Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Leeper, Geoffrey Winthrop (1903–1986)

by Peter Attiwill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Geoffrey Winthrop Leeper (1903-1986), agricultural chemist, was born on 5 March 1903 at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, seventh child of Irish-born Alexander Leeper, warden of Trinity, and third child of his Victorian-born second wife Mary Elizabeth, née Moule.  At the insistence of his father, Geoffrey was given a thoroughly classical education in Latin and Greek while attending Melbourne Church of England Grammar School.  He matriculated as dux of the school, winning several first-class honours and two State exhibitions.  A sickly, shy and reticent child, he added to his father’s concerns by developing a stronger interest in the sciences than classics, while also becoming a gifted, profoundly knowledgeable musician.

At the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1924; M.Sc., 1926), Leeper resided in Trinity and became its organist in 1923.  Given his deeply religious upbringing, his undergraduate years were a time of transition as he moved towards agnosticism and uncompromising rationalism.  In 1923-24 he played chess for the State.  Although not strongly left-wing himself, he admired his room-mate Brian Fitzpatrick and, later, his first wife Kathleen.  In 1935 Leeper would chair a small meeting convened by Fitzpatrick that established the Australian Council for Civil Liberties.

After graduation Leeper’s interest in organic chemistry led to work at the Commonwealth Explosives Factory, Maribyrnong (1925-26), a temporary lectureship at the University of Adelaide (1927) and time at the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland.  In 1930 Professor (Sir) Samuel Wadham enticed him to a position in soils research at the University of Melbourne’s school of agriculture, and in 1933 he was appointed lecturer in agricultural chemistry, becoming associate professor in 1946 and professor in 1962.

Starting with the trace elements essential for plants, and progressing to the difficult elements manganese and molybdenum, Leeper’s interest in soils continued throughout his life.  He initiated and worked on soil surveys in Victoria, and fought, sometimes bitterly, on the subject of soil classification.  His Introduction to Soil Science (1948) became a classic textbook, running to four editions and a fifth (1993) with revisions by N. C. Uren.  (Leeper refused royalties for work undertaken in university time.)  He edited and contributed to The Australian Environment (1949), another standard reference text, and The Evolution of Living Organisms (1962).

Leeper emphasised understanding in his lectures.  His insistence on accuracy intimidated many students, and his own great memory led him to maintain that they should listen and absorb rather than take notes.  He imparted not only a knowledge of soils and inorganic chemistry, but also an appreciation of plain speaking and writing, of rational thinking, and of scientific philosophers such as Sir Karl Popper.  Never a self-promoter, nor a prolific author or grant-winner, he exerted influence through his unyielding intellect and determination to uphold standards.

Angered by comments in Sir Keith Murray’s report on Australian universities (1957) about high failure rates, Leeper, as president (1966) of the university’s staff association, maintained a campaign against any external undermining of teaching and research.  In 1969 his association with the university ended acrimoniously when colleagues in the school of agriculture, concerned that the failure rate in agricultural chemistry would be excessive, demanded a second examiner.  His high standards were vindicated.  Refusing an apology from the dean, Professor Carl Forster, Leeper withdrew from his planned retirement dinner and had nothing more to do with the faculty.

Tall, sparse of figure, with an intense ascetic face, at times quizzical or boyish, Leeper was loyal to a fault to his friends, and more comfortable with most men than with most women.  He never married.  Fond of conversation, he was a stimulating colleague at lunchtimes.  He lived a spartan and fairly reclusive life in a flat in North Melbourne, and wrote penetratingly on many topics, including H. G. Wells, Australia’s population, climatology, music and clear expression.  After retiring, he consulted for two years in the United States of America—his work leading to Managing the Heavy Metals on the Land (1978)—and collaborated with Peter Attiwill on Forest Soils and Nutrient Cycles (1987).  His love of music continued:  blessed (or cursed, he said) with perfect pitch, he would wince at concerts when a player was slightly off the note.  Occasionally he gave private clavichord recitals.

Elected a foundation member (1927), fellow (1946) and honorary life fellow (1948) of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, and a fellow (1960) of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, Geoffrey Leeper was also a member, president (1959-60) and life member (1970) of the Royal Society of Victoria.  He died on 15 December 1986 at Parkville, Melbourne, and was cremated.  He is immortalised in a gargoyle on the eastern wall of the Evan Burge Building, Trinity College, and honoured by the Australian Society of Soil Science’s annual lecture in his name.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Watson, Brian Fitzpatrick, 1978
  • J. Poynter & C. Rasmussen, A Place Apart, 1996
  • J. Poynter, Doubts and Certainties, 1997
  • Chemistry in Australia, vol 61, no 1, 1994, p 455
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 December 1986, p 12
  • private information
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Peter Attiwill, 'Leeper, Geoffrey Winthrop (1903–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leeper-geoffrey-winthrop-14164/text25176, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017