Jim Thornton-Smith (1899-1974)


Image A1: Professor Jim Thornton-Smith at The University of Melbourne.


Professor Jim Thornton-Smith was recognised world-wide in the fields of surveying mathematics, geodesy and astronomy.  He was a senior lecturer in surveying and Associate Professor at The University of Melbourne from 1940 to 1965.  He was the foundation head of the Department of Surveying at the University and was instrumental in the formulation and introduction of the Bachelor of Surveying degree course.

George James (Jim) Thornton-Smith was born in Sydney on 5 November 1899.  He was the first of three sons born to George Thornton-Smith (1863-1932) and his wife Harriet Mary née McLellan (1868-1917).  George (senior) was born at Bermondsey, Surrey and his wife Mary came from Kirkmichael, Ayrshire.  George and Mary’s other sons were William (1904-1992) and Joseph Casimar (1909-1963).  The Thornton-Smiths moved to Western Australia in the early 1900s; firstly to the Eastern Goldfields and then to Perth.  In his later years George (senior) was a draughtsman in the Chief Engineer’s Office of the Western Australian Government Railways.

Jim Thornton-Smith went to school at Christian Brothers College in St George’s Terrace Perth and afterwards attended the University of Western Australia.  In 1921, Jim graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering degree.  In 1923, he was registered as a licensed surveyor in Western Australia.  In 1931, Jim graduated with a Bachelor of Surveying degree also from the University of Western Australia.  On 21 December 1945, Jim was awarded a Master of Civil Engineering degree (special senior staff admission) by The University of Melbourne.

For some 15 years during the 1920s and 1930s, Jim undertook surveys for railway locations and related requirements in Western Australia and England.  From 1924 to 1930, Jim was an assistant engineer with the Railway Construction Branch of the Public Works Department in Perth.  During 1931-1933, he worked as a technical assistant with the Underground Railway in London.  Between 1933 and 1939 Jim was an assistant engineer with the Western Australian Government Railways but continued undertaking survey projects.  For example in May 1934, Jim was the surveyor-in-charge of a survey of the Mullewa to Yalgoo section of the Mullewa to Meekatharra train line.

On 19 April 1924, Jim Thornton-Smith married Charlotte Rosabelle (Rose) Henville BA at Christ Church, Claremont.  Rose was born at Albany in 1898.  She was the daughter of Walter Sampson Henville and his wife Rosabella Mary Henville née Yandell.

Jim and Rose Thornton-Smith had two children: Georgina Rosalie Mary (1925-1987) and Colin Bernard (1929-2014); both were born in Perth and died in Melbourne.  Tragically Jim’s first wife Rose died in Perth in August 1930 at age 32 years.

On 25 January 1933, Jim Thornton-Smith married Nora Maher.  Nora was born in Clonmel, Tipperary circa 1897 to John Maher and his wife Bridget née Farrell.  Nora pre-deceased her husband and passed away at Balwyn in 1971 at age 74 years.  (No records were found of children from this second marriage.)

In 1940, Jim Thornton-Smith was appointed as a senior lecturer in surveying at The University of Melbourne.  He was a member of the Surveyors Board of Victoria from 1944-1949 and was registered as a licensed surveyor by that Board on 5 May 1945.  Jim was president of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors in 1945.  In 1949, Jim was appointed Associate Professor of Surveying at The University of Melbourne and head of the newly formed Department of Surveying.  He held that post until he retired on 31 January 1965.

Jim Thornton-Smith was a Latin scholar who had a sound understanding of this language that goes back to the ancient Romans.  In his later years at the University Jim was often asked to say Grace at University dinners and was able to say it in Latin.  Sometimes at University lunch gatherings he would be called on to adjudicate the derivations of English words.

Following Jim’s retirement, The University of Melbourne introduced the Thornton-Smith Medal that is now awarded annually to a graduate of the geomatics discipline who has made an outstanding contribution to the engineering profession in the field of geomatics.  The medal commemorates Jim Thornton-Smith.

Sadly, Jim Thornton-Smith died at Balwyn on 15 September 1974 at age 74 years.  He was survived by Georgina and Colin, the children of his first marriage and by his brother William.