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Guthrie, Frederick Bickell (1861–1927)

by C. W. Wrigley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Frederick Bickell Guthrie (1861-1927), agricultural chemist, was born on 10 December 1861 in Mauritius, son of Frederick Guthrie, and his wife Agnes, née Bickell. His father, a fellow of the Royal Society, was professor of chemistry in Mauritius and later became professor of physics at the Royal School of Mines, London. Frederick junior was educated at University College, London. After two years study for a doctoral degree under Professor Zincke at the University of Marburg, Germany, in 1882 he became demonstrator in chemistry at Queen's College, Cork, Ireland. In 1888 he was appointed demonstrator in chemistry at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington, London, under (Sir) Thomas Thorpe.

Guthrie came to Australia in 1890 to take up duties as demonstrator in chemistry at the University of Sydney under Archibald Liversidge. Although he occupied this position briefly, his association with the university continued throughout his career—he served as acting professor of chemistry in 1896-97, 1904-05 and 1908-09.

Guthrie's main contributions to science were made as chemist with the Department of Agriculture. He was appointed on 1 January 1892, shortly after the formation of the department; he retired in January 1924. In his first job, assisting the wheat-breeder William Farrer with his experimental cross-breeding, Guthrie devised models of mill and bakery conditions suitable for 50 to 100 gramme samples—at a time when wheat-breeding was in its infancy and when selection for suitable grain quality was hardly considered by overseas breeders. This kind of scientific co-operation was unique at the time, though it has later become an integral part of wheat-breeding.

As a result of Guthrie's work, the suitability of potential parent wheats could be assessed, and newly produced cross-bred lines could be tested early. Farrer and Guthrie used Indian wheats to confer early maturity and tolerance to drought, combined with Canadian Fife parents which contributed good baking quality. Later they incorporated wheats that had been selected for suitability to the Australian climate. The many successful varieties that resulted helped to improve the quality and production of wheat early in the twentieth century and have formed the basis of subsequent breeding of quality wheats for Australia.

Guthrie also added to the knowledge of the chemical composition of wheat flour in relation to quality. His duties with the Department of Agriculture involved many other branches of agricultural chemistry—particularly soil and fertiliser analyses, and even the possible preparation of alcohol from prickly pear or water hyacinth. Guthrie was author or co-author of 180 scientific articles. He was president of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1903-04 (and joint honorary secretary in 1906-10) and of the State branch of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute in 1920-21. He presided over the chemical section in 1901 and the agricultural section in 1913 of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, served on the council of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales from 1910, was an original member of the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry from 1916, a member of the Australian National Research Council from 1921 and a fellow of both the (Royal) Institute of Chemistry and the Chemical Society of London.

Occasionally Guthrie wrote verse for the Bulletin and 'was happiest in the company of artists'—'Hop' was a close friend. On 15 November 1890 at Neutral Bay he had married Ada Adams; their two sons Frederick and Malcolm gave their lives in World War I. Survived by his wife and daughter, Guthrie died from cancer at Moss Vale on 7 February 1927 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His memory is perpetuated in the Guthrie medal, awarded every three years by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.

Select Bibliography

  • Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, 6 (1895), p 159, 9 (1898), p 363
  • Department of Agriculture (New South Wales), Science Bulletin, 1912, no 7, 1914, no 11
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, 40 (1973), p 368
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 4 (Nov 1978–Apr 79), no 1, p 7, and for bibliography
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr 1923, 8 Feb 1927
  • Bulletin, 10 Feb 1927
  • staff file (New South Wales Dept of Agriculture).

Citation details

C. W. Wrigley, 'Guthrie, Frederick Bickell (1861–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/guthrie-frederick-bickell-6509/text11169, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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