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Davies, William (Bill) (1895–1966)

by Q. N. Porter

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

William (Bill) Davies (1895-1966), professor of chemistry, was born on 2 February 1895 at Prestwich, Lancashire, England, son of Joe Senior Davies, a cotton-goods salesman, and his wife Clara, née Sheard. After attending the Standard Grammar School, Whitefield, William entered the Victoria University of Manchester (B.Sc., 1917; M.Sc., 1918; D.Sc., 1929) where he studied under Professor Arthur Lapworth, a pioneer of mechanistic organic chemistry. During World War I Davies investigated the chemistry of mustard gas and nitrophenyl hydrazine. In 1918 he moved to Lincoln College, Oxford (D.Phil., 1921), as a Ramsay research fellow. There he was associated with W. H. Perkin junior and developed an enduring interest in heterocyclic chemistry.

In 1924 Davies was appointed lecturer at the University of Melbourne. From the outset, he realized that a strong research base was essential for the growth of organic chemistry, and spent some £2000 on chemicals and apparatus. He cherished an Oxford tradition that laboratory research took priority over teaching duties. Dissatisfied with the still-inadequate laboratory conditions and with the syllabus (no organic chemistry was taught to first-year students), he investigated other possible posts while overseas in 1928, but returned to Melbourne to concentrate on his own research and training his research students. He was promoted to associate-professor in 1935. With his team he investigated the properties of sulphonyl fluorides. In the late 1930s, when his interest turned to biochemical development, he studied vitamin chemistry, particularly the vitamin A content of Australian fish, work for which he won the Grimwade prize.

Davies had an idiosyncratic, exasperating, but endearing lecturing style, and was forthright and totally undevious in his views. A resident tutor at Queen's College until 1936, he married Lucy Gardner on 10 March that year at the Methodist Church, Middle Park. In World War II Davies's major work was on drug synthesis and toxic gas production. He was a member (from 1942) of a sub-committee of the Chemical Defence Board.

In 1953 Davies became the university's first professor of organic chemistry. As well as furthering his research in heterocyclic chemistry, he branched out into the area of carcinogenic compounds. From the late 1950s he and his associates investigated possible links between high temperatures in cooking processes and the production of small amounts of cancer-causing agents. Following his retirement in 1961, he was appointed a senior fellow of the Anti-Cancer Council.

Beyond the university, Bill Davies was a strong supporter of the chemical profession and an active participant in the organic chemistry group of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. He was a keen fly-fisher and gardener, and was widely read. His later years were saddened by the deaths of his wife and their two daughters, but he was able to recover from these blows and worked in the laboratory almost until his death on 20 October 1966 at Malvern. He was buried in Brighton cemetery. His estate, sworn for probate at $67,313, included a bequest to the Methodist Ladies' College for a literature prize named in honour of his daughter Dorothy Clare Davies.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Radford, A History of the Chemistry Department of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1978)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Dec 1966
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20 Oct 1954
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Aug 1962.

Citation details

Q. N. Porter, 'Davies, William (Bill) (1895–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davies-william-bill-9918/text17561, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 October 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 13

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