCaughey Chair of Psychology in 1945, and continued with his appointment to the Deputy Vice-Chancellorship of the University in 1965. After his retirement in 1977 Bill O’Neil spent a good deal of his time at the University indulging his interests in psychology and the history of astronomy. His long and distinguished service to the University was recognised in 1970 by an Honorary D.Litt. The Government honoured his services to education in 1978 by the award of an Officership of the Order of Australia and the Australian Psychological Society did so by making him an Honorary Fellow in 1969.

Bill O’Neil was brought up on his parents sheep-grazing property on the north-western plains of New South Wales. Until he was nine he was educated at home by his mother. After that he was enrolled in the NSW Correspondence School. Those who recall Bill’s great love of scholarly disputation will recognise the man in the boy when in his autobiographical note he wrote:

I remember writing in response to a request for a one-page conversation between a cat and a canary ‘Cats and canaries do not speak’. The patient teacher trying to encourage wrote ‘Try to imagine what they would say if they could speak’. I wrote back stubbornly ‘What’s the use in imagining what can’t happen?’ The defeated teacher wrote back ‘Write a composition about mustering sheep or about breaking in a bullock team or a horse team’.

Always a realist, Bill was also good at winning arguments.

Bill O’Neil went on in due course to De La Salle College, Armidale, where he won both his Leaving Certificate and a Teachers’ College Scholarship to the University of Sydney. His record at the University was a portent of things to come. He was awarded the Lithgow Scholarship and the Frank Albert Prize in Psychology and went on to graduate in 1932 with first class honours and the University Medal in Psychology, first class honours in English, and a pass in History. His record at Sydney Teachers’ College was less even. He completed his Diploma of Education with the Burfit Prize but failed to qualify for a Teacher’s Certificate. However, while there he undertook research for a MA at the University and this was awarded, again with first class honours and the University Medal, in 1935.

After his nine years in vocational psychology Bill O’Neil applied for and was appointed to a Lectureship in Psychology in the University of Sydney. However, before taking up his appointment and encouraged by Eric Ashby, then Professor of Botany, he applied for and in 1945 was appointed to the McCaughey Chair of Psychology. He was still only thirty two. In succeeding H. Tasman Lovell, Bill O’Neil became the second professor of psychology to be appointed in Australia.

Bill O’Neil’s academic interests were never narrowly focused. In the mode of that time he was a generalist in both his scholarly pursuits and his teaching. In the latter he along with others had to be. In the early years of his professorship staff were few and students many as the post-war rush to the universities began. His strongest and most abiding interests were the methods, concepts and theories of psychology. He was concerned not only with these issues in the context of contemporary psychology but in their historical antecedents. He spoke and wrote about conceptual issues with insight and authority, subjecting them to close critical analysis. His two books, An Introduction to Method in Psychology (1957) and Fact and Theory: An Aspect of the Philosophy of Science (1969) reflect these interests and typify his intellectual style - coming to grips with an issue, explicating it, and then subjecting it to searching analysis.

Bill O’Neil wrote two books on the history of psychology The Beginnings of Modern Psychology (1968) which went into a second edition and A Century of Psychology in Australia (1987), the first book comprehensively to record the history of the subject in this country. For Bill O’Neil history was neither a record of people, events and ideas nor an attempt to explain the past. Rather, as he stated it, ‘Studying the history of psychology does not so much provide answers, as point to questions and as how we might attempt answering them’. He saw and appreciated the central problems of psychology as much in the context of their past as in that of the present and recognised the importance of solving them.

In administration Bill O’Neil was quick, efficient and seldom fussed, and he worked extraordinarily hard at it, frequently behind the scenes. As well as his heavy teaching load as a professor and the responsibility for one of the largest departments in the university Bill served terms of office as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Chairman of the Professorial Board. His success in these positions was, I believe, his ability always to see and deal with the main issues and not to be carried away by the peripheral ones. He was always clear-sighted about what was important and what was not. These qualities stood him in good stead when he served as the second Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee. He was responsible for developing some of the guidelines that are still in use by the Australian Research Council. Bill was also closely involved in the Foundation of the Australian Psychologists Society and its predecessor, the Australian Branch of the British Psychological Society.

Bill was the most companionable and engaging of men and a marvellous raconteur. His stories, usually protracted and often acted out with appropriate accents, seemed mostly to involve people with names like O’Reilly, Mulligan or O’Flaherty caught out by their misunderstandings, their own ignorance, or both. Of Irish descent himself he took licence to joke about the frailties of those of like origin. Behind his easy, friendly manner Bill O’Neil was high-principled, placing great store by commitment, involvement and intellectual integrity. He was intolerant of those who were intractably doctrinaire and more so of those who were shoddy and superficial in scholarly enterprises.

Throughout his long professional life Bill O’Neil was greatly sustained and assisted by his wife Kath, herself a Fellow of the University of Sydney, who with their daughter Judith and son James, survives him. Kath and Bill were generous in their hospitality to members of the department of Psychology, to visitors and, in particular, to new appointees. Many of us who joined the department from other places retain fond memories of being met and welcomed and of parties and dinners in Roseville.

When in due course another history of psychology in Australia is written the author of the first is bound to figure in it as one of the major pioneers. The discipline and the profession are greatly in his debt.

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Citation details

Ross Day, 'O'Neil, William Matthew (Bill) (1912–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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