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Lions, Francis (1901–1972)

by R. W. Rickards and A. M. Sargeson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Francis Lions (1901-1972), organic chemist, was born on 30 November 1901 in Perth, second son of John Maximillian Lions, a Swedish-born engineer, and his wife Mary, née McDonald, who came from Scotland. The family moved to Sydney in 1903. Frank attended Sydney Boys' High School, where he was dux and captain of the school. In the Leaving certificate examination (1918) he came first in the State in chemistry and second in physics. At the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1923), he excelled at various sports, including cycling, rugby, boxing and diving; his face displayed the scars of these activities. He graduated with first-class honours and the university medals in chemistry (1922) and organic chemistry (1923).

Awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship in 1923, Lions worked in England at the Victoria University of Manchester (Ph.D., 1925) under Professor (Sir) Robert Robinson and accompanied him to Brasenose College, Oxford. In 1926 Lions returned to the University of Sydney as lecturer and demonstrator in chemistry. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, on 2 November 1935 he married Wilga Oscella Moore. She died in 1950. On 18 August 1951 he married with Presbyterian forms Jean Elizabeth Ross at her father's Haberfield home. Both his wives were chemists and schoolteachers.

His first research paper, published with Robinson in 1925, had concerned model synthetic compounds related to the molecular structure of the plant alkaloid brucine. It was the forerunner of an extensive series of publications, up to 1968, dealing primarily with the synthesis and reactions of heterocyclic organic compounds. Lions's knowledge of heterocyclic chemistry was monumental, and he usually lectured without notes. He recognized that certain heterocyclic compounds would bind to metals, and in the late 1940s began to think about the design of organic molecules which would encapsulate metals tightly. Small molecules able to bind metals at one or two sites were well known, but the possibility of wrapping up a metal with a single molecule binding at six sites had been recognized in only one instance, that of Komplexon (1,2-ethanediamine tetraacetic acid), and this discovery was then not widely known.

Lions discussed his ideas with an inorganic chemist Francis Dwyer who was enthusiastic; the two men began a significant and fruitful scientific collaboration. They and their students synthesised the organic compounds and their metal chelate complexes, and established their properties. These molecules became justly famous because of their design elements and high stabilities. It is a tribute to Lions's knowledge and foresight that he recognized all the ingredients essential for success with such molecules, including the necessary types of binding atoms, the atoms needed to link them, and the spatial requirements of the metal and the binding atoms. It was grand design some twenty years ahead of its time, and a milestone in the chemical literature. Proud of his classical linguistic knowledge, Lions called the molecules 'sexidentates' (six-toothed), and was offended when the editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society changed this to 'sexadentates' because he thought they would be confused with contraceptives. In the 1950s he toured the United States of America, informing many inorganic chemists about these important compounds and their variants.

Frank Lions was an imaginative chemist and an enthusiastic teacher, remembered with admiration and affection by his students and colleagues. His rational views on science and human affairs influenced not only the students but also the conduct of the university. Promoted senior lecturer in 1944 and reader in 1946, he deserved appointment to a university chair, but 'imported' professors were preferred for such positions. As the sole fellow of the university senate elected by the graduates from 1949 to 1959, Lions was a significant force for inducing change in the university, and was one of the first to recognize the need for a student health service.

His contributions to science were officially acknowledged by his election as president of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1946 and the award of its medal for 1965. Lions died of a coronary artery occlusion on 13 March 1972 at Hornsby hospital and was cremated with Methodist forms; his wife survived him, as did the daughter and two of the three sons of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 100, 1966, p 93, 105, 1972, p 56
  • Reviews of Pure and Applied Chemistry, 19, 1969, p 177
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1919, 18, 27 July 1923, 16 Apr 1932, 3 Oct 1936, 10 Mar 1943, 6 Nov 1946, 10 Nov 1949, 26 Mar 1966.

Citation details

R. W. Rickards and A. M. Sargeson, 'Lions, Francis (1901–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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