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History of Chemistry at the University of Adelaide

The Department of Chemistry was established in February 1885, eleven years after the establishment of the University of Adelaide, when Edward Henry Rennie took up the position of Professor of Chemistry.

The Chair of Chemistry had been endowed by John Howard Angas the previous year and is known as the Angas Chair of Chemistry; the present holder is Professor Stephen Lincoln.

Professor Rennie placed great importance on practical work and immediately requested funds for a laboratory to accommodate sixteen students. The Honours Degree, involving a full year’s study after the Pass Degree, and the MSc involving a thesis based on research, were introduced by the University in 1901 and 1925, respectively. In 1950, the University instituted the PhD degree and Lloyd Miles Jackman, who later achieved international prominence in the establishment of NMR spectroscopy as a powerful tool for chemists, was the first in chemistry to be awarded the degree (1952).

Professor Rennie died in 1927 (aged 74 after 42 years as Professor!) and was succeeded by Alexander Killen Macbeth as Angas Professor in 1928.

Soon after the end of World War II, major changes in the nature of teaching and research in chemistry took place, especially with the appointments of Geoffrey Malcolm Badger as a Senior Lecturer in 1949 and Reader in 1951 and of Denis Oswald Jordan in 1954 as Angas Professor to succeed Professor Macbeth on his retirement in the following year. As well in 1954, the University decided to split the Department of Chemistry into two with the Departments of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, and of Organic Chemistry being established in 1955. Professor Jordan was appointed as the Angas Professor to be Head of the first mentioned Department and Dr Badger was appointed as the Professor of Organic Chemistry and Head of the Department in the same year. During the next few years, there were dramatic increases in the numbers of undergraduate, Honours and research students, and of academic, technical and general staff. To accommodate the two Departments, two new buildings were erected with organic chemistry in the Badger Building (1960; named in 1985) and physical and inorganic chemistry in the Jordan Building (1963; named in 1981) as well as the Johnson Building. In 1993, a major review of the two Departments of Chemistry recommended that they should be reunited to form the Department of Chemistry and Professor John Bowie was appointed as its first Head. In 2003, as a result of major changes to the structure and management of the Faculties of Science and of Agricultural Science, the Departments of Chemistry and Physics and Mathematical Physics were combined within the new Faculty of Sciences to form the School of Chemistry and Physics with Chemistry and Physics being designated as Disciplines. Professor Iain Reid was appointed as the Interim Head of the new School and Professor John Carver took up his appointment as the inaugural Head of School in 2004. After further Faculty restructure in 2014, the School of Chemistry and Physics combined with Geology to form the new School of Physical Sciences, which incorporated the Departments of Chemistry, Physics and Earth Science. Professor Sandy Steacy was appointed as the inaugural Head of School in 2015, with Professor Greg Metha continuing on from Head, Discipline of Chemistry in the old School to become Head of the reformed Department of Chemistry.

Since its inception in the University in 1885, the discipline of chemistry has a proud history for the quality of its teaching and research with many of its students and staff achieving national and international distinction. Two professors became distinguished Vice-Chancellors of the University: Sir Geoffrey Badger (knighted in 1979) from 1967 to 1977 and Professor Donald Stranks (Inorganic Chemistry) from 1977 to 1986.

Much of the above material was based on two histories which were written to celebrate the centenary in 1985 of teaching and research in the Discipline of Chemistry in the University of Adelaide. The histories are: Discoveries by Chemists, by Rupert J Best, Hyde Park Press (1987), and Chemistry in the University of Adelaide 1876 – 1980, by V A Edgeloe, 1987. Both are available in the Barr Smith Library.

By G.E.Gream
(Updated October 2012)

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