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Halpern, Berthold (1923–1980)

by Klaus Loewald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Berthold Halpern (1923-1980), professor of chemistry, was born on 18 June 1923 in Vienna, son of Szymon Halpern, bank official, and his wife Eugenie (Goldy), née Blasenstein. Evacuated to England with a group of Jewish children in 1938-39, he attended Bournemouth Municipal (Technical) College until he was interned; his brother Ossy made his way to Palestine. Berthold was transported to Australia in the Dunera, reached Melbourne on 3 September 1940 and was again interned, at Tatura. After serving in the 8th Employment Company, Australian Military Forces (1942-46), mainly in Victoria, Halpern worked as an engineer at Telephone & Electrical Industries Pty Ltd in Sydney and was naturalized on 27 March 1947. Granted war matriculation status, he graduated from the University of Sydney with first-class honours in organic chemistry (B.Sc., 1951) and joined Monsanto Chemicals (Australia) Ltd. At the district registrar's office, Chatswood, on 8 June 1951 he married Margaret Dorothea Bruton, née Libbesson, a secretary and divorcee whose son by her previous marriage he adopted. In 1957 Halpern accepted a Salters Institute scholarship at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London (Ph.D., 1959); he returned to Monsanto as research manager to work on antibacterial agents.

In 1962 he was invited to join Professor Frank Dwyer as senior research fellow at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University, Canberra. Following Dwyer's death, in 1963 Halpern took a Syntex fellowship in Mexico City. From 1964 he worked in the instrumentation research laboratory in the department of genetics at Stanford University, California, United States of America, on new methods for detecting extraterrestrial life by using mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to seek amino acids. As a senior investigator for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he evaluated material collected by the Apollo Lunar and data from the Viking Mars missions; he did not discount the possibility of life on Mars.

Returning to New South Wales in 1970 as foundation professor of chemistry at Wollongong University College (University of Wollongong from 1975), Halpern soon attracted massive research funding and installed a GC-MS computer system. He developed new techniques for sequencing proteins, and for diagnosing metabolic disorders and genetic defects in children, and collaborated on biomedical research with Stanford University and with biochemists in Oslo, Norway. Awarded Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee medal (1977), he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1978. Alone or with colleagues, he published more than 130 scientific papers.

Reluctant to speak about his early years (possibly because his parents may have been murdered by the Nazis), Halpern was an agnostic and essentially a private person, devoted to his family, stamp collecting, bridge, chess and gardening. He remained a loyal supporter of the Collingwood Football Club from the time of his army service in Victoria. His friends called him 'Tiny'—he was over six feet (183 cm) tall. Suffering from chronic asthma and bronchitis, he died of a sudden heart attack on 15 November 1980 at his Mount Ousley home and was cremated. His wife and son survived him. In 1981 the University of Sydney awarded him a D.Sc. A Halpern memorial lecture was established at the University of Wollongong.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 5, no 4, 1983
  • Dunera News, 27, June 1993, p 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Sept 1970, 2 Nov 1978
  • Australian, 26 Nov 1980
  • naturalisation file, A435/1, item 46/4/2401 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Klaus Loewald, 'Halpern, Berthold (1923–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/halpern-berthold-10399/text18427, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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