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Murphy, Robert Kenneth (1887–1972)

by Neville Whiffen

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

Robert Kenneth Murphy (1887-1972), chemical engineer, was born on 29 July 1887 at Newark, New Jersey, United States of America, one of five children of William Augustus Murphy, paper-mill proprietor, and his wife Georgia, née Hunt. At the age of 7 Robert was sent to a school near Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. His later schooling at Ridley College, St Catharines, was interrupted by acute peritonitis and long spells in hospital. After attending Horace Mann School, New York, he studied chemical engineering at Columbia University (Chem.E., 1910). To build up his strength, Murphy spent much of his spare time playing sport: he was stroke of the university VIII, captain of the ice-hockey team and vice-captain of the football team. In 1910 he entered Grossherzogliche Technische Hochschule zu Darmstadt (Dr.Ing., 1913), Germany. Aided by his friend George Merck, he visited many of that country's chemical plants. Late in 1912 he was invited to join the staff of Columbia University.

At Columbia Murphy had met Dr Percival Cole, vice-principal of Teachers' College, Sydney. He accepted Cole's invitation to investigate the possibilities of establishing professional training in industrial chemistry and chemical engineering in Australia, and reached Sydney on 30 September 1914. Although he found James Nangle, director of technical education, to be a sound administrator, he encountered many obstructions in establishing his courses. On 20 January 1915 he was appointed lecturer-in-charge of chemistry and head of the science department at Sydney Technical College for an initial term of five years. At St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Sydney, on 30 September that year he married Gladys Ruth Gray (d.1963). They lived at Mosman.

From the beginning, Murphy insisted that entrance standards for his several diploma courses should be the same as at the University of Sydney and that the associateship of S.T.C. should have 'guinea value'. In time the associateship was recognized by the Royal Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland as an acceptable qualification for its A.R.I.C. Murphy's appointment was confirmed in 1920, following an inquiry into complaints Nangle had received about the science department and the lecturer-in-charge. Described as 'a young, energetic foreigner', Murphy found himself 'in charge of a department starved of funds and equipment, accustomed to a gentlemanly and undemanding style of supervision, under which the senior teachers had carved out their own little empires'. He was seen as brash, 'with a flair for showmanship and a marked ability to upset his fellow-workers'. On one occasion he attracted his students' attention by throwing sausages (frozen in liquid nitrogen) which exploded when they hit the floor. He never lost his impatience with what he termed Australians' 'lackadaisical approach to life'.

An excellent administrator and lecturer, Murphy attracted many capable scientists to his staff, among them Frank Dwyer and (Sir) Ronald Nyholm. His students learned how to make chemical and metallurgical products, such as aluminium, carborundum and red ceramic glazes, in demonstration plants which they built themselves. They were also given practical knowledge in other fields—microscopy, metallurgy, photography, economics and marketing.

Murphy was awarded King George V's jubilee medal (1935) and a Carnegie medal and grant (1939). He was a founder (1917), president (1936) and fellow (1945) of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, and a committee-member (1928-52) and president (1934-35) of its New South Wales branch. Naturalized in 1936, he was refused leave in 1941 to join the Australian Military Forces as chemical warfare officer, General Staff, Eastern Command, with the rank of captain, but was a chemical adviser to the army during World War II.

From 1921 Murphy had campaigned for a degree-granting institute of technology. He was appointed principal of S.T.C. in 1950. The New South Wales University of Technology, of which he was a councillor (1948-52), awarded him an honorary D.Sc. in 1957. Following his retirement as principal in December 1951, he lectured in the school of chemical engineering at the N.S.W.U.T. until 1956. He was a founder of the Australian Welding Institute; after many years he retired as its federal and New South Wales secretary in 1960.

Known as 'the Doc', Murphy retained his rich American accent, 'infectious laughter' and charming personality. He belonged to Warringah Bowling Club for fifty years, and regularly met friends and past students at the County Clare Hotel, Broadway. Survived by his son and three daughters, he died on 31 May 1972 at Royal North Shore Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Neill, Technically and Further (Syd, 1991)
  • University of New South Wales, University News, Nov 1940, July 1972
  • Chemical Engineering in Australia, June 1990, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Dec 1935, 13 Dec 1944, 5 Jan 1945, 5 Dec 1951
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney), 11 June 1972
  • naturalisation file A659/1, item 1941/1/3120 (National Archives of Australia)
  • R. K. Murphy, series 13/9329, item 49/P26/90766 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dept of Education (New South Wales) Archives, Sydney, staff file
  • H. de Berg, interview with R. K. Murphy (transcript, 1966, National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Neville Whiffen, 'Murphy, Robert Kenneth (1887–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murphy-robert-kenneth-11206/text19977, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 28 May 2017.

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

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