"Aliens", the tramsheds and the start of a new era

Chemistry at Sydney University in the 1940s

Chem pracs were held in the tramsheds in the 1940s

Chem pracs were held in the tramsheds

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, Dr Victor Trikojus was arrested by Australian security forces and interned for 3 months. Recognised as a leader in the new field of medical organic chemistry, Trikojus was, at the time of his arrest, chairman of the Drugs Sub-Committee of the Australian Association of Scientific Workers, a group by then heavily involved in War work.

On appeal, a tribunal agreed to his release, provided that he surrendered his chairmanship of the Drugs Committee and reported fortnightly to the Aliens Registration Office at Parramatta Police Station – even though he had been born and gone to school in Sydney and was a graduate of Sydney University with a D Phil from Oxford. His pre-War professional contact with colleagues in Germany must have played a part.

In a letter of support, the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, Sir Robert Wallace, noted that Trikojus had been detained "on what grounds no one knows" and assured authorities that within the University most believed him to be "a perfectly loyal Australian citizen". Nevertheless, the Commonwealth Government did not lift all restrictions imposed on him under National Security Regulations until October 1944.

These were tense times and it often took a while for common sense to prevail. Through all this, Trikojus still managed to make important contributions to the War effort. By War's end, he had been offered and had accepted the Chair of Biochemistry at Melbourne University

In the photo below, taken in 1935, Trikojus sits on the extreme right. Earlier, he had introduced the young John Cornforth to biological organic chemistry through vacation work in his lab. Others in the photo are, left to right, James Mills, Tom Iredale, George Burrows, Charles Fawsitt, John Earl and David Mellor.

L-R: J. Mills, T. Iredale, G. Burrows, C. Fawsitt, J. Earl, D. Mellor, V. Trikojus

L-R: J. Mills, T. Iredale, G. Burrows, C. Fawsitt, J. Earl, D. Mellor, V. Trikojus

Student numbers surge after WWII

As the War drew to a close, universities across Australia were bracing for a big surge in student numbers; and at Sydney University, Fawsitt in Chemistry wisely used 1945 to help organise the construction of a large fibro-cement building opposite Manning, which came to be known as the Tramsheds, to provide prac facilities for first year students.

Total enrolments at Sydney peaked in 1948 (at almost 11,000 compared with fewer than 4,000 pre-War), boosted by the influx of returned servicemen.

By then, over 2,000 were doing Chem I prac every week in the Tramsheds, seen in the photo at the top of the page and in the inset, from a map of the University grounds drawn in the early 1950s.

The Tramsheds served Chemistry until the undergraduate labs in the present building opened in 1958.

The space is now occupied by two of the University's least successful post-War buildings – the Christopher Brennan and the Mungo MacCallum – "built", as Trevor Howells notes in University of Sydney Architecture, "at a time when budgets were stretched and accommodation requirements great". Howells has this to say about the Mungo MacCallum: "The juxtaposition of its over-burnt and misshapen clinker brickwork to the finely chiselled sandstone of the Quadrangle must rank as one of the most ill-judged architectural decisions ever built at the University."

So maybe it's just as well that the Transient Building nearby is still standing. What a wonderfully inappropriate name! This was built at the same time as the Tramsheds and, Howells comments, was also "intended for a brief life". Over the years, however, it "has proved to be curiously flexible". If it survives much longer, he writes, "it may yet attract heritage listing".

Le Fèvre given the task of unifying the School of Chemistry

In 1946, R.J.W. Le Fèvre arrived in Sydney with his wife Cathie and their two children, to take over from Fawsitt.

Le Fèvre had been here before, briefly during the War. In September 1939 he was released from his position as Reader at University College London and, early in 1941, was posted to RAF Command, Singapore as a chemical adviser. A year later, he was one of a group of RAF personnel that managed to get clear on perhaps the last friendly ship to leave Java before the Japanese occupation.

Reaching Australia, Le Fèvre was temporarily assigned to the RAAF and spent the next 19 months travelling from one end of this country to the other, along the way fitting in visits to most Australian universities, including Sydney. He was back in the UK by the end of 1943 and, in 1945, became Head of the Chemistry Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. This was the position he held when invited, in 1946, to be what was initially called Director of Chemistry at Sydney University.

University authorities were well aware that Chemistry at Sydney was deeply divided. There were separate departments – of Chemistry under Fawsitt and Organic Chemistry, Pure and Applied, under Earl – and relations between the two professors had been strained for a long time. With Fawsitt's retirement and then, in 1948, Earl's, Le Fèvre was given the task of heading a unified School of Chemistry. It was the beginning of a new era, even if, for years to come, the School would be far from unified at a personal level.

Le Fèvre made a point of encouraging research and, working in close collaboration with his wife Cathie, he led by example. By 1950, when the photo below was taken, the School was growing in numbers and stature. Le Fèvre stands third from the left at the front with Cathie on the extreme left. Next to Le Fèvre is Fawsitt and alongside him, Visiting Professor Alexander Todd, the eminent UK organic chemist who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1957 for his work on nucleotides and nucleotide co-enzymes.

School of Chemistry group photo, taken in 1950

School of Chemistry group photo, taken in 1950

Sources

  • Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary. Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985). The 1935 photo from this book, shown here in part, was provided by John Anderson, a former student of George Burrows.
  • M.J. Aroney and A.D. Buckingham, Raymond James Wood Le Fèvre 1905-1986, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 34 (1988), 373.
  • W.F. Connell, G.E. Sherington, B.H. Fletcher, C. Turney and U. Bygott, Australia's First. A History of the University of Sydney, Vol. 2, 1940-1990, University of Sydney (1995).
  • T. Howells, University of Sydney Architecture, The Watermark Press (2007).