Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Baker, Thomas (1854–1928)

by Paul H. De Serville

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Baker (1854-1928), photographic scientist and philanthropist, was born on 23 June 1854 at Montacute, Somerset, England, son of Charles Baker, blacksmith, and his wife Ann, née Beaton. The family migrated to Adelaide in 1865, where Charles began business as blacksmith, wheelwright and coachbuilder. Thomas joined his father but left to become a pharmaceutical chemist at Maryborough, Queensland, in 1876. There, on 26 January 1877 at St Paul's Church of England, he married ALICE (1855-1935), daughter of William Edward Shaw, postmaster at Raymond Terrace, New South Wales, and his wife Emma, née Coombe.

By 1881 the Bakers had moved to Melbourne where Thomas matriculated in six subjects and began medicine at the university in 1882, only to discontinue it the next year. He started experimenting with the production of photographic dry plates and by 1884 had sufficiently mastered the technique to begin business, with an office in the city and a laboratory at Abbotsford. Tradition has it that Baker, his wife and her sister Eleanor (1857-1948) used to work by night developing photographs and spend the day taking orders.

In 1887 Baker went into partnership with J. J. Rouse as importers and producers of photographic material. Rouse, a forceful extrovert, attended to sales while Baker, quiet and earnest, directed production and worked in the laboratory. Branches were opened in other colonies in 1890-92 and Rouse took charge of the Sydney office. Baker & Rouse grew to be the largest suppliers of photographic material in Australia at a time when, with the development of the Eastman camera, there was a boom in amateur photography. In 1908 the firm amalgamated with the London Kodak company to form Kodak (Australasia) with Baker and Rouse as joint managing directors. A larger factory was built and production of new material, including roll-film, began; in 1924 the firm manufactured the first X-ray film in Australia. Baker's commercial interests were not limited to photography; during World War I he had been associated with munitions production and he spent much money in search of oil in Australia and New Zealand.

In appearance Baker must have seemed the quintessence of the successful Edwardian businessman, wearing a silver imperial and motoring up to town from his seaside estate in a Rolls-Royce. He remained an approachable man, however, and was distinguished from fellow industrialists by his interest in scientific research and philanthropy. In both he was supported by his wife. Childless, they helped their relations generously and provided their employees with a company doctor. Often their donations were anonymous but they were known to have supported, among other charities, the Red Cross, the Big Brotherhood, Toc H and the Limbless Soldiers. At the end of his life Baker was president of the Melbourne Rotary Club.

Their greatest benefaction was to the Alfred Hospital. In 1913 Baker gave money for cancer research, and later took his friend Dr J. F. Mackeddie to England where they investigated a new cure for tuberculosis. Financed by Baker, Mackeddie set up a biochemistry department at the Alfred in 1922. When the new building was opened in 1926 the Bakers announced that they would maintain the laboratory for the next five years, enabling research to be carried out; their first grant, paid characteristically in a lump sum, was £20,500. The laboratory was named after the Bakers and Eleanor Shaw. In 1927 Baker decided to increase his support, but died suddenly at Mornington on 4 December 1928. His wife and Eleanor Shaw, with J. J. Rouse and his family, continued to help the Baker Institute during the Depression. Under the wills of Thomas and Alice Baker and Eleanor Shaw a trust was set up to underwrite the research work of the institute, which by 1974 had received nearly $4 million, as well as to aid other charities.

Besides her support for the Women's Hospital and the Talbot Colony, Alice Baker was prominent in the National Council of Women and represented Australia at the Toronto meeting of the International Council of Women. Baker received no public honours; Alice Baker was appointed C.B.E. in 1933. She died on 20 March 1935 at South Yarra.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia (Melb, 1955)
  • Australasian Photo-Review, 15 Dec 1928
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Jan 1926, 6 Dec 1928, 22 Mar 1935
  • T. E. Lowe, The Thomas Baker, Alice Baker and Eleanor Shaw Medical Research Institute … 1926-1975 (copy at Baker Institute).

Citation details

Paul H. De Serville, 'Baker, Thomas (1854–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-thomas-5110/text8537, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 8 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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