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Boden, Alexander (1913–1993)

by Robert J. Hunter

This article was published online in 2017

Alexander Boden (1913–1993), manufacturing chemist, author and publisher of science textbooks, and philanthropist, was born on 28 May 1913 in North Sydney, eldest of three children of Irish-born parents William Boden, draper’s salesman, and his wife Helena Isabel, née Hutchinson. Alex was educated at Willoughby Public and North Sydney Boys’ High schools. Gaining his Leaving certificate in 1929, he won an exhibition to the University of Sydney (BSc, 1934).

Following a stint working in a chemical laboratory recycling waste, Boden engaged in several business ventures, including in 1940 establishing with a partner, Ray Russell, a  chemical manufacturing company, Alex Minter & Co. Pty Ltd. In 1948 he set up another company, Hardman Chemicals Pty Ltd; it was based in Marrickville. He had married Elizabeth Constance McVicar, a biochemist, on 20 November 1943 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney.

Hardman Chemicals became one of the principal sources of the insecticide DDT in Australia in the 1950s, until it was condemned for its side effects and eventually banned in the United States of America. Though not convinced of the wisdom of the prohibition, Boden switched his attention to a range of other industrial chemicals, some of which were produced under licence from larger overseas manufacturers. He also began a biological products company, Bioclone Australia Pty Ltd, in 1981; it specialised in monoclonal antibodies.

Boden enjoyed a parallel career as an author and publisher. His first book, A Handbook of Chemistry for Advanced Secondary School Students, appeared in 1937. An Introduction to Modern Chemistry (1946) was published by his own company, Science Press, which he had established in 1943. It set a new pattern for texts on chemistry, enlivening the bare factual properties of chemical compounds and their preparation with information on their uses in industry and agriculture. It was also tested with practising teachers during its development, a technique he was to employ for future school texts. Meanwhile the Handbook went through ten editions by 1957, being expanded and modified each time. Senior Chemistry (1962) was followed by Introduction to Science for High School Students (1964). Covering all aspects of science, it was to have sales of more than three hundred thousand copies.

By the early 1970s Boden was preparing a more modern and ambitious high school/first year college text, Chemical Science: A Course in Chemistry, which appeared first in 1976 under the authorship of Robert Hunter, Peter Simpson, and Donald Strancks. Boden was producer, in which role he was responsible for presentation and layout, and for the final form of the contents. With colour on almost every page and liberally sprinkled with cartoons and photographs of young men and women performing laboratory tasks, the book sold one hundred thousand copies before it was replaced by his final book. In Chemtext: Chemistry for Senior Students (1986) he returned to the role of author when he was over seventy, yet the 512-page tome retained the enthusiasm of a young man and was ‘imbued with the joy of chemistry’ (Emsley 1988, 79).

Throughout his career Boden practised philanthropy. The chief beneficiaries were the University of Sydney and later the Australian Academy of Science (AAS). In 1946, when he had been far from wealthy, he paid for renovations to the university’s third-year chemistry laboratory, at a cost of around £1,200 ($2,400). A great supporter of the work of Professor Hans Freeman, in 1972 he co-founded the Foundation for Inorganic Chemistry with Freeman. He donated $500,000 to establish a chair of human nutrition, named for him, in the department of biochemistry. Later he also supported the creation of the Sydney University Nutrition Research Foundation to ensure a continuation of funds for research in that area.

In 1977 Boden became a member of the AAS’s Science and Industry Forum, and in 1979 offered to meet the costs of an initial number of specialist meetings on biological subjects. In 1985 the arrangement was extended, with a grant of $200,000 over four years to establish the academy’s Boden Research Conferences. Elected a fellow of the AAS in 1982 and appointed AO in 1984, he received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Sydney in 1984. He was awarded the Leighton memorial medal in 1986 for his many services to chemistry.

Apart from his industrial and publishing interests, Boden enjoyed weekends at his dairy farm near Windsor in Sydney’s west. The spacious family home at Roseville, with swimming pool, tennis court, and garden, was one of several residences used by the family and for entertaining guests. A private and kind man, he was a keen observer of the world and ‘diligent in pursuit of answers’ (Ross 1997, 534). Survived by his wife, son, and four daughters, he died on 18 December 1993 at Roseville, Sydney, and was cremated. The Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise, and Eating Disorders and the Alexander Boden Laboratories at the University of Sydney are named after him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Emsley, John. ‘A New Age of Chemistry.’ New Scientist, 28 April 1988, 79–80
  • Ross, I. G. ‘Alexander Boden 1913–1993.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 11, no. 4 (December 1997): 523–40  

Citation details

Robert J. Hunter, 'Boden, Alexander (1913–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boden-alexander-17438/text29161, published online 2017, accessed online 23 August 2019.

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