Miscreants, old photos and a new home

The Commonwealth Bank neoclassical facade added to the Liversidge building

The Commonwealth Bank neoclassical facade added to the Liversidge building

For most of the 1950s, Chemistry continued to occupy the complex in Science Road that had grown out of the building constructed for Archibald Liversidge in the 1890s. From the windows of the big Organic lab, you could look out into the Vice-Chancellor's Courtyard and see, then as now, bronze statues of the Roman gods Fortuna and Mercury. As Trevor Howells records in University of Sydney Architecture: "A student (one hopes) of satirical bent took a tin of Brasso and polished off the verdigris patina on [the statues'] most precious assets, producing gleaming contrasts of colour, texture and visual highlights. Although the University took a very dim view of the improver's sheen, those with a sharp eye can still detect traces of the miscreant's handiwork."

The miscreant tells me that he actually used an electric polisher with an extension cord plugged into a power point in the Chemistry lab. All these years later, he is, I have to say, delighted that his handiwork has found a place in the University's folk-lore.

Chemistry survived the post-War surge thanks mainly to the Tramsheds, the fibro-cement building constructed in 1945 opposite Manning to house first year prac classes. The Science Road complex, however, was feeling the strain. There had been major additions to the original Liversidge building, notably in the 1920s of an upper floor. Architect Leslie Wilkinson at that time acquired and incorporated the sandstone Neoclassical facade, with its Corinthian columns (photo above) that for 70 years had formed part of the headquarters in Town of the Commercial Banking Company.

Nevertheless, by the 1950s, the Science Road complex was a rabbit-warren of offices and small research labs, filled to overflowing with staff, postgrads and more bric-a-brac than you can imagine, left behind by previous generations. Among the more interesting items were Liversidge's spectacular mineral collection and the plate negatives and prints which Professor Le Fèvre, in 1955, recognised as having been taken a hundred years before by John Smith, the University's first Chemistry professor. Many more of his photos came to light shortly after and the Smith Collection is today regarded as one of the most valuable of the early photographic records of life in this City.

R.J.W. Le Fèvre was Head of School in the 1950s and joining him early in the decade were Arthur Birch, Earl's successor to the Chair of Organic Chemistry, and David Craig, the School's first Professor of Physical Chemistry. Both were Sydney graduates who had built formidable reputations in the UK and, as it turned out, both would be tempted back to the UK in the mid-50s.Their Chairs here were filled by Charles Shoppee (Organic) and A.E. Alexander (Physical Chemistry). Birch and Craig later returned to Australia, to Chairs at the ANU.

School photo from 1955

School photo from 1955

In the School photo above, taken in 1955, the three professors, Le Fèvre, Craig and Birch, sit in the middle of the front row. Also in the front row are spectroscopist and photochemist Tom Iredale on the left and, on the right, J.J. Broe whose lectures and lunch-time tutorials, delivered with flair and liberally spiced with demonstrations, were a beacon for so many struggling first years. Alumni from that time and later will, I'm sure, recognise many other faces in this gathering.

Of course all through the 1950s there was the new building, going from daydream to detailed plans to reality. By the end of the decade, Chemistry had a new home.

An inorganic revival


How much do you know, I wonder, about two who were on the staff when the 1955 group photo was taken, David Mellor and Frank Dwyer? And about another Sydney graduate, Ron Nyholm. Certainly if you are familiar with their names and achievements, this tribute will come as no surprise.

David Mellor, a graduate of the University of Tasmania, joined the staff here in 1929, collaborating from the start with George Burrows who was well-known for his work on organoarsenicals. Through the 1930s, they and their students carried out ground-breaking studies of metal-arsines and other metal complexes.

In the 1955 group photo, Mellor sits in the second row, on the extreme left. By then known internationally for his use of physical methods in the study of transition metal complexes, he accepted a Chair that year at the NSW University of Technology (soon to be the University of NSW), taking over as Head of Chemistry the following year.

Frank Dwyer had been a student of Burrows and Mellor before joining the staff of Sydney Technical College where he established himself as a coordination chemist of outstanding ability. He was joined at the Tech in 1940 by another former Burrows/Mellor student Ron Nyholm, marking the start of an especially fruitful association. After the War, Nyholm would head off to do a PhD at University College London.

Dwyer returned to Sydney University in 1946 and there continued his collaboration with Mellor and an Organic colleague Frank Lions whose skills included the design and synthesis of multidentate ligands, to be turned by Dwyer into chelate metal complexes. By the late 1950s, Dwyer had moved into the new field of bioinorganic chemistry and , in 1960, he was offered one of the first Personal Chairs at the ANU.

Frank Dwyer in his lab

Frank Dwyer in his lab

The photo above shows Dwyer in his lab and, in Graham Hunt's clever cartoon pictured below, Dwyer himself is the sexadentate ligand. As a lecturer, he was quiet in delivery, shy almost. But my word, what clarity!

Clarity was also the hallmark of Ron Nyholm's lectures but shy he was not. The word, I think, is ebullient. In him, all the threads came together. W.H. Brock, in The Fontana History of Chemistry, summed up: "From Burrows, Nyholm developed a love of arsines; from Mellor a commitment to physical and instrumental studies of coordination compounds; and from Dwyer … his love of, and skill in, preparative chemistry." Head of Chemistry at UCL. President of the Chemical Society. Nyholm made it look easy.

Dwyer and Nyholm were both gone at little more than 50 years of age, when they were at the height of their powers.

Dwyer caricatured as the sexadentate ligand

Dwyer caricatured as the sexadentate ligand

Sources

  • University Archives
  • D.P. Craig, Ronald Sydney Nyholm 1917-1971, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 18 (1972), 445.
  • Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary. Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).
  • W.H. Brock, The Fontana History of Chemistry, HarperCollins (1992).
  • T. Howells, University of Sydney Architecture, The Watermark Press (2007).