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Jordan, Denis Oswald (1914–1982)

by John Coates

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Denis Oswald Jordan (1914-1982), physical and inorganic chemist, was born on 23 September 1914 at Southgate, London, second son of Walter William Jordan, accountant’s clerk, and his wife Rosa, née Waters. Denis attended Minchenden Grammar School, Southgate. Leaving school in 1933, he was fortunate to obtain, in a time of economic depression, the position of laboratory assistant at the British Launderers’ Research Association, which was supported by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. He attended night classes at the Sir John Cass Technical Institute (College), University of London (B.Sc. (Special) Chemistry, 1936; M.Sc., 1938; Ph.D., 1945; D.Sc., 1953). For his master’s degree he researched the hydrolysis of soaps, using the novel glass electrode to determine the acidity or alkalinity (pH) of aqueous solutions. In 1939 `Doj’ was appointed assistant lecturer in applied chemistry at University College, Nottingham (University of Nottingham). He married Margery Gauge on 30 December 1939 at Fox Lane Congregational Church, Palmers Green, Southgate.

For his doctoral thesis Jordan worked on the surface chemistry of soap solutions. With the organic chemist J. Masson Gulland he attempted the physico-chemical characterisation of the little understood nucleic acids. In 1947 Gulland, Jordan and C. J. Threlfall perfected a method for preparing highly polymeric deoxyribonucleic acids from calf thymus glands. By carrying out pH titrations Gulland, Jordan and H. F. W. Taylor confirmed that DNA was a linear polymer of phosphate-linked sugar groups and that there was specific hydrogen bonding between the purine and pyrimidine bases. These results contributed to the postulation of a molecular structure for DNA in 1953 by J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick. In 1948 Jordan was awarded a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to study at Princeton University, United States of America, with the physical chemist (Sir) Hugh Taylor. Back in England he continued work on nucleic acids and surface chemistry and commenced studies of synthetic polymers, completing his time at Nottingham as a reader.

In 1953 Jordan was appointed to the chair of physical and inorganic chemistry at the University of Adelaide. Arriving in Australia early in 1954, he found a discipline and a department needing renewal. He applied himself to this task with characteristic energy and enthusiasm and by 1966 the department, with nineteen academic staff members, was acknowledged as the foremost polymer chemistry school in Australia. A busy supervisor and an excellent lecturer, Jordan also published ninety-seven research articles and a book, The Chemistry of Nucleic Acids (1960). He was dean of the faculty of science (1958-59), a member of the finance committee (1969-77) and the university council (1971-80), and pro vice-chancellor (1974-75). In 1979 he retired as professor emeritus from the university.

Jordan was a member (1958-75) and president (1958-59, 1961-62) of the council of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering. In 1970 the South Australian government appointed him chairman of a committee to investigate all aspects of pollution in the State. The report, which resulted in the setting up of a Department of Environment and Conservation and an advisory, extra-governmental Environmental Protection Council, was seminal for subsequent environmental planning in South Australia. He was a fellow (1970) of the Australian Academy of Science and a member (1976-79) of its council. President (1978-79) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, he was awarded its Batteard-Jordan Australian Polymer (1974) and Leighton memorial (1981) medals. In 1980 he was appointed AO. Next year the University of Adelaide named its physical and inorganic chemistry building after him.

A keen patron of Scotch College, Adelaide, he served on the council of governors from 1956 (chairman 1961-81), and claimed that in the interest of the college he had consumed more haggis than most native-born Scots. His hobbies were camping, gardening and listening to music. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died of carcinoid syndrome on 12 February 1982 at St Georges, Adelaide, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. J. Best, Discoveries by Chemists (1987)
  • J. H. Coates, `Denis Oswald Jordan 1914-1982’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 237
  • Cluaran, 1982, p 112.

Citation details

John Coates, 'Jordan, Denis Oswald (1914–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jordan-denis-oswald-12707/text22911, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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