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Alexander, Albert Ernest (1914–1970)

by D. H. Napper

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Albert Ernest Alexander (1914-1970), professor of chemistry, was born on 5 January 1914 at Ringwood, Southampton, England, youngest of six children of William Albert Alexander, master builder, and his wife Beatrice, née Daw. Educated at Brockenhurst County School and the University of Reading (B.Sc., 1934), Bert gained first-class honours in chemistry and won an open scholarship to King's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1936; Ph.D., 1938; Sc.D., 1951), where he was awarded first-class honours in the natural science tripos. A King's College senior scholarship and a Ramsay memorial fellowship enabled him to undertake doctoral research under the supervision of Professor (Sir) Eric Rideal in the department of colloid science.

This milieu had such a profound impact on Alexander that he devoted all of his scientific life to the study of colloids and surfaces. From Rideal he also learned to apply the principles of colloid and surface chemistry to biological contexts, a theme in much of his subsequent research. Having completed his doctorate, he was awarded a Rockefeller travelling fellowship to work from December 1938 at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. In September 1939 he returned to a fellowship at King's and to work in Rideal's department on classified war projects. On 17 May 1940 Alexander married Catherine Robson at the register office, Cambridge. In 1944 he became an assistant-director of research. After the war he resumed full-time research activities which led to the publication, with his colleague Paley Johnson, of the influential textbook, Colloid Science (Oxford, 1949).

The direction of Alexander's burgeoning career in Britain—recognized in 1947 by the award of the Tilden lectureship of the Chemical Society of London—was altered by his appointment in 1949 to the foundation chair of applied chemistry at the New South Wales University of Technology (later the University of New South Wales). While he was prompted by his wife's need to escape the rigours of European winters, he was also sympathetic to the university's objectives, which included the promotion of the application of science to the development of industry and commerce. Alexander presided enthusiastically over the rapid expansion of his school and its outposts at Newcastle, Wollongong and Broken Hill, became dean of the faculty of science and was active in the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (State president 1955).

Nonetheless, by 1956 Alexander was completely disillusioned with the governance of the university. Impressed by the academic traditions of Cambridge, he had fought stubbornly to ensure that these basic values would be incorporated into the new university as it endeavoured to free itself from what he saw as the public service mentality from which it had emerged. His hopes were dashed with the appointment as vice-chancellor of (Sir) Philip Baxter, professor of chemical engineering, with whom Alexander had conflicted on university organization.

In November that year Alexander became professor of physical chemistry at the University of Sydney, which he had long believed embodied a more enlightened approach. He persisted in his criticism of university governance in Australia. In his 1965 A. D. Ross lecture at the University of Western Australia, entitled 'University organization and government: a century out-of-date?', he advocated many of the democratic and devolutionary reforms that were to be widely implemented by Australian universities in the 1980s. His reforming zeal, however, was increasingly directed towards improving the teaching of science in government high schools.

At the University of Sydney, Alexander expanded the breadth of his research programmes, collaborating with industry and with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, on whose advisory council he served in 1959-64. He published some 140 scientific papers in internationally recognized journals. Many of his research students (referred to irreverently as 'Alexander's ragtime band') were to contribute significantly to the pre-eminent international position of Australian colloid and surface science. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1960.

'Alex', as he was known outside his family, was a man of considerable warmth, compassion and humility, yet it was not easy to get close to him. He was friendly and even tempered, with a ready smile and a distinctive, plangent laugh. His latter years were clouded by personal tragedy with the death of his wife (1963) and daughter (1966). On 11 December 1965 he married a widow Gisela Gudrum Baker, née Zutavern, at the Presbyterian Church, Pymble. Stricken by a brain tumour in 1969 when serving as dean of science, he died at his Mosman home on 23 May 1970 and was cremated. His wife, and the son of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, 37, no 8, Aug 1970, p 211
  • King's College, Cambridge, Annual Report, 1970, p 17
  • Records of Australian Academy of Science, 2, no 2, Nov 1971, p 61.

Citation details

D. H. Napper, 'Alexander, Albert Ernest (1914–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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