Chemistry and Chemists

The first applications of chemistry in Tasmania come from the characterisations of newly observed naturally occurring materials and minerals. The visiting Polish scientist Count PE Strzelecki appears to have been the first to report such work in the scientific literature; in 1842 he wrote on the composition of mineral waters near Circular Head, on coals from seven localities in Tasmania, and in 1846 on the soils of Mona Vale. However, he attributed the chemical analyses reported to the work of a Launcestonian, William Pugh MD, and perhaps it is he who should be recognised as the first Tasmanian chemist of standing.1

Others had similar interests. Sir WT Denison, Lt-Governor and Fellow of the Royal Society, London, reported the analyses by a Dr Motherwell in 1847 of 'certain woods', also on the manufacture of potash from wood ashes, and on experiments relating to the manufacture of a hydraulic cement.2

Later in the nineteenth century, chemistry came more clearly into public focus. First, following the discoveries of mineral deposits of complex elemental composition, chemical characterisation became vitally important for economic assessment, and so the need for skilled chemical assayers came to the fore. Second, in 1881 the Government enacted the Sale of Foods and Drugs Act which provided for municipal councils to appoint analysts and also for the appointment of a central Government Analyst. The latter office still survives; remarkably, since its inception, only six persons have held this appointment.3

In response to the needs for such chemistry-trained personnel, training courses were established at technical colleges in Hobart and Launceston in 1888, in Zeehan in 1892, in Queenstown in 1894, and Beaconsfield in 1901. Separately, the University of Tasmania was established in 1890 with the first chemistry course for a BSc commencing in 1894, with an enrolment of two. Remarkably for those times one of these students, Amy F Elliot, graduated in 1900 with an MSc degree, the first such higher degree award of the University.4

From 1917 onwards, the place of chemistry and the needs for and roles of chemists in the Tasmanian economy changed greatly following the availability of large-scale hydo-electric power and the possibility for its utilisation for energy-intensive chemistry-based industries. First among these was the establishment at Risdon (Hobart) in 1916 of hydro-metallurgical processing and electrolytic reduction for the production of high-purity zinc metal. This was followed by electric furnace production of calcium carbide at Electrona (Hobart) from 1917. Other industries, although smaller users of power, followed: chocolate manufacture at Claremont in 1922, portland cement at Railton in 1930, fine paper manufacture involving chemical processing at Burnie in 1938, and newsprint production at Boyer in 1941.

After the Second World War other industries followed: titanium dioxide pigment at Heybridge (Burnie) in 1948, aluminium ore processing and production of aluminium metal at Bell Ba (1955) , electric furnace production of ferro-manganese and ferro-silicon also at Bell Bay (1962) , iron ore extraction/reduction at Savage River/Port Latta(1967), and silicon metal at Electrona (1987). Not all have survived, but those remaining still constitute a major economic sector.

A new industry sector has emerged in the last thirty years; based on botanical natural products, it is successful and shows promise for further development. Settlers earlier had realised the commercial possibilities in such products as Huon pine oil and eucalyptus oil steam-distilled from Tasmanian blue gum,5 but the scale of operations was small. The industries recently established are on a much larger scale and include the extraction of essential oils from boronia, peppermint, etc, the extraction of alkaloids from poppies, and the extraction of pyrethrin. In yet another natural product area, but at this stage one only emerging, is that based on marine species; this is to be largely credited to the chemists at the CSIRO Marine Research Laboratories, Hobart.

A further sector involving chemistry is that which can be designated at environmental compliance assessment and control. This includes the monitoring of atmospheric emissions, the safe disposal of solid wastes, and the chemical treatment of liquid effluents including sewage. All require trained chemistry staff; in total a significant number are now employed in this way by Government, local councils, and industry in Tasmania.

Of the many chemists who have contributed significantly to these industries, space permits mention of just a few. LR Benjamin and JL Somerville, following their earlier work within CSIRO, brought their research knowledge to successful realisation in the production of newsprint from short-fibre eucalyptus pulp a world first at Boyer, in 1941. Again in the paper industry at Burnie, one over the years since inception with a record of many process innovations, Charles Saul in 1966 successfully introduced high-pressure wet-air oxidation for the purification for recycling of waste process liquors, this again a world first for that industry. At Risdon in 1965 Curzon Haigh patented the so-called Jarosite process for recovery of the substantial content of zinc in what to that time had proved to be an intractable waste product. This was so successful that it was licensed subsequently to many overseas zinc producers and produced significant royalties. Lastly, the development of the essential-oils and pyrthrin industries can be largely attributed to the innovative work in both agricultural science and chemistry of Robert Menary of the University of Tasmania.6 Others contributed through leadership roles. One such was RD Williams who headed the Research Department at Risdon; in his long period of tenure he guided many young chemists to successful careers and not just in that industry. Another was HB (later Sir Henry) Somerset, who, trained first as a chemist, became a captain of industry in Tasmania.

Along with industrial development had come pressure from employers for an upgrading of training in chemistry and engineering. In the 1920s in Hobart a unique arrangement was negotiated between the University and the Technical College whereby a joint body, the Engineering Board of Management, was established with responsibility for the provision of courses in chemistry and in engineering for both institutions. This arrangement made the best use of the limited finances and facilities of the time. For the staff, however, it meant teaching duties by day for the University students and by night for the part-time Technical College students. Nevertheless for the latter group there were the advantages of access to higher level instruction than might otherwise have applied; in the 1940s and 1950s this reached its zenith with advanced diploma courses at professional level being available in Hobart, Launceston and Burnie.7 However, in 1960 this Board was dissolved when the University moved to its Sandy Bay site, leaving the Colleges to provide eventually only technician-level courses.

