9 February 2018

Ruth Gall

Ruth Gall

by Dr John Coll, (AM) DSc(1987) PhD(1969) BSc(1966)

Ruth Edna Lack was born in Pennant Hills, northwest Sydney on 8 November 1923. She passed away on 10 July 2017, at The Terraces, Varsity Lakes overlooking Bond University on the Gold Coast. She had lived a full and rewarding life of 93 years.

Ruth’s father was a ‘reluctant’ Chartered Accountant, who Ruth believes would have been happier as an engineer or mechanic. He did not want her to become an Accountant. He involved his children in physics experiments and stirred their interest in many other things. He was an ardent tennis player, something Ruth emulated in later life. He loved a challenge. Her mother played the piano and the family and friends enjoyed singalongs around the piano, long before TV and karaoke. After losing about a year after a chance encounter with a Mark Foys’ truck as a five year old, she completed her schooling to leaving certificate at Meriden School in Strathfield. She was always in the top two or three at school. Meriden School didn’t offer the girls subjects like Physics and Chemistry.

On completion of her high school education during the first two years of the war, she initially took a job at Phillips Electrical Co at Edgecliff. During this time Japanese submarines were in Sydney Harbour, and she realised how real the war was. She decided to enlist in the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). She did basic training in Robertson and Bankstown, before being assigned to radar operations in Bowen, North Queensland, after a brief stay in Townsville to learn the ropes. She was on duty there until the end of 1944, when she was allowed to study Science at University of Sydney under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Jan Morris, another former WAAF, joined her as students of Science with a lot to learn. Ruth struggled with Chemistry, managing a Pass at the end of the year, but was a Chemistry III and Chemistry III Advanced student by 1947. She attributed her transformation to the wonderful lectures given by Ern Ritchie and Frank Lions. An amazing achievement, considering she had no high school background in Chemistry. Obviously Chemistry had her in its thrall.

She spent two and a half years working in Sydney at CSR Chemicals and Union Carbide’s predecessors in the Rhodes area, largely in quality control, after which, she decided to go to London where she worked at British Industrial Solvents. While the job was interesting, she eventually felt the need to return to Australia. She accepted a position at CSIRO’s Coal Research Division, but found that this did not capture her imagination. Finally, she was encouraged by Sev Sternhell, then at Coal Research, to go back to University of Sydney as a Teaching Fellow while she pursued her Doctorate in Organic Chemistry. Prof Charles Shoppee, the world renowned Steroid Chemist who interviewed and appointed her, offered to supervise her studies.

She had reached her destination, after a long and unusual journey. Professor Shoppee mentored his colleague after her PhD studies were finished, and she in return supervised many of his students until his departure for Texas. Ruth completed her PhD in 1961 and became a Lecturer in Organic Chemistry in 1962, Senior Lecturer in 1966, and became Sydney University’s first female Associate Professor in Chemistry in 1970.

After an Honours Year project under Ruth’s supervision on attempts to convert lanosterol from wool wax into useful steroid precursors, Norm Hughes and I moved into ‘The Professor’s Laboratory’, next to the office, which thereafter became known as the ‘BullDog Lab’, after ‘Bull’ Hughes and ‘Mad Dog’ Coll. Barry Newman and Frank Johnston had left, and the formerly peaceful lab was never quite the same. Music, visitors, etc seemed normal to us, but the Professor occasionally commented. Ruth was always dropping in, encouraging us to greater achievements and using natural competition between peers to great effect. Her time in the Airforce, and in Industry had not been wasted. She was a wonderful supervisor and constant source of ideas (‘Thought of something in the shower this morning’, ‘Why don’t we/you try this…’). It was an exciting experience working with ‘Aunt Ruth‘, as she was affectionately known. Even on the social level, we might have a group dinner at her place, and it would become a contest to see who could make the best Pavlova against Ruth’s previous efforts. We could all make Pavlova by the time we went on Postdoctoral travel overseas.

Organic Chemistry dinners were another memorable experience. Professor Shoppee always attended, and most thought he was pretty conservative. One time Len, Gary and other students were balancing wine glasses on top of each other to see how many they could balance. A waiter from the University Club came and chided them, so Professor Shoppee started balancing the glasses. He was left alone. He may have seemed a snob to some, but he was always loyal to ‘His Staff’, while still being ‘The Professor’. I have learned a great deal from my supervisors, Professor Shoppee, and especially Dr Ruth Lack. I hope that made me a better supervisor to my students and staff over the years.

Ruth Gall, painted by local artist Dr Kate Gradwell

Ruth Gall, painted by local artist Dr Kate Gradwell

She was elected first female Head of School of Chemistry in in December 1978 by all Staff of the Chemistry Departments, and she served this role with distinction. She once told me that she was waiting to see the Vice Chancellor on a School matter. His Secretary wondered if she had an appointment, as Professor Gall had the next appointment that morning. She said:’ I am she!”

She had received her DSc in Organic Chemistry in 1977, the first woman to be so honoured at the University of Sydney in this field. She was an inspiration to female students and staff, and although not a ’bra burning’ feminist, she was a female trailblazer and role model for academic women.

She was the author of more than 70 publications and a wonderful supervisor and inspiration to many.

Ruth married Harold Gall, and became Professor Gall from this time. She was extremely happy until Harold’s untimely passing in 1984, shortly after her retirement in 1982. Ruth stayed in Sydney for some time before beginning a slow migration northwards. Each year she would still drive her Honda back to visit friends in Sydney. She spent time in Coff’s Harbour where a number of former students and friends visited, then Kirra, Robena Heights and finally Palm Beach. She was active in running courses on computer use over the years, enjoyed cards and the occasional foray into oil painting, and glazing ceramic objects which she had painted. She was a multi-talented person, who had long periods of physical discomfort, perhaps arising from the childhood accident. She moved from Palm Beach to her final residence at the Terraces.

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