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Nicholas, Alfred Michael (1881–1937)

by John M. Wall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

This is a shared entry with George Richard Rich Nicholas

Alfred Michael Nicholas (1881-1937), merchant and philanthropist, and George Richard Rich Nicholas (1884-1960), pharmacist and philanthropist, were born on 14 September 1881 and 19 May 1884 at Majorca, Victoria, eldest and second sons of Michael Nicholas, Cornish miner, and his Geelong-born wife Ellen, née Anstee. The family lived at Moonta, South Australia, and in Victoria at Majorca, Rutherglen and South Melbourne. Alfred and George were educated at state schools. George qualified as a pharmacist in July 1912 and opened a pharmacy in Punt Road, Windsor. He maintained his registration until his death. Alfred established himself as a grocer and later as an importer and merchant.

When World War I cut off German supplies of acetylsalicylic acid, better known as aspirin, Attorney-General W. M. Hughes, announced that German patents and trade marks would be suspended and then granted to any home-based manufacturer who could meet the required standards of purity. Using kerosene tins and kitchen utensils borrowed from his wife, George set out to react salicylic acid, a white powder, with acetic anhydride, an acrid-smelling liquid. No information existed in Australia and the plant was of the most primitive kind. After much perserverance he made the first Australian acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin, but it was impure. With the help of freelance entrepreneur Henry Woolf Shmith, after many weeks of experimenting he had a batch of pure aspirin. On 12 June 1915, they applied under wartime legislation to take over the trade name 'Aspirin' from Bayer. Officialdom ignored their application until Frank Anstey prodded Hughes into having the government analyst test their product. On 17 September Hughes announced that it was absolutely pure, that it contained no free salicylic acid and that in all respects it complied with the requirements of the British Pharmacopoeia. He granted Shmith, Nicholas & Co. a licence to make and sell aspirin in Australia.

Various technical problems still had to be overcome. Converting the powder into tablet form involved developing a special dry granulation process so that salicylic acid would not be released. The tablets were then punched out with the aid of a single hand-operated machine. The product was initially sold as Nicholas-Aspirin but George, realizing that the name 'Aspirin' could be reclaimed by Bayer after the war, sought his own trade mark. In April 1917 the name 'Aspro' was adopted and registered.

The war had seriously upset Alfred's business and as George needed assistance they agreed to work together. Physically frail and short of formal schooling as a result of poor health, Alfred none the less brought ambition and tenacity to the infant drug firm. By the end of 1917 the business was carrying heavy debts and losing so much money that Shmith pulled out. In 1921 the company changed its name from G. R. Nicholas & Co. to Nicholas Pty Ltd and moved from Windsor to larger premises in South Melbourne. Throughout the 1920s it extended its operations. Manufacturing began in New Zealand in 1923. The first sales were made in England in 1924 and, despite initial heavy losses, Alfred, who had moved there temporarily with his family, launched an English company, Aspro Ltd, in 1927. In 1935 it became a public company. Expansion into Europe began in 1925 and into Asia in 1927.

Success enabled both Alfred and George to lavishly endow the public. Many large gifts were made, often anonymously, chiefly to Wesley College and Methodist Ladies' College, to Melbourne hospitals and universities throughout Australia. Charities as diverse as the Missions to Seamen and the Lord Mayor's Camp at Somers benefited from their interest and generosity.

By 1934 the constant strain of expansion was telling on Alfred's health. He was totally committed to the business, dominant and intolerant of others not equally committed. This created strains with management and of necessity with George who had largely left business management with Alfred. Increasingly Alfred devoted himself more to his horticultural and agricultural interests. He had established gardens at Carnbrea, Auburn, and Burnham Beeches, Sassafras, for which he imported seedlings and shrubs and also the staff to tend them. In later years Burnham Beeches was divided—the house used as a research and development centre by the company and a substantial portion of the garden, now known as the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens, donated to the local shire. Owner of a prize-winning Jersey herd, in 1934 he provided funds to the council of the Royal Agricultural Society for a new cattle pavilion and was made a life governor of the society.

Alfred had married Isabel Lorden Cook at Balwyn on 11 September 1915; they had a son and a daughter. He died of coronary vascular disease at Burnham Beeches on 26 February 1937 and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at almost £827,000. It was estimated that he and his brother George had donated more than £500,000 to charities and educational institutions. Rev. (Sir) Irving Benson described Alfred as 'a man of simple Christian character and princely generosity'.

On Alfred's death George became managing director and took a more active part in the business. Before his retirement in 1947 he saw it expand and diversify into production of vitamin supplements, veterinary goods, and pharmaceuticals, initially for war use. His last official appearance was to open the large, new Aspro headquarters at Chadstone in 1957. In 1969 Nicholas Australia Ltd bought the English Aspro-Nicholas Ltd and in 1970 it became Nicholas International Ltd, selling in over one hundred countries. In 1981 the company merged with Kiwi International Ltd.

Like his brother, George had wide interests. He was a keen horticulturist and his garden at Mount Macedon is recognized as one of the best collections of rare plants in the country. His horses, from his Shirley Park stud at Woodend, won many big races and he was a committee-member of the Victoria Racing Club in 1941-60. An example of his extended help to others was the purchase in 1933, with Herbert Brookes, of 2000 acres (809 ha) of land carrying valuable mountain-ash trees at Noojee, to provide forestry work for many hundreds of unemployed youths. Brookes described him as one of the most notable philanthropists of his generation.

George had married Ruby Dorcas Campbell (d.1926) at Hawthorn, on 12 November 1912; they had two sons and two daughters. At Wesley Church, Melbourne, on 14 March 1936 he married Shirley Austin Alcock, by whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1944 he was appointed C.B.E.

Survived by his wife and children, George Nicholas died in St Vincent's Hospital, Fitzroy, on 20 September 1960, and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at over £2 million. Portraits of both brothers are held by Nicholas Kiwi Ltd, Clayton, and by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Rivett, Australian Citizen
  • Herbert Brookes 1867-1963 (Melb, 1965)
  • R. G. Smith and A. Barrie, Aspro—How a Family Business Grew Up (Melb, 1976)
  • L. W. Port, Australian Inventors (Syd, 1978)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 26, 27 Feb 1937, 10 Nov 1956, 22 Sept 1960, 20 Sept 1961
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Feb, 5 May 1937, 8 Nov 1938
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Sept 1960, 21 Sept 1961.

Citation details

John M. Wall, 'Nicholas, Alfred Michael (1881–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholas-alfred-michael-7836/text13607, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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