Born in New Zealand on 1922, Noel completed his undergraduate studies in History and Geography at Victoria University of Wellington. He then moved to Sydney and was awarded one of the first PhD scholarships offered by the Australian National University (ANU), specialising in Chinese studies. Arriving on campus in February 1953, Noel went on to become the University's first graduate in Chinese history and subsequently enjoyed a highly successful academic career at ANU for more than 50 years.
An expert in the Cantonese and Japanese languages, Noel began his study of Cantonese while still at high school by enlisting the help of the local Chinese community. He went on to gain a reading ability in classical Chinese while completing his PhD at ANU, and then to acquire skills in pre-Han archaic scripts before concentrating on Chinese archaeological documents. Noel first learnt Japanese from Japanese prisoners of war during World War II when he served as a translator and interpreter of Japanese at the Featherston Prisoner of War camp in the 1940s.
Over the years, Noel has become internationally renowned for his knowledge of early Chinese history and archaeology, in particular metallurgy. His focus has been on the interpretation of inscriptions, especially those found on the bronze vessels of the Zhou dynasty (110-221 BCE).
He has published more than 70 research articles and papers, including 13 publications of monograph or book size. In 1970, in recognition of the extensive contribution he has made to his field, he was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities. Noel's forthcoming book Inscriptions of Chin and the San-Chin, Chung-shan and Yen represents the culmination of seven decades of research.
In December 2014 Noel returned to Victoria University of Wellington's to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature.