Sir Peter Nicol Russell, ironfounder and benefactor, was born in Scotland on 4 July 1816. He attended Kirkcaldy Grammar School, then worked for his father, who owned the Phoenix Foundry and Engineering Works with his uncle. A severe financial depression in 1830 caused the family to migrate to Van Dieman's Land. They arrived in June 1832, and soon sold their 2000-acre land grant, which was too heavily treed to be cleared. Instead they founded a general engineering and foundry business. The family found business opportunities limited and wound up the business, leaving for Sydney in 1838. Peter and his brothers soon established Russell Bros in Queen's Square, with works on the banks of Tank Stream. In 1842 Peter took some of the family's capital and purchased his own foundry from James Blanche, which he renamed the Sydney Foundry and Engineering Works. He soon had contracts for all the ironwork required by the New South Wales government and The Sydney Municipal Council.
In 1855, after the demise of Russell Bros, Russell formed P.N. Russell & Co. In 1859 he became resident partner in London. The firm flourished as 'Engineers, Founders and Importers'. The Sydney premises were extended and contracts were received for railway bridges, rolling stock, steam dredges, quartz crushers and flour mills. Gunboats were manufactured for the New Zealand government for use in the Maori wars.
In 1859, Russell married Charlotte Lorimer and returned to Sydney with her. They returned to London the following year, where he continued to act as the firm's representative. The business closed after much industrial unrest in 1873-4, much to Russell's distress. He returned to Australia to wind up the affairs, and soon returned to England. In 1885 he sold his extensive property in Brisbane, and in 1886 visited Australia for the last time.
In December 1895, Russell gave £50,000 to the University of Sydney in 1895 for the Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering. In 1904 he offered a further £50,000 for scholarships. Knighted in June 1904, he died childless on 10 July 1905. He was survived by his wife.
The Peter Nicol Russell Medal was established in 1899 by the University of Sydney in recognition of Sir Peter's substantial donations to support the development of engineering in Australia. He gave the first of two donations each of 50,000 pounds sterling to the University in 1895 for the Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering and for lectureships. The medal is awarded for postgraduate work in the University.
In 1919 the newly-formed Institution of Engineers, Australia also decided to honour Sir Peter by establishing the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Award for senior professional engineers of achievement. This medal may be distinguished from the University of Syrney medal in that it has the image of Sir Peter on the obverse facing to the right.
Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Bright Sparcs website, University of Melbourne, http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/bsparcs/biogs/P003914b.htm
Australian Academy of Science website www.science.org.au/awards/aasmedal.htm.