The chemistry labs 1890–1909

Senior Chemistry lab

Senior Chemistry lab

Until the mid-1880s, Chemistry occupied rooms at the southern end of the Main Building. By 1890, a new home was ready, a building designed largely by Archibald Liversidge. The building as it was a hundred years ago is described in the University Calendar of 1903.

There were two lecture theatres, one seating 120, the other 170, a Junior laboratory with 40 benches and the Senior laboratory with space for 60. Rooms were set aside "for spectroscopic and gas analysis, for photography and for research work" and to house the Chemical Collections, of minerals and "old forms of apparatus etc., which may be of historical interest".

The Senior lab is shown above. According to the Calendar: "Special efforts have been made to give students the benefits of modern improvements and appliances. Draught cupboards, filter pumps, exhaust pipes and similar conveniences are fitted to each bench. A number of larger hoods and draught cupboards for combustions, sulphuretted hydrogen gas, water baths and ovens are also provided."

An assay laboratory had recently been built, equipped with a battery of muffle furnaces (photo below) and, across the yard past the roaster shed and stack, there was a milling and leaching room, with crushing machinery of various kinds, settling tanks and vats "for the extraction of gold and silver ores by chlorine, cyanide, hyposulphite and other similar leaching processes".

Assays and metallurgy required wheelbarrows

Assays and metallurgy required wheelbarrows

Engineering students used these facilities in an assaying and metallurgical prac course on their way to a degree in mining and metallurgy. In this course, they carried out the processes involved – crushing, grinding, roasting, concentrating and leaching – in the treatment of bulk samples of ores. Bulk samples meant "a few hundred weights", explaining the wheelbarrows you see in the above photo of the assay lab. They were also required to assay silver and gold bullion and to analyse iron and steel, slag and furnace gases.

Dentistry students were another group to be trained here. In a 60-hour course of practical metallurgy, they studied the properties of metals, prepared alloys and amalgams and recovered gold and silver from scrap.

From his own lab, Liversidge produced over a hundred research papers, most of them on mineralogy and what would come to be called geochemistry. I am struck by the range of his interests, from the origin of gold nuggets and the structure and chemical composition of meteorites (he was the first to show that they contain trace amounts of gold) to the nature of the blue pigment in certain corals and the occurrence of trace metals in natural waters. His speciality, though, was collecting, describing and analysing minerals. His book The Minerals of NSW ran through three editions and the mineral collection was often displayed at exhibitions in this country and overseas. It would be hard to exaggerate the role he played in promoting and developing the use of local mineral resources.

However, even the best sometimes get it wrong. In 1895 Liversidge reported an attempt to measure the concentration of gold in sea water. The method he used involved preconcentration onto an iron oxide film, extraction with chlorine water and treatment of the extract with tin(II) chloride. The appearance of a purple colour, the so-called "Purple of Cassius", due to formation of colloidal gold was, and still is, a convenient qualitative test for gold.

Liversidge tested a large number of sea-water samples collected along the NSW coast, then carried out quantitative determinations by the gravimetric assay of pooled extracts after "cupellation" (a process for separating precious metals from residues by heating with a base metal, usually lead (Pb), in a stream of air).

He concluded that sea water contains, on average, 0.5 to 1 grain of gold per ton which translates to about 30 to 60 µg L-1 (parts per billion). This is something like 10,000 times the currently accepted value. He did replicates, of course, and blanks and recovery tests, all the right things as you would expect, but without clean air facilities and a more sensitive analytical finish, he stood no chance. It was half a century or more too early.

The Liversidge building, used until 1959 and now occupied by Pharmacy

The Liversidge building, used until 1959 and now occupied by Pharmacy

Sources

  • The photos were reproduced from Edward Hufton's original prints in the University Archives with the help of Reference Archivist Nyree Morrison.
  • University of Sydney University Calendar, 1903
  • A. Liversidge, On the Amount of Gold and Silver in Sea Water, J. Roy. Soc. NSW, 29 (1895), 335.
  • R.J.W. Le Fèvre, Charles Edward Fawsitt, Proc. Roy. Aust. Chem. Inst., 28 (1) (1961), 17.
  • R.J.W. Le Fèvre, The Establishment of Chemistry Within Australian Science - Contributions from NSW, Ch.12 in A Century of Scientific Progress - The Centenary Volume of The Royal Society of NSW (1968).
  • Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary, Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).

Charles Fawsitt

Charles Fawsitt took over from Liversidge in 1909

Charles Fawsitt took over from Liversidge in 1909

Liversidge retired at the end of 1907. His successor, Charles Fawsitt took over in 1909 and is seen in that year's class photo (above) sitting at the front.

Fawsitt was Lecturer in Metallurgical Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and in his early 30s at the time of his appointment to the Sydney Chair. He was a physical chemist by training and, as Bob Hunter noted, writing in ChemNEWS Issue 4 on the development of physical chemistry at Sydney University, it was Fawsitt who introduced the subject into the Sydney syllabus.

For 37 years Fawsitt directed all matters relating to inorganic and physical chemistry, with organic chemistry the domain of a second Chair, first occupied in 1913 by Robert Robinson.

Over the years, a rich folk-lore grew up around Fawsitt. Colleagues and ex-students told of his "comfortably fusty office" with its high-backed chair, of the horse he rode into Uni each day from Rose Bay, at least in the early years, and tethered outside the Department, of his practice of putting coins that came his way into boiling water, to reduce the risk of infection, of how well he played piano on social occasions and, a recurring comment, of his "old-world courtesy".

One who recorded his impressions of Fawsitt was Julius Hogarth, for many years head teacher of industrial chemistry at Sydney Technical College and, after retiring from the Tech, a much respected tutor in the Chemistry School's second year lab. As he recalled, Fawsitt's lectures were "a model to imitate, clearly and logically expressed" and delivered "mostly without notes, with dry humour and a Scots accent".

Fawsitt saw through the war years, retiring in 1946, the year that Le Fèvre arrived to take up the newly created position of Head of School.