John Joly, Irish physicist famous for his development of radiation therapy in the treatment of cancer, is born in Bracknagh, County Offaly, on November 1, 1857. He is also known for developing techniques to accurately estimate the age of a geological period, based on radioactive elements present in minerals.
Joly is a second cousin of Charles Jasper Joly, the astronomer. He enters Trinity College, Dublin in 1876, graduating in Engineering in 1882 in first place with various special certificates in branches of engineering, at the same time obtaining a First-Class Honours in modern literature. He works as a demonstrator in Trinity’s Engineering and Physics departments before succeeding William Johnson Sollas in the Chair of Geology and Mineralogy in 1897, a position which he holds until his death in 1933.
Joly joins the Royal Dublin Society in 1881 while still a student, and is a frequent contributor of papers. During his career he writes over 270 books and scientific papers.
On May 17, 1899 Joly reads his paper “An Estimate of the Geological Age of the Earth” to the Royal Dublin Society. In it, he proposes to calculate the age of the earth from the accumulation of sodium in the waters of the oceans. He calculates the rate at which the oceans should have accumulated sodium from erosion processes, and determines that the oceans are about 80 to 100 million years old. The paper is quickly published, appearing four months later in the Society’s Scientific Transactions. Although this method is later considered inaccurate and is consequently superseded, it radically modifies the results of other methods in use at the time.
In 1903 he publishes an article in Nature in which he discusses the possibility of using radium to date the Earth and goes on to study the radioactive content of the Earth’s crust to formulate a theory of thermal cycles, and examines the radioactive constituents of certain rocks as a means of calculating their age. Working in collaboration with Sir Ernest Rutherford, he uses radioactive decay in minerals to estimate, in 1913, that the beginning of the Devonian period could not be less than 400 million years ago, an estimate which is in line with modern calculations.
Joly serves as President of Section C (Geology) when the British Association for the Advancement of Science meets in Dublin in 1908, during which he presents his paper “Uranium and Geology” in an address to the society. This work describes radioactive materials in rocks and their part in the generation of the Earth’s internal heat.
In 1914 Joly develops a method of extracting radium and applies it in the treatment of cancer. As a Governor of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin, in collaboration with Walter Stevenson, he devises radiation therapy methods and promotes the establishment by the Royal Dublin Society of the Irish Radium Institute where they pioneer the “Dublin method” of using a hollow needle for deep radiation therapy, a technique that later enters worldwide use. The Radium Institute also supplies capillary tubes containing radon to hospitals for some years for use in the treatment of tumours.
Joly is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1892, is awarded the Boyle Medal of the Royal Dublin Society in 1911, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1910, and the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1923. He is also conferred honorary degrees by the National University of Ireland, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Michigan. After his death in 1933, his friends subscribe the sum of £1,700 to set up a memorial fund which is still used to promote the annual Joly Memorial Lectures at the University of Dublin, which were inaugurated by Sir Ernest Rutherford in 1935. He is also remembered by the Joly Geological Society, a student geological association established in 1960.