T T Flynn
'an illustrious Australian'

It is now not unusual to find Australians amongst the senior ranks of British Universities but this was not the case in the early years of last century. Yet in 1931 Theodore Flynn, born in modest circumstances in northern New South Wales, was appointed to the chair of Zoology at Queens University in Belfast. He had achieved his goal.

Flynn was probably the first Australian to be directly appointed to a professorial position at a British university. It was a remarkable achievement for the son of shipwright who began his career as a 15 year-old pupil teacher in the far west of his home State. With a brilliant mind and disciplined study he progressed from that small school in Hillston to graduate from Teachers College in Sydney and then gain a scholarship to Sydney University. There he came under the influence of a slightly older young man treading the same path: Theo Flynn and Jimmy Hill remained friends and colleagues for the rest of their lives. Together they led the world in marsupial embryology and its place in mammalian development.

Flynn became Professor of Biology at the University of Tasmania in 1911 when just 28 years old. He did this without the help or influence of wealthy or well connected parents or friends, in fact his parents were divorced in 1910. His ambition and haste to move forward meant that not all the men he had dealings with looked fondly on his behaviour, but his academic colleagues and students recognised his skills as a teacher and scientist. Women were charmed. Shortly after arriving in Hobart Flynn and his very attractive wife were blessed by the birth of their first child, Errol who 30 years later was arguably one of the world’s best known men. Theo’s parents were divorced, his daughter was divorced and his son divorced several times, yet, despite both having affairs, Theo and Lily remained married for over 50 years until her death in 1967.

Flynn’s scientific interests included not only marsupial embryology but also marine biology, fisheries management and geology. He was active in learned societies in New South Wales, Tasmania and Ireland and was awarded the MBE for his service as chief of Belfast’s casualty clearing service during World War II. He was given several grants by the Rockefeller Foundation and even after retiring from Queens University held a chair in anatomy at a university in California. In retirement in Jamaica he managed his son’s estates and hotel, served as a magistrate and was Vice-President of the Port Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

He wrote many scientific papers, developed public policy, conducted a Royal Commission for the Tasmanian Government and was a Director of a fishing and fish processing company. The noted Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks dedicated her opera The Transposed Heads ‘to Theo Flynn an illustrious Australian’.

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