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Heymann, Erich (1901–1949)

by T. H. Spurling

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

Erich Heymann (1901-1949), chemist and academic, was born on 20 February 1901 at Frankfurt am Main, Germany, son of Hugo Heymann and his wife Emmy, née Elsas. Educated (1907-19) at the Wohler-Real Gymnasium, Frankfurt, Erich worked before and after school to help produce food during World War I; several bouts of pneumonia left him unfit for military service. He studied in the faculty of science, University of Munich, for three months in 1920, then enrolled at the University of Frankfurt (Ph.D., 1924).

From 1924 Heymann was employed as a research-assistant at the Institute of Colloid Science, Frankfurt, before joining the staff of the department of physical chemistry, University of Frankfurt, as senior demonstrator in 1928; next year he was appointed lecturer. In September 1933 Adolf Hitler dismissed Jewish scientists from German universities. Heymann, who was well known in his field, gained asylum in London. He worked for almost three years under Professor F. G. Donnan at the Sir William Ramsay Laboratory for Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, University College. Through the office of the Academic Assistance Council, a Carnegie Corporation grant of £550 per annum, given to the University of Melbourne, brought Heymann to Australia.

Joining the university's chemistry department in June 1936, he was promoted to senior lecturer in 1938 and was naturalized that year. He obtained a D.Sc. (University of Melbourne) in 1939 and became associate-professor in 1945. Although Heymann was at the university for only thirteen years, he made a lasting impact on Australian science in the fields of electrochemistry, colloid and surface chemistry, and the study of molten salts. Sir David Masson and E. J. Hartung had been involved in colloid and surface chemistry, and (Sir) Ian Wark had carried out research on flotation processes in the department's laboratories. Heymann widened and added depth to the effort. His first project was suggested by Sir David Rivett who was interested in reducing water evaporation from dams by spreading films of organic materials on the surface. Heymann and his students failed to solve the practical problem, but they did contribute to theoretical understanding of the free energies of surface films on liquids. Their contribution to molten salt chemistry was to provide high quality experimental data on viscosities, electrical conductivity, surface tensions and molar volumes of molten salts.

Big, fresh faced and friendly, Heymann had a style of lecturing and an ease of manner that did much to break down the rigidity between staff and students. It was not until Heymann commenced lecturing to them in 1937 that first-year chemistry students met a teacher who treated them as individuals and showed obvious sympathy for their academic problems. A keen walker, he often spent part of the summer in the Victorian Alps, hiking and writing. His other main recreation was music, the love of which he shared with his students by taking them to concerts and operas.

An associate (1937) and fellow (1944) of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, Heymann was vice-president (1948) of its Victorian branch. In 1942 he was awarded the institute's H. G. Smith medal and also the Grimwade prize for industrial chemistry. He gave the Liversidge lecture to the meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Perth in 1947. Entitled 'Potentials at Interfaces', it concluded: 'It is often considered that electrochemistry has achieved a state of completion . . . I . . . hope to have shown that particularly with respect to the origin of potentials and the structure of double layers produced, a large field of fundamental importance is unexplored which merits closer attention'.

While travelling in the United States of America on a Carnegie grant, Heymann died of coronary vascular disease on 22 November 1949 at Chicago, Illinois, and was cremated. His legacy is the strong network of surface and colloid scientists in Australian research establishments and the contributions that they have made to international science and local industry. The R.A.C.I. named its applied research medal for 1986 in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Radford, The Chemistry Department of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1978)
  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Journal and Proceedings, 17, 1950, p 45
  • Chemistry in Australia, 48, 1981, p 224.

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Citation details

T. H. Spurling, 'Heymann, Erich (1901–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 September 2017.

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

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