At the University, as mentioned earlier, the first chemistry course was offered in 1894; it was in the charge of WF Ward, who also held the post of Government Analyst. He was succeeded in 1899 by WA McLeod and he in turn by the unrelated PJ McLeod in 1901. Some external study was offered in Launceston, this through a part-time appointee WH Baker of the Mines Department Laboratory.8

With student numbers small, not until 1923 was a second full-time staff member appointed in Hobart, one ECE Kurth. His was to be a seminal appointment, not only one in which over his long period of tenure, 192360, he was to communicate his wide interests in chemistry for the benefit of both his students and through advice to the broader community, but also one in which despite the adverse circumstances of those years he was able to progressively negotiate for much needed improvements in staffing and physical facilities, his efforts in the latter connection culminating in the erection on the Sandy Bay site of a new Chemistry building. The latter has since provided the base for the School of Chemistry which exists today. Fittingly Kurth was given the inaugural Chair in 1941. His research interests were in applied chemistry; his DSc was awarded in 1934 for work on the chemistry of Tasmanian oil-shales, then during the Second World War he developed kilns, used here and interstate, for the efficient production of charcoal required at the time as fuel for gas-producers, later he continued his interest in analytical chemistry by tracing trace element distributions in the dolerite rocks of Tasmania and Antarctica, this in relation to theories of continental drift.

After Kurth the Chair was held successively as follows: from 1960 by H Bloom who came with international recognition for his research in electrochemistry and later in environmental chemistry; in 1982 by FP Larkins with interests in physical chemistry, particularly surface chemistry and catalysis, and in 1992 by PR Haddad with interests in analytical chemistry, especially separation science. In 1993 a second Chair was awarded to AJ Canty, his interests being in main group inorganic and in organometallic chemistry. These years have been marked by significantly increased numbers of higher degree and post-doctoral workers in the School.

Despite the small number of students until the end of the Secod World War, many from those early years moved on to distinguished careers. Some to be mentioned include: DP Mellor, ECE Spooner, RF Cane, BJF Ralph and AD Wadsley.9 Later graduates who proceeded to Chairs elsewhere include MR Atkinson, PS Clezy, AG Wedd,10 J Wong, RA Russell and MR Bendall.11 Six chemistry graduates have been awarded Rhodes Scholarships: EA Woods in 1914, FB Richardson 1920, JK Clinch 1922, ECE Spooner1931, RJD Gee 1967, and IM Clark 1969.12 In 1970 the prestigious 1851 Scholarship (awarded externally) went to MR Bendall.

Clearly the University can take pride in the successes of its chemistry graduates from what has always been a relatively small department in the Australian context. The regret must be that so many have had to pursue their careers outside Tasmania.

Peter W Smith

1. Several spellings of this name exist; others are Strzelecki and Strelewskii; PE de Strzelecki, Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, Longmans, London, 1845; RSTPP 1842, 1/1, pp 77, 190; 1846, 2, p 308.
2. RSTPP, 1849, 1/1, p 87; 1849, 1/2, p 93; 1850, 1/2, p 99.
3. Government Analysts and year of appointment: WF Ward 1881, E Ward (son of WF Ward) 1932, HE Hill 1945, MHR Shipp 1962, K Wilson 1987, and S Dolliver 1994
4. RF Cane in 'Reminiscences', ed. Noel Roberts, Department of Chemistry presentation of volumes for Centenary of the University of Tasmania, 1990.
5. Reference to 'A.P. Miller and Son, chemists and druggists, distillers of eucalyptus oil, etc.' in Cyclopedia of Tasmania, 1, Hobart, 1900, pp 351-2.
6. Professor RC Menary, Faculty of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania. Refer: Developing New Agriculture and Lessons from the Past, RIRDC Research Paper Series, 2,No 94/1, 194-200, Canberra, 1994.
7. The Diploma of Applied Chemistry, an accredited educational qualification for entry to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. Other courses also available in Hobart were the Diplomas in Metallurgy and in Chemical Engineering and a Certificate of Assaying.
8. Cane in 'Reminiscences'.
9. DP Mellor, BSc1926, MSc1928, DSc1945; later Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Head of School, UNSW; ECE Spooner, BSc1929, BE1932, MSc1932, Rhodes Scholar 1931; later to Chair of Mining, Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering, Adelaide; RF Cane, B Sc 1938, MSc 1940, D Sc 1946; later Head of School of Applied Science, Queensland Institute of Technology, Brisbane; BJF Ralph, BSc1939; later Head, School of Biological Sciences, UNSW; AD Wadsley, BSc1940, MSc1942; later at CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry, Melbourne, and world-recognised for his revision and explanation of the structural chemistry of the hitherto so-called non-stoichiometric chemical compounds.
10. MR Atkinson, BSc1951, BSc Hons 1952,PhD1954; later to Chair of Biochemistry, Adelaide; PS Clezy, BSc1951, BSc Hons1952, PhD1956; later to a Personal Chair in Organic Chemistry, UNSW; AG Wedd, BSc1963, BScHons1964, PhD1969; later to Chair in Inorganic Chemistry, Melbourne.
11. J Wong, BSc1965, BScHons1966; later professorial appointment, Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, California; RA Russell, RA, BSc1967, BSc Hons1968; later to a Chair and Head School of Chemical and Biological Sciences, Deakin; MR Bendall, BSc1969, BScHons1970; later to Chair of Chemistry and Head of Department, James Cook University.
12. FB Richardson, Rhodes Scholar 1920; later Chief Chemist, Cadbury Fry Pascall, Claremont, Tasmania; IM Clark, B Sc 1967, B Sc Hons 1968, Rhodes Scholar 1969; later to career in merchant banking.