Sir Thomas Ranken Lyle 1860-1944

Thomas Ranken Lyle was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland on 26 August 1860. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin in 1883 with the highest honours the college could award: gold medals in mathematics and experimental science and a university studentship in mathematics. He gained his MA in 1887 and continued his studies in advanced mathematics and physics.

Lyle took up the chair of natural philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 1889. With the introduction of the Master of Science degree in 1891, he embarked on a small research program. Much of the apparatus he needed had to be made in the university, and Lyle was fortunate in that he was an expert glass-blower. He was also a skilled photographer. When, in mid-February 1896, he read newspaper reports of Röntgen's discovery of a mysterious new form of radiation he put this combination of skills to good use and successfully evacuated a Crookes tube to produce practical X-rays. He is credited with taking both the first X-ray and the first published X-ray in Australia, in March 1896. In June of that year he was invited to take a photograph of a patient who had a needle embedded in his wrist. The 'shadow photograph', clearly showing the needle's exact location, allowed the surgeon to make an incision at the correct point and extract the needle.

Despite this ground-breaking medical work, Lyle's more active interest was in electrical power technology, in particular alternating currents and their associated magnetic effects. His most significant paper was a theoretical analysis of the alternating current generator.

Lyle was a member of numerous government bodies and inquiries. He held several directorships, including that of the Metropolitan Gas Company. Among other senior appointments he was one of the first three (part-time) commissioners of Victoria's State Electricity Commission and its first chairman. In 1919 he was a foundation member of the Australian National Research Council (ANRC), the forerunner to the Australian Academy of Science, and its president from 1929-32. The ANRC recognised his outstanding contribution to scientific life in Australia in 1931 when it created the Thomas Ranken Lyle medal for distinguished Australian research in mathematics and physics.

Lyle was also an excellent sportsman. In 1885-87 he played rugby for Ireland five times before suffering knee injuries that caused him to be lame in later life and eventually forced his resignation from the University of Melbourne in early 1915. His health deteriorated after a cerebral haemorrhage in 1940 left him a semi-invalid, and he died on 31 March 1944.

Lyle received an ScD degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 1905, a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1912 and a knighthood in 1922


  • Home, R.W. 1986, Lyle, Sir Thomas Ranken (1860-1944), mathematical physicist, Australian Dictionary of Biography, editors Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle, Melbourne University Press, pp.172-174
  • Macdonald, Colin F. 1965, Röntgen's discovery of the X-rays and the pioneer Melbourne radiologists, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol.36, no.4, November, pp.136-153
  • Russel, K.F. 1975, William Stone: a pioneer in Australian radiology, Australasian Radiology, vol.19, no.3, September, pp.216-222
  • Ryan, J., Sutton, K. and Baigent, M. 1996, Australasian Radiology – A History, pp.24-26
  • Trainor, J.P. 1946, Salute to the X-Ray Pioneers of Australia, W. Watson & Sons, (Sydney) pp.26-27 

